Teacher and students in a classroom

A match made in school

Matching the right teachers to the right students is important, according to a study from an ASU economist.

George Spencer

Match the right teacher with the right students, and students will learn more. What's more, teacher performance will improve, too. These findings appear in the new paper, "Teacher Effectiveness and Classroom Composition: Understanding Match Effects in the Classroom," in The Economic Journal by Esteban Aucejo, associate professor of economics.

"Teachers are not one size fits all. We must remember that some children need different teaching styles from other children. A teacher with one style may be effective in one classroom but not another," says Aucejo, a Dean's Council Distinguished Scholar.

The trouble with teacher evaluations

School districts typically use multiple methods to evaluate how well teachers do their jobs. The problem, according to Aucejo, is that one essential way to evaluate teachers is often omitted — teacher matching.

"Most teacher [evaluation] policies are designed with the assumption that match effects do not exist," he writes. "If match effects exist, improving outcomes in lower-performing schools may entail attracting the "right" teacher, the teacher who is better at teaching lower-performing students, rather than the "best" teacher, which assumes that one teacher is better for everyone."

Current teacher evaluation methods typically combine subjective and objective approaches. On a personal level, administrators make classroom visits to observe and grade what a teacher does. That is blended with objective assessments such as how well students do on standardized tests and student surveys. The resulting teacher evaluation score can determine whether a teacher gets a bonus. Low-performing teachers are often fired.

The problem is that this approach often fails both teachers — and students. "Few places so far have gotten it right," according to a National Council on Teacher Quality report. "Teacher observations have been a waste of time and money," warns the Brookings Institution. And George Lucas Education Foundation is blunt: "Current approaches to assessing teacher effectiveness aren't working."

"The traditional ways of valuing teachers fail to consider that a given teacher may be better suited for lower-achieving students, high-achieving students, female students, or minority students than he is for other students," says Aucejo. "This paper shows that a teacher's effectiveness is going to change depending on the characteristics of the classroom, such as the average prior test score performance of the class."

Evaluating a combination of factors

His research involved analyzing the widely used Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) database, which contains detailed information on randomly assigned teachers. From the database, Aucejo sampled 160 teachers and 2,722 racially and economically diverse fourth and fifth-grade students in five large urban U.S. public school districts over two years.

The study shows that teacher contribution to students' learning is highly sensitive to match quality. For example, 25% to 50% of teachers ranked in the bottom 5% of teacher quality rose out of that group after being assigned to another classroom in the same school grade, according to the study.

"These findings have important implications for school administrators who increasingly base personnel decisions on widely used teacher performance reviews that do not take classroom matching into account," says Aucejo. He believes many teachers are "unfairly penalized" under the current evaluation system.

Schools typically decline to rehire their lowest-performing teachers for new school years. If these decisions are based on evaluations that fail to include matching, schools will likely fire teachers who might have performed better had they been in classrooms more suited to their talents.

Aucejo acknowledges that teacher evaluation should be based on a combination of factors. "Part of the evaluation should come from students' results on standardized tests. Part should come from other protocols, including classroom matching. How the teacher, students, and classroom composition interact is very complex," he says.

"We need to be careful and think about context. It's not a simple problem, and we need to start acknowledging it because so far, most research is failing to consider important match effects."

Aucejo earned his PhD and Master of Science in economics in 2012 at Duke University, where he wrote his dissertation on "Topics of Economics of Education." His focus on the economics of education is motivated by his belief that education boosts economic mobility.

"Wages are highly correlated to one's level of human capital, i.e., a person's level of education," says Aucejo. "If you want to close the gap between the highest and lowest in society, education is the primary channel to promote intergenerational mobility. It's the best way to generate more equality in society to create a fairer society.

"My role is trying to understand — from the teacher's perspective — how can we help teachers do better, so they can make students more productive and learn more so they can go to college, get degrees, get better jobs, and go up the ladder."

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