urban institute nonprofit social and economic policy research

Five Questions for Jane Hannaway

Five Questions for... the people behind the Urban Institute research. In traditional interview format, our experts talk about the nature of their work and offer insights on what they've learned.

Read more interviews in the
Five Questions Archive


Jane HannawayJane Hannaway, director of the Urban Institute’s Education Policy Center, answers five questions about reforming the teaching profession. Hannaway is coeditor of Creating a New Teaching Profession (Urban Institute Press, 2009), a book that spells out bold reforms for the way schools attract, retain, evaluate, and train teachers, arguing that the best way to improve the nation’s schools is to improve teacher quality.

December 29, 2009

1. Why do we need to create a new teaching profession?
The United States hasn’t been keeping up with the world in terms of student performance and human capital—that is, the skills and knowledge that our citizens have. To compete in the global economy, we need a skilled workforce—and that starts with an effective educational system. In our book, we home in on teachers because they’re the most important school-related influence on student performance. We’ve only recently been able to measure just how important teachers are. Effective teachers get about three times the student achievement gains that weak teachers get. That huge difference leads us to ask: how can we get more highly effective teachers in classrooms?

While we have many strong, skilled teachers working in schools now, the growing consensus among policymakers and researchers is that schools aren’t attracting or retaining the most able teachers or training them effectively—and students lose out as a consequence.

2. So how do we get more effective teachers in schools?

The short answer is better recruiting, hiring, training, and retention. But changing just one thing won’t do the job. We need to have a combination of better selection up front, better training, and better quality control.

Our research shows that teachers specially selected through recruitment organizations like Teach for America and the New Teacher Project appear to get better results. So we know there is a pool of people out there who have the skills and knowledge to be exceptionally effective in the classroom. In North Carolina, secondary school Teach for America instructors get two to three times the impact of more experienced licensed teachers.  So we know schools can do a better job hiring and selecting effective teachers.

A study in New York found that teacher training programs that put recruits in actual classrooms worked better than programs with less clinical experience. Teachers with more training in these on-the-job settings were more effective in their first few years of teaching. So we know training can make a difference, at least initially.

We can also offer teachers stronger performance incentives. Many teachers leave the profession for higher salaries in other fields. If you reward performance, applicants who are confident in what they can do and are less risk-averse may be more attracted to the profession because they’ll feel their contributions will be recognized. Also, if we pay teachers based on their productivity, they’ll have good reason to seek professional development that actually improves their skills. Right now, many states reward teachers for taking courses no matter what they learn. So a math teacher can take a graduate art course and get a salary boost, even though the training is not linked to more effective teaching.

3. How can we tell who is an effective teacher and who isn’t?

Most of the research we cite is based on large samples of teachers and is designed to identify characteristics related to effectiveness. It’s much harder to get a reliable estimate of the effectiveness of an individual teacher. Value-added assessments, which measure growth in student achievement and isolate a teacher’s contribution to that growth, can measure teacher effectiveness. But this approach requires more than one year’s worth of data and a reasonably large sample of students each year for each teacher.

Also, test scores don’t capture everything a student learns or gains. Tests aren’t perfect, all-inclusive measures. They don’t test creativity, love of learning, or all the other things we want teachers to impart to their students, so you probably want some other corroborating evidence that measures a teacher’s effect on a student.

Still, value-added measures do yield useful information about how effective a teacher has been. Schools may be able to use data on student performance to inform tenure and pay decisions. If they do so, some jurisdictions will have to postpone their tenure decisions while they collect more data. Certainly, giving teachers tenure after two years, as some districts do, is jumping the gun.

4. In the book, you say that many labor-market practices in schools are disconnected from and out of step with other professions. What are some examples?

Looking at the teaching profession as a whole—the structure, incentives, recruitment and hiring, training, and compensation—we found that many labor practices were outdated and not backed up by evidence. We reward teachers for seniority, though research has found that longevity is no guarantee of a strong teacher. Getting a master’s degree in education will lead to a bump in salary, but not necessarily to a boost in teacher effectiveness. The exception, though, can be found in secondary school teachers who get an advanced degree in the subject they’re teaching. For example, math teachers benefit from getting a graduate degree in math. On the whole, though, we’re spending a lot of money rewarding things that don’t improve teacher productivity.

Also, a first-year teacher, first day on the job, has the same level of responsibility as a 30-year veteran. Not all first-year teachers are bad and not all 30-year teachers are good. The problem here is a very flat hierarchy with no differentiation among staff. So why keep it so flat? What if teachers had a lot more training on the job in their first couple of years? A veteran master teacher could supervise and coach a group of four or five novice teachers. And rather than putting a first-year teacher in a classroom, closing the door, and saying “good luck,” which is traditionally what happens, schools could do more to support new staff and share learning.

5. Why has the teaching profession been hesitant to adopt some of these modern labor practices?

Well, for a long time, what they did worked pretty well. That was partly because teachers were overwhelmingly women—and women had few other career options. So the caliber of teaching entrants was relatively high. Now women have more career opportunities and schools no longer have a captive labor market.

Another reason is that regulations that once seemed to make sense no longer do, but are difficult to change. Beginning in the 1960s, teacher unions secured policies through collective bargaining agreements to protect their members from arbitrary treatment by superiors and to get them better salaries and benefits. Trouble is, these labor practices were codified without the benefit of hard evidence that we have now.

For example, there’s a certain logic to saying that more experienced teachers are probably better than less experienced teachers and that pay should, therefore, be based on seniority. Paying higher salaries to teachers with advanced degrees sounds sensible too. But now we have the data needed to find out if these long-held beliefs are actually true. Some policies that once seemed to make sense are proving largely inefficient and unrelated to success in promoting effective teaching. And granting tenure, which is close to lifetime job security, after only a few years on the job is hard to justify now that we know about the tremendous variation in teacher effectiveness.