If only schools had more money. If only class sizes were smaller. If only schools had more computers. When it comes to education in America, it seems that the “if onlys” are endless. Last week, eager to learn more about urban education, I sat in on an AP English class at Fremont High School in Los Angeles. As I observed a fellow, seasoned teacher instruct his junior class, those exact same sentiments about how to improve education came to mind. Over 40 occupied desks filled the classroom, one computer in the back kept me company, and a tardy student swept the floor because janitorial services have been cut from the school’s budget. Yet somehow, despite the challenges, effective teaching and learning managed to flourish all around me.
According to The Measures of Effective Teaching Project (MET), research shows that great teaching matters more than anything else within a school.
Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations, MET was a three-year study designed to determine how to best recognize and encourage great teaching. The study released its third and final research report last month. 3,000 teachers from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the Dallas Independent Schools, the Denver Public Schools, the Hillsborough County Public Schools, the Memphis Public Schools, the New York City Schools, and the Pittsburgh Public Schools volunteered to open up their classrooms for research purposes. The results were truly remarkable and will be very useful to school districts working to develop new training, feedback, and evaluation systems for teachers.
Vicki Phillips, Director of Education at College Ready, a U.S. Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, explains what many educators and administrators are already well aware of. “Teaching is complex,” Phillips says, “and great practice takes time, passion, high-quality materials, and tailored feedback designed to help each teacher continuously grow and improve.”
If the necessities of the teaching profession are already well-known, then why are there still so any problems in education? The answer may lie in the organization, or lack thereof, of revealing information on this topic. To date, there has not been a cohesive, collective research study done that solely focused on measuring effective teaching.
“Teachers have always wanted better feedback,” Phillips adds, “and the MET project has highlighted tools that can allow teachers to take control of their own development. The combination of those measures and student growth data creates actionable information that teachers can trust.”
The project sheds light on some very important questions in the education field: How do we identify great teaching, promote quality instruction, and retain those teachers who are doing exceptional work in the classroom? To find the answers, the study combined three types of measures:
- classroom observations
- student surveys
- student achievement gains
Key findings from the report include:
- It is possible to develop reliable measures that identify great teaching.
- There are significant trade-offs involved when school systems combine different measures.
- Guidance on the best ways to achieve reliable classroom observations.
“If we want students to learn more, teachers must become students of their own teaching. Public school systems across the country have been re-thinking how they describe instructional excellence and letting teachers know when they’ve achieved it,” says Tom Kane, Professor of Education and Economics at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and leader of the MET project. “This is not about accountability. It’s about providing the feedback every professional needs to strive towards excellence.”
Quality teachers matter and effective instruction can only occur when talented educators are placed in front of the white board. Money, class size, and technology are all contributing factors, but they will never engage a group of students the way a well-trained and highly educated teacher can. Good teaching is easy to spot, but not always easy to come by. Yet, even from the back of the classroom, I could see its powerful influence.