Tennessean — By John A. Bradley, Lieutenant General, U.S. Air Force (Ret.), Dennis D. Cavin, Lieutenant General, U.S. Army (Ret.), and Thomas E. Swain, Brigadier General, U.S. Army (Ret.) – If you are a parent, chances are you recognize the role of teachers in your child’s academic success and preparation for higher education and the workforce. As retired generals, we also see the impact of quality teaching on the opportunity to serve our nation.
That message was top-of-mind when we released a Mission: Readiness report, “Too Poorly Educated to Serve,” which documented the challenge faced by young people who find they lack the math, literacy and problem-solving skills that are demanded by today’s high-tech military. Educational underachievement is the leading reason (followed by being overweight or having a criminal record) why more than 70 percent of young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are ineligible for service. The problem hits especially close to home here in Tennessee, where 25 percent of high school graduates cannot enlist due to low scores on the military’s entrance exam.
We know there are many reasons why so many students are struggling, but we also know from recent research that having a top-quality teacher is more important to academic achievement than any other school-related factor, including class size, the curriculum or even the school the child attends. One study found that an average student with three highly effective teachers scored in the top 10 percent of students after three years, while a similar student dropped into the bottom 40 percent after three years of ineffective teaching.
Another study of 2.5 million students showed that having a great teacher in grades 4 through 8 can increase each student’s lifetime earnings by $250,000 compared to students with an average teacher in those grades.
The good news is that schools across the nation are implementing evaluation reform and testing new ways to help teachers improve. In 2013, 35 states required student achievement as a significant component of teacher evaluations, up from only four states in 2009.
Tennessee is an early adopter of teaching effectiveness reform. The effort began in 2007, when the Tennessee legislature called for the creation of a report card to compare all state-approved teacher preparation programs. It was boosted in 2011 with a new evaluation system that uses many evidence-based components, including student growth data and classroom observations.
The even better news is that these reforms are having an impact.
Student improvements in Tennessee far outpaced student improvements in any other state on the Nation’s Report Card, a national assessment of student progress. Tennessee students made improvements on reading and math tests at a rate four times faster than the national average.
We are also proud to note that Tennessee is one of three states with the most top-ranking teacher preparation programs, including the program at Nashville’s Lipscomb University, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.
Another success story has taken place in Memphis. During the 2012-2013 school year, Memphis teachers helped their students learn at a pace that surpassed state expectations for improvement in every subject.
For these reasons and more, we urge policymakers at the state and federal level to create strong incentives for teachers to develop to the best of their abilities, and reward them based on tangible evidence that they are effective — including the academic growth of their students.
We know from decades of experience leading men and women in the military that when you raise standards and reward top performance, you get results. We must empower and reward the heroic efforts of all teachers who are effectively preparing our students for success in life, and the opportunity to serve our nation if that is the path they choose.
Secretary Arne Duncan at Teachers College, October 22, 2009