Five Ways to Know if Your Child Has a High Quality Teacher

Dr. Kathleen Madigan
Senior Research Scientist

As parents, we know that getting a “good “ teacher can make the difference between a year of triumph and a year filled with struggle for a child (and ourselves). With all the news reporting that many certified teachers are ill prepared or poorly educated, it is clear that a teaching license is not necessarily a sign of actual qualification. There are also many alternative programs out there now that are preparing teachers very quickly to take the reigns of a classroom: some of them are more effective than education-school based certification. According to federal law (No Child Left Behind Act), you must be notified your child’s teacher is not considered "highly qualified," as that is defined by your state. But with so with states changing definitions, education schools producing teachers with variable results, and alternative programs opening more doors for non-education majors, how can you find out if your child has a high quality teacher?

FIVE KEY QUESTIONS (and the answers you should hope for):

1.    Ask about the academic growth of previous students
Has this person taught before? If not, skip to the next question. If so, the first question you should ask is—What were learning gains of his/her previous students? Most states and districts can break down the testing information by each class. So, find out how last year’s class performed on state or standardized tests.  You don’t need individual student information, just how did the whole class do. If test information isn’t available, ask for the names of parents from last year’s class. Give them a call and ask what they thought of their child’s academic performance. Most parents will say they liked the teacher, but tell the truth when it comes to whether their child learned anything.

2.    Assess effective instructional and classroom management strategies.
Don’t worry:  this is not as difficult as it sounds and will be very useful in determining the quality of your child’s teacher. You don’t need to find a “good match” for your child - this is near-impossible to do. For example, let’s say I have child who is very active (we will avoid labels, but you know what I mean). Do I look for a teacher who is also very high energy (to keep up) or for someone who is calmer? Tough to know. What isn’t tough to figure out is that the teacher needs to use effective instructional and management skills. That way, no matter whether my child is very active and vocal, or quiet and shy, the teacher has the skills to bring out his best behavior and best work.
You can assess the following by either asking your child, asking the administrator or checking it out yourself:
a.    Well-managed classrooms have a positive tone and feeling. In cold hard terms we can measure the ratio of positive statements or gestures (e.g., thumbs up, teacher smiles at student) to negative statements, reprimands, or gestures (e.g., the teacher “look”). The ratio should be 3:1 in favor of the positive. Here is how you can measure it. Go to the classroom or ask the administrator to go to the classroom and collect some information. Merely make two columns, one with a plus at the top and the other with a minus on a piece of paper. Every time the teacher says or does something positive make a tally mark under the plus column; for every negative statement or action put a tally mark under the minus column. Do this for about two-five minutes.  Then figure out the ratio. This is an easy way to figure out the over all tone of a classroom. (If you would like more specific measures in this area contact us, we can offer other suggestions.) This doesn’t mean that the teacher has to be a Mary Poppins---but she shouldn’t be sarcastic or constantly nagging either.
b.    There should be no favorites. Ask your child if the teacher always chooses the same child to do important tasks. If so, this teacher is not setting a good tone in the class.
c.    The teacher should be consistent. As parents we know that this is tough to do. Be honest. There are many times it has been easier to give in than listen to the begging or whining. But remember the teacher is a professional. It is her job to be consistent, respectful, and fair.
3.    Ask about the teacher’s college degree. 
Many schools are asking teachers to display their teaching licenses. What is more important to know is whether the teacher has subject area expertise. So ask you school to have the teachers display their college degree(s). Here is what you want to see.
a.    Elementary teachers are well served if they have a liberal arts major.
b.    Middle and High School teachers should be teaching in the area of their major or minor.
c.    People with education degrees are less likely—unfortunately—to have received the same rigorous content as their peers in other majors. If a person has a secondary education major as their degree area ask if they have had at least 30 hours of coursework in the subject they are teaching. If the teacher has a degree in elementary education, ask if they had courses college math (Algebra and Geometry); laboratory science (biological and physical) and History (US and World). Ask if the courses were part of the regular courses that everyone else was expected to take, or were they “special” courses for the education major. Be leery of the “special” courses.
You may think that this is crazy to ask. But there are elementary school teachers who cannot pass a basic 8th grade math or writing test. As consumers, parents must start asking about the educational background of the people teaching our children.
4.     Ask what your child’s teacher thinks about testing. 
Quality teachers know that the issue is not whether one teaches to the test or does their own thing. Good teachers know that they MUST test in order to know if the children are learning what they are teaching. Make sure your child’s teacher believes in frequent assessment. It is the only way he/she can make sure your child doesn’t fall through the cracks. The assessments can be brief daily quizzes before a lesson starts, questions on homework assignments, multiple choice, or merely a discussion about a topic in which the teacher asks probing questions. In any event, there should be some sort of written record of your child’s performance. In addition, the teacher should give your child tests that look similar and cover the same content as the state or district mandated tests. These too should happen frequently. That way being tested isn’t a once a year high anxiety experience. The teacher should make taking a test a familiar part of learning and being in school.  Beware of too much rhetoric from teachers or administrators about “authentic” assessment.  This is often code for subjective assessment that avoids clear performance measures – and lets the teacher and the school evade accountability.

5.    Is homework collected, corrected, graded and returned?
Good teachers give students homework that is meaningful and applies what is being learned in the class. It should be practice, not be busy work. Or an expansion of what the child has already learned. If your child is coming home with homework assignments that have not been covered by the teacher in class, something is wrong. There is a considerable amount of research (see writings of Herb Walberg or Jere Brophy) that suggests if homework is corrected and returned then student learning will significantly increase.

If you are interested in learning more about how to tell if your child’s teacher is qualified, have questions about research based programs, or ideas or comments, please feel free to contact Dr. Kathleen Madigan at


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