Does a “good teacher” really make ALL the difference?
For years now, teaching reform advocates (particularly the anti-union ones) point out that America’s teachers unions—American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—are protecting bad teachers, and therefore hurting schools. While that, to some degree, is true, their outrage really rests on studies displaying the benefits of quality teaching. One in particular, by Stanford University professor Eric Hanushek, has spread since 2010.
Anthony Cody at Quartz goes over some of the facts that have seeped into common knowledge:
[Hanushek] looks at the distribution of student test scores, and imagines that if we could fire the teachers who are associated with the lowest (5–8%) or so, then we would make huge gains. This is the theory behind a great deal of the push for 21st century K-12 education reform in the US.
This has led reformers to advocate that we:
- Test students more often, so we can measure learning incrementally. Test students in every subject, and at every grade level—even kindergarten, so that all teachers can be properly judged.
- Eliminate barriers to firing the “bad teachers” who get low scores, so due process and seniority protections have to go.
- Create new evaluation plans that give significant weight to “value added” measures drawn from test scores, for both teachers and administrators.
Hanushek has also argued, by the way, that more money won’t help schools succeed, nor will small class size. The teacher is the only variable worth targeting. Unions are a problem to the extent to which they make it difficult to quickly fire teachers identified as ineffective.
Hanushek argues, through this data, that four years of great teachers would eliminate testing disparities between children of different status—indeed, it would overcome even funding issues. Unfortunately, no school has been able to replicate this data. Indeed, the data for such a conclusion as Hanushek’s is based on solely hypothesis. If anything, new data analyzing Washington D.C., New York City, and Chicago (already among the nation’s worst urban school districts) find that such teacher reforms could be hurting performance.
The issue of the persistently problematic achievement gap, it would seem, is more complicated than just solely teachers. The cocktail of reforms in Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C. included other reforms, too, such as increased testing and the closing of bad schools, neither of which proved effective.
As the summary of the new data points out, these reforms have almost across the board excluded the influence of poverty. As we covered in discussion of the so-called “crack baby” myth and in coverage of the Tennessee “food buses,” poverty & its wealth of accompanying issues are the hidden factors behind low-IQ and underperformance in America. And as a different study from Standford University’s Sean Reardon finds (it’s a big university), the achievement gap between high and low-income families is growing faster, becoming a bigger issue than, the racial achievement gap ever was.
Schools have not actually gained funding in this push for reform. In the meantime, counselors, librarians, nurses, and other social workers/investments are being cut—particularly in urban schools, where administrators tout accountability and measurement systems. Perhaps the greater problem of poverty is just too systemic for one field (e.g. health, education) to tackle. But it would certainly be conventional wisdom to say that a better education will reduce one’s chance of falling into poverty—a perplexing Catch-22. Ultimately, it’s important to remember that however good the teachers, kids will always have to go home at the end of the day.
“Poverty is what’s crippling public education in the US—not bad teachers,” by Anthony Cody, Quartz