The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

teachers' influence on students
Credit: Julienne Schaer

When children in Classroom A and Classroom B show the same improvement on their math tests, Teachers A and B get the same evaluation score, and the assumption is that both teachers excel at the same things.

But that assumption may be entirely wrong. Teacher A is a rock star when it comes to imparting math content while Teacher B is not, but Teacher B excels at getting students to persevere when they hit obstacles. So the Classroom A students did well on their tests because they knew the content, while the Classroom B kids did well because they didn’t give up easily and reviewed their answers.

Why does this matter? Because perseverance and math knowledge both can lead to good future academic achievement and job prospects.

“Imagine the results if you had a teacher who could do both of those things,” said Matthew A. Kraft, co-author with David Blazar of the new research study, “Teacher and Teaching Effects on Students’ Attitudes and Behaviors.”

For their study, Kraft and Blazar (who work at Brown and Harvard Universities, respectively) used student surveys and test score results and pored through hours of video of teachers at work in four urban school districts.

They examined four measures of students’ skill that have been demonstrated individually to predict future academic success and job prospects – high math scores, good behavior, happiness in class and perseverance in the face of difficulty. Their research looked at whether “good teachers” were indeed successful at improving all four of these outcomes.

It turns out they’re not.

“What we find is that teachers who are successful at raising test scores are not [not necessarily] the teachers best at improving behaviors,” said Blazar.

teachers' influence on students
David Blazar is a lecturer and an Education and Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Harvard Graduate School of Education. Credit: Courtesy: David Blazar

Most teachers know from their own experience that running a successful classroom requires a number of different skills, including managing class activities, exercising discipline, keeping students engaged and teaching content to what is often a wide range of learners.

Kraft and Blazar’s study gives some empirical evidence that these skills are distinct, and that teachers who master one of them don’t necessarily master the rest.

Related: Baltimore summer school does the seemingly impossible – the kids actually want to be there

Blazar and Kraft are former public school teachers, and keenly aware of how much the way that teachers are evaluated influences what and how they teach. But current evaluation systems only look at test score results, missing aspects that are, arguably, equally important to the future of the child.

“We have millions and millions of teachers who work in classrooms, and we do a disservice to the profession if we say we’re only going to try to find those teachers who have that natural spark, when we have evidence that these skills are teachable.”

Most parents have two relatively simple desires when their kids are in grade school — not to have to drag them kicking and screaming to school every morning and to see decent test scores at the end of the year.

“I wanted my students to want to come to class and enjoy it,” said Blazar, “but if I had to choose between happy in class and improving test scores, I’d probably choose test scores.”

Blazar’s sentiments echo those of many public school parents, who are worried about their children’s future in an economy that more often than not requires a formal education as a prerequisite to a decent-paying job. But the new study implies that parents don’t have to choose between having their kids be happy in class and having them do well on tests.

The authors acknowledge that taken individually, a measurement like happiness may not mean anything about achievement. Students could be happy because their teacher lets them play video games all day.

It’s also true that strict rules and quick discipline, which often lead to unhappy kids, don’t necessarily produce good test scores.

Blazar and Kraft found that students who are happy in class are indeed more likely to have higher test scores. However, teachers who improve test scores do not always make students happy in class.

teachers' influence on students
Matthew A. Kraft is an assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University. Credit: Courtesy: Matthew Kraft

“It really matters what a teacher does,” said Kraft. “That becomes abundantly clear when you spend time in these classrooms.”

Related: The end of “no excuses” education reform?

The point of pulling apart and analyzing these different results, they argue, is that once these teaching skills are seen as distinct, they can be taught and measured.

“As in any industry, there are those who innately have the talents that make them excel, “said Blazar. “But we have millions and millions of teachers who work in classrooms, and we do a disservice to the profession if we say we’re only going to try to find those teachers who have that natural spark, when we have evidence that these skills are teachable.”

They also note that in the fastest growing segments of the economy, basic knowledge of math, English and science are not the only requirements. Also required are the ability to work well interpersonally and to solve problems.

“If the incentives driving policies are too narrow, then we’re asking teachers to focus on achievement even though students need other qualities that we don’t measure well,” said Kraft.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *