Learning to read vs. reading to learn

What makes an effective reading teacher? A new study shows that the answer may differ for those teaching very young children versus those teaching the upper elementary grades.

A study released in December from the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina looked at teacher effectiveness data from the new kindergarten through second grade testing regime in North Carolina to answer a question:

Given North Carolina’s recent focus on ensuring all our children are reading proficiently by third grade, which teacher credentials predict teacher effectiveness in the early grades?

Teacher credentials the study looked at included:

  • Years of experience
  • Being National Board certified
  • Holding a graduate degree
  • Having higher licensure exam scores
  • Holding a reading license

The researchers found that for teachers in kindergarten through 2nd grade, being National Board certified, having higher licensure exam scores, and holding a reading license each improved evaluation scores. Holding a graduate degree and being an experienced teacher did not seem to make much difference.

For kindergarten through 2nd grade teachers in the first five years of their careers, the study found that holding a reading license was the only credential that made a difference in these newer teachers’ effectiveness – and it made a lot of difference.

However, for teachers in the later elementary school years (3rd through 5th grades), years of experience was the only credential that mattered.

The results of the study suggest that teacher preparation and certification (particularly when the training is focused specifically on how to teach reading) might matter more in the younger grades, especially for teachers new to the job, while experience might matter most in the later grades.

The researchers are careful to point out that what they found were associations, not necessarily causation. It is unclear, for example, whether better teachers choose to get reading licenses, or whether getting a reading license makes for a better teacher.

Either way, policies that allow teachers to get the training they need and policies that retain good teachers are critical if we want to ensure that all children are reading on grade level by the end of third grade.

Download the study.