Choosing talented teachers

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Novice teachers face a steep learning curve, and their successes and failures can affect their students' learning and their own future in the profession. New evidence shows that good screening of teacher candidates can predict which are most likely to be successful in their first year of teaching—so successful, in fact, that bringing in new teachers who ace the screen would have twice the positive effect on student learning as impractical (but popular in theory) drastic reductions in class size.

Compared with most traditional teacher preparation programs or school districts, Teach For America (TFA) has a well-defined system for screening its applicants against eight specific, measurable criteria. Looking at the connection between each of those eight and student learning, new research finds that New York City TFA teachers' students performed better on math tests if their teachers had higher scores on three of them: academic achievement, leadership experience and perseverance.

Increased teacher scores in leadership experience and commitment to the TFA mission produced higher student achievement scores in English, but the effect size and statistical significance were not as strong. Teachers' respect for others and critical thinking also had a small role in reducing the odds of a student having a "behavioral incident" at least once during the school year.

Probably because most novice teachers do quickly learn new skills, the screening characteristics do not predict performance in the second year of teaching. However, student learning is cumulative, so while teachers can "catch up" on their skills, students don't get the same chance to make up the learning losses they suffer if they are taught by a novice. Even considering that TFA draws from an unusually competitive pool of applicants, these findings should have broad applications, particularly in light of the current "buyer's market" in teacher hiring. School district HR departments may encounter a larger group of applicants for positions—even in areas where they more typically have shortages—and should be on the look-out for teachers with the characteristics pinpointed by this research.