Opportunity at the Top

How America’s Best Teachers Could Close the Gaps, Raise the Bar, and Keep Our Nation Great

Executive Summary [pdf] | Full Report [pdf] | Two-Page Brief [pdf]

Our nation is squandering one of its most important resources—our best teachers—and children are paying the price.

We asked a simple question:

“Will our nation’s bold efforts to recruit more top teachers and remove the least effective teachers put a great teacher in every classroom?” We ran the numbers and discovered a disappointing answer: No. Even if these reforms were wildly successful, nearly two-thirds of classrooms still would not have great teachers. Why does this matter? Only great teachers – those in the top quartile – achieve the student learning progress needed to close our nation’s achievement gaps and raise our bar to internationally competitive levels. Others do not.

But approximately 64,000 top teachers leave teaching every year. And the best teachers who stay reach no more children than the very worst teachers. If we add high-performer retention and reach extension to bold recruiting and dismissal, 87 percent of classes could be taught by gap-closing, bar-raising teachers—in a mere half-decade. This outcome is within our reach—but only if we vastly expand opportunities for great teachers by: Building an Opportunity Culture for America’s Teachers.

Written with support from The Joyce Foundation, this report explores the potential impact of policy initiatives designed to improve student access to great teachers. Current policy initiatives overlook the most obvious, immediate source of improved teaching effectiveness: the great teachers we already have. The top 25 percent of U.S. teachers—more than 800,000 of them—already achieve results that would enable all of our children to meet and exceed standards.

Top-quartile teachers are so much better than their bottom-quartile peers, who today populate our nation’s classrooms in equal numbers, that they could close our nation’s achievement gaps and raise our bar to internationally competitive levels in less than half a decade. And it is not just ineffective teachers who fall short. Even today’s “good” teachers do not generate enough learning progress to close achievement gaps and raise the bar for advanced students. Only great teachers get the job done. As others have noted, increasing educational achievement is critical not just for children’s prospects but for our national economy.

Today, while an estimated 12.5 million children benefit from top-quartile teachers’ instruction, three times that many do not. What are we doing wrong? In two critical ways we fail to capitalize on the extraordinary resource of great teachers:

  • We lose too many of the best teachers: Contrary to popular belief, overall teacher turnover is modest compared with other professions. The crisis arises from our failure to keep the best teachers. Approximately 64,000 top-quartile teachers leave teaching every year, diminishing more than a million children’s learning prospects each following year.
  • We fail to leverage their talent for the benefit of students: The impact of great teachers who stay remains small over their careers. Only 600 students benefit from the instruction of an excellent elementary school teacher even if she stays on the job for 30 years. Our nation’s best teachers reach no more children than the very worst teachers.

The Bleak Future with Our Boldest Current Reforms—and the Amazing Alternative Within Our Reach

In the full version of this report, we project the payoff of different strategies for giving more children access to great teachers. Those strategies include our current, boldest policy goals:

  • recruitment of high-potential teachers, increasing the proportion of great teachers we attract each year from about 25 percent to 40 percent;
  • dismissal of ineffective teachers, tripling the percentage of teachers dismissed for low performance each year, from 2.1 percent to 6.3 percent;

and emerging policy goals aimed at the great teachers we already have:

  • retention of proven top-quartile teachers, cutting the annual loss of great teachers in half; and
  • extension of top-teacher instruction to more children, doubling the average number of children reached by each great teacher.

Even if efforts to enhance recruitment of great teachers and dismiss low performers were wildly successful, only 40 percent of classes would be taught by great teachers. Sixty percent would not. Even if our most promising reforms-in-progress bear fruit, we will not come remotely close to closing our nation’s achievement gaps or raising the bar to internationally competitive levels.

In contrast, if we add to these existing strategies two more aimed at the great teachers we already have—high-performer retention and reach extension –– we could reach 87 percent of classes with gap-closing, bar-raising teachers.

Read more: Executive Summary [pdf] | Full Report [pdf] | Two-Page Brief [pdf]