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Sunday, February 22, 2009

The myth of the great teacher, hopefully euthanized once and for all

I hereby nominate the best blog posts of the month so far to be two by Diane Ravitch in EdWeek and one by Skoolboy (Aaron Pallas) in Gotham Schools. These two brilliant critics dissect and hopefully put to sleep for once and for all the great teacher myth, as propounded in a recent Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times.

Kristof writes, “It turns out that having a great teacher is far more important than being in a small class, or going to a good school with a mediocre teacher.” Okay, so what does that mean? Especially as we don't know how to identify a great teacher, or to produce one.

The corollary of the great teacher myth is that the main thing wrong with our educational system – particularly in urban, high needs schools -- are lousy teachers, and the true evil resides in the teacher unions that protect them.

It amazes me that anyone could actually believe this -- but this is the standard argument in DC think tanks and mainstream foundations. No one would seriously argue that the main problem with our inequitable health care system is that there are too many lousy and incompetent doctors serving the poor– or that the best way to address this problem would be to fire more and more of these doctors, and in their place hire new college-graduates from Ivy League schools– but this is the accepted ideology in education policy circles.

As Diane Ravitch writes in her column, Why Are People So Gullible About Miracle Cures in Education?:

Teacher-bashing has become the motif of the day. It is usually cloaked in some high-minded rhetoric that pretends to praise teachers. Say the bashers: We need great teachers; great teachers can solve all our problems; great teachers can close the achievement gap; if you don't have great teachers, you are doomed; blah, blah, blah. What they really mean—read between the lines—is that they think most of the teachers we now have are no good. We have to start firing the stragglers, the ones whose kids don't get high test scores. The theory is that—emulating Jack Welch at GE—we should fire the bottom 10 percent every year, and over time we will have a staff of "great" teachers because all the bums will be gone.

Recently, I attended a conference where a well-known scholar actually proposed this as the way school systems should function. Just keep firing the "weak" and replacing them with newbies. That way, the teaching force will get continually better. …

The great mystery is why so many people are so gullible about miracle cures when it comes to education. They certainly don't expect miracles in any other part of their life. But the schools just can't seem to shake this belief that all children will learn to the highest standards when: 1) all teachers are great teachers; 2) every school has a brilliant leader as principal; 3) every superintendent has an M.B.A.; 4) every school is run by entrepreneurs; 5) every school is organized around a theme; 6) every school is small; 7) all schools are charters.

In a subsequent column, The Miracle Teacher, Revisited, she directly addresses the weaknesses in Kristof’s argument:

If I read Kristof correctly, a "great" teacher is one who can produce higher test scores. We know that this can happen through relentless test-prepping. Is that what a great teacher does?

But if that is the definition of a great teacher, then we can't possibly identify them until they have had at least three, or better yet, five years in the classroom, so there is sufficient data showing that they produced dramatic gains in their classroom. So, that means that no new teacher—certainly no Teach for America teacher—could possibly be a great teacher, because we don't know whether they are great teachers until they have created a consistent record of big test score gains over three-five years.

Let's suppose that a district uses its data to identify the teachers who consistently produce big gains. What happens next? Do these teachers get assigned to the lowest-performing schools? Which children in those schools are assigned to these teachers? What happens to these teachers if they don't get the big gains in the next years? No one has tried to explain how this would be implemented, whether successful teachers would be willing to go wherever they are assigned, and how their services would be parceled out among many needy students.

Isn't it wonderful that we have economists with tons of data (but no practical experience) to tell us how to find and reward great teachers?

In support of his claim in the pre-eminent value of a great teacher, Kristof cites findings from “A Los Angeles study [that] suggested that four consecutive years of having a teacher from the top 25 percent of the pool would erase the black-white testing gap.” Yet in Gotham Schools, Skoolboy points out that this oft-repeated statistic is an urban legend, originally propounded by Gordon, Kane, and Staiger in a study of LA schools that has since proven to be wrong.

“As eduwonkette pointed out last summer, Brian Jacob and his colleagues have shown that these effects do not cumulate. Only about 20% of the effect remains after a single year, and only about 12% after two years. After two years, then, the 10 percentage point swing is down to about 1 percentage point.”

The LA study was written by three men, the first of whom, Robert Gordon, was hired by Klein to perform the “fair student funding” hit job on NYC schools and write nasty opeds in the Daily news, attacking public school parents for their “obsession” with class size. Gordon now works in the White House (alas!). The second author, Tom Kane, is now employed by the Gates foundation, undoubtedly propounding more myths, such as the key to improving our schools is better data collection and teacher performance pay.

Skoolboy further explains that “the vaunted value-added methods show that a teacher who is great’ one year may not be so hot the following year.” A recent report from the National Center on Performance Incentives reveals the substantial volatility of teacher performance.

In fact, one study from San Diego cited by the report shows that “35 percent of teachers initially ranked in the top quintile remain there in the second year while 30 percent fall into the first or second quintiles of the quality distribution in year two.” Apparently, even “using different tests can affect the stability of estimated teacher effects.”

Oh well. I don’t suppose anyone at the New York Times, the DOE, the White House, or the Gates Foundation is listening – that would be too lucky.


ed notes online said...

"Apparently, even “using different tests can affect the stability of estimated teacher effects."

Or different class sizes. In 1979 we had 3 6th grade classes, all with fairly low class sizes.

ed notes online said...

Sorry, I hit the send button. The numbers were from around 19 in the 6-3 class to about 27 in the 6-1. I had the 6-2 which was in the middle somewhere. For all of us the situation was a unique opportunity and I would guess by any measure of Teacher Quality we were better than ever.

But being a doom and gloom guy, from the first day, I expected them to not allow this to continue and that they would cut one class. I had the lowest seniority.

In Dec. the 3 classes were cut to 2 with each class having 35-37. The rest of the year was hell for both teachers. Naturally my class was the one cut. I had one student who 15 years later when she was a parent herself, used to complain about what happened.

I went into a special ed cluster position teaching 4 emotinally handicapped and one CRMD (mentally retarded class) a day. The class sizes were 10 with a para. It was my first experience with kids who could be irrational or such slow learners that someone like me with no training didn't have a clue how to teach. If someone checked my TQ factor they would have seen a serious drop from just a few weeks before.

Which goes to show that TQ is not an absolute, but a moving target that can change by the year, the month, the day, the hour.

Steve Koss said...

Nick Kristof has always had a disturbing penchant for helicoptering into a place for a few days and coming out with his latest "cause," whether its the global sex trade or schools in China (see especially his absurd column, "China's Super Kids," from November 22, 2002). So on the one hand, the American education system is failing for a lack of super teachers, while the system in China ostensibly threatens to bury us competitively.

Having spent a couple years in and around Chinese schools and teachers in Suzhou, a major and modern city about 50 miles west of Shanghai, I can attest that Mr. Kristof would be lucky to find a single super teacher anywhere in the country. You would be hard pressed to find worse teaching anywhere in the world, unless you consider reading to a class of 50 students directly from the textbook for 45 minutes to be super teaching.

Mr. Kristof, you can't have it both ways. Oops, I forgot. Dabblers with no background who parachute into "education" and become instant experts for the NY Times ARE allowed to have it both ways.

Anonymous said...

I'm not an education expert, just a parent of two kids in NYC public schools, but the Kristof article (as well as the Malcom Gladwell piece in the New Yorker last December) resonates with me because I've seen the difference having a great teacher, versus a bad or mediocre one, makes in how engaged my kids are and how much they learn. Attempting to quantify teacher "greatness" by standardized test scores may be doomed to fail but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be trying to figure out what makes a great teacher and try to get and keep those teachers for our schools.

Yo Mista said...

As much as I agree with the sentiment addressed by anonymous mom, I'd like to point out that how your children perform in terms of how much they learn is as much a burden on the student as it is for teachers.

As parents, you must emphasize to your children that just because you find a class boring or find a teacher to be mediocre, that doesn't mean that you can accept any lesser performance from your children.

To overcome a teacher's shortcomings in school means students have achieved an academic maturity that prepares them for the boring/apathetic college professors they're bound to have in the future.

It seems like there's this need for students to like their teachers for them to learn anything. That's not a requirement for learning and you as parents must identify this to your children as an important aspect in their academic development.

This is why reading Op-ed articles are silly. Especially on convoluted social issues like education. To get an accurate depiction of what the problem is and how to fix it can hardly be summarized in a newspaper.

Leonie Haimson said...

I would never argue that having a great teacher doesn't matter. The person who first taught me the importance of class size was my daughter's first grade teacher -- who was the best teacher she ever had.

But this teacher also said that she prayed for days when just one or two students were absent, because she was reach the rest of the class more effectively.

the truth is that even our best teachers cannot do their best with large classes, and average teachers are much more likely to succeed.

Until there is a fail-safe method to produce great teachers, class size reduction is our best bet to improve all students' opportunity to learn -- and give all teachers a better opportunity to teach.

Anonymous said...

I feel something that is not mentioned and something that I have seen a lot in the past 10 or so years in education is that it relies too much on parent involvement and that this seems to be a major reason of a bigger achievement gap the when I was a kid. Because of this you got the kids with the "perfect" parents doing way better then in my day in the 70s and kids with parents that are too busy, or children of immigrant parents, or children of parents that just don't care doing way worse then in my day.

I feel that one way to close this gap is to reroute education in a direction that is not reliant on parent involvement. Of course parents can involve themselves by their own choice as much as they want, but assignments and HW and everything should not be assigned with the assumption of parent involvement. And in elementary school that is all I see in every HW assignment and written letters. So of course the kids that have the great parents are going to come out way ahead then the ones that have parents that are not involved. And those children who have uninvolved parents are being punished twice by no choice of their own. Once for being born into the situation and another by the school who revolves the educations and assignments around parent involvement.

Now how to go about this is a different thing, I have one thought about it but that to me is one of the biggest problems making the achievement gap wider.

Anonymous said... continue
My child goes to a public school elementary school in Brooklyn where over half of the kids are from immigrant parents. My husband volunteered to interpret for the spanish speaking parents during parent teacher conferences and he said it was an eye opener. Even though those kids speak perfect english they can not compete at all with the kids with the involved parents. The parents would not understand any of the assignments, did not know how to check them and many of the parents didn't get home until 7pm anyway. They would ask the teacher through my husband, how am I supposed to check there HW or see if they have done it? I don't understand or read english. A lot of the kids didn't respect their parents that much either because their parents did not speak english like them and could actually talk to there brothers and sisters in "code" meaning english that their parents did not understand. The kids my husband saw were angry and did not respect their parents because their parents were never around and did not speak the language that they spent most of the day speaking in school.

NYC Educator said...

It's a minor point, but Kristof has been spouting nonsense about education for about two years now. Every few months he checks in with another absurd column about how teacher certification is preventing Meryl Streep and Colin Powell from becoming city teachers. If you're reading this, Ms. Streep and Mr. Powell, feel free to come and lecture my classes whenever you wish.

I'll sit while I wait, if you don't mind.

The Perimeter Primate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Perimeter Primate said...

Here in Oakland, Ca, my daughter had a 9th grade English teacher who we thought was great (at a struggling urban public school). The teacher, Ms. M, had high expectations, was rigorous, and could handle difficult students very well. I worked at a public middle school with a school secretary who had a daughter in that same class. Both she and her daughter HATED the teacher, big time. "She's way too hard," the secretary told me one day as she rolled her eyes.

Here are two parents with two completely opposing opinions about one teacher.

My daughter ended up as a valedictorian. The secretary's daughter eventually dropped out of high school and went to work at Macy's.

If parents are capable of determining if a teacher is "good" or not, was Ms. M. one of those really good teachers that Kristof talks about, or not?

Would it, or would it not, be better for the larger society if my daughter had been less challenged by that teacher, even though that other girl would have felt less turned off by school and had maybe even graduated?

The people fixated on teachers have no idea of the subtleties because they have not adequately experienced what goes on in these schools.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Kristof wonders why the "best" teachers from the "best" schools can't just be hired to teach at the toughest schools. Well, I was one of those "bad" teachers at one of the "worst" schools and now I am one of the "best" teachers at the highest-performing schools. I am the same teacher. The difference is my students, my parents, their expectations AND, the thing nobody mentions. You get to be a better teacher when you can actually PRACTICE TEACHING. What a concept. Instead of dealing with behavior problems all day and disturbances in the hall, I can actually teach. Why is it in every other profession people understand the value of practicing, but Kristof, etc., can't understand that simple concept?

Anonymous said...

"What a concept. Instead of dealing with behavior problems all day and disturbances in the hall, I can actually teach."

And here is the trauma, the older kids problems get more complicated and also the more angry the grown ups get at these kids. All of sudden these kids who were in Kindergarden who did not choose to be born into a certain neighborhood with certain parents that aren't around and don't care whose teachers and grown ups feel sorry for them and feel those little 4 year old and 5 year olds are helpless, well they get older and with each day that passes their anger and behavior turn worse and more complicated and caught up with other things, such as relationships and pregnancies. So by the time they are in Junior high they can be out of control but also they got more grown ups turning against them. Now thinking they choose to be "bad" but when they were younger because they were like little tiny dogs therefore not able to inflict much harm on adults, adults had more sympathy and empathy for them.

As I said earlier it is the parent involvement that really separates out kids and makes the achievement gap wider.

And so I think especially early education needs to be concentrated on and should not revolve around parent involvement. And during these early times starting early at 4 one hopes that through these very formative years that where the grown ups have less resentment towards their students that education can instill the value of learning to the kids and independence. And do this without revolving school work and assignments around parent involvement.

Of course it is great when a parent reads to their child, but in plenty of children do not have those parents. We can wish or try to get parents involved, even as Obama talked about yesterday, that is the key as he said. Yeah well, children don't have a choice and should not be punished because their gown up care takers are not doing the "right" thing. And school can not lay back on that assumption that they can force the care takers to do that.