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New Ideas for Improving Teachers Instead of Firing Them

Writing in Slate, Ray Fisman, a professor of social enterprise at the Columbia Business School, points to recent research suggesting that—pace the heated rhetoric of some school reformers—there may be perfectly viable ways to improve overall instruction in schools without firing low-performing teachers.

He highlights an interesting-sounding study out of Columbia University finding that teachers can significantly improve classroom results simply by refining the feedback they give to students:

In one experiment, for example, [the researchers] simply appended a note to teachers' comments on student essays that said, "I'm giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them." 64 percent of black students who received the note were motivated to revise their papers, as compared to 27 percent of a control set of students who received a note that simply stated, "I'm giving you these comments so that you'll have feedback on your paper." Students who received "wise" feedback ended up with higher grades, as well. Based on the results of a related experiment, the researchers suggest that simply explaining to minority students that critical feedback from teachers should be seen not as putdowns but as an indication of high potential may go a long way in reducing the achievement gap between blacks and whites.

I don't know: That seems like a kind of simple idea to base the transformation of the teaching profession on—but then, we do know from other studies that teacher feedback is a crucial and complicated area. It's a helpful tip, at any rate.

Other promising teacher-improvement ideas cited by Fisman include giving teachers bonus pay upfront, on the condition that it can be rescinded or subtracted from depending on student performance; and providing targeted feedback and coaching based on evaluations. The latter one seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it? Why isn't that already happening?

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