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Teachers Matter

New York Times Editorial, July 4, 2006, Teachers Matter

The No Child Left Behind education act, passed by Congress four years ago, was intended to correct the corrosive inequality that has plagued public education from the start. It was with that goal in mind that Congress specified for the first time that in return for federal education dollars, states would have to end the destructive practice of staffing schools serving poor and minority children with disproportionate numbers of inexperienced and unqualified teachers.

The U.S. Department of Education soft-pedaled the teacher quality requirement in the early years, probably because of pressure from the states. But as of this month, states and districts that wish to keep receiving federal school aid must file plans with the Department of Education explaining how they intend to reach the teacher quality goal. Meanwhile, the importance of that goal was just underscored by a nonpartisan Washington think tank, the Education Trust, in a study on the effects of teacher training and experience on student performance.

Skeptics have often expressed doubt that good teachers would make any difference in the lives of the country's poorest students, who typically show up in first grade not at all prepared to learn. The Education Trust study, which draws on a treasure-trove of data from several states, clearly refutes this notion. The most important data set comes from Illinois, where researchers scrutinized the work and qualifications of 140,000 teachers, all of whom were assigned quality ratings based on several indicators, including where they attended college and how much experience they had.

The Illinois study found teacher quality mattered a great deal in high-poverty high schools, where students with highly rated teachers were about twice as likely to meet state standards as similarly situated students elsewhere. Teacher quality even trumped course content, and it did not take paragons of achievement to make the difference. For example, students who took Algebra II at schools with average teacher quality ratings turned out to be better prepared for college than students who had completed calculus at schools with low teacher ratings.

Taken together, the multistate data cited in the study show that teacher experience makes a profound difference in student performance, as do teacher literacy levels. The facts are especially clear when it comes to the crucial areas of math and science, where teachers who have majored in the subject areas generate better student performance than those who majored in outside areas.

To improve student performance, the states need to play a much stronger role in teacher training and certification — and in making sure that qualified teachers are evenly spread across their school districts. Breaking with the bad old status quo won't be easy. But it's the only way for the country to improve the educational picture for the poor and minority students who will make up such a large part of the work force of the future.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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