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A blueprint for school improvement

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Tomorrow's teachers must not only be plentiful, but they must be good -- good enough, in fact, to make a profound difference in the lives of children. As we sort through the multitude of suggested reforms to improve schools -- ones politicians seem ready to promise these days -- deliberate actions to give each child access to a great teacher are needed.

And while policies that focus on decreasing class sizes and retaining teachers are important, even more important is hiring effective teachers in the first place.

Parents and teachers know that teachers working in the same building, teaching the same grade, produce very different outcomes. We know that students who get teachers in the top quarter of the teacher distribution make much greater gains than those who end up with less able teachers.

In fact, improving teacher quality has about twice the impact on student outcomes as radically reducing class size.

Local policies that control who is hired and given the chance to teach have a tremendous impact on the quality of the workforce, and yet these policies are often problematic. Prospective teachers who might be very effective may be shut out while those who are less likely to be effective are allowed in.

To be fair, these policies should rely on objective measures based on research evidence.

At present, there is no single test, academic transcript or interview method that predicts the future effectiveness of prospective teachers perfectly. However, the actual performance of teachers in classroom situations during their teacher preparation programs has been shown to be a strong indicator of the likelihood of effectiveness in the profession.

Selection policies that are somehow anchored in reports on the performance of prospective teachers as documented by faculties of education should be standard fare. But they are not.

Hiring teachers is probably the most important function of school boards. A variety of people, including superintendents, assistant superintendents, human resources directors, principals, teachers and trustees are often involved in the hiring of teachers. However, not all of these people are equal in their ability to hire well. Not everyone has the knowledge, skill and disposition to select and manage personnel in schools. Therefore, those chosen to be involved in hiring teachers should be selected on rigorous criteria and then provided with professional development to become better.

Hiring committees like to be in agreement about what is important in an application even though the things they agree on may have no proven applicability in the hunt for that one "great" teacher. There is no evidence to suggest certain criteria such as employment history, information that is often relied on heavily by hiring committees, actually predicts applicants' ability to teach well. Similarly, interviews are often maligned for low reliability; we know they are wrought with biases about the appearance, gender, age and non-verbal cues presented by interviewees, yet hiring committees still rely on interviews as the most important component in hiring teachers.

In fact, the high value that is often afforded to face-to-face interviews overshadows other factors proven to be better determinants of future success in the classroom, such as the academic capability of candidates as demonstrated in student teaching reports and university grade-point averages. Surprisingly, not only are some job candidates able to land a job without evidence of effective teaching, but academic competence is often completely ignored by hiring committees, even though it has been shown to be an important indicator of the potential to teach effectively.

Extensive literature suggests that cognitive ability is critical for teachers given that teaching is a complex, intellectual profession. Yet this criterion -- a demonstrated ability to think critically -- is largely ignored in hiring policies in favour of interviews. If school board hiring committees end up choosing teachers who have not demonstrated they are smart enough for the demands of teaching, something is definitely wrong with the criteria being sought and assessed.

In fact, research demonstrates over and over again that of the variables potentially open to policy influence, the most important factor in student achievement is the ability of teachers to teach well. In addition, the current research literature suggests that teachers' cognitive and emotional capacity and their verbal fluency are important, too. If hiring committees used these four criteria -- past teaching success, cognitive ability, emotional maturity and verbal proficiency -- they would, in fact, hire better teachers and better honour the public's trust.

About 25 years ago, experts recommended policy makers adopt selection policies aligned with a definition of good teaching. Yet even though our understanding of what constitutes effective teaching has grown, little has changed in the way teachers are hired. If we truly want to provide children with opportunities to succeed at school, what is required is a provincewide commitment to use criteria more clearly related to candidates' intellectual and emotional abilities and the ability to teach. With so many factors challenging our schools' abilities to function at their optimum, and knowing that individual teachers are so critical to the system of education, our careful discernment in the hiring process is called for now more than ever.

 

Jerome Cranston is an assistant professor, faculty of education at the University of Manitoba. He is a former superintendent, principal and teacher in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

 

The Learning Curve is an occasional column written by local academics who are experts in their fields. It is open to any educator from Winnipeg's post-secondary institutions. Send 600-word submissions and a mini bio to julie.carl@freepress.mb.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2011 J12

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