Seems simple: It’s all about the teacher.

Decades of research keep coming to the same conclusion: Great teachers who connect with kids make a lasting difference. Bored, burned-out teachers set them back.

Granted, parents and family have the biggest impact. One study following hundreds of thousands of students in a galaxy of school districts concluded family-based factors like poverty, parental education, divorce, family structure and background have four to eight times as much influence on student achievement as anything the schools do.

On the other hand, studies also show that the teacher has about three times the impact of any other school-based factor, including administration, facilities and curriculum.

So, fine.

Hire great teachers.

Get rid of bad teachers.

Problem solved.

Well, not necessarily.

On one hand, decades of research show a “highly effective” teacher can have a huge impact on a student’s life.

On the other hand, one recent study focused on rewarding the most effective teachers and getting rid of the least effective teachers had relatively little impact on student test scores.

Payson School Superintendent Stan Rentz said that the culture of the school makes a big difference in teacher effectiveness and student success.

“Culture trumps everything. If you’ve got the right culture in place, everything is so much easier. You need buy-in from everyone working together to do what’s best for kids. We have gone so far down the road of standardized testing that we forget what education is really about. We’re talking about creating productive citizens that are part of our community — we can’t lose sight of that.”

Some longtime Payson teachers say parental indifference, the emotional and social struggles of many kids and the lack of support from the administration has made teaching increasingly frustrating.

Jim Quinlan, a 44-year teacher now teaching English at Gila Community College, said, “They’ve taken so much away from the teacher in terms of being the expert in the classroom. Once you have a good teacher, you should do almost anything to keep them — they’re so hard to find and so hard to develop. But I’ve so often seen teachers leave Payson with a bitter taste in their mouths.”

Arizona continues to struggle with a statewide teacher shortage, linked the lowest salaries and largest class sizes in the country. Thousands of jobs remain unfilled statewide, with many districts filling in with teachers without formal credentials or teaching outside their area of training.

And that could prove costly in the long run.

Studies have shown that a great teacher can increase the test scores, high school graduation rates, college attendance rates and even lifetime income of students.

For instance, researchers from Stanford University linked teacher quality and student achievement in a study that spanned decades. They compared the progress of students who had a “great” teacher — one in the 84th percentile — with the students of the least effective teachers — those ranking in the 16th percentile.

Turns out, a group of 30 students with a “great” teacher will earn $400,000 more over their lifetime than students with an “average” teacher — rating in the 50th percentile. And students of an “ineffective” teacher will earn $400,000 less in their lifetimes than students with that “average” teacher, according to a summary of that research by Eric Hanushek, one of the researchers (

Hanushek noted that students in Finland consistently outperform students in the U.S. — thanks to the effect of making teaching a high-status profession that draws the top university students. The difference in student achievement between Finland and the U.S. knocks about $1 trillion annually off the U.S. gross domestic product, he concluded.

So, we should reward the best teachers and fire the weakest teachers. Right?

Hang on.

That’s what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation figured, based on decades of research. So the Foundation invested $575 million in a six-year experiment in three eastern school districts and four charter school organizations. The schools set up a system to intensively observe and rate teachers. Schools financially rewarded the best teachers and fired the worst teachers.

The researchers compared those schools to others not in the program.

The result?

No difference.

The researchers were at a loss to explain the findings. Perhaps the emphasis on rewarding some teachers and punishing others had “major negative consequences” on morale, teamwork and the atmosphere and culture of the school. Perhaps changes in state law, the effect of faltering early childhood education programs, the school learning environment, family support and other factors swamped the benefits of the program — at least in the short term.

Harvard education professor and researcher Susan Moore Johnson said her studies of six highly rated schools showed that great teachers make a difference, but so does a school culture that involves teamwork and collaboration for hiring teachers, updating curriculum, evaluation and discipline. The most successful schools involve teachers in hiring as well as improving the skills of other teachers.

Many teachers say they’re not in it for the money — but for the joy of working with students. But a system heavy on bureaucracy and addicted to standardized testing robs the profession of that joy, they say.

Chad Gower, a Payson history teacher who moved to a Catholic school in the Valley after 12 years here, said, “I don’t know if it’s the parenting that’s enabling kids — but they’re more — I don’t know what the word is — ‘entitled.’ We’ve tried ‘Capturing Kids’ Hearts’ and we’re spending so much money on that — but the essence of it is, ‘Be a good person.’ That’s all it is.”

Quinlan said the great challenge centers on how to reach students without support at home. “The best Payson students are as bright as any students anywhere. The issue lies in that middle ground student. Public schools are losing the C and D and F students. It’s when you get those parents who aren’t involved at all. I don’t think it’s society. I don’t think it’s Payson. But the youth of Payson are 25 percent of our population — but they’re 100 percent of our future.”

Gower said, “The number of kids that have depression or some kind of mental issue or are even just living in the forest, it blew my mind.”

Bree Gower, a special education teacher who has also left the district, said, “The one thing this district needs to do better is show their appreciation for their teachers while they’re here. Sticking up for you (with parents) or standing by your side. For me, just a general, ‘Thank you. You’re doing awesome this month — here’s a Starbucks card.’ Just so you know they see what you’re doing and you’re doing a good job — something they definitely lack here.”

Barbara Quinlan, an elementary school teacher who recently retired, said, “I would say let the teachers do their jobs in the classroom. The teachers know their students best — they’re with them all day. So let the teacher do what they’re trained to do.”

Gower concluded, “In my 12 years, there have easily been 20 history teachers that have come and gone. We have a massive turnover rate. For me, it wasn’t about the pay issue.”

Rentz said he wants to create a culture that supports teachers and rewards creativity and risk taking to benefit the student.

“I want our teachers and administrators to be risk takers — grounded in research. I do not want to strangle or tamp down innovation or research or trying new ideas. You never give up. You keep trying different things until you find that magic button — until you reach that kid.”

He recalled a young girl in his communications class in seventh grade who “had a presence about her — it was uncanny. I was complimenting her. You’ve really got a gift, but she said, ‘I can’t do that.’ I said ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because I’m black.’ She had been convinced by somebody that she couldn’t achieve her dream. That was heartwrenching for me. From that point on, I have always made it my mission to encourage kids that they can do what they want to do — no matter what box someone else put them in.”

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(1) comment

Phil Mason

Come on Peter. If it is ALL about the teacher why has PUSD diverted 20% of their revenues AWAY from the teachers??? And why haven't you even asked the question?

Are you all about outcomes for the students or incomes for the non-teaching staff???

How can PUSD complain about teacher salaries while they divert $$$ from them?

PUSD has gained an additional $3 million in revenues while reducing dollars to the Classroom - See the Arizona Auditor General "Dollars to the Classroom" report: Pg 283

It is time to stop repeating the false narrative of the educrats and good 'ol boy Board.

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