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Public Impact Does the Math on Improving Teacher Quality

One of the trickiest problems in education reform is figuring out how to improve teacher quality on a grand scale. As difficult as that problem may be, however, proposals for solutions abound, some of which are quite controversial. For instance, one idea—and it really is just an idea at the moment—calls for doubling, or even tripling, the percentage of teachers who are dismissed for being least effective at improving students' test scores.

In a new report, researchers at Public Impact, a North Carolina-based research group, do the math on that proposal and some other ideas for resolving the teacher-quality conundrum. They calculate that tripling the percentage of worst teachers who get booted every year—raising it, in other words, from the current level of 2.1 percent to 6.3 percent—would still leave a lot of kids without good teachers. After five years of this, they calculate, 70 percent of the nation's children still lack access to high-quality teachers, which they define as those in the current top quartile.

What about recruiting more good teachers? Well, the Public Impact study looks at that option, too, analyzing the effect of growing the ranks of incoming teachers who spur student gains at the same rates as teachers who are currently in the top quartile from 25 percent to 40 percent. In order to do that, though, authors Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel say, schools across the nation would have to recruit 50,000 more very, very talented teachers, which would be quite a tall order. The New Teacher Project and Teach for America together only yield 8,000 new teachers a year.

The Hassels propose instead to combine a couple of different strategies: Retain the best teachers and extend their reach so that they can have an impact on more students.

The report says schools currently lose about 8 percent of top-quartile teachers each year. Their idea is to cut the turnover rate among top teachers in half and keep up that pace of retention for five years.They figure that practice would raise the percentage of kids served by really terrific teachers from 25 percent to 28 percent.

To extend the reach of those teachers farther, the report has several suggestions. One is to re-organize schools so that the best teachers don't have to waste their time on cafeteria duty and could take on more pupils. Another idea is to use technology, such as distance learning, video, and software, to enable great teachers to reach students in different schools and districts—places, perhaps, where students don't have much access to excellent teaching now.

If you do all of that for five years, plus continue to dismiss the worst performers and recruit good teachers, you could increase the percent of students taught by top-performing teachers to 87 percent, the report concludes.

It's a pretty provocative thought experiment. But, even if you disagree with the plan these researchers are proposing, you have to admit that the calculations add some perspective to a lot of the current prescriptions floating around for improving teacher quality.

UPDATE: When this post first went up, I erroneously reported that 70 percent of students would still have access to highly qualified teachers if the dismissal rate for the nation's worst performing teachers were to double every year for five years. The sentence should have read, as it does now, that 70 percent of children would still lack access to such teachers.

Also, please note that the 87 percent estimate that the Hassels give is derived from retaining the best teachers, extending the reach of high-quality teachers, recruiting better teachers, and dismissing more teachers from the bottom quartile. That's four strategies. An earlier version implied the estimate was based on just three of those strategies.

Mea culpa.

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