According to a recent study, teachers who are highly effective at instilling motivation, self-restraint, and other “soft skills” in their students have a greater impact on student outcomes overall than those who excel at improving academic performance alone. The study’s author, C. Kirabo Jackson, a professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, says these findings suggest that teachers should be evaluated not only on their ability to improve test scores but also on how well students behave in their classrooms.
To conduct the study, Jackson compared educational outcomes for 574,000 ninth graders with the performance evaluations of math and English teachers at 872 public high schools in North Carolina between 2005 and 2012. These educators were assessed using a value-added model in which administrators compare students’ academic progress to the average amount of academic growth for their grade level. Teachers whose students outperform this average receive high marks, whereas those whose students don’t do as well as expected are labeled as “low value-added.”
Jackson added an additional performance measure for teachers based on the conduct and broader educational outcomes of their pupils. Referred to as a “behavior index,” this includes such elements as a student’s number of absences and suspensions, overall GPA, and timely progression to 10th grade.
The study found that teachers who received high scores on the value-added evaluations — for achievements like improving student test scores, for example — did little to improve student graduation rates. By contrast, those who saw notable improvement in their students’ behavior index scores were significantly more likely to see their pupils graduate in four years.
Furthermore, Jackson found little correlation between an educator’s ability to improve academic performance and their ability to positively influence student conduct. Of the teachers who scored in the top third for raising behavior index scores, only 58 percent ranked above average when it came to improving test scores.
The results of the study demonstrate that few identifiers exist that could make it easy to predict which educators will have the greatest influence over their students. Years of classroom experience, teaching exam scores and certifications, and the selectivity of a person’s alma mater were not significantly connected to the ability to impact student behavior.
Many K-12 teachers have challenged Jackson’s notion that individual educators bear such a large responsibility for student behavior and their overall success. Parental influence, as well as broader societal forces such as poverty and access to adequate healthcare, have much more of an impact on student absenteeism, misconduct, and persistence, they argue.
At a time when 80 percent of K-12 teachers are white and just over half of K-12 students are persons of color, Jackson’s findings also raise questions about the role that race plays in both students’ and teachers’ behavior. According to an April 2017 study in the American Educational Research Journal, when students of color are paired with teachers of the same race, they are less likely to be disciplined for misconduct. The study’s authors conclude that differences in racial identity can significantly influence how teachers assess classroom behavior. Such findings suggest that the race of the educators that Jackson studied may have had some bearing on their behavior index scores.
Some educators argue that racial differences and socioeconomic background also affect the way that students perceive their teachers, which may alter their behavior in the classroom.