Which Comes First, Good Teachers or a Good School? Researchers Say Yes

Teacher iStock
“No man is an island.” “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
In some ways these truisms don’t seem to apply to the prevailing notion of schools. Policymakers from President Obama on down have focused on the individual teacher as the locus for improvement. "[The] single most important factor in the classroom is the quality of the person standing at the front of the classroom," President Obama has said, echoing many researchers and policymakers.
The administration has pushed states to rigorously evaluate individual teachers and tie those evaluations to pay, tenure, promotion, and dismissal decisions.
But is a teacher’s classroom her own island? What about her colleagues, her administrator, her school’s culture, and the professional training she receives? Some scholars and advocates have begun to wonder whether we’ve loaded too many policy eggs into the “individual teacher” basket without sufficient examination of a teacher’s context — the principal, colleagues, resources, support structures, and collaborative environment, among other things, that shape instructional practice.
“In the past fifteen years … we have really attended to individual [teacher] quality in a way that’s diverted our attention from all the other factors that affect someone’s effectiveness,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard professor of education.
The case for context
Researchers point to several studies in recent years suggesting that the culture of a school — usually measured by surveys of teachers — affects both student achievement and teacher retention.
One study released earlier this year through NYU showed that New York City middle schools where teachers reported greater school safety and higher academic expectations also had larger achievement gains.
A 2009 report from the University of Chicago found that teachers were less likely to leave1 Chicago schools where there were high levels of trust, innovation, and collective responsibility among teachers, as well as strong leadership.2 “I think [school context] has a large influence on the degree to which teachers can be effective,” said Elaine Allensworth, co-author of the study and director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.
The extent to which a teacher “fits” or “matches” with a new school also seems to matter, according to a study showing that teachers improve when they switch to a new school.
Other research shows that principals impact teacher retention in New York City; that teachers’ perceptions of working conditions are connected to turnover and student achievement in North Carolina; that access to resources such as quality facilities, textbooks, and small class sizes predict teacher retention in California; that schools reporting more collaboration had larger test score improvements in Miami; that teachers improve more consistently with experience when located in schools with strong professional environments; and that teacher produce higher achievement gains when their colleagues are more effective.
The case for the individual
All clear so far, right? School context matters both for student achievement and teacher turnover.
But education research is rarely that simple. Other studies have documented that the skills of teachers are to a large extent portable across schools, meaning that to some extent focus on the individual teacher is warranted.
One prominent study showed that when a high-performing teacher switched schools in New York City, achievement jumped in the new school; a Los Angeles study showed similar results. Another report found that teachers moving between high- and low-poverty schools generally maintained the same level of effectiveness. Finally, an experimental study paid highly effective teachers to move to low-performing schools; when they did, test scores rose at their new schools.3
Kirabo Jackson, a Northwestern economist who conducted the study on teacher matching effects in North Carolina, said, “A lot of [teacher quality] is portable across schools, but it’s not entirely portable.”
The research on context also tends to look at correlation because it’s difficult to prove that improved culture directly enhances teacher effectiveness. It may be the other way around: more effective teachers lead to better school environments.
Matt Kraft, a researcher at Brown who has conducted several studies on school context, said that he believes context shapes teachers, but warns that the causal research is still in its infancy. “I would proactively caution anyone from saying that there is rock solid evidence that the school context has a causal impact on turnover and student achievement,” he said.
Still, insofar as policy has not focused on improving the context of schools, research may understate the degree to which context can matter. In other words, if more and better efforts were made to strengthen school leadership, professional development, and collaboration, the impact could be significant.
Context matters, but we don’t know how to improve it
As is often the case, identifying an area that needs improvement is much easier than developing policies that drive improvement. Simply put, there’s not particularly strong evidence for how to strengthen school context.
“It’s very hard for policymakers to positively [affect school context],” said Johnson of Harvard. One study in North Carolina, for instance, showed that a federal school turnaround program increased time teachers spent collaborating and receiving professional development — but if anything the overall impact on students was negative.4
That doesn’t mean that policy can’t play a role, but there’s no way to mandate quality collaboration and professional development.
It’s not clear whether the prevailing focus on individual teachers — particularly through new evaluation systems — has helped or harmed. Allensworth pointed out that Chicago’s teacher evaluation process gives educators much more information about how to get better than the past “checklist” that had been used. A study of evaluation in Cincinnati showed that the system led to improvement among teachers.
Kraft said that the focus on teacher quality may have been helpful, but that implementation has been uneven. “I’m sure there are instances where the ways in which schools and districts have acted on [teacher evaluation] have undercut who was interested in teaching in that environment or the motivation and effort of the current teachers.”
So where does that leave us?
There is some promising evidence. A program that simply paired strong and weak teachers to work together resulted in student achievement gains. Kraft has found that professional development focused on individualized coaching can produce results. Another program that trained and gave time for grade-level teacher teams to work together resulted in test score gains. Efforts to create a culture that uses data to monitor student progress and make adjustments seem to be fruitful.
In sum, policymakers might consider allotting time and money for teachers to regularly collaborate, observe classrooms, and serve as mentors — though it’s not clear whether these approaches would be more cost-effective than, say, raising teacher salaries or reducing class size.
Creating a safe and orderly environment is also crucial. Suspending students with disruptive behavior may prove counterproductive for improving school climate and student achievement; many schools are trying different approaches, such as restorative justice, though there is little empirical evidence on how effective these new models are.
Jackson said that allowing principals to have significant say in hiring and firing teachers might help lead to improvements and a stronger school culture — though of course that depends on having an effective school leader. And there’s not a great deal of consensus on how best to recruit, retain, and evaluate principals.
Round and round the debate goes, defying easy answers and clear policies.
While there’s good reason to believe that no teacher is an island, much less is known about how to create school communities most likely to help teachers improve and make them want to stay.  
But at least with the knowledge that context matters, policymakers might more purposefully try to improve it and study what is and isn’t working.


1. Research has generally found that teacher turnover on average harms student achievement, although when low-performing teachers leave, achievement improves. (back to story)

2. Teacher attrition was much higher in schools with high poverty rates and large numbers of African-American students, even holding constant differences in school culture. (back to story)

3. The positive results were found in elementary school but not middle schools; the combined results were positive and statistically significant. (back to story)

4. Other studies of a similar program elsewhere have shown more positive results, though it’s not clear which elements of the program caused the gains. (back to story)

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