High Impact Philanthropy to Improve Teaching Quality: Special Report

Last week, the Center for High Impact Philanthropy released a special report in education highlighting how donors can improve the single biggest in-school factor affecting student outcomes—teaching quality. “High Impact Philanthropy to Improve Teaching Quality” identifies cost-effective nonprofit models that improve individual teachers’ skills, principal effectiveness, and the ways schools are organized. The report also discusses how the broader policy environment (at the federal, state and district levels) can limit, expand, and sustain donor impact in these areas.

In the coming weeks, we will highlight the report’s findings in a series of blogs, illustrating how donors can improve the educational outcomes and opportunities of high-need students in the U.S.

In this initial blog post we explain why change is urgently needed in the U.S. education system, and why teachers are so critical to bringing about that change. We also explain why we chose to focus on high-need secondary students in the report.

Why this, why now?

Over the past twenty years, despite increases in per pupil spending, dropout rates remain alarmingly high, achievement gaps persist, and U.S. students rank behind their peers in many other countries. Across the United States, approximately 30% of seniors in our public high schools—the institutions we count on to prepare our nation’s youth for college or other postsecondary training—fail to graduate. In districts and schools with high concentrations of poverty, graduation rates are even lower—at nearly 50%.

Even among students who do graduate from high school, the majority do not meet the minimum requirements to apply to a four-year college, and more than a quarter of entering college freshmen require a remedial course to address gaps in learning that were not addressed in high school. Meanwhile, the evidence grows that an undereducated workforce threatens our country’s overall economic, social, and national security.

Researchers, educators, and funders across the political spectrum increasingly agree that change is needed, and that teachers are the single most crucial lever for accomplishing that change.

Teachers are the top in-school factor affecting student achievement. A good—or bad—teacher has a greater impact on student outcomes than class size, school culture, or parental involvement in school. Studies find that teaching quality has an especially strong effect on poor students. Additionally, teacher impact accumulates over a student’s time in school. Students taught by highly effective teachers for three consecutive years can outscore students who had poor quality instructors over the same period by as much as 50 percentile points—a gap that can mean the difference between being prepared for college and dropping out of high school.

Our focus on secondary school

We focus specifically on teachers who work with “high-need” secondary students, those in grades 6–12 who are at risk of dropping out or leaving high school without the skills and knowledge to succeed in college or the workforce. In conversations with practitioners and funders, we often heard that efforts to improve secondary schools are underfunded compared with elementary and postsecondary initiatives. A quick look at federal funding shows that support to secondary school education is dwarfed by funding to pre-kindergarten through sixth grade and postsecondary education.

Improving teaching quality for secondary students represents a strategic opportunity for private philanthropy to bridge the gap left by public investments and leverage investments in the earlier grades. After all, even high-need students who receive a strong elementary school education are unlikely to make it to college if they fail to get an equally strong secondary education.

While the report focuses on high-need secondary students, most models featured apply to all students, regardless of age and need.

Our definition of teaching quality

High-quality teachers have a positive impact on student learning. They are lifelong learners in their subject areas, teach with commitment, and are reflexive about their teaching practices. In addition to deep knowledge about subject matter and the learning process, high-quality teachers have strong diagnostic skills, an understanding of learning styles and cultural influences, knowledge about child and adolescent development, and the ability to marshal a broad range of techniques to meet student needs. They set high expectations and support students in meeting them. They establish an environment conducive to learning and leverage available resources outside as well as inside the classroom.