The "three great teachers in a row" myth
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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| 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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