TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

The English teacher ripple effect

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Even though I'm well launched into my professional career, I still keep in touch with my old high school English teacher. From my freshman year onward, she drove me to participate more in class and had a lasting impact on my life trajectory. I know she taught me much more than the difference between metaphors and similes—and now there's research out there to prove it.

Benjamin Master (RAND), Susanna Loeb (Stanford University), and James Wyckoff (University of Virginia) investigated teachers' long-term impact on student achievement across subject areas. Using achievement data on middle schoolers in New York City and Miami-Dade County, they asked two key questions:

  1. Does having either a great English or math teacher one year influence how much a student will learn in the following years?
  2. Does having a great teacher in one subject improve students' scores in another subject?

The answers: yes and yes.

Calculating teachers' value-added scores after their students had moved on to the next grade, they found that the contributions teachers made to student achievement in the subject they taught persisted not only through the following year but for the following two years (and perhaps even longer, as that was as far as they looked).

The researchers also calculated teachers' impact on their students' achievement in another subject that they did not teach. Again, even after two years, English teachers' contribution to students' math achievement persisted, with an impact ranging from about a quarter to nearly half as much as their impact on students' English scores (comparing findings for the two districts).

However, the reverse didn't hold for math teachers, and it's not hard to understand why. Students learn broad skills in English class that translate across disciplines, such as the ability to read a math problem. In our scramble to address the shortage of STEM teachers as well as our nation's lackluster achievement in math and science, we would do well to remember the power of a top-notch English teacher.