What makes a great schoolteacher?

Steve Kelman learns that what makes a teacher great might not be what you think.

I wrote in a recent post about how one of the wonderful things about being an academic — occasionally I am amazed that I am actually paid to do this job — is the opportunity to discover interesting new research on important issues about society, organizations and human behavior.

Recently, a group of 70 executive education students at Harvard’s Kennedy School program for federal GS-15s and colonels had a chance to get some similar exposure when they heard a presentation about what makes an effective schoolteacher. Given the problems we have with elementary and secondary education, this is an important question for everyone who cares about the future of our country.

My colleague Ron Ferguson gave the lunchtime presentation. He's involved in the research, on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Ferguson offered a list of what he called the seven Cs of teacher behavior in the classroom: caring, controlling, clarifying, challenging, captivating, conferring and consolidating.

Researchers randomly assigned middle-school students to different teachers. They then asked the students a series of questions to see how successful the teacher was on each of those dimensions.

For example, to measure the degree of caring, researchers asked students to respond to statements such as: "My teacher in this class makes me feel that s/he really cares about me."  To measure the teacher's degree of control, a typical statement was: "Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time."

The researchers then tracked the students in another class the teacher taught and measured how much, on average, the students in that class improved in their test scores over the course of the year with that teacher, based on their starting points and their socioeconomic backgrounds.

It turns out that some of the dimensions of teacher effectiveness had an important influence on students’ test score improvements.

Before revealing which dimensions were especially influential, Ferguson asked the executive education students to predict which of the seven they thought had the biggest influence on test scores. The largest numbers of votes went to caring and challenging. Ferguson said that most groups vote similarly, even groups of schoolteachers.

However, they were only half right. Challenging is the second-best predictor of test score improvement. Caring, however, ranks very low. The best predictor of improvement turns out to be controlling. Only four of the participants had voted for that one. Again, Ferguson said that is the typical response when he has made this presentation elsewhere. (Full disclosure: I voted for challenging.)

My thoughts on my colleague's presentation? First, this is interesting stuff, and it gives us some insight into the suggestion that teacher quality makes a difference in kids' performance and in what constitutes an effective teacher.

Second, note that the most effective technique according to the research was not one that many people predicted. Some people assume that most research is superfluous and only "discovers" what's already obvious. In fact, good research can provide sound evidence to back up those "obvious" intuitive assumptions -- or it can challenge them with surprising results.

And finally, is there anybody out there tempted to come to a Kennedy School executive education program and have your mind expanded?