Smart teachers matter

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From its rural offices in downstate Illinois, the Illinois Education Research Council (IERC) has turned upside down some commonly held assumptions about the teaching profession, such as with a recent report debunking exaggerated attrition rates. Continuing to draw upon that state's treasure trove of longitudinal teacher data, IERC is out with another path-breaking report, this time applying a useful new index of teacher quality. The report shows that the state is making great strides distributing among its struggling schools those teachers who have higher "academic capital"--that is, teachers who have higher ACT scores and lower failure rates on the state's basic skills tests; who are less likely to be on emergency credentials; and who have graduated from more competitive colleges.

Although the report finds there is still a considerable gap in the distribution of such teachers among the most disadvantaged schools and other schools in the state, the academic capital of teachers improved greatly in Illinois' highest poverty schools between 2001-2006 (see figure 1). Importantly, this gain did not come at the expense of more affluent schools, whose academic capital barely changed. In other words, there was no robbing Peter to pay Paul, just better hiring practices.

But do these academic qualifications as captured in the academic capital index actually impact student achievement? Absolutely. Those Illinois schools that increased their academic capital also showed gains in student achievement. One might have expected just the opposite, a negative consequence of the fact that schools raised their capital by bringing in inexperienced teachers. Rather surprisingly, that doesn?t turn out to be the case. Higher academic capital offset any negatives associated with lack of teaching experience.

A concerted effort in Chicago to hire new teachers with stronger academic backgrounds was a big factor in these results (see figure 2). Unlike in New York, where hiring better academic talent has largely been attributed to the significant presence of Teach For America and The New Teacher Project, the report indicates that those programs were too limited in Chicago during the years reviewed to really contribute to this increase. In any case, the findings certainly support the general approach taken by TFA and TNTP that being smart matters.