The importance of teacher efficacy in improving student outcomes
What a teacher believes students are capable of affects their performance
William Trent is a professor in Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership. He is the principal investigator for an Educational Reform Project focused on understanding the role of race, ethnicity, class and gender in school reform.
As a researcher, what are your primary ares of interest?
My primary interest for the last 4 decades has really been on issues of educational inequality. That has a lot to do with having grown up in the south and having experienced real segregation and all black schools through the 12th grade and then going to a desegregated college. Those experiences fueled my curiosity and interest in trying to understand what could be done to change the pattern of inequality with regard to access to quality schooling.
More recently I’ve come to really appreciate the importance of high quality teachers. Growing up in a segregated system such as Richmond, VA — it wasn’t just the kids in the community were segregated. My teachers were exceptional in their capabilities, competencies, and intellect, but they were my teachers as a consequence of segregation. Following the desegregation of schools after the Brown decision in 1954 and after the Civil Rights Act, many of them went on to teach at universities. So I had exceptional teachers, but it was at the expense of those educators not being able to have the careers they were well prepared and capable of pursuing.
Today's teachers don't have that same kind of fundamental knowledge of the communities in which they teach. In many places, especially urban environments, teachers can't even afford to live in the same communities that the children they teach live in.William Trent
How did your teachers impact you?
At one point I wrote an article about the importance of having teachers who knew me, knew my circumstances, knew my conditions, knew the challenges. Those teachers taught me to a model of achievement that prepared me for a world that didn’t exist for me when they were teaching me that way. I’ve always appreciated teachers, and teaching and learning. My research about producing better student outcomes is informed by my understanding that teachers can do exceptional things.
How has teaching changed?
In the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s teaching was an honorable and a highly regarded profession. Teachers, doctors, and lawyers—that’s how we named them. Our teachers are not less well prepared now, nor are they less capable, but society has changed in a number of ways.
My teachers lived in my community. They knew the communities, they had real life experiences, and knew the families. They could reach out and exercise some social control over kids.
What challenges to teacher's face?
There are real challenges that teachers face in terms of gaining the socio-cultural knowledge of a child’s environment and context that would enable them to impact the child differently, in addition to working on the child’s academic skills.
Gary Orfield and I and have worked together on a number of school desegregation projects. We got together to try and design an instrument that would enable us to assess the benefits of diversity in the classrooms. Patricia Gándara, a participant in the meeting, told a story about an awards program she attended at a middle school year. Although the school was diverse in terms of student population, all of the academic awards were presented to the white students and almost none went to either Latino or African American students. As the program progressed, may of the parents of color began to leave. The teachers at this school were not aware or understood the level of discomfort that these parents were feeling. Patricia explained that symbolically the teachers had communicated that certain students were the learners and that others were not. Gary, Patricia and I talked about the teacher’s sense of “this is normal.” To them, there was nothing unusual about African American, Latino, or Asian students not getting the academic awards.
I began to think about how common it is for us to see certain disparities and not be troubled by them because of what the media tells us, or because of what our segregated experience allows to persist.William Trent
I began to think about how common it is for us to see certain disparities and not be troubled by them because of what the media tells us, or because of what our segregated experiences allows to persist in terms of stereotypes.
It affects gender too so that we still don’t expect woman to be outstanding in STEM areas. We’re still struggling with those issues and topics and trying to make a difference.
What can teachers do to change this?
We need teachers who see these types of patterns and will interrogate them rather than accept them. Each of us feels more or less efficacious in different contexts and settings. As an expert witness in a school dissent case in Kansas City, part of the data that I received was surveys of their teacher's efficacy. The survey referenced the extent to which the individual teacher felt they or their colleagues were comfortable teaching low income students or students of color.
In reviewing this data, I was able to associate teacher efficacy with student performance and find a meaningful and statistically significant correlation between teacher efficacy and student’s test scores. The more efficacious the teacher felt, the better the test scores.
How can we create more efficaious teachers?
We have to assess how we go about making teachers feel more efficacious working with a much more diverse population. The U.S. school population is going to be increasingly diverse. If we don’t’ make a substantial effort and meaningful progress in reducing poverty and improving the ability of a working family to have a living wage—we’re going to have a substantial percentage of free and reduced lunch kids in our schools. Teachers need to have a different understanding of what those kids' capabilities are, and their potential, so that they actually believe that they can make a difference.