How do you train the best teachers? Leaders at the nation's teacher education programs still don't really know, but it's something educators are trying to figure out. So statistician George Noell decided to do something no one had ever done before: He compared the success rates of teachers from different training programs in his home state of Louisiana.
Noell didn't want to rely on the old measures of success, like whether principals were happy with their teachers. He wanted an objective measure of gains by students taught by, say, this reporter.
"In essence, who taught Larry math," is how Noell describes his study. "Then we look at, for the youngsters that Larry taught, how did they score on the state achievement tests the spring that Larry worked with them, and then that following spring."
Good test scores should show that my teacher-training program was doing something right. Bad scores would indicate my program didn't do a good job. Noell says that there are so many variables in education, he wasn't sure that he'd see any meaningful differences between programs. But right off the bat, he says, he saw what looked like "pretty notable differences" between different institutions.
In fact, brand-new teachers from some programs were getting classroom results that rivaled those of experienced teachers.
The results were supposed to help training programs do a better job. But when this program was first proposed about a decade ago, some education leaders were concerned schools would be publicly embarrassed by poor results. And in fact, when the study's results were released in mid-2009, many media outlets ranked education schools as though they were baseball teams. That led to some headlines that were a little embarrassing to Gerald Carlson, dean of the education school at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette.
"I think it said UL-Lafayette College of Education, last in the state," Carlson says, wincing at the memory.
But Carlson insists that wasn't quite right. Most of the university's programs in teacher education did well. But one program did do poorly in English language arts. So, the university has changed the curriculum to boost the English skills of graduates. And, Carlson says, he's trying to make the program more selective by tightening admissions standards and looking at ACT scores. The goal is to look for students with better skills and to offer remedial courses if necessary.
That's good, right? A school gets information from the study, it changes the program and improves teacher performance? The trouble is the study didn't exactly tell schools what they need to do to improve. And that leaves many people here in the dark about what they should do.
How To Improve?
Nancy Roberts founded the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators over a decade ago to address a big problem in the state: Thousands of teachers were working without proper training. She put together a lending library for teachers in an open, light-filled warehouse in Baton Rouge. The place feels warm and inviting.
"I really always wanted to have a nice place for teachers to go and train, instead of putting them in a back room someplace," Roberts says.
But Roberts learned that some of her graduates aren't doing as well as she'd hoped. Their students scored lower on the Louisiana study. Roberts felt bad about that and said she'd like to give her graduates some additional support. But she can't.
The study only told schools how their graduates did in general; it didn't say which graduates fell short. "We know who we trained, but we don't know who's in the study. It's not enough to help us pinpoint where we need to improve," Roberts says.
Some educators say the study falls short on other levels. It judges teachers strictly on the basis of annual tests — the same ones used to judge student performance under No Child Left Behind.
But Jim Meza, dean of the School of Education at the University of New Orleans, says that means it ignores the one thing that really stymies new teachers — classroom management. "That typically becomes the No. 1 need of new teachers. This data currently doesn't tell us that at all," Meza says. "You also need some level of observation to complement academic growth."
Teacher effectiveness is a hot issue nationwide, but it is white hot in New Orleans, where loads of newcomers have arrived to help rebuild the education system.