Improving teacher quality by hiring better teachers

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The New York City Department of Education's treasure trove of data on teacher and student characteristics and performance has been profitably mined once again by Jonah Rockoff, Brian Jacob, Thomas Kane and Douglas Staiger in a new study entitled "Can You Recognize An Effective Teacher When You Recruit One?"

These authors examine a raft of characteristics that might be used as a basis for hiring new elementary and middle school math teachers: selectivity of the college from which they graduated, college major, any graduate degrees, standardized test results, cognitive ability, knowledge of relevant mathematics, and personal characteristics such as conscientiousness, extraversion and belief in self and general efficacy.

The upshot? On their own, each of these characteristics does in fact matter, but not very much. However, by combining all of these variables into two factors summarizing cognitive and non-cognitive skills, the researchers found more robust effects that suggest that "districts may be able to gain some traction in selecting more effective teachers by using broader sets of information during recruitment." In other words, school recruiters would be advised to go beyond the applicant's resume and ask candidates to supply information on SAT scores and if they passed their certification exams on their first attempt. The findings also suggest that applicants should take short quizzes to measure knowledge of relevant mathematics, perceptions of efficacy and attributes.

Even still, as plenty of other research has also found, using such factors to help make better hiring decisions is of limited value, with a high chance of making the wrong call. That's something that Malcolm Gladwell advances eloquently in Most Likely to Succeed , his provocative essay likening the selection of a great NFL quarterback with a great teacher. Both are a crapshoot, he concludes. While Gladwell conflates a characteristic that does increase the odds of hiring a good teacher (high test scores) with several that definitely do not (certification and graduate degrees), he does once again remind us that there is no single profile for great teachers. The solution here puts us solidly on the Tom Kane bandwagon: It is unlikely that principals will consistently make good calls about who to hire, making it imperative to have a tenure system in place that is centered on teacher performance.