Aug 122011

Teacher Effectiveness – Teacher Characteristics and Student Achievement: Evidence from Teach For America

Will Dobbie, Harvard University, July 2011


There is considerable variance in the productivity of teachers, yet educators have been unable to identify observable characteristics related to teacher effectiveness. This paper uses data from admissions records from Teach for America to explore whether information collected at the time of hire can predict student outcomes. We find that a teacher’s prior achievement, leadership experience, and perseverance are associated with student gains in math. Leadership experience and commitment to the TFA mission are associated with gains in English. The TFA admissions measures are also associated with improved classroom behavior. These results suggest that teacher success can be predicted at the time of hire.


There is considerable variance in the productivity of teachers. A one standard deviation increase in teacher quality is associated with a 0.1 to 0.2 standard deviation increase in student achievement (Rockoff, 2004; Rivkin, Hanuskek, and Kain, 2005; Aaronson, Barrow, and Sander, 2007; Kane and  Staiger, 2008). If observable characteristics that predict teacher quality can be determined, they could be used to identify the most effective candidates in the hiring process. If teacher characteristics are malleable, determining which teacher characteristics have the greatest impact on studentachievement could also inform the design of teacher training programs.

Despite the importance of identifying observable characteristics that predict teacher success, researchers and educators have had difficulty identifying specific characteristics related to teacher effectiveness (Hanushek, 1986; 1997). There is little evidence that academic background (e.g. Clotfelter et al., 2006; 2007; Harris and Sass, 2006), college admissions scores (e.g. Ferguson and Ladd, 1996), certification exam scores (e.g. Boyd et al., 2006; 2008a; 2008b; Clotfelter et al., 2006; 2007; Goldhaber, 2007; Harris and Sass, 2006), or personality characteristics (e.g. Woolfolk and Hoy, 1990; Raudenbush et al., 1992; Hoy and Woolfolk, 1993) can predict student success. The lack of evidence linking observable characteristics to teacher effectiveness is due, in part, to the fact that most research on teacher effectiveness has examined a relatively small set of teacher characteristics,  such as graduate education and certification, which are collected by school administrators. Recent research using data not typically collected by school districts suggests that we may be able to predict teacher effectiveness. Rockoff, Jaco , Kane, and Staiger (forthcoming) find that students assigned to a teacher with higher cognitive or non-cognitive skills score about 0.03 standard deviations higher in math. Rockoff and Speroni (forthcoming) also find that students assigned to more highly ranked New York City Teaching Fellows score about 0.015 standard deviations higher in math.

This paper explores whether information used to select Teach For America (TFA) corps members can predict teachers’ future impacts on student achievement.

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