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.