Mystery: What Makes a Good Teacher?

Published May 1, 2002

Since good teachers have a profound effect on student achievement, the solution to improving student achievement would appear to be blindingly obvious: Get more good teachers. But, as Dan Goldhaber points out, there’s just one problem with implementing that solution: “We really don’t know what makes a good teacher.”

“The teacher characteristics that we can measure—experience, education level, certification status, and so on—explain only 3 percent of the differences in student achievement that are attributable to their teachers’ influence,” notes Goldhaber, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute in Washington, DC. He tackles “The Mystery of Good Teaching” in the Spring 2002 issue of Education Next, a quarterly publication of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Other topics on teachers and teacher quality in this latest issue are:

  • Should education schools lose their monopoly? A debate among Mary E. Diez, James W. Fraser, and Frederick M. Hess.
  • The performance of teachers from the Teach for America program, by Margaret Raymond and Stephen Fletcher.
  • Alternative teacher certification, by David Ruenzel.

In the same issue, Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe raises questions about the objectivity of the annual Phi Delta Kappa survey of attitudes of the American public towards education. Moe argues the “PDK’s polls have purposely been designed to reflect negatively on the voucher issue.” He explains how a neutrally worded question about vouchers was dropped and replaced with a question whose wording was more apt to bring a negative response.

Education Next is sponsored by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. It is available online at