Teacher Quality On The Red Carpet; Accuracy Swept Under The Rug

The media campaign surrounding “Waiting for Superman," which has already drawn considerable coverage, only promises to get bigger. While I would argue – at least in theory – that increased coverage of education is a good thing, it also means that this is a critically important (and, in some respects, dangerous) time. Millions of new people will be tuning in, believing that they are hearing serious discussions about the state of public education in America and “what the research says” about how it can be improved.

It’s therefore a sure bet that what I’ve called the “teacher effects talking point” will be making regular appearances. It goes something like this: Teachers are the most important schooling factor influencing student achievement. This argument provides much of the empirical backbone for the current push toward changes in teacher personnel policies. It is an important finding based on high-quality research, one with clear policy implications. It is also potentially very misleading.

The same body of evidence that shows that teachers are the most important within-school factor influencing test score gains also demonstrates that non-school factors matter a great deal more. The first wave of high-profile articles in our newly-energized education debate not only seem to be failing to provide this context, but are ignoring it completely. Deliberately or not, they are publishing incorrect information dressed up as empirical fact, spreading it throughout a mass audience new to the topic, to the detriment of us all.

What About Curriculum Effects?

Our guest author today is Barak Rosenshine, emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Bill Gates, the Los Angeles Times, and others have argued that teachers should be held accountable for the achievement of their students. This has led to heated debates over the validity and proper use of value added statistical measures. But no one seems to be talking about curriculum effects. What if an excellent teacher is in a school that has selected a curriculum for mathematics or for reading that isn’t very good. How accountable should the teacher be in those circumstances?

Teachers Matter, But So Do Words

The following quote comes from the Obama Administration’s education "blueprint," which is its plan for reauthorizing ESEA, placing a heavy emphasis, among many other things, on overhauling teacher human capital policies:

Of all the work that occurs at every level of our education system, the interaction between teacher and student is the primary determinant of student success.
Specific wordings vary, but if you follow education even casually, you hear some version of this argument with incredible frequency. In fact, most Americans are hearing it – I’d be surprised if many days pass when some approximation of it isn’t made in a newspaper, magazine, or high-traffic blog. It is the shorthand justification – the talking point, if you will – for the current efforts to base teachers’ hiring, firing, evaluation, and compensation on students’ test scores and other "performance” measures.