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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 02/25/2011

The "three great teachers in a row" myth

By Valerie Strauss

Studies, reports and recommendations about education are a dime a dozen in Washington, but sometimes, one jumps out as being especially smart, or especially not.

The latter category is where I’d classify a new series of recommendations just sent to Congress by two Washington think tanks called “Essential Elements of Teacher Policy in ESEA: Effectiveness, Fairness and Evaluation.” [ESEA is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as No Child Left Behind.]

Problems with the recommendations are clear from the first paragraph, which states as fact something about "effective teachers” that is not. Things don't get much better after that.

Members of Congress shouldn't be fooled by these recommendations, which were issued by the Education Trust and the Center for American Progress, and which spell out a year-by-year timetable for changing the way states, districts and schools qualify for federal funding relating to the development of quality teachers.

The report calls for incentives and sanctions for states to implement “robust evaluation systems that incorporate measures of teacher impact on student growth,” the basis of which are standardized test scores.

The first paragraph of the recommendations says: "Effective teachers are critical to raising achievement and closing longstanding gaps among student subgroups. Indeed, the research on this point has become absolutely clear: Students who have three or four strong teachers in a row will soar academically, regardless of their racial or economic background, while those who have a sequence of weak teachers will fall further and further behind."

Actually the research isn't "absolutely clear" on this point.

Nobody, of course, would argue that all students shouldn’t have great teachers. But there has evolved a myth that the achievement gap could be closed if students only had a succession of “effective teachers.” This ignores the effects of a difficult home life on a student, and, again, judges how “effective” a teacher is on the basis of how much students improve on standardized tests.

Following is a thorough review of the history of the three-teachers-in-a row myth, from education historian Diane Ravitch’s bestselling The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” It includes an explanation of the report that was cited by the recommendation’s authors as evidence for their first paragraph declaration about teacher effectiveness.

Ravitch has given me permission to use this, taking from her latest book:


Eric Hanushek of Stanford University studied the problem of how to increase the supply of high-quality teachers.... In 2004 I invited him and his colleague Steven Rivkin to present a paper at a conference at the Brookings Institution. Reviewing a large number of studies, they noted that teachers’ salaries, certification, education and additional degrees had little impact on student performance. The variables that mattered most in the studied they reviewed were teachers’ experience and their scores on achievement tests, but most studies found even these variables to be statistically insignificant. They cited studies showing that teachers in their first year of teaching, and to some extent their second as well, “perform significantly worse in the classroom” than more experienced teachers.

Hanushek and Rivkin concluded that the best way to improve teacher quality was to look at “differences in growth rates of student achievement across teachers. A good teacher would be one who consistently obtained high learning growth from students, while a poor teacher would be one who consistently produced low learning growth.” Since the current requirements for entry into teaching are “imprecise” or not consistently correlated with teaching skill, they argued, it made no sense to tighten up the credentialing process. Instead, “If one is concerned about student performance, one should gear policy to student performance.”

Hanushek and Rivkin projected that “having five years of good teachers in a row” (that is, teachers at the 85th percentile) “could overcome the average seventh-grade mathematics achievement gap between lower-income kids (those on the free or reduced-price lunch program) and those from higher-income families. In other words, high-quality teaches can make up for the typical deficits seen in the preparation of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.” In light of these findings, Hanushek and Rivkin recommended that states “loosen up” the requirements for entering teaching and pay more attention to whether teachers are able to get results, that is, better student performance on tests.

At the conference, Richard Rothstein responded that the policy implications of the Hanushek-Rivkin paper were “misleading and dangerous.” He objected to the authors’ view that school reform alone could overcome the powerful influence of family and social environment. He dismissed their claims about closing the achievement gap between low-income students and their middle-class peers in five years, an assertion similar to one previously advanced by [William] Sanders [of the University of Tennessee]. Sanders said that students with teachers in the top quintile of effectiveness for three consecutive years would gain 50 percentile points as compared to those who were assigned to the lowest quintile. Rothstein said their reasoning was circular: “good teachers can raise student achievement, and teachers are defined as good if they raise student achievement.” Thus one cannot know which teachers are effective until after they had produced consistent gains for three to five straight years....

Yet there was something undeniably appealing about the idea that a string of “effective” or “top-quintile” teachers would close the achievement gap between low-income students and their middle-income peers and between African American students and white students. And there something appalling about the idea that a string of mediocre or bad teachers would doom low-performing students to a life of constant failure, dragging them down to depths from which they might never recover. The bottom line was that the teacher was the key to academic achievement. A string of top-quintile teachers could, on their own, erase the learning deficits of low-income and minority students, or so the theory went.

This line of reasoning appealed to conservatives and liberals alike; liberals liked the prospect of closing the achievement gap, and conservatives liked the possibility that it could be accomplished with little or not attention to poverty, housing, unemployment, health needs, or other social and economic problems. If students succeeded, it was the teacher who did it. If students got low scores, it was the teacher’s fault. Teachers were both the cause of low-performance and the cure for low performance. The solution was to get rid of bad teachers and recruit only good ones. Of course it was difficult to know how to recruit good teachers when the determination of their effectiveness required several years of classroom data.

A 2006 paper by Robert Gordon, Thomas J. Kane and Douglas O. Staiger, titled “Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job,” took the argument a step further. Like Hanushek and Rivkin, these authors maintained that “paper qualifications,” such as degrees, licenses, and certification, do not predict who will be a good teacher. The differences, they said, between “stronger teachers” and “weaker teachers” become clear only after teachers have been teaching for “a couple of years.” Their solution was to recruit new teachers without regard to paper credentials and to measure their success by their students’ test scores. They agreed that value-added measures of student performance were essential in identifying effective teachers.

They recommended that school districts pay bonuses to effective teaches who teach in high-poverty schools. And they recommended that the federal government provide grants to states to build data systems to “link student performance with the effectiveness of individual teachers over time.” These recommendations were of more than academic interest, because one of the authors, Robert Gordon of the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank, was subsequently selected by the Obama administration to serve as deputy director for education in the Office of Management and Budget, where he was able to promote his policy ideas. And sure enough, President Obama’s education program included large sums of money for states to build data systems that would link student test scores to individual teachers, as well as funds for merit pay plans that would reward teachers for increasing their students’ test scores. In choosing his education agenda, President Obama sided with the economists and the corporate-style reformers, not with his chief campaign adviser, Linda Darling-Hammond.

The Gordon, Kane and Staiger study followed teachers in the first, second, and third years. It concluded that students assigned to a teacher in the bottom quartile of all teachers (ranked according to their students’ gains lost on average 5 percentile points. Thus, the difference between being assigned to a low- or high-rated teacher was 10 percentile points. Noting that the black-white achievement gap is estimated to be 34 percentile points, they reached this startling conclusion: “Therefore, if the effects were to accumulate, having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.”

So depending on which economist or statistician one preferred, the achievement gap between races, ethnic groups, and income groups could be closed in three years (Sanders), four years (Gordon, Kane and Staiger), or five years (Hanushek and Rivkin). Over a short period of time, this assertion became an urban myth among journalists and policy wonks in Washington, something that “everyone knew.” This particular urban myth fed a fantasy that schools serving poor children might be able to construct a teaching corps made up exclusively of superstar teachers, the ones who produced large gains year after year.

This is akin to saying that baseball teams should consist only of players who hit over .300 and pitchers who win at least twenty games every season; after all, such players exist, so why should not such teams exit. The fact that no such team exists should give pause to those who believe that almost every teacher in almost every school in almost every district might be a superstar if only school leaders could fire at will.

The teacher was everything; that was the new mantra of economists and bottom-line school reformers.


The fact that the authors of the recommendations got this so wrong should give one pause about the rest.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 25, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Congress, Diane Ravitch, Research, Teacher assessment, Teachers  | Tags:  center for american progress, diane ravitch, education trust, standardized tests, teacher evaluation, teachers  
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Comments

Keep on going ,Valerie! Another article with
important considerations....

Also,
Even if it were possible to get only great teachers, ultimately the overall 'culture of a school' can cut in to their success. Great teachers are human beings as well, and despite all of their talents, if they are in schools that have poor leadership, classes that are too large, poor attendance, students who are really impacted - by whatever - great teachers can get worn down and become less effective over time. A school's culture is palpable,it does affect everyone, and it is tough to turn around.

It's also not helpful to let the student off the hook; they will not play, work or socialize with 'great people' all of their lives, and it's important to know how to use your own smarts to make the best of a situation. We've all had some mediocre or poor teachers in our lives (and they are not all in schools!). A good student needs to take some initiative to do the best he/she can regardless of the circumstances and not just sit back and blame the system or the person in front of the room.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 25, 2011 7:20 AM | Report abuse

The resistance to evaluating teachers based on their ability to produce learning in children is the stuff of awe and marvel. It really is impressive. Fortunately, many teachers are clamoring for the opportunity to "strut their stuff" and to have the evaluation system to prove it. Hooray for you guys! But at the same time, many others raise the specter of unfairness and inaccuracy based on poverty and inadequate parenting, not-quite-perfect evaluation measures, and dare I say it, tradition. It's not fair, they say, to evaluate their performance based on results. Wake up folks. The days of "try hard and hope for the best" in America's schools is drawing to a close. We really never could afford a "results are optional" approach to the education of America's future, but we certainly can't afford it now. Welcome to the era of "try hard and produce results, or else." Defenders of the status quo should realize that every argument about the unfairness of asking teachers to persevere in the face of disadvantage, handicap, and obstacle does two things. First, it denigrates the true teaching professionals out there who overcome every day and have the results to prove it. In the process it makes the whiners and complainers look petty and inadequate. And second, it makes the case for not having teachers at all. If teaching poor children, children of color, and the most recent children in a generations-long line of inadequate education is an unrealistic expectation of America's teachers, why have teachers at all? Why pay someone to do a job that too many of THEM say can't be done anyway? Let me introduce you to the rest of the world, some might call it the real world, where everybody else is evaluated on the results they produce.

Posted by: cen1 | February 25, 2011 7:35 AM | Report abuse

The study that really needs to be done is the one about how impressionable smart people are when they hear something from another smart person.

Too often, using this story as an example, they simply believe it, without using any of their usual methods of discernment.

If a credible person says something in a credible way, indicating that this is what credible people believe - that's it. It's a fact - no further checking is needed; no further checking is done.

Write about that Valerie - find an expert who has done or will do a really good study on susceptibility in peer groups of people who consider themselves to be highly intelligent and thus superior to and inherently more knowledgeable than most other people.

Posted by: efavorite | February 25, 2011 7:49 AM | Report abuse

The comparison to a baseball team misses the reason a team cannot hire only the top line...cost. They have predicted seats to fill and income from both seat costs and concessions.

One series of study in the business world indicates success in a particular environment does not equate to success in every environment. Why should we try and shoehorn everyone into the same system?

We cannot buy our way through education. If 1+1=2, nothing changed, save labor and overhead. I don't care if you pay $2K/hour, then answer does not change. Now, if you are working with such a huge variable as a child's learning ability then we are talking differences, but the idea that 1+1=2 has not changed.

The geographic point of our nation's capitol has not changed. Why should we pay more to provide that information? It doesn't make sense.

Now, if you are talking about more money in at risk schools, are you talking about hazardous duty pay? Is that the issue? Because 1+1=2 does not change from school to school. Giving a child a computer does not change the answer.

So what are we trying to mandate with money? Changing the answers? If it's time on the job, then perhaps we are overloading everyone and we need to review the process. Before we start increasing costs we should research what changed to increase the cost, not increase the funding then watch to see what happens.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 25, 2011 8:04 AM | Report abuse

"The resistance to evaluating teachers based on their ability to produce learning in children is the stuff of awe and marvel. It really is impressive. Fortunately, many teachers are clamoring for the opportunity to "strut their stuff" and to have the evaluation system to prove it."

I haven't met single teacher who likes the idea of having their student's learning measured by a standardized test taken once a year.


"It's not fair, they say, to evaluate their performance based on results..."

The problem is not being evaluated on "results," the problem is what is used to define the results: a flawed, once-a-year snapshot called a standardized exam. 1) multiple choice exams do not give you a lot of information about what a person knows 2) tests that would give you a lot of information take a long time to assess - and hence will not be implemented because a "long time to grade" means expensive 3) districts that have already gone to "value-added" measures are already seeing wild swings in "teacher effectiveness." As many as 1 in 3 teachers go from the highest ranked category one year to he lowest ranked the next. This confirms what teachers already know: rating teacher effectiveness based on a standardized test is ineffective.

How about we start rating doctors on the rate of obesity After all, obesity is the number one indicator of other disease and an premature mortality. If one year, the number of obese patients grows for a doctor, we can put him/her on a "growth plan." If it happens again the next year, let's take away their license to practice medicine. After all, the doctor is obviously ineffective, right?

Posted by: highlandhorn | February 25, 2011 8:12 AM | Report abuse

cen1- It isn't that we take issue with being evaluated on our ability to produce results. The issue lies with the methodology of measuring those results. How do you measure teacher success? If you measure it by how many kids pass stardardized tests, then no teacher will want to take on the challenge of teaching the tougher, lower-ability kids because it could have impact on their employment. If you want to measure kids based on how much progress make...1) How do you measure it and 2) who will want to take the high performing kids who maybe don't need to progress as far? If you have a class of AP students already achieving, will teachers be penalized because the kids don't "progess" enough? Many individuals thin teachers should be evaluated based on "value-added". Again, HOW do you measure value added? Do we get allowances for students whose parents do not force them to attend school regularly? Most of the teacher I know are great and none of them have any problem with, as you put it, strutting their stuff and demonstrating their skill. The questions is how to FAIRLY evaluate teachers and measure their ability to "deliver". Delivery what? A grades on tests? Passing scores on standardized tests? Kids who write well? Kids who can think critically? Kids who are doing better now then at the beginning of the year? How do you propose to measure which teacher effectively contributed to those goals and which did not? If anyone can come up with a fair way to measure "value-added", most of us would leap at the chance!

Posted by: jmbst137 | February 25, 2011 8:12 AM | Report abuse

"The comparison to a baseball team misses the reason a team cannot hire only the top line...cost."

I like the baseball analogy, but you're right - if you examine it closely, it doesn't work. However, the reason is not cost. It's that if you have a team of hitters all hitting over .300, you're opposing teams are not going to have all their pitchers winning 20 or more games a season. In baseball, there are winners and losers.

It doesn't have to be that way for education.

However, the point being made is if it is teachers in the top quartile that make the difference, you will never have all of those teachers in the same building.

Maybe a more apt analogy is to remind folks that 50% of all doctors finished in the bottom half of their class.

Posted by: highlandhorn | February 25, 2011 8:19 AM | Report abuse

I never, never understood the point of this study, and it has been cited a lot.

It basically says "The biggest indicator of an effective teacher, as defined by raising test scores, is that their students raise their test scores"

Huh?

Posted by: someguy100 | February 25, 2011 8:39 AM | Report abuse

There is a simple-mindedness to calling for high quality teachers (one or more in a row) to close the achievement gap. Even IF that is possible (and the evidence is that out-of-school factors dwarf teacher impact), the claim assumes that the top students somehow stay static. . .How does that make sense? IF teacher quality raises achievement, wouldn't it change ALL student achievement? How would that close a gap? Or do this geniuses pose that DENY the top students quality teachers for a while til the gap is closed?

And another point of evidence: The top students currently benefit from advocacy for them by their parents, who would not sit by and allow anything except the best for those students to continue (our top students are in the most challenging classes with the most experienced and qualified teachers ALREADY). . .

The reformers are all simplistic rhetoric with no logic or evidence. . .

Posted by: plthomas3 | February 25, 2011 8:54 AM | Report abuse

This "3-teacher" argument is bogus and almost laughable. From the first time I heard it, I thought there was something peculiar.

If I have surgery I don't want a second one because the first one botched it. Same with car mechanics...three different car mechanics with one being not so mechanically gifted could cost me a great deal of money that if the car would have been fixed properly in the first place, I could have avoided any additional costs. A good haircut...then a bad haircut is not a good thing and takes long time to grow out...and takes a skilled hairdresser to correct. You could use the 3-bie rule for anything...Presidents of the U.S. even...so what's new?

I don't know of any profession or career that doesn't benefit, rely and hope for quality employees and repeated success.

I agree, this is just another subtle way to blame teachers (as though teaching is the only profession where everyone is not a candidate for employee of the year). Furthermore, it implies that children are not likely to have 3 successive competent and effective teachers.

Posted by: ilcn | February 25, 2011 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Others have posted it elsewhere, and people like Michelle Rhee and Wendy Kopp do it everyday, but cen1 has posited the same contrived and inaccurate conservative defense of putting the entire burden of education "reform" on teachers.

[As I've noted in other comments, conservatives promote economic policies that cause dislocation, failure, unemployment and poverty, force education policies that make things worse, and then blame teachers for not fixing things.]

cne1 says "It's not fair, they say, to evaluate their performance based on results." Not true, Teachers want measures that are accurate.

cen1 says this is the era of "try hard and produce results, or else." Really? What, exactly, happened to the executives of AIG? Citcorp? JPMorganChase? Goldman Sachs? They produced some very, very had, aarmful results for millions of people. When is the "or else" part going to catch up with them?

cen1 says that "every argument about the unfairness of asking teachers to persevere in the face of disadvantage..denigrates the true teaching professionals...[and] makes whiners and complainers" of the rest. This is the semantic equal of "when the goin' gets tough, the tough get goin'." In other words, just suck it up. By extension, those who complained about child labor practices or a racially segregated society because of their inherent unfairness should have been better citizens who just learned to accept both.

cen1 opines that teachers seem to think that "teaching poor children [or] children of color" is an " unrealistic expectation." That's not true. Teachers of such children, and of other children for that matter, simply say that they cannot and should not be held accountable for the socioeconomic factors that influence student achievement. {Other criticisms aside, it is clear that cen1 has very little understanding of assessment and human variability in learning.]

Lastly, cen1ssays "everybody else is evaluated on the results they produce." Is that so? Then why aren't George Bush and Dick Cheney in prison for authorizing torture? Why are big bankers and hedge-fund managers receiving huge bonuses when their "profits" are derived from taxpayer funding? Why is MIchelle Rhee still lauded when she lied repeatedly and unabashedly about her own record, and when she made education in the DC schools worse and not better? Why do some of the Post's reporters and editors (and those of other newspapers and periodicals) still have jobs when they disregarded all the evidence that Saddam had already disarmed himself of weapons of mass destruction, and when they continue to misreport education research?

There's nothing wrong with improving public education. But that improvement should be based on solid research, it should be directed by teachers and pedagogical experts, and it should be multifaceted (and it should use testing diagnostically and not punitively).

cen1 has much to learn.


Posted by: DrDemocracy | February 25, 2011 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Sure, having a succession of great teachers is ideal for children, but how does this study address mobility? Not only do low-income families tend to struggle more with the day to day, but they are also more mobile. So a child may end up having 5 great teachers at 5 different schools over the course of 5 years. However, the student will still be behind due to changes in curriculum, instruction style, and all the other barriers the child has to overcome to learn.

The elementary school where I work has a 60% mobility rate. We have some great teachers in our building, but how can they show large growth in a child's learning when the students are constantly shuffling in and out of the classroom?

Posted by: ssmith1113 | February 25, 2011 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Yes, if I could only bet along with the guy at the craps table who has a winning run.
There is a surrogate for 3, 4, or 5 great teachers in a row: What private schools claim, with all their quality control, to provide every year to every students.
So, find a school with more one classroom per grade, and calculate the cumulative achievement differences between students who were with the "best" teachers at each grade level and those with the "inferior" ones. The differences barely exist.
And the differences between private school achievement, what with "excellent" teachers and public school achievement? Trivial, compared to the differences WITHIN private and public schools, and mostly attributable, statistically, to differences in family background.

There is another problem: The error margin of assessment of teacher effectiveness, something like measuring baseball hitting ability from stats for a random run of five games (and 15-20 at bats).

Posted by: incredulous | February 25, 2011 1:55 PM | Report abuse

I read all the quotations from Hanushek, Ravitch, Gordon, Rothstein, et. al., and they do nothing whatsoever to diminish Hanushek's and Kane's conclusions.

By the way, the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, and most other winning baseball teams DO strive to have the most .300 hitters and the most 20 game winners! And the ones who get closest to that goal usually win or compete to win.

Maybe next time you should turn to Theo Epstein of the Red Sox as a source on personnel recruitment issues instead of Richard Rothstein!

Posted by: skress1 | February 25, 2011 3:08 PM | Report abuse

skress1,

There is a difference between "findings" and "conclusions" when it comes to academic papers.

Posted by: DHume1 | February 25, 2011 5:18 PM | Report abuse

Actually skress1 missed a rather big small word in the conclusions offered up by Hanushek (who, by the way, has rarely had a good word to say about public education and is a voucher advocate).

The key small word is "if." So to restate, IF the effects are cumulative over for years, then.....but the key word is "if" and Hanushek simply assumes the best because that's the outcome he wants.

Hanuashek has also been taken to task by other researchers for manipulating data to say that there is no relationship between money and achievement. One called Hanushek's conclusions suspect because they were on "shaky statistical ground." And even there is no evidence that student test scores are tied to a nation's economic "competitiveness," Hanusjhek tried to conjure up data to show that there is. Naturally, he doesn't say much about the boom years of the 1990s.

If skress1 is the same sandy kress who helped to give the nation No Child Left Behind, then we can dismiss as ludicrous almost anything he offers up. Most education researchers have found the proficiency requirements of NCLB unreachable and untenable. Most teachers and administrators and school board members find them unachievable. More and more schools are labeled as "failing."

Yet, in reference to the proficiency standards, Kress said, "The bar was not set too high. Indeed, some would argue that it was set too low..." Margaret Spellings, nitwit that she was, called NCLB "99.9% pure, like Ivory soap."

Kress is also a guy who not only thinks the "free market" should guide education reform (it shouldn't), but also he's made money off of school "reform." Lots of it. And much of it is tied to testing.

Kress is the poster boy for the top-down, business-model "reform" that conservatives love, and sadly, that's embedded in Race to the Top (is Obama going to have an epiphany on this...sometime soon?). It is the very same model advocated by Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, Bill Gates, Joel Klein, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Business Roundtable, among others.

It's the same model I and others have ridiculed for its authoritarian, punitive, constricted and restricted emphases, and for its psychological and pedagogical weaknesses. It has no research basis and it is contrary to the historical mission of the public schools to promote democratic citizenship.

It is, in three words: unwise, unhealthy and undemocratic.

Sandy? Is that you?

http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/migrated/child/PublicDocuments/educ_2.authcheckdam.pdf

Posted by: DrDemocracy | February 25, 2011 6:50 PM | Report abuse

Actually, there is one evaluation method that is not being used too often: asking the students about the teacher. As a sub, I have seen a lot of classes. I recently subbed for a foreign language teacher whose students complained openly about having to do worksheets. Several of them--the ones who complained that they shouldn't have to learn a foreign language and the ones who loved the idea and could have taught the class--complained that the teacher took a lot of time off and always had the sub give out worksheets and quizzes on things they hadn't studied, then only taught them the things they had missed on the worksheets. A week later I subbed for an English teacher who taught both general English and college prep to high-school freshmen. I expressed my sympathy for them, telling them this particular book had a lot of complex metaphors and style and would take a lot of work to understand. Students in all the classes, even the general students who openly admitted they couldn't read well enough to deal with the book, were quick to assure me, "This book is a lot easier than some of the others we've read. She's really a good teacher."

That was true of my own high school days; we all knew whether the teacher was good. Those of us who liked the subject resented a poor teacher who didn't teach us as much as we wanted to know, and those of us who disliked the subject or found it difficult resented having a teacher who made it even more difficult through incompetence or laziness.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 25, 2011 7:31 PM | Report abuse

sideswiththekids--truly a good idea.

The WTU should be confident enough to sponsor a statistically valid sampling of kids to learn their evaluation of their teachers. This is tricky, but experts would know exactly how to ask it and record and analyze responses.

My gut tells me what the answer is from the kids, based on a lot of data but probably not statistically valid. I don't think the WTU or anyone else is going to go there. BTW, the kids' views should square up pretty well with their parents.

Posted by: axolotl | February 25, 2011 7:52 PM | Report abuse

I am a teacher, and I am continually astonished by the reactions and leaps of reasoning other teachers make when confronted by the issue of student achievement. Wanting better outcomes for students suddenly becomes, "Teachers Under Attack!" Wanting effective teachers becomes conservative union bashing.

I've heard no one argue in favor of firing teachers because their students didn't fair well on a high stakes test one year. Have you? Of course, not, that makes no sense. But when you have a teacher whose students consistently underperform as compared to other students of the same population, this indicates to me that something is wrong.

I agree that socioeconomic factors play an important role in student achievement. In fact, the devil Hanushek writes that a student's SES and parent's level of education is the MOST important factor determining student achievement. But to say we can't evaluate teachers based on student achievement because of these factors is a cop out.

We can't change the SES of our student's families. We can't give them more nurturing and more knowledgeable parents. But we CAN do better as teachers.

And, no, a school doesn't have to be filled with "teachers of the year", but wouldn't that be a good goal? I want to send my kids to a school that has superstar teachers, k through 12.

And the fact is, even though we can't give our students better parenting and a more secure home life, we can do a better job of training, recruiting, and hiring talented teachers, we can find a way of evaluating teachers that is fair, we can hold teachers accountable to a reasonable standard of effectiveness, and all these things are in the name of doing better for children and not serving a liberal or conservative agenda.

Posted by: efuddle | February 25, 2011 8:24 PM | Report abuse

I am a teacher, and I am continually astonished by the reactions and leaps of reasoning other teachers make when confronted by the issue of student achievement. Wanting better outcomes for students suddenly becomes, "Teachers Under Attack!" Wanting effective teachers becomes conservative union bashing.

I've heard no one argue in favor of firing teachers because their students didn't fair well on a high stakes test one year. Have you? Of course, not, that makes no sense. But when you have a teacher whose students consistently underperform as compared to other students of the same population, this indicates to me that something is wrong.

I agree that socioeconomic factors play an important role in student achievement. In fact, the devil Hanushek writes that a student's SES and parent's level of education is the MOST important factor determining student achievement. But to say we can't evaluate teachers based on student achievement because of these factors is a cop out.

We can't change the SES of our student's families. We can't give them more nurturing and more knowledgeable parents. But we CAN do better as teachers.

And, no, a school doesn't have to be filled with "teachers of the year", but wouldn't that be a good goal? I want to send my kids to a school that has superstar teachers, k through 12.

And the fact is, even though we can't give our students better parenting and a more secure home life, we can do a better job of training, recruiting, and hiring talented teachers, we can find a way of evaluating teachers that is fair, we can hold teachers accountable to a reasonable standard of effectiveness, and all these things are in the name of doing better for children and not serving a liberal or conservative agenda.

Posted by: efuddle | February 25, 2011 8:25 PM | Report abuse

I usually disagree with your arguments, but I partially agree on the "achievement gap". It's total nonsense to think that the schools are going to take kids that are already reading when they show up for kindergarten and kids that haven't ever had a book read to them and have no achievement gap. The only way to do that is to slow down the kids that get a head start. Anyone who wants that should be removed from any involvement with education.

Ravitch's analysis is typically empty and self-promoting, it has little do with the achievement gap, except to point out the obvious. At least she admits the existence of learning growth as metric. She's usually so far out there that she doesn't think anything worth learning can be measured.

Posted by: staticvars | February 26, 2011 12:49 AM | Report abuse

staticvars writes that Dianae Ravitch is "usually so far out there that she doesn't think anything worth learning can be measured."

Apparently he failed to take note of Ravitch's early and very avid support for No Child Left Behind and the massive testing it engendered. Nor is staticvars evidently familiar with Ravitch's rather hearty support of Virginia's Standards of Learning program; or her alleged role in suppressing the Sandia Report, which contradicted quantitatively the claims made in A Nation at Risk.

To her credit, Ravitch now says she "was wrong" (so does Checker Finn, though he'd still like to privatize public education).

efuddle makes some interesting points. For example she suggests that we all want to improve student achievement (but neglects to define achievement). And she opines that we can do a better job of recruiting and training and mentoring teachers. Fair enough. And she says that we can do a better job in creating evaluation models for teachers that are fair (and this almost ALWAYS means that such a model must be developed in collaboration WITH teachers).

But it's most as though she's not been reading some of the comments and articles that get posted here. Perhaps school reform should NOT get caught up in more progressive or more conservative political agendas....but it does. Education, like it or not, IS political and always has been.

The push for public education (a taxpayer supported education for all children), both here and elsewhere, is progressive. And education in most societies includes social and political assimilation. The current reform model, focused on testing and "accountability" is, indeed, a conservative one. And it doesn't work well.

efuddle also misstates what Eric Hanushek says. Hanushek seems to acknowledge the influence of socioeconomic factors on achievement, but generally sweeps them aside (along with smaller class size and money) to say, incorrectly, that "All sides of the educational policy debate now accept that the key determinant of school effectiveness is teachers." Moreover, Hanushek largely dismisses the better recruiting and tighter credentialing argument in favor of looser recruiting and training standards. Hanushek touts the "findings" of Waiting for Superman. And argues that if we can only get rid of the worst 10 percent of teachers (using , for example, value-added scores, found to be highly volatile) then student test scores would soar and our nation would regain its economic competitiveness.

This is an argument contrived in folly and wrapped in insincerity. And pushed hard by "free market" conservatives.

There ARE ways that schools can help parents to parent better. There are things our society can do to help more children have a "secure home life." There are policies and programs that help to improve socioeconomic conditions. All of them can advance the quality of education.

And, generally, these are progressive.

Posted by: DrDemocracy | February 26, 2011 6:59 AM | Report abuse

Of course it's t"otal nonsense to think that the schools are going to take kids that are already reading when they show up for kindergarten and kids that haven't ever had a book read to them and have no achievement gap."

The real question is why are both kids put in the same classroom, taught exactly the same things, and expected to do the same quality of work? When you take swimming or skating lessons, you aren't grouped according to your age but by the ability you have when you come to the first class.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 26, 2011 12:14 PM | Report abuse

sideswiththekids,

"The real question is why are both kids put in the same classroom, taught exactly the same things, and expected to do the same quality of work? When you take swimming or skating lessons, you aren't grouped according to your age but by the ability you have when you come to the first class."

Here's the argument and it does have some merit in a microcosm-like way: If you put a weak swimmer with a group of stronger ones, usually the weaker one beefs up his skills and begins to preform at high levels. You can see this work for almost all sports and in education as well. The problem with this analogy, though, is that it is usually abused by administrators. They usually put too many weaker swimmers with the strong swimmer group. In this case, good models are scarce and the weaker swimmer in not forced to pair up with the stronger peers or beef up.

In some ways Rhee was attempting this on a grander scale with social groups in DC at various schools. This was why she was courting the middle class and alienated the others. However, I believe this is where she failed miserably.

Posted by: DHume1 | February 26, 2011 1:11 PM | Report abuse

@ sideswiththekids

Another way to say what DHume1 wrote is that heterogenous grouping of kids is far preferable to homogeneous grouping. Grouping by "skill level" (really, that's a proxy for family income) is often called tracking or ability grouping.

A very quick summation of the research is that the effects of such grouping are pernicious. The “gains” for those in the upper tracks are minimal and the negative consequences for those in the lower tracks are long-lasting. The best predictor of the track a kid is in at the high school level is the one in which he’s placed in first grade.

As Jeannie Oakes writes, “it is safe to conclude that there is little evidence to support any of the assumptions about tracking.”

One of the very critical problems with tracking is that tracking placements “usually come to signify judgments about supposedly fixed abilities.” Part of the purpose of public education is to provide equal opportunity, but research shows not only the “ineffectiveness of tracking” but also the “disproportionate harm it works on poor and minority students.”

See, for example: http://academic.sun.ac.za/mathed/174/Oakes.pdf

If we were really interested in siding with kids, and with fulfilling the core mission of public schooling, then we’d take heed of the research (there’s lots of it) and abandon tracking, use testing diagnostically, integrate curriculum, and infuse teaching and learning with inquiry (for all kids).

Posted by: DrDemocracy | February 27, 2011 7:20 AM | Report abuse

DHume: Do you really think a non-swimmer in an advanced class will "beef up his skills and begin to perform at high levels"? He'll drown before he can acquire any skills!

In Junior High, the science teacher told the class to get out the microscopes and look at the slides he passed around. He discovered that the students from two of the "feeder" elementary schools had never used a microscope or seen a science demonstration or experiment; our science consisted of reading a chapter and giving short answer to the questions at the end. He had to hold up the lesson while he taught a half-dozen of us how to focus a microscope. Our skills weren't weak; they were non-existent, just as a first-grader without exposure to books and stories has no skills to help him follow a line of print or make sense of a story.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 27, 2011 4:36 PM | Report abuse

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