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Effective Teaching as a Civil Right: How Building Instructional Capacity Can Help Close the Achievement Gap

Better ways of measuring and recognizing teacher effectiveness must be integrated with systems that develop greater teacher competence and provide incentives for teaching the highest-need students.

This article is a republication with permission of "Effective Teaching as a Civil Right: 
How Building Instructional Capacity Can Help Close the Achievement Gap," by Linda Darling-Hammond, Voices in Urban Education no. 31 (Fall 2011), published by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University in collaboration with the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, University of California Berkeley School of Law.

Despite growing evidence that expert teachers are critical to educational achievement, well-prepared and effective teachers are the most unequally distributed educational resource in the United States. Since federal supports for urban school funding and teacher training were dramatically reduced in the 1980s, teacher shortages in schools serving low-income students have increased. Since then, it has been increasingly common for students in poor rural and urban schools to experience a revolving door of inexperienced and underprepared teachers.

Current policy discussions focus on two distinct approaches to developing a more effective teaching force. One approach, articulated more than a decade ago by the conservative Fordham Foundation (1999), argues that teacher qualifications do not matter; the idea is to let anyone into teaching and then see how it works out. The approach puts little stock in efforts to support teachers’ learning through pre- or in-service development and seeks to improve teaching by attaching hiring, promotion, and pay decisions to test scores, on the assumption that teachers will try harder if they know that outcomes count. Like “Theory X” in the business literature, this view assumes that knowledge and skills are not a problem, and that individuals are primarily motivated by rewards and sanctions attached to performance measures. Proponents of this view argue that policies should remove “barriers” to entry, such as teacher education and certification, and personnel decisions should be made based on student test scores.

A second approach, articulated initially by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (1996), argues that teacher knowledge and skills are closely related to teachers’ and schools’ capacity to support student learning and that the inequitable distribution of teacher qualifications is a serious problem in U.S. education. Schoolwide capacity building – building collective capacity, developing a more coherent curriculum, and providing schoolwide strategies for student support – is emphasized along with individual capacity building. Like “Theory Y” in the business literature, this approach assumes that most people want to be competent and are motivated by seeing that their work makes a difference. Proponents of this view argue for policies that strengthen teachers’ instructional knowledge and skill, equalize resources to school districts, and provide incentives for investments in teaching capacity – including approaches to teacher evaluation and development that give teachers feedback about practice and reward them for improving their skills and sharing expertise.

This article describes why I think test-based incentives are inadequate to support teaching quality and educational equity, and why I believe a capacity-building approach is critically important to promote effective teaching in all communities, particularly those where it is currently most lacking.

Components of Effective Instruction

To build a useful policy system that encourages excellent instruction and strong student learning, it is important to consider both teacher quality – so that the system recruits the right people and prepares them effectively – and teaching quality – so that the most effective practices are encouraged and the most supportive conditions are provided.

Effective Teachers

Teacher quality might be thought of as the bundle of personal traits, skills, behaviors, and understandings an individual brings to teaching. Research has found that more-effective teachers generally possess high verbal ability; strong content and pedagogical knowledge; an understanding of learners and learning; an ability to design useful curriculum, engaging learning tasks, and informative assessments; and an ability and willingness to reflect on and improve their own practice.1

Over the last decade, these capacities have increasingly been built into licensing and certification requirements, which include preparation in content and teaching skills, as well as basic skills and subject matter tests. Certified teachers have been found to be significantly more effective than uncertified teachers for elementary students, especially African American and Latino students (Easton-Brooks & Davis 2009; Darling-Hammond et al. 2005); secondary students (Clotfelter, Ladd & Vigdor 2007; Goldhaber & Brewer 2000; Monk 1994); and special education students, in both mainstreamed and special education settings (Feng & Sass 2009). In special education, as in other fields, certified teachers are twice as likely to stay in the profession, which enhances their overall effectiveness still further (Boe, Cook & Sunderland 2006).

In combination, teachers’ qualifications can have very large effects. For example, a recent study of high school students in North Carolina found that students’ achievement was significantly higher when teachers were certified in their teaching field; were fully prepared upon entry; had higher scores on the teacher licensing test; graduated from a competitive college; had taught for more than two years; or were National Board Certified (Clotfelter, Ladd & Vigdor 2007). Further, the combined influence of having a teacher with most of these qualifications rather than a few of them was larger than the effects of race and parent education combined. A similar study of teachers in New York City also found that teachers’ certification status, pathway into teaching, teaching experience, graduation from a competitive college, and math SAT scores were significant predictors of teacher effectiveness in elementary and middle grades mathematics (Boyd, Lankford et al. 2008).

Effective Teaching

Teaching quality – that is, strong instruction that enables a wide range of students to learn – is in part a function of teacher quality, but it is also strongly influenced by the context of instruction. A teacher who is effective within her own field of preparation or with affluent students may not be effective in other circumstances. Substantial evidence also points to the importance of class size, specific curriculum supports, the availability of instructional supports such as tutoring, and the use of time as strong predictors of student achievement, along with factors like student attendance.2

As Lisa Quay’s article in this issue documents, access to good leadership and to good colleagues matters. In fact, collective practice is as important as individual skill (Berry, Daughtrey & Wieder 2010; Bryk, Nagaoka & Newmann 2000; Ingersoll & Perda 2009; Wei et al. 2009). In one study, economists found that most value-added gains were attributable to teachers who were more experienced and better qualified, and who stay together as teams within their schools. The researchers found that peer learning among small groups of teachers was the most powerful predictor of improved student achievement over time (Jackson & Bruegmann 2009).


Unequal Access to Effective Teachers and Teaching

Because of disparities in school funding and revenues, working conditions are poorer and salary levels are lower for teachers in most cities serving large concentrations of low-income students of color and in poor rural areas than they are in wealthier suburbs, creating problems for recruitment and retention. The practice of lowering credentialing standards to fill classrooms in high-minority, low-income schools – a practice that is unheard of in high-achieving nations and in other professions – has become commonplace in many U.S. states, especially in states with large minority and immigrant populations, like California, Florida, New York, and Texas.

Dramatic inequalities in access to certified teachers have been documented in lawsuits challenging school funding in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, and Texas, among other states (Darling-Hammond 2010b). By every measure of qualifications – certification, subject matter background, pedagogical training, selectivity of college attended, test scores, or experience – less qualified teachers are found in schools serving greater numbers of low-income and minority students (NCES 1997; Lankford, Loeb & Wyckoff 2002).

A recent study by Mathematica illustrates what happens when schools become dumping grounds. The study, which compared the effectiveness of teachers from short-term alternative certification (AC) programs to those of other teachers in their schools, found that the AC teachers were only hired in the highest-minority, lowest-income schools in high-minority, low-income districts within states that often prohibited the practice elsewhere. Not surprisingly, students of AC teachers who were still finishing their coursework learned significantly less than students of other teachers (Constantine et al. 2009), and those taught by teachers from the “low-coursework” alternative programs actually declined in their reading and math scores by nearly two normal curve equivalent points between fall and spring of the academic year (Darling-Hammond 2009). Teachers from the “high-coursework” programs did somewhat better, and their traditional-route counterparts did better still, indicating that better trained teachers produced better outcomes for students.

Even if those who stay in teaching catch up to their peers later, students who have had such teachers when they were novices may never catch up, especially if the students have a parade of such beginners year after year. In reading, for example, the negative effect on upper elementary students taught by underprepared novices has been estimated as the loss of about one-third of a grade level each year (Laczko-Kerr & Berliner 2002; Darling-Hammond et al. 2005). Nonetheless, defendants in school funding lawsuits have generally argued that qualifications don’t matter, and, therefore, disparities in access to trained, certified, and experienced teachers are not a problem and should not require changes to the unequal allocation of resources to rich and poor schools. This argument has also been used to suggest that ESEA’s rules to require stronger qualifications for teachers and to distribute them more equitably should be discontinued and replaced by post hoc indicators of teacher effectiveness based largely on student test scores. Proponents of this view appear unconcerned about protections for students who may be taught for years by a revolving door of unqualified and ineffective teachers who enter and leave before their effectiveness can be ascertained.

Recommendations for Developing – and Equitably Distributing – Effective Teachers and Teaching

States and districts that have consciously built the capacity of teachers in high-need schools have reduced achievement gaps by investing in teacher and principal preparation and development, building more collaborative school organizations, and equalizing salaries and working conditions.3 While there is growing interest in moving beyond measures of teacher qualifications to evaluate teachers’ effectiveness based on test score gains, it is critically important to develop measures of teacher and teaching effectiveness that support improvement in individual and collective teaching expertise along with providing accurate pictures of teachers’ abilities.

Ultimately, the goal of measuring teacher effectiveness should be to improve teachers’ capacities and the effectiveness of the educational enterprise. Focusing only on evaluating poor teachers out of the profession is unlikely to produce a highly effective teaching force if there are not equally strong efforts to develop a steady supply of effective teachers entering and staying in the profession and becoming more effective over the course of their careers. These recommendations focus on such strategies.

Create a Steady Supply of Prepared and Effective New Teachers

Based on the findings described earlier, smart policy systems would provide incentives to recruit high-ability students into teaching; ensure that they complete high-quality preparation before entry; support rigorous licensing standards; and invest in supports for retaining beginners, including high-quality mentoring. Such incentives could take the form of service scholarships and forgivable loans like the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program that underwrites the costs of college and teacher preparation for high-ability students who commit to teaching for four years; incentives and supports for preparation and mentoring programs that are engaging and effective in preparing teachers; and investments in rigorous certification standards that are closely related to the knowledge and skills needed to teach effectively.

Pre-service teacher preparation and mentoring enhance teacher effectiveness both by transmitting important knowledge and skills and by enabling teachers to stay in the profession and become more effective with experience. Whereas 49 percent of recent college graduates who enter teaching without certification leave within five years, only 14 percent of fully prepared entrants leave (Henke, Chen & Geis 2000). Teachers who have had no student teaching, and those who lacked coursework in child development, learning, curriculum, and other knowledge essential to teaching, leave at twice the rates of those with more complete preparation (NCTAF 2003; Henke, Chen & Geis 2000).

Providing expert mentors to coach beginners also reduces beginning teacher attrition, with rates of leaving reduced from more than 30 percent of beginners to as low as 5 percent in some districts that have introduced high-quality programs. Well-designed mentoring programs improve retention rates, attitudes, feelings of efficacy, and range of instructional strategies for new teachers (Darling-Hammond & Sykes 2003). Federal and state incentives should leverage local efforts to create strong mentoring in every school, reducing attrition and increasing competence.

There are, of course, substantial differences in the relative effectiveness of teacher education programs. Conse-quently, policies to develop stronger teacher effectiveness should leverage programs to adopt the features of the most successful programs and to continually improve. A study identifying teacher education programs whose graduates produced the strongest gains in student achievement in elementary reading and mathematics in New York City found that the most effective programs had well-supervised student teaching experiences that were well matched to the students that candidates would teach; more coursework in reading and mathematics content and teaching methods; courses that helped candidates acquire specific practices and tools that they would then apply in their student teaching or practicum; the specific curriculum materials they would teach; and a required capstone project, usually a performance assessment or portfolio of their work done in classrooms with students (Boyd, Grossman et al. 2008).

These reforms depend centrally on creating new models of clinical practice that are tightly integrated with coursework. Many successful schools of education have done this by creating professional development relationships with local schools, working with these sites to train novices in the classrooms of expert teachers. Highly developed models have been found to increase teacher effectiveness and retention, foster instructional improvement, and raise student achievement. Just as the federal government has funded teaching hospitals that strengthen medical training, investments in professional development schools could dramatically improve teachers’ abilities to be effective from their first days in the classroom.

Teacher residencies, like those designed in Chicago, Boston, and Denver, use a similar model. Mid-career recruits are placed as apprentices in the classrooms of highly expert mentor teachers for a year while they complete tightly linked education coursework in partnership with a local university. They receive a stipend during this year and a master’s degree and credential at the end of the year. They continue to receive mentoring in the next two years and pledge to spend at least three to four years in city schools. The model has already shown retention rates of over 90 percent in the first five years of teaching and a strong performance by graduates.

Policies that could support the creation of these more effective models of preparation would include challenge grants, like the federal Teacher Quality Enhancement Partnership Grants, to launch and expand such programs, especially in high-need communities. States should evaluate all their programs – both traditional and alternative – in terms of teacher retention, evidence of later effectiveness in the classroom, and the graduates’ performance on valid teacher performance assessments (see next section). States should incorporate these data into program approval and accreditation decisions in order to expand effective preparation models while eliminating those that are poor performing.

Use Teacher Performance Assessments to Measure Competence before Licensing

Beginning teachers should be licensed based on greater evidence of teacher competence than merely completing a set of courses or surviving a certain length of time in the classroom. Current teacher licensing tests – generally multiple-choice tests of basic skills and subject matter – do not predict teachers’ abilities to effectively teach children. Furthermore, in many cases, these tests evaluate teacher knowledge before they enter teacher education, and thus have little use for teacher education accountability. Moving the field forward, several states, including California, Connecticut, North Carolina, and Oregon, have incorporated performance assessments in the licensing process. These measures of performance have been found to be strong levers for improving preparation and mentoring, as well as determining teachers’ competence. The Performance Assessment for California Teachers (PACT), for example, requires teachers to document their plans and teaching for a unit of instruction, adapt them for special education students and English language learners, videotape and critique lessons, and collect and evaluate evidence of student learning. As with the National Board assessments, beginning teachers’ ratings on these kinds of assessments have been found to predict their students’ value-added achievement on state tests (Wilson & Hallum 2006; Newton 2010).

Currently, more than twenty states have joined together to create a common version of an initial performance-based licensing assessment that could be used nationwide to leverage much stronger preparation and licensing. A more advanced version of the assessment could also be used at the point of the professional license (after the three-year probationary period) and used to guide teacher induction and mentoring (Darling-Hammond 2010a). Federal support for the use of such nationally available performance assessments would not only provide a useful tool for accountability and improvement, but also facilitate teacher mobility across states by creating a portable license. High scorers on this performance assessment could be granted a national license, which would make it easier for states to attract effective teachers to high-need schools. With the addition of incentives for National Board Certification, which has also been found both to measure4 and improve5 teachers’ effectiveness, these assessments would provide a continuum of opportunities to identify and help stimulate increasing effectiveness across the career.

Some districts have even used schoolwide participation in the National Board Certification process as a turnaround strategy to build teaching capacity, producing success where there once was failure. For example, at Mitchell Elementary School in Phoenix, Arizona, school achievement has dramatically improved, and teacher turnover has decreased as a result of this approach. As the district’s associate superintendent Suzanne Zentner noted, “We believe in the National Board Certification process as an approach to ... closing the achievement gap” (Berry, forthcoming).

Develop Integrated Measures of Teaching Practice and Student Learning to Evaluate Teacher Effectiveness on the Job

There is no doubt that teacher evaluation systems in the U.S. are broken: teachers, administrators, parents, and policymakers agree that most districts fail to either measure teaching well, help teachers improve, or dismiss those who are failing. Most teachers are tenured without a rigorous examination of their competence, and those who are struggling are often left to flounder indefinitely while their students suffer. The vast majority of teachers who are working hard and want to continue to improve get little help to do so. In a report by the group Accom-plished California Teachers, Jane Fung, an award-winning twenty-year veteran of Los Angeles Unified School District, described the experience of many teachers:

I have had administrators who never came into my classroom for formal observations or asked me for anything more than the initial planning/goal sheet. I have had administrators observe a formal lesson and put the feedback sheet in my box without ever having spoken to me about the lesson, and I have had years where I am just asked to sign the end-of-the-year evaluation sheet [without being observed]. (NBRC 2010, p. iv)

Given this sorry situation, some reformers are enthusiastic about measuring teachers’ effectiveness based on their students’ test score gains using value-added methods (VAM), now that such data are becoming more available. After all, if student learning is the primary goal of teaching, it appears straightforward that it ought to be taken into account in determining a teachers’ competence. The VAM concept is important, as it reflects a desire to acknowledge teachers’ contributions to students’ progress, taking into account where students begin. Furthermore, VAM are valuable for studying program effectiveness, and I have cited such studies throughout this article. Ironically, though, relying on such measures is unlikely to improve teachers’ skill or capacity and could actually undermine, rather than improve, the overall quality of teaching – especially for the highest-need students.

How could this be?

First, test score gains are not accurate measures of teachers’ quality, even adjusted for other variables or factors. When tied to individual teachers, they are notoriously unstable and prone to wide degrees of error. One study of five districts, for example, found that among top-ranked teachers in one year, only about 30 percent were similarly ranked a year later, while a comparable proportion had moved to the bottom rankings. A similar share of teachers moved from the bottom to the top rankings over the course of a year (Sass 2008).6

This instability is largely because VAM ratings are affected by the composition of students in a class – whether they attend school regularly, have stable home lives, and get help from parents or tutors, and what kind of education they have had previously. It is nearly impossible to disentangle the effects of an individual teacher from these things or the effects of current and former teachers, curriculum materials, class sizes, and school leadership decisions.7 Out-of-school time matters, too. Summer learning loss, which especially hurts low-income students, accounts for about half the achievement difference between rich and poor students.

It is not surprising, then, that research shows that the same teacher typically looks more effective on value-added measures when she is teaching more advantaged students – and less effective when she is assigned more students who are low-income, new English learners, or who have special education needs (Newton et al., forthcoming). This reality creates disincentives for teachers to take on students who struggle to learn, just as New York State’s short-lived accountability scheme that rated cardiac surgeons on their patients’ mortality rates caused doctors to turn away patients who were very ill. Some excellent teachers who work with special education students and new English learners will be at risk of being fired, and others will increasingly avoid these students by choosing schools, classes, and fields where they are less likely to encounter them.

For these reasons and more, the country’s most prestigious group of researchers, the National Research Council, has stated, “VAM estimates of teacher effectiveness ... should not be used to make operational decisions because such estimates are far too unstable to be considered fair or reliable” (NYSUT 2011).

Second, most U.S. tests are exceptionally narrow, focused mostly on multiple-choice questions assessing low-level skills in reading and math. Placing high-stakes decisions on these tests has already caused schools to teach less history, science, and the arts and to engage students in less writing, research, and complex problem-solving – the very skills they need to become truly ready for college and careers. As teachers focus more intensely on these tests, we can expect teaching and curriculum to suffer further.

Finally, two major U.S. studies have recently found that schemes paying teachers based on their students’ test score gains do not raise student achievement overall – a sign that this strategy does not build teachers’ capacity and effectiveness furthermore (Springer et al. 2010; Fryer 2011). One international study even found a decline in achievement in Portuguese schools that tied teacher pay to student scores (Martins 2009). The researcher suggested that ranking teachers against each other may have reduced the likelihood that teachers would work together and share their expertise. Where this happens, students are the ultimate losers.

Better systems exist – like the rigorous performance assessments used for National Board Certification, which have been found to predict teachers’ effectiveness. These measures look at student learning in context, linking it to what teachers do in teaching specific curriculum. Observations and feedback based on professional standards and administered by trained evaluators are successfully used in schools that are part of the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) and in cities like Denver, Colorado, and Rochester, New York, along with a variety of measures of how teachers contribute to student learning. These standards-based evaluations of teaching practice not only provide more useful evidence about teaching practice, but also help teachers to improve their practice and effectiveness (Milanowski, Kimball & White 2004).

In the TAP system of “instructionally focused accountability,” for example, each teacher is evaluated four to six times a year by master teachers or principals who are trained and certified evaluators using a system that examines designing and planning instruction, the learning environment, classroom instruction, and teachers’ broader responsibilities. The indicators of good teaching are practices that have been found to be associated with desired student outcomes. Like other well-developed career ladder systems, TAP provides ongoing professional development, mentoring, and classroom support to help teachers meet these standards. Teachers in TAP schools report that they value this system of standards-based feedback, combined with collaborative planning time and professional development, and believe it is responsible for improvements in their practice (Solomon et al. 2007).

Along with evaluations of performance, teachers in some districts – like those participating in Arizona’s career ladder program – assemble a portfolio of evidence that includes measures of their practice and of student learning as part of the overall judgment of effectiveness. In addition to analysis of standardized tests, where appropriate, such evidence can be drawn from classroom assessments and documentation, including pre- and post-test measures of student learning in specific courses or curriculum areas and evidence of student accomplishments in relation to teaching activities. The evidence can be used to demonstrate and explain the progress of students on a wide range of learning outcomes in ways that take students’ starting points and characteristics into account. A study of Arizona’s career ladder program found that, over time, participating teachers not only became better at creating assessment tools to measure student learning, but also increased their focus on higher-quality content, skills, and instructional strategies (Packard & Dereshiwsky 1991). Thus, the development and use of student learning evidence, in combination with examination of teaching performance, can stimulate improvements in practice.

Given the importance of teachers’ collective efforts to improve overall student achievement in a school, the best systems also look at how teachers contribute to the expertise of their colleagues and the improvement of the entire school by sharing practices and materials, coaching peers, and working collegially to help students. The key is that evaluation is linked to improving practice, so that learning always improves.

Integrating Both Measurement and Development of Effective Teaching

Initiatives to measure and recognize teacher effectiveness have emerged as the press for improved student achievement has been joined to an awareness of the importance of teachers in contributing to student learning. Such initiatives will have the greatest pay-off if they reflect and stimulate the practices known to support student learning and are embedded in systems that also develop greater teacher competence through strong preparation and mentoring, coaching in relation to standards, and opportunities for teachers to help their colleagues and their schools improve. Policies that create increasingly valid measures of teacher effectiveness and develop innovative systems for recognizing, developing, and using expert teachers, while providing incentives for them to work with the neediest students, can ultimately help create a more effective teaching profession that serves the nation’s children more equitably.

1 For a summary of studies, see Darling-Hammond & Bransford 2005; Darling-Hammond 2000; and Wilson, Floden & Ferrini-Mundy 2001.

2 See, for example, Oakes 2003.

3 For a review, see Darling-Hammond and Sykes 2003.

4 See, for example, Bond et al. 2000; Cavaluzzo 2004; Goldhaber & Anthony 2005; Smith et al. 2005; and Vandevoort, Amrein-Beardsley & Berliner 2004.

5 See Sato, Wei & Linda Darling-Hammond 2008; Tracz, Sienty & Mata 1994; and Tracz et al. 1995.

6 See also Newton et al. (forthcoming) for similar findings.

7 For reviews, see EPI 2010; Braun 2005; and McCaffrey et al. 2005.


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Linda Darling-Hammond is the Charles Ducommon Professor of Education at Stanford University School of Education.