Right Thinking From The Left Coast
The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it - Henry David Thoreau

Monday, August 16, 2010

It’s The Teachers, Stupid

The LA Times confirms what I and a lot of people have always thought:

In Los Angeles and across the country, education officials have long known of the often huge disparities among teachers. They’ve seen the indelible effects, for good and ill, on children. But rather than analyze and address these disparities, they have opted mostly to ignore them.

Most districts act as though one teacher is about as good as another. As a result, the most effective teachers often go unrecognized, the keys to their success rarely studied. Ineffective teachers often face no consequences and get no extra help.


Seeking to shed light on the problem, The Times obtained seven years of math and English test scores from the Los Angeles Unified School District and used the information to estimate the effectiveness of L.A. teachers — something the district could do but has not.

The Times used a statistical approach known as value-added analysis, which rates teachers based on their students’ progress on standardized tests from year to year. Each student’s performance is compared with his or her own in past years, which largely controls for outside influences often blamed for academic failure: poverty, prior learning and other factors.

This value-added analysis has become very popular lately.  It’s not bulletproof, but it is useful.  Michelle Rhee recently used it to fire 26 teachers from the Washington school district.  And even the Obama Administration is interested in using it.

This article examines the performance of more than 6,000 third- through fifth-grade teachers for whom reliable data were available.

A few caveats apply.  This may be a better measurement of the ability to “teach to the test” than to teach kids.  I have become very dubious of standardizing testing in recent years because I’ve seen schools putting all their effort into educating the dumbest kids while the smartest spend their time preparing for the test so that they can ace it.  I’m concerned that the obsession with testing is hindering the progression of the brightest students—those we need to be the engineers, scientists and doctors of the future.  And I can’t find the article, but I read a recent study about how creativity scores—scores that measure the ability of the brain to invent new ideas—have been falling in recent years.

That caveat aside, what the Times has found here is amazing.  The difference between a good and a bad teacher can be 17-25 points of performance in a single year. The best teachers were not confined to the affluent areas but were spread throughout.  The also found that race, wealth and even previous learning were minor factors.  I find the latter point to be very counter-intuitive since I’ve also seen a stark difference in the performance of children whose parents care and the performance of those whose parents don’t give a shit.

Read the whole thing.  It jibes with my own experience in the education system—that the difference between a student who excels and one who fails can often be their teacher.  I was lucky.  I had good teachers.  Many others are not so lucky.

The effect of a bad teacher can be devastating to someone’s education because knowledge is built like a pyramid.  What is learned each year builds on what was learned before.  This is especially true in math and science, the subjects where US performance is the worst.  The last math class I took in college was on partial differential equations.  To get to that advanced level, I had to learn, going backward, ordinary differential equations, linear algebra, calculus, trigonometry, algebra, multiplication and division, adding and subtracting and counting.  Had any of those steps occurred under a bad teacher, I might never have gotten as a far as I did.  But from my first grade class to my mathematics prof, I had good teachers throughout.

This is why the low rate of teacher firings and the inability of districts to even identify bad teachers (the data the Times used was available to the district; they could not use it) is of such concern to conservatives and libertarians.  Because it represents a system that is uninterested in performance.  But honest teacher evaluation is the one thing that the unions (but not necessarily their members) are dead set against.  When this story came out, the union head responded by calling for a boycott of the LA Times.  Yeah, asshole.  Like a potential drop in circulation is going to scare a newspaper these days.

But in the end, they are hurting their own members.  Bad teachers need to know that they’re bad.  It’s the only way they can improve (or move on to something they’re good at).  The Times interviews two dedicated but poorly performing teachers who responded to their bad scores by saying they needed to re-evaluate their methods.

I’d prefer to leave teacher evaluation in the hands of principals, rather than standardized tests, as I noted before.  Give the local school districts more autonomy but more responsibility.  And I’m a big proponent of school choice, which might obviate a lot of the necessity for complex top-down solutions.  But the Times has done a great public service here, in unveiling the massive disparities in teacher ability and the impact that has on kids.  Well done.

Posted by Hal_10000 on 08/16/10 at 08:11 PM in Politics   Law, & Economics  • (0) TrackbacksPermalink
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