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
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
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.