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Minimizing the Impact of Teacher Variability on Student Achievement

By Howard De Leeuw
Minimizing the Impact of Teacher Variability on Student Achievement

While there have been numerous studies indicating the impact of quality teachers on student achievement, there is also the reality of frequent teacher turnover in many international schools. How are the two related?
First, having a significant percentage of new teachers in a school indicates a need to place particular emphasis on orienting new teachers. to that school’s “way”: its standards, programs, resources, and approaches, to ensure that the quality of classroom instruction and the level of student achievement remain high. Some of these teachers may be relatively new to teaching, others new to international teaching, and some may be seasoned teachers but still new to the school.
Secondly, in some contexts, as in China, parents are particularly interested in ensuring their child’s teacher is well-qualified and experienced, and it is not always easy for parents to understand the transitory nature of international school faculty. This can lead to a suspicion on the part of some parents that a new teacher to the school may not be as experienced or qualified as those that were there before. In some cases, the opposite happens, as the new teacher, due to a variety of factors, including age or gender, is perceived as more qualified than other teachers at the school, including those with more experience.
Which leads me to what I have developed as an overriding principle in my role as an international school administrator: What can be done to minimize the impact of teacher variability on student achievement? At first, this question seems counterintuitive, as it suggests that “who the teacher is” should not be a factor in student achievement. But consider this principle from the perspective of a parent. Should parents base their hope of student achievement on who their child’s teacher happens to be this year?
Consider the message we are sending, if we say, “Your child is going to do well this year because he has Teacher A, who will be great for him.” This could suggest that Teacher B wouldn’t do as well with that child, and suddenly other parents begin to wonder, “Why isn’t my child with Teacher A? Why did mine get stuck with Teacher B?” Instead, international schools, with relatively high teacher turnover, need to develop sustainable systems that allow new teachers to come on board, regardless of their level of experience or preference for certain programs or resources, and meet or exceed the same level of instructional quality that was in place the previous year.
What are some practical ways to do this? First, recognize that there is a clear difference between encouraging teacher initiative, innovation, and creativity, versus putting teachers in a position of creating a DIY curriculum, as if each new teacher were a freelance educator who can create their own reading, writing, math, or other content program. Simply having standards in place does not ensure that consistent instruction will occur, regardless of the teacher. Therefore, schools that recognize the need for a program and adequate materials, including textbooks and other resources, can ensure more sustainability in instructional approach and content than schools that allow each new teacher to design their own, purchase their own, or build their own curriculum.
This second approach is exacerbated when there are two teachers at the same grade level or teaching the same content, each off doing his or her own thing, based solely on personal preference and experience. Parents are quite perceptive and will quickly identify a disparity between the teachers. In addition, the DIY approach is problematic because, in smaller schools, there may be only one high school math teacher, for example, and when he or she leaves, their custom-designed program goes with them, leaving the next teacher to institute his or her own new program.
Another measure to reduce the impact of teacher variability is to insist that teachers collaborate with their grade-level or content peers, as a way to ensure continuity and consistency, using the programs and resources the school has provided. The most appropriate venue for this is within the context of a Professional Learning Community (PLC), although it is tempting for schools to call any group of teachers getting together regularly a PLC. The focus of an effective PLC is predominantly on evaluating student work and data to inform instruction, which is the system through which a school ensures that new teachers are supported in adopting the school’s “way” of teaching content.
A final step is to implement common school-wide behavior expectations, which are not specific to a grade level or content area, but permeate the entire culture of the school. My school has implemented Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) as our common approach to teaching school-wide and classroom behavior expectations. This program is essentially public domain ( and used in more than 20,000 schools worldwide.
In summary, minimizing the impact of teacher variability on student achievement can be addressed by: 1) ensuring that a strong curricular program, including adequate resources, is in place when new teachers join your school; 2) requiring teachers to collaborate with their grade-level or content peers within the context of a PLC; and 3) establishing a common school-wide approach to teaching behavior expectations, so that every teacher, regardless of content, approaches student behavior in a similar way, thereby providing consistency.

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