The Big Story Blog

What is good teaching?

Posted at 2:00 PM on February 23, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Education

When I covered education, I'd get questions about how to judge teachers. A school might have poor test scores and people assumed that meant bad teachers, which wasn't necessarily the case. A school might have great scores and the belief was teachers were doing great things (again, not necessarily). People wanted an easy answer and there wasn't one.

Emily Hanford, an American Radio Works correspondent, really dug into the research on teachers a couple of years ago and put together a great, concise look at the research on what makes a great teacher.

Here are some excerpts from what she learned.

It's hard to predict who will be a good teacher.

Researchers have tried for years to identify the characteristics of effective teachers. They have looked at test scores: do smarter people make better teachers? They have looked at credentials: are teachers with master's degrees or teaching certificates more effective in the classroom? They have looked at knowledge: are teachers who majored in the subject they teach better at teaching that subject? And they have looked at experience. The surprising result of all this research is how little it has revealed about what makes a good teacher.

Credentials don't seem to be the answer. Master's degrees and teacher certification have no significant impact on how effective teachers are. Experienced teachers tend to be better than inexperienced ones, but there are plenty of experienced teachers who are not effective. Teachers who majored in their subject area appear to be no more effective than those who didn't, with the exception of math teachers at the high school level. And teachers who score high on tests of cognitive ability appear to be more effective than teachers with lower scores, but the research on this is spotty and not completely clear
What is good teaching?

Researchers are focused on learning more about what good teachers do in their classrooms. But Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, warns this might go too far. His concern is that the complex craft of teaching will be reduced to a checklist of things all teachers will be required to do. He says there are many ways to be an effective teacher.

The bottom line is, do the students learn? Daly says one way to think about good teaching is to think about the question, what makes a good comedian?
"Is it a person that tells jokes in a certain way?" he asks. "Is it somebody that is very racy and uses a lot of profanity? Is it somebody that talks about everyday things or tells long stories?"

No, Daly says. "We can think of people that are considered very good comedians who do it every different manner of way. The universal is that people laugh," he says.

And that's his point about good teaching. The universal is that students learn. This is why Daly and many other education leaders say using student test scores to evaluate teachers is essential.

I tended to focus more on the principal than on the teachers. The principal set the tone in a school and the best ones had the savvy to find the resources they needed and the leadership ability to get the staff to work in harmony.

No school worked for children when the adults, for whatever reasons, were in turmoil. On the flipside, when the adults were working together with a leader they respected, great things happened.

As part of Hanford's reporting in 2010, we asked people in our Public Insight Network to talk about the best teachers they've known and why they were great. Check out the responses below. They're pretty revealing.

View The best teachers you've known in a full screen map


About Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto writes the Big Story Blog for MPR News. He joined the newsroom in 2008 after more than 20 years reporting on education, politics and the economy for news wires and newspapers across the country.