What Matters Most in School Data on Teacher Quality

Better Teaching Quality

Researchers Discover the Most Visible Ingredient that Matters Most in School Data on Teacher Quality (and how it ties in with brain research)

In September, I shared the research that told you that feedback was the top achievement-boosting variable. in learning. This month, we’ll tie together some brain research and student achievement data to reveal the most VISIBLE ingredient in better teaching.

First, the hint: It is consistently correlated with high achievement gains and it is one of the single biggest variables in teacher quality.

What The Research Tells Us

For years, realtors have tried to help sell prospective home buyers on the neighborhood with “good schools.” You may have had parents that fixate on picking the right school for their child. But the research shows it matters far more which teacher the child gets.

Teachers had THREE times as much influence on students’ academic development as the school they attended.

Many of the factors commonly assumed to be important to teachers’ effectiveness are NOT causal or even strongly correlated with student achievement. Although teachers are paid more for experience, education and training, those are not a guarantee of better student performance.

At lunchtime, look around your staff lounge. Some teachers are working miracles every day with their kids, while others (unintentionally) are actually slowing students down. Recent studies have found that students’ race, wealth, English proficiency or previous achievement level played LITTLE role in whether their teacher was effective.

At Madison Elementary, Principal Mrs. Cameron described teacher Emily Conroe as one of her most effective staff. Even mothers of her classroom kids gushed with enthusiasm.

“Ms. Conroe was an amazing teacher,” said Christy Johnson, whose daughter was in Conroe’s class a few years ago. “She really worked with her, socially and academically.”

But years of student test scores suggest otherwise (see references at the end of this article).

In the research analysis, Conroe, who teaches third grade, ranked among the BOTTOM 10% of elementary school teachers in boosting students’ test scores. On average, her students started the year at a high level — above the 80th percentile — but by the end had SUNK 11 percentile points in math and 5 points in English (the data is real, the names and school were changed).

The teacher said she was surprised and disappointed by her results, adding that her students did well on periodic assessments and that parents SEEMED well satisfied.

Listen everyone, there’s a new assessment tool being used and we’d all better get used to it. Around the country, more and more districts are paying attention to the “value-added data” that tells whether kids GAINED or LOST as measured against their grade level peers.

Highly effective teachers routinely accelerate students from below grade level to ABOVE in a single year. There is a MONSTER gap at every year’s end between students whose teachers were in the top 10% in effectiveness and the bottom 10%. The randomly lucky students consistently will be ranked 10-20 percentile points HIGHER in reading and 20-30 points HIGHER in math.

How can you get yourself and your staff up to speed?

In September, I shared the research that told you that feedback was the top achievement-boosting variable. But there’s another factor that keeps showing up with feedback.

What is the HUGE VISIBLE “partner secret” that will help kids do better in school? This is the one quality that shows up as the single biggest variable in teacher quality.

So, what is the quality that seems to matter most?

Let’s look at some data. First, you would consider 14,000 teachers to be a pretty good sample size. You might also consider that teaching in Los Angeles Unified School District would provide a HUGE diversity of teaching situations and conditions. And, you’re right.

So, I’ll quote from the study in which the researcher said, “The surest sign of a teacher’s effectiveness was the engagement of his or her students — something that often was obvious from the expressions on their faces.”

Well, there you have it.

Yes, it’s true that it’s good to engage your students cognitively, physically and emotionally, and they will learn better.

It turns out that there is a whole slew of evidence that shows that “involve don’t tell, body-based learning, changing states, action-based learning, cooperation, project-based learning and total physical response” is more than just brain-friendly instruction. It’s effective!

But, there’s more to it.

In the field of neuroscience, engagement is a bit slippery to quantify. You see, to the brain, a certain type of engagement is ideal: engagement with feedback. That’s the ultimate teaching “tool.”


Cognitive engagement can be simple. Use curiosity and prediction activities. Activities that challenge students at the lower levels (K-2) include sorting, grouping, comparing, associating and linking activities. Fill in the blanks are better than nothing, but vary the type of activity so the students have to work for more than only recall. At the higher levels (grades 3-12), writing is one the best cognitive activities. Ask them to explain, defend, justify, contrast, describe, critique and speculate. Each of those has feedback built into them!

Emotional engagement has to do with orchestrating and allowing emotions to enhance the learning, rather than avoiding the triggering of them. This means use suspense, surprise and celebrations. Use competition and drama.

Physical engagement is critical too. Use total physical response, body-brain experiences. Touch and say, move and learn. Use relays, games, paired activities, recess, even movement at the seat. But whatever you do, keep them in action.

Social engagement is critical, too. Kids get bored with whatever social condition you use, if it’s overused. You must have a toolbox of social options. Use small group work, impromptu-paired activities, cooperative learning, student teaching, student lead energizers, and teamwork. Use individual work no more than 50% of the total time. And you can quote me on that!

Let’s cut to the chase: everything you do in your classroom is likely to have SOME effect on the brain. Brain-based education says, “Be purposeful about it.”

Now, go have some fun and make another miracle happen!

Appleton, J. J., Christenson, S. L. and Furlong, M. J. (2008), Student engagement with school: Critical conceptual and methodological issues of the construct. Psychology in the Schools, 45: 369–386.
Buddin, Richard & Zamarro, Gema, (2009). “Teacher qualifications and student achievement in urban elementary schools,” Journal of Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 66(2), pages 103-115, September
Buddin, Richard & Zamarro, Gema, (2008) Teacher Quality, Teacher Licensure Tests, and Student Achievement. WR-555-IES May. Institute of Education Science
Buddin, Richard & Zamarro, Gema, (2009). “Teacher Effectiveness in Urban High Schools,” Working Papers 693, RAND Corporation Publications Department
Buddin, Richard & Zamarro, Gema, (2009). “Teacher Qualifications and Middle School Student Achievement,” Working Papers 671, RAND Corporation Publications Department
Davidson DJ, Indefrey P. Error-related activity and correlates of grammatical
plasticity. Front Psychol. 2011;2:219.
Ladd, Gary and Dinella, Lisa (2009) Continuity and Change in Early School Engagement: Predictive of Children’s Achievement Trajectories From First to Eighth Grade.
Journal of Educational Psychology Volume 101, Issue 1, Pages 190-206
Marks, Helen M., (2000) Student Engagement in Instructional Activity: Patterns in the Elementary, Middle, and High School Years. American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Spring, pp. 153-184.
Taylor J, Roehrig AD, Soden Hensler B, Connor CM, Schatschneider C. (2010) Teacher quality moderates the genetic effects on early reading. Science. Apr.23; 328 (5977): 512-4

Creative Commons License photo credit: billaday

6 replies
  1. barbara lustgarten evoy
    barbara lustgarten evoy says:

    hi..i have been watching and reading and following your message for some time now. i often find myself quoting you when speaking to clients. I have been trying to get your free top 10 strategies for a while and ..sigh..it never comes! my mailing address (should u see this) is 250 Garafraxa st East , Fergus, On Canada N1M 1E1.
    I love what u say and how you say it..keep up the great work and know you are making a difference!
    Sincerely, Barb

  2. Sally DeCost
    Sally DeCost says:

    As an experienced teacher, I know this is meaningful. It’s always nice to see it in black and white in a manner that makes sense. And it’s always nice to see that research is backing it up!

    Keep them engaged cognitively, physically, and socially. Yep, it makes so much sense!


  3. Miechel Lusty
    Miechel Lusty says:

    Eric I have continued to follow your information and readings. I am still using strategies that you shared and showed to us over here and reall have seen the difference this approach makes to children from generational poverty. Your resources are teacher friendly and encourage us to keep on trying, no matter how “bad a day” we have had…

    from Mount Gambier, Australia.

  4. Valerie Smith
    Valerie Smith says:

    I went to your poverty/engagement workshop this week in MO. You talked about using a points system with teams in your classroom. Do you talk about this in detail in one of your books and if so which one?

  5. Eric
    Eric says:


    I have never written up the “point system” I used years ago with kids. It was pretty simple. We usually had 6-7 criteria on our scoring rubric. The kids got to choose 2 and I choose 4. Typically, their charts scored themselves on team spirit, cooperation, contributions to the class, being on time (and they usually added things like “having fun” etc.). They scored themselves weekly and the team leader got to do the scoring. I gave them the boundaries and values for each score. We had discussions on what was “excellent” work. All of the scoring was for fun and bragging rights. The kids loved it. They were never rewarded for having more or less points, but they did get more attention, greater status, etc. Lots of fun and it generated enthusiasm, comaraderie and effort.

  6. barb kitchin
    barb kitchin says:

    just a quick counterpoint- this teacher is well loved by principal/kids – she reached the student emotionally – perhaps she is taking valuable time away from test taking skills to do p.e. music, values/character building and other things that you often suggest – that don’t show up on the test.
    read freakonomics – as to test scores. we have a problem at our school with certain teachers and their “scores”. the next year the scores don’t “stick”. which class do you want your child in – good scores on test – but dry, boring, cold teacher? Or someone who values the “whole child” and does activities beyond the curric. (music pe art) have been tossed out due to testing mentality.

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply