Good teaching matters, and good teachers can make the difference in how well students learn regardless of how the students performed in previous years. Parents know this instinctively, as we angle to get our children in the good teachers’ classrooms from pre-school days on. Our instinct has been recently confirmed by a study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has concluded that effective teachers can produce student achievement in students who have struggled in the past with other instructors.

The Gates Foundation spent three years and $45 million on the MET (Measuring Effective Teachers) project. One of the most contentious issues in education reform is how to fairly and properly evaluate teachers. The current teacher retention model highly values seniority and experience, and places less emphasis upon the quality of a teacher’s classroom instruction. While all sides agree that this does not generally yield the best results for the students, debate rages as to how teachers should be properly evaluated. Some argue that a strong focus on students’ test scores in teacher evaluations is unfair, as it reflects student demographics more than teachers’ ability, and penalizes teachers of students who have more difficulty learning. Others argue that an evaluation system that doesn’t principally focus on how well the students are learning (as measured by their test scores) is not in the best interests of students, and sets a teaching standard that is mediocre at best.

Enter the Gates Foundation’s MET project, which teamed economists and education research analysts from top universities to tackle this issue. As the MET team explained in its initial report:

“An important step toward supporting teachers and ensuring that all students have access to high quality instruction is to develop fairer and more useful measures of teacher effectiveness. This is the goal of the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, which will support independent education researchers–in partnership with school districts, principals, teachers, and unions–to develop objective and reliable measures of effective teaching. Rather than relying solely on how well a teacher’s students do on assessments, the Measures of Effective Teaching project seeks to uncover and develop a set of measures that work together to form a more complete indicator of a teacher’s impact on student achievement.”

The MET project has just released its final report, which concludes that effective teaching can be measured by a combination of student surveys, student scores on tests, and classroom observation. These things, working together, can best determine how well a teacher is making an impact on his or her students. Using this multilayered evaluation system, and randomly assigning classes to teachers in consecutive years of the study, the MET project was able to determine that effective teachers can help struggling students improve. In a Wall Street Journal article about this study found here, Harvard University professor Thomas Kane, leader of the MET project, noted that the MET data indicates that teachers can “cause student achievement to happen, and this is a really big deal”.

A really big deal, indeed. Good to see that what parents know intuitively is supported by this research. A lot of useful information has been presented in this study, including the recommendation that multiple people observe teachers in classrooms (not just one busy principal), and the effectiveness of having teachers watch and analyze videotapes of themselves in the classroom. Let’s hope that schools use this information to help teachers best help our students.

Special thanks to GCP reader Sandra Johnson Harris for the heads up on this topic and the WSJ article!!