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September 2009 | Volume 15 | Number 3
Highly Effective Teachers

Highly Effective Teachers: Defining, Rewarding, Supporting, and Expanding Their Roles

Full Article

Laura Varlas

Research shows that teacher effectiveness is the single most important school-based factor in student success. Students who have highly effective teachers for three years in a row will score 50 percentile points higher on achievement tests than students who have less effective teachers three years in a row (Sanders & Rivers, 1996). Moreover, one set of research proposes that assigning great teachers five years in a row to a class of disadvantaged children could close the achievement gap between these students and their privileged peers (Hanushek, Kain, O'Brien, & Rivkin, 2005). Currently, the odds that a child, let alone a disadvantaged child, will be assigned a great teacher five years running are 1 in 17,000 (Walsh, 2007).

Working definitions of teacher effectiveness are often elusive or so politically charged that they are unusable. However, the urgent need for highly effective teachers in every classroom calls for a clear definition of effectiveness and action toward creating the conditions for it. Simply put, education communities must develop a comprehensive definition of teacher effectiveness, the professional support to maintain and build it, the methods to measure it, and the sustained incentives to reward it.

Today, in many cases students' knowledge is summarized as a test score, and teachers' effectiveness is perceived as their contribution to that test score (Goe, Bell, & Little, 2008). Although student scores on standardized tests can be useful gauges of a teacher's effect, they should not be the sole criteria. Test scores do not give a full picture of teacher contributions and student circumstances, not to mention which students get tested and on what content.

Defining teacher effectiveness is not about creating a simplistic, single view of effective teaching. "It is a dramatic conceptual shift," says ASCD Executive Director Gene Carter, "from focusing exclusively on the teacher to focusing on the act of learning." The National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality (NCCTQ) suggests extending the definition of teacher effectiveness "beyond teachers' contribution to student achievement gains to include how teachers impact classrooms, schools, and their colleagues as well as how they contribute to other important outcomes for students" (Goe, Bell, & Little, 2008).

Attempts to simplify definitions of teacher effectiveness undercut aims to improve professional practice in education. In truth, teacher effectiveness should be measured by considering a range of student and school data. States like Colorado are leading the way in developing comprehensive, growth-model data systems to track teacher effectiveness.

A research synthesis for NCCTQ (Goe, Bell, & Little, 2008) breaks down teacher effectiveness into five points:

  • Effective teachers have high expectations for all students and help them learn, as demonstrated on value-added, test-based, or alternative measures.
  • Effective teachers contribute to positive academic, attitudinal, and social outcomes for students such as regular attendance, on-time promotion to the next grade and graduation, self-efficacy, and cooperative behavior.
  • Effective teachers use diverse resources to plan and structure engaging learning opportunities; monitor student progress formatively, adapting instruction as needed; and evaluate learning using multiple sources of evidence.
  • Effective teachers contribute to the development of classrooms and schools that value diversity and civic-mindedness.
  • Effective teachers collaborate with other teachers, administrators, parents, and education professionals to ensure students' success, particularly the success of students with special needs and those at high risk of failure.

These teacher factors also align with a vision of whole child education, one in which students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.

Defining teacher effectiveness as the sum of multiple parts means education communities will need to employ multiple measures to evaluate different aspects of teacher effectiveness. Multiple measures yield relatively stable data on teacher performance, and given more data, teachers have more opportunities to make midcourse corrections, according to Kate Walsh (2007) of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Putting Data in Context

In 2007, these states had policies allowing teacher and student records to be matched by subject and state assessment results:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • New Mexico
  • Ohio
  • Tennessee
  • Utah
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming

Source: Data compiled using Education Week's Education Counts database, available at

Making Recognition Programs Work

Attracting and retaining highly effective teachers is another challenge, and static career steps aren't enough. "Lockstep teacher compensation systems ensure uniformity and predictability for teachers and the school boards who pay them. But the price of predictability is unacceptably high," says Barnett Berry (2009) of the Center for Teaching Quality. "These archaic systems stifle teacher creativity, ignore market realities, and isolate teaching expertise. Few, if any, focus on what matters most—student learning."

Policies for better recognizing teacher contributions range from incentives for teaching in hard-to-staff or high-needs districts and content areas, to school-based performance awards, to recognizing the performance of individual teachers. In 2008, 20 states provided incentives for teachers to work in targeted, high-needs schools, and 16 states provided incentives for teachers to work in targeted teaching assignment areas. Urban teacher residencies, like the ones in Chicago and New York City, show how successful induction models combine incentives (paid training), strong preparation, and support to attract and retain quality teaching candidates in high-needs schools. Teacher working conditions, while not as high profile as financial incentives, are significant in creating conditions for effective teaching and keeping good teachers in the classroom.

State Incentives for Teachers in 2008

Education Week

Sandy Kress, a former advisor for George W. Bush and key architect of NCLB, acknowledges the great challenges to getting performance-based incentives for individual teachers right and suggests starting with incentives for school effectiveness (Education Sector, 2009). The challenges Kress is referring to revolve primarily around how to develop a reliable, fair, and multiple-stakeholder-approved way of measuring the performance of individual teachers, and the fact that many teachers teach subjects that are not measured by traditional standardized tests. These challenges are reflected in the few states, only seven in 2008, that have instituted a pay-for-performance program or pilot rewarding teachers for raising student achievement.

Finding the Funding

One huge hurdle to enacting and sustaining differentiated recognition programs is finding stable funding. Education policy experts—and even education philanthropists like Bill Gates—recommend removing incentives for master's degrees, which research shows have little or no correlation to teacher effectiveness, and redistributing these funds to attract new teachers and reward effective ones. Some locations, like Denver, have experimented with funding tied to property tax increases. Other programs rely on philanthropy from the nonprofit sector. At the federal level, the 2009 economic stimulus bill, or ARRA, included

  • $100 million for teacher quality state grants under Title II. Funds under Title II's Higher Education Teacher Quality Enhancement Act will be available in fall 2009 as competitive grants to states, partnerships of institutions of higher education, and local education agencies (LEAs) for teacher training and recruitment.
  • $200 million for the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF), a direct discretionary grant program that funds the development and implementation of principal and teacher performance incentive-pay programs. TIF funds will be available in fall 2009 as competitive grants to LEAs, including charters that are LEAs; states; or state-local partnerships to develop and implement performance-based teacher and principal compensation systems in high-needs schools.

This federal funding promotes education reform, requiring states to report on four assurances that they are advancing reforms as a condition for receiving a second installment of $48.6 billion in State Fiscal Stabilization Funds this fall. One of the assurances is "increasing teacher effectiveness and the equitable distribution of effective teachers" (U.S. Department of Education, 2009). In addition, the Department of Education's $5 billion in the Race to the Top innovation fund has ignited discussion about the role of positive incentives for motivating and supporting school reform efforts.

Though TIF proposed funding levels for fiscal year 2010 ($517 million) are being met with some skepticism in the House and Senate, many policy experts view the Obama administration's large investment in TIF as a strategic approach to improving teacher quality through targeted, differentiated recognition programs (Sawchuk, 2009, May 18). In fact, TIF-sponsored, performance-based evaluations could be the precursor to the national teacher evaluation system put forth in the Obama education platform. The success of these programs depends on whether states will be able to identify lasting funding sources.

Professional Development and Diverse Roles Support Teacher Effectiveness

Over the course of their careers, teachers should have opportunities to take on more complex assignments that don't necessarily take them out of the classroom. And they should be compensated for taking on expanded roles, such as mentoring or leading school-based professional development, being involved in school policy decisions, and inducting new teachers. In 2008, 20 states formally recognized differentiated roles for teacher leaders, 17 provided rewards or incentives to teachers for taking on leadership roles, and 6 states provided incentives for National Board-certified teachers taking on differentiated roles.

Research shows that establishing paths for instructional leadership helps create a sense of collective responsibility for improving teaching and achieving other school goals (Darling-Hammond, Bullmaster, & Cobb, 1995; Leithwood, Tomlinson, & Genge, 1996; Silins, Mulford, Zarins, & Bishop, 2000). Creating career ladders that allow highly effective teachers to coach new or struggling teachers also hits the dual goal of differentiated roles for teachers and professional development that supports highly effective teachers.

Without ongoing professional development, differentiated pay and roles will be ineffective at improving teaching. "You can't do differentiated pay without alignment to instruction," American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten says. "If it's simply a matter of looking at outcomes, not creating the stairs to success, it won't work" (Sawchuk, 2009, May 14). Weingarten contends that application criteria for funding under TIF should require plans for a strong, embedded professional development program so that the incentives create a structure for teacher improvement. And Darling-Hammond notes that, in most high-achieving countries, teachers are allotted 15–25 hours a week to plan collaboratively with colleagues (Lantor-Fandel, 2009).

"Teacher effectiveness...depends on whether teachers—from the beginners to the masters—continually learn more about how to reach their students," Marge Scherer writes in the June 2009 issue of Educational Leadership. The primary goal of teacher professional development is to improve student learning and raise achievement. Therefore, capacity-building professional development begins with a plan for addressing students' specific learning needs, includes evaluation to determine the program's effectiveness, and engages teachers in ongoing collaboration toward clearly articulated outcomes.

In tough economic times, most districts cut what they deem non-classroom expenditures, like professional development and time for teacher collaboration, without considering the far-reaching effects. Decreasing these teacher supports ultimately translates into decreased support for students (Education Resource Strategies Inc., 2009). Instead, districts could redirect funds typically spent on increasing the quantity of teachers toward improving the effectiveness of current teachers. Similarly, instead of investing in marginal reductions in class size, districts would better serve their students, research shows, by directing funds toward teacher effectiveness like coaches and mentors (vetted through rigorous criteria for professional development), reduced workloads for new teachers, and added support for high-needs schools.

The ARRA stimulus outlines many opportunities to apply funding toward capacity-building professional development. For more details about how funding is broken down and what professional development is covered under which appropriation, see ASCD's Planning the Possible: How Schools Can Use Stimulus Dollars for Lasting Impact at

Targeted professional development programs should be driven by a high-quality teacher evaluation system that reflects a school or district's mission and goals (see "Using Teacher Evaluations to Drive Effective Instruction" at right). In addition, professional development should be intensive and ongoing, job-embedded and relevant, and aligned with a systemwide strategy for improving teacher effectiveness. One example of how to revamp current professional development policy to support highly effective teachers is to overhaul state licensure programs to more closely align with teacher and school needs, focusing on hours spent on classroom coaching and observation, collaborative planning time, and school-based content initiatives (Education Resource Strategies Inc., 2009).

Pulling It All Together

Some point to international models, like Singapore's, for systems that align preparation, incentives, career ladders, and strong professional support. Currently no school districts in the United States systematically and successfully align policies that define, recognize, expand the roles of, and support highly effective teachers. This dearth of district examples and the critical need for highly effective teachers invites some words of caution.

First, Berry (2009) warns that "without making more public and transparent the complexities of good teaching and identifying and rewarding excellence, [we] will never develop a high-functioning, coherent teacher and principal development system." And Goe and colleagues (2008) caution that defining teacher effectiveness in terms of teachers' contributions to students' learning as measured by test scores means other teacher contributions to the overall support, growth, and well-being of students and schools are given little consideration, if measured at all. Unfortunately, most schools lack valid, reliable measures of teacher effectiveness beyond readily quantifiable test scores or assumptions based on credentials.

To create a more precise and comprehensive definition of teacher effectiveness, education communities need a better understanding of teacher effectiveness. Better knowledge of what's working will better inform what should be rewarded, where teachers need support, and where teachers can support each other.

Vanguard Programs Are Clear, Ongoing, and Voluntary

For developing incentive programs, experts advise that programs not be tied to high-stakes decisions, like dismissal; are clear about what they reward; are ongoing; and are voluntary. "It's important to make clear; what are the incentives and who will benefit?" says Brad Jupp, who now advises President Obama on teacher quality.

Jupp helped pave the way for Denver's ProComp, a program that allows teachers and supervisors who opt-in to use a combination of classroom observations and student achievement gains to both reward teacher effectiveness and help teachers focus their own professional development.

Another school reform model is the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), which is run by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching and operates in more than 180 schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia. TAP provides teachers with an opportunity to earn performance pay and was developed as a way to attract highly effective teachers, improve instruction, and raise student achievement. A voluntary program, TAP requires 75 percent of teachers to vote in favor of adoption. Researchers at the National Center on Performance Incentives are currently studying the program in a series to determine its effect on student test score gains. Initial analysis indicates that student achievement is generally better at schools using TAP programs, but it's hard to determine the fidelity of the application of these programs. Still, TAP is generally well-regarded in policy circles: in fall 2006, of the approximately $240 million TIF funds awarded, $88.3 million—or 36.8 percent—went to districts and states that proposed to implement TAP (Teacher Advancement Program, 2009).

Using Teacher Evaluations to Drive Effective Instruction

The methods for assessing teaching practices reinforce the shared values and definitions of highly effective teaching. In general though, teacher evaluations do not convey the complex nature of teaching, nor do they give teachers much actionable feedback about their effectiveness.

"Improving district teacher evaluation systems is the linchpin to improving the quality of education in this country," said Education Sector senior policy analyst Robert Manwaring in a recent online chat (Education Sector, 2009).

Surprisingly, as of data collected in 2008, 8 states do not even require teachers' performance to be formally evaluated. Only 12 states require teacher evaluations on an annual basis, 26 states require evaluators to receive formal training, and 12 states link teacher evaluations to student performance.

In addition to the need for state-level priorities, Charlotte Danielson, an education consultant and former staffer at Educational Testing Services, outlines six main areas of deficiency in current teacher evaluation systems:

  • Outdated, limited, evaluative criteria.
  • Few shared values and assumptions about good teaching.
  • Lack of precision in evaluating performance.
  • Hierarchical, one-way communication.
  • No differentiation between novice and experienced practitioners.
  • Limited administrator expertise. (Danielson & McGreal, 2000)

Danielson concludes that the culture of teacher evaluation is one of protection and passivity, not professional inquiry. Whereas teacher evaluation could be a powerful point of reflection, support, and growth, it's often used solely for punitive purposes.

These criticisms match findings in this year's The Widget Effect, a report produced by the New Teacher Project. The Widget Effect analyzed the results of a survey of more than 15,000 teachers and 1,300 administrators in four states and 12 districts and found that more than 90 percent of tenured teachers met local standards in recent evaluations (Weisberg, Sexton, Mulhern, & Keeling, 2009). The report shows an enormous missed opportunity to use evaluations to identify, spread, and reward effective teaching and to tailor professional development decisions to teachers' needs, says New Teacher Project President Tim Daly (Weisberg, Sexton, Mulhern, & Keeling, 2009). For example, 73 percent of teachers surveyed said their evaluations did not identify an area for development; 43 percent said evaluations helped them improve.

Daly, along with Allan Odden, codirector of Strategic Management of Human Capital (SMHC), said in a May 2009 SMHC Webinar that there are three main things an evaluation system should do: differentiate levels of performance, tightly align feedback with professional development, and demonstrate that teacher performance is validated by student performance.

Manwaring speculates a scenario in which "you are one of the few teachers told that you need to make improvement in classroom management, but all year, all of your professional development is focused on teaching reading to English learners. How is the district supporting you in improving your shortcomings?" (Education Sector, 2009).

Education Week's Stephen Sawchuk (2009, June 8) reports that of the 12 districts studied in The Widget Effect, "only five—Denver; Chicago; Elgin, Ill.; Rockford, Ill.; and Cincinnati—keep electronic evaluation data. For most other districts, the results of evaluations basically sit in folders in the district HR office, never to be looked at again by anyone." As a condition for receipt of State Fiscal Stabilization Funds under the ARRA, governors may have to report the percentage of teachers rated in each evaluation performance category, district by district. If systems for evaluating teacher effectiveness are woefully inadequate and, therefore, not very useful, this data won't be valuable.

"The boldest use of [education] stimulus funds," Daly says, "would be to give us ways to measure teacher effectiveness that are usable for different things—like recruitment, retention, and developing career ladders—instead of how they're currently used, to dismiss teachers" (SMHC, 2009).

Teacher evaluations should have meaningful summative (quality assurance) and formative (professional growth) functions. Good teacher evaluation systems merge these two purposes (Danielson & McGreal, 2000) and lead to improved instruction aligned with district goals (Goe, Bell, & Little, 2008). Evaluation systems should drive effective instruction, not just measure it. Good teacher evaluations systems

  • Are developed by multiple stakeholders (including teachers).
  • Use multiple indicators.
  • Differentiate among teachers.
  • Are aligned for emphasis on school goals.
  • Are not solely under the purview of the principal.
  • Give teachers ample opportunities and resources to improve.
  • Reward effective teaching. (Danielson & McGreal, 2000; Goe, Bell, & Little, 2008)

Districts in Arkansas, Tennessee, Denver, as well as those participating in Peer Assistance and Review programs (Toledo, Ohio, and Montgomery County, Md., for example) are pushing these tenets, with the exception of performance incentives, in the evaluation systems they've developed. As of 2008, Florida, Georgia, New York, and Oklahoma require that teacher evaluations be formal, annual, and tied to student achievement and that evaluators receive formal training.

In the future, teacher evaluations will likely carry more financial incentives, as linking teachers with multiple measures of student data becomes less contentious and evaluation instruments become less subject to misuse or subjectivity.


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