The question of what to do with bad teachers has stymied America's education system of late, sparking chaotic protests in state capitals and vitriolic debate in a recent congressional hearing. It has also stoked the movement known as 'education reform,' which has zeroed in on teacher quality by urging school districts to sort the star teachers from the duds, and reward or punish them accordingly.
The idea is that America's schools would be able to increase their students' test scores if only they had better teachers. Since 2007, this wave of education reformers -- in particular Democrats for Education Reform, a group backed by President Barack Obama and hedge fund donors -- has clashed with teachers unions in their pursuit of making the field of education as discerning in its personnel choices as, say, that of finance. Good teachers should be promoted and retained, reformers contend, instead of being treated like identical pieces on an assembly line, who are rewarded with tenure for their staying power or seniority. But what to do with the underperformers?
Different states have answered this question differently, with some instituting evaluation systems that give teachers who rank low on test scores and in classroom observations a probationary period of a few years to improve before booting them from the profession. Reformers back this policy by serving up research that asserts -- like teacher-placement group TNTP did last week in a much-heralded report called "The Irreplaceables" -- that "struggling teachers rarely improve."
In response, union leaders like American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten respond that most teachers can be good enough for America's students if they're given guidance and support. But -- perhaps because of the way research gets funded -- there has been little evidence to date that shows that teachers can, indeed, grow after their first few years in the classroom.
The story is beginning to change. On Thursday, the Harvard University journal Education Next released a study by two economists, Brown University's John Tyler and Stanford University's Eric Taylor, that provides hope that, with the right support, mid-career teachers can get better.
"It shows that you can in fact teach an old dog new tricks," says Aaron Pallas, a Teachers College, Columbia University professor who recently published research on teacher retention. "It's very important evidence that it's possible for experienced teachers to improve their practices."
The economists looked at a group of 105 mid-career elementary and middle-school teachers in Cincinnati and found that actually evaluating the teachers in a very specific way made their students perform somewhat better a few years later. According to Education Next, it's the first study that tests and proves the hypothesis that providing teachers formalized feedback makes them better. A longer version of the study, with technical details, will be released in the American Economic Review.
Recent related research by Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching President Anthony Bryk found that a specific coaching program called Literacy Collaborative significantly increased students' learning gains in reading.
Taylor and Tyler chose Cincinnati because, unlike other cities that have only recently revamped and formalized their teacher evaluations, the city instituted a process known as the Teacher Evaluation System over a decade ago. Unlike many newer teacher evaluation systems, TES relies on structured classroom observation by a teacher's peers and administrators, and not on students' test scores. TES only evaluates teachers once every five years.
Tyler and Taylor already knew from previous research that these evaluations did predict teachers' students' performance on standardized tests. So they mapped out the test scores of students of mid-career teachers who had gone through the evaluation process over time, and found that an average teacher's student scored 4.5 points (out of 100) higher on state math tests in the years following a teacher's evaluation. The improvement in score represents three or four months of additional learning per student.
"Conventional wisdom has been that teachers make big improvements in their practice and skill early in their careers, but not in the middle or late parts," Taylor said to HuffPost. "This is an example where teachers in the middle of their careers are making important gains."
The researchers note that, to the best of their knowledge, their study is the first to test the hypothesis that practice-based teacher evaluation programs can help to improve teacher performance. However, the study did not find that the evaluations had any effects on students' reading scores. "There weren't similar effects in reading," Taylor said.
That may be because, Pallas suggested, "reading is a skill that's more responsive of out-of-school sources."
TES itself would not enable the district to identify which teachers to fire: Because of a bias toward leniency, 90 percent of them were rated in the top two of four categories. But the "microlevel" feedback -- the specific rubrics that grade individual teaching practices -- were much harsher, and the researchers believe this spurred reflection, collaboration and, eventually, growth. Taylor stressed that the conclusion isn't a blanket recommendation that all cities adopt Cincinnati's system, since the study was limited to a specific set of teachers.
"It's a glimmer of hope in what has been a fairly gray landscape for awhile, since professional development is extremely costly and extremely ineffective currently," said Tim Daly, TNTP's president. "The question is whether these teachers, when they improve, are good enough."