January 17, 2010

How to select a good teacher

Half Sigma points to an Atlantic article by Amanda Ripley "What Makes a Great Teacher?" discussing the research by the Teach for America charity into how to predict which college senior applicants for teaching jobs will most boost their kids test scores:
Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls. ....

Ideally, schools would hire better teachers to begin with. But this is notoriously difficult. How do you screen for a relentless mind-set?

When Teach for America began, applicants were evaluated on 12 criteria (such as persistence and communication skills), chosen based on conversations with educators. Recruits answered open-ended questions like “What is wind?” Starting in 2000, the organization began to retroactively critique its own judgments. What did the best teachers have in common when they applied for the job?

Once a model for outcomes-based hiring was built, it started churning out some humbling results. “I came into this with a bunch of theories,” says Monique Ayotte-Hoeltzel, who was then head of admissions. “I was proven wrong at least as many times as I was validated.”

Based on her own experience teaching in the Mississippi Delta, Ayotte-Hoeltzel was convinced, for example, that teachers with earlier experience working in poor neighborhoods were more effective. Wrong. An analysis of the data found no correlation.

For years, Teach for America also selected for something called “constant learning.” As Farr and others had noticed, great teachers tended to reflect on their performance and adapt accordingly. So people who tend to be self-aware might be a good bet. “It’s a perfectly reasonable hypothesis,” Ayotte-Hoeltzel says.

But in 2003, the admissions staff looked at the data and discovered that reflectiveness did not seem to matter either. Or more accurately, trying to predict reflectiveness in the hiring process did not work.

What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance—not just an attitude, but a track record. In the interview process, Teach for America now asks applicants to talk about overcoming challenges in their lives—and ranks their perseverance based on their answers. Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues have actually quantified the value of perseverance. In a study published in TheJournal of Positive Psychology in November 2009, they evaluated 390 Teach for America instructors before and after a year of teaching. Those who initially scored high for “grit”—defined as perseverance and a passion for long-term goals, and measured using a short multiple-choice test—were 31 percent more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students. Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer. (Grit also predicts retention of cadets at West Point, Duckworth has found.)

But another trait seemed to matter even more. Teachers who scored high in “life satisfaction”—reporting that they were very content with their lives—were 43 percent more likely to perform well in the classroom than their less satisfied colleagues. These teachers “may be more adept at engaging their pupils, and their zest and enthusiasm may spread to their students,” the study suggested.

In general, though, Teach for America’s staffers have discovered that past performance—especially the kind you can measure—is the best predictor of future performance. Recruits who have achieved big, measurable goals in college tend to do so as teachers. And the two best metrics of previous success tend to be grade-point average and “leadership achievement”—a record of running something and showing tangible results. If you not only led a tutoring program but doubled its size, that’s promising.

Knowledge matters, but not in every case. In studies of high-school math teachers, majoring in the subject seems to predict better results in the classroom. And more generally, people who attended a selective college are more likely to excel as teachers (although graduating from an Ivy League school does not unto itself predict significant gains in a Teach for America classroom). Meanwhile, a master’s degree in education seems to have no impact on classroom effectiveness.

The most valuable educational credentials may be the ones that circle back to squishier traits like perseverance. Last summer, an internal Teach for America analysis found that an applicant’s college GPA alone is not as good a predictor as the GPA in the final two years of college. If an applicant starts out with mediocre grades and improves, in other words, that curve appears to be more revealing than getting straight A’s all along.

Last year, Teach for America churned through 35,000 candidates to choose 4,100 new teachers. Staff members select new hires by deferring almost entirely to the model: they enter more than 30 data points about a given candidate (about twice the number of inputs they considered a decade ago), and then the model spits out a hiring recommendation. Every year, the model changes, depending on what the new batch of student data shows.

But all these traits that correlate with being a good teacher would also likely correlate with being a good senior vice president at a Fortune 500 firm and lots of other tough and high-paid jobs. Heck, Teach for America's ideal high school math teacher would probably also a good candidate to claw his way up the corporate ladder to be a Chief Financial Officer making 7 or even 8 figures.

It's not hugely enlightening to come up with a test that can determine that, say, Ben Franklin or James Cameron or Steve Jobs or Meryl Streep or John Madden or Steven Spielberg or Lee Kwan Yew has the skill set it takes to be a good schoolteacher. We also need another test to identify people who would be better at schoolteaching than at most other competing careers, or we'll suffer very high attrition from the schoolteacher ranks (as Teach for America does).

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

The paddle would make an effective teacher.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Steve, I'd love to get your take on Malcolm Gladwell's latest descent into self-parody. His New Yorker piece about entrepreneurs not really being risk-takers cherry-picks about four or five people out of all of human history to draw this conclusion and elides obvious differences between types of entrepreneurs.

At what point do New Yorker editors wake up and notice their star is a fraud?

Anonymous said...

Good teachers are wonderful but experience tells me good parents and respectful students are more crucial.

Anonymous said...

Steve -

good post.

Is the whole idea of K through 12 education sort of silly?

I earn a high six figure income in private equity analytics and rarely if ever use most of the items I learned k - 12. It seems to me that for future members of the cognitive elite, the schools need to teach a healthy respect for the scientific method, a love of learning, and a work ethic. I am not sure the rest of it really matters.

Have any teaching methods been found that teach the above, and ignore the nonsense?

Cat Patrol said...

I started school around 1970, and most of my teachers in grade school were late middle aged women. That meant they went to college in the 1940s, before all the politically correct BS hit. They were extremely effective, and I thank God that I was blessed to have them as teachers.

Anonymous said...

Not to be all Whiskey but I'm surprised to see you buy into this business that teachers make a significant difference, Steve-O (but not surprised that crypto-Trotskyist Half Sigma does).

It's inherently Trotskyist/blank slatist, and it plays into the anti-HBD crowd's schtick that if we pour money into under-performing schools and pay teachers lots more dough that we can noticeably improve kids' education, doesn't it?

Yes, I see a buncha data kinda supporting this, but...I've always been suspicious of the methodology of modern "science".

Matt G. said...

I'm glad you're writing about this. Teach for America claims that the failure of inner city kids in the classroom is due to incompetent teachers. According to their philosophy a great teacher in the classroom can overcome the barriers of a poor environment which includes lousy or non-existant parents. Besides these environmental factors genetics is never considered. Michelle Rhee a TFA alum now heads the D.C. school district. This seems to represent the ultimate test of nature vs. nurture.
Here's an excellent article written in City-Journal by a kid who recounts his experiences in TFA:

http://www.city-journal.org/html/13_1_how_i_joined.html

Anonymous said...

As mentioned above, the US system of college admissions measures these personality traits, but in a much more sophisticated way that is at least somewhat hard to game. The people running Harvard are no slouches, and this is one of their core competencies.

Through the evaluations in the letters of recommendation, the interview with an alumni representative, and (often) surreptitious contact with HS guidance counselors, the admissions committee has a reasonable idea about the personality type of the student. They've also done internal studies to try to figure out what combination of characteristics will predict success in business, the professions, academia, government, the arts, etc. They want Harvard men represented in all of these areas, and they succeed.

These guys are miles ahead of you, Steve. They figured this all out in the early to mid-20th century.

Anonymous said...

Oops, that last Harvard comment should have gone on the Big 5 comment thread...

AllanF said...

"we'll suffer very high attrition from the schoolteacher ranks (as Teach for America does)"

Like congress, I think decent amount of turn-over is a good thing. It varies with the age of the students, kindergarten and first grade students need fresher teachers, but 15 years is plenty for even the high school grades. This is one area where cushy public sector retirement packages may encourage better teachers. Teach for 15 years and get a 35%-of-your-last-year's-salary stipend until you are 65.

I'd have to do the math, but I wonder if that might even be cheaper than the damn-near 100% (and sometimes >100%) teachers now get from 65 until death.

Anonymous said...

The public school system chiefs in most big cities are political appointees, often with no background in education. Some only have a BA degree, sometimes an MA degree. The current head honcho for the Chicago Public School system was previously at the mass transit board (CTA), before that at the police dept. He has an MA degree, which isn't a Phd but I guess it's enough. He's gone from one agency to another via mayoral appointments. I suppose he's some sort of genius who masters whatever job is put before him in short order. The job comes with a car and chauffeur and a large contingent of PR mouthpieces for the proper spin.Education is not just education, it's a huge business with lots of people making a living from it. The anxieties of the parents are always played upon: Will little Jimmie and Jane get a good education and succeed in life, or will they end up on skid row? They are then reassured that their children are in good hands because the professionals truly care about them. There's plenty of money in the education racket for the right people, way less at the bottom level where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. That's where the little folks live.

Anonymous said...

"We also need another test to identify people who would be better at schoolteaching than at most other competing careers"

Perhaps the answer to this conundrum is that teaching is not necessarily a career...

The best teacher I had at [prestigious Ivy League school] was, surprisingly, a grad student who just had an incredible affinity for the material and a real connection with the students. What's he doing now? Making a fortune on Wall Street.

The best teacher I had at [prestigious prep school] was an old Navy man who always loved the subject and wanted to teach, but didn't start teaching until relatively late in life, after the wartime Navy and after he had started a family and spent several years in the non-teaching world.

In one case, teaching came before entry into the normal professional track; in the other case, it came after.

I wonder... Maybe the answer is that, yes, the traits that make you a good teacher do also make you a good banker/electrician/screenwriter/colonel/whatever. Maybe there is no 'differential diagnosis' that would send you to Wall Street or to Home Room. Instead, what if the best teachers were found to be normal people who switched every few years between [insert career] and teaching, and back? Call 'em citizen teachers.

Heh. Heh heh... Oh, man, that sure would f*** up the unions.

-TAG

Anonymous said...

Oh, and may I add, I would have loved to have had Ben Franklin or James Cameron or Steve Jobs or Meryl Streep or John Madden or Steven Spielberg or Lee Kwan Yew as my teacher.

All I'm saying is, embrace that.

-TAG

Anonymous said...

Perhaps we need a high attrition rate. Going through public school I noticed that most of the lifers were burn outs, just marking time. Their teaching was robotic since by the 10,000th time most youthful enthusiasm was gone.And how many normal, full grown men really want to be grammar school teachers, anyway? Maybe it would be best if the teaching staff turned over every six years or so. Have the idealists come in and do their thing, and when they lose their illusions five years later bring in the next crop. Probably be better than the Prozac popping dead enders being in place for fifty years or so.

Anonymous said...

"Michelle Rhee a TFA alum now heads the D.C. school district. This seems to represent the ultimate test of nature vs. nurture."


Ah, yes, the Washington DC school district. The world's most expensive per student system in terms of return on investment. Nowhere in the world does one get less achievement per dollar spent. Mississippi comes in at next to last in student achievement; DC is dead last.

Anonymous said...

"These guys are miles ahead of you, Steve. They figured this all out in the early to mid-20th century."


And they were wise enough to publicize exactly none of it.

Anonymous said...

My two star teachers were a life-long English teacher and a Calculus teacher who had made his bones and retired to teach in his 50s.

Anonymous said...

Another thing:

students from poor or mediocre backgrounds tend to have limited network capital. For these folks, having a former businessman or a future screenstar as a teacher would probably be a plus, not a minus.

-mrmandias

Dahinda said...

"Those who cannot do, teach"

Mitch said...

We do just fine with good but not great teachers for suburban kids of average or higher intelligence.

What we never seem to ask ourselves is whether it's possible to teach kids of lower cognitive ability (regardless of race) at the pace we're demanding of teachers.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps we need a high attrition rate. Going through public school I noticed that most of the lifers were burn outs, just marking time. Their teaching was robotic since by the 10,000th time most youthful enthusiasm was gone.And how many normal, full grown men really want to be grammar school teachers, anyway? Maybe it would be best if the teaching staff turned over every six years or so. Have the idealists come in and do their thing, and when they lose their illusions five years later bring in the next crop. Probably be better than the Prozac popping dead enders being in place for fifty years or so.

Finally, someone with some sense!

I will add, if there's ever a shortage of teachers, they can always be outsourced from India.

Perhaps students will have more respect for an "autistic" turban-wearing 20 year old engineer from Bangalore on a big screen, than a "people oriented" white 60 year old sociology major sitting behind a desk in the same physical room.

Truth said...

"At what point do New Yorker editors wake up and notice their star is a fraud?"

Uhhh; maybe when he stops selling magazines?

Stacey Beck said...

I know when you are signing up for college teachers you can get online and read students teacher evaluations and their rating to help you choose if you want to take their class or not. They should do this for all grades.