Although many factors influence student achievement, studies have shown that putting a highly effective teacher in every classroom is the best thing a school can do to improve a student’s odds of success.1 Unfortunately, there are children all over America sitting in classrooms led by teachers that we know are ineffective. What’s worse is that we also know that those ineffective teachers are disproportionately clustered in schools that serve our neediest students. It’s often said that no child’s future should be determined by their zip code, but unfortunately that’s still the reality for far too many children in this country.
All Students Deserve a Great Teacher
In the summer of 2012, Raj Chetty, a professor of economics at Harvard University, published a study on the relationship between teacher performance and student outcomes. In his analysis, he found that “replacing a teacher whose value added [a way of measuring teacher quality] is in the bottom 5 percent with an average teacher would increase students’ total lifetime incomes by more than $1.4 million for a typical classroom.”2 Not only does good teaching improve test scores, it can have a measurable impact on students’ longer-term success, such as college attendance and future earnings. The opposite is true as well; having a single ineffective teacher can reduce a student’s likelihood of future success.
Teachers aren’t Evenly Distributed
Unfortunately, some students are far more likely than others to have teachers that we know are ineffective. Children living in poverty, students of color, English learners, and students with special needs are disproportionately clustered in schools staffed by less experienced and less effective teachers. So much so that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed in 2015, instructs states to create plans specifically to ensure that all students, regardless of race, income, or special needs, equitable access to great teachers. If students with the greatest need are being taught by the least effective teachers, it should be no surprise that nationwide achievement gaps persist.
Our Students Can’t Wait
Although there are efforts underway – including states’ ESSA plans, and lawsuits like Vergara vs. California – to fix the policies that have created inequities in teacher quality, the fact remains that every student deserves an effective teacher today. The good news is that it’s possible to improve teaching in an underperforming school, and we already know what it takes.
Instructional support from mentors, coaches, administrators, and colleagues has been proven to have a real impact on the effectiveness of low-performing teachers. We know what works in the classroom, but teachers need coaching to learn how to implement those evidence-based practices with their own students. In addition, teams of teachers can amplify their impact by working together to ensure all students’ learning needs are met. With the right supports in place, every teacher can improve student outcomes.
Every year that a student attends an underperforming school has an impact on their long-term success in life, and every year that we allow underperforming schools to stagnate, the achievement gap widens. While these strategies are by no means easy to implement – school improvement is a long, messy process – they have the potential to change the course for thousands of students. We cannot wait for policy to catch up; our students need us now.