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"Bad Teachers"

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Please insert standard apology for not blogging in a while here.

To return to my interrupted stream of posts, I assume everyone has heard that Michelle Rhee has gotten herself into a spot of trouble. USA Today is reporting that one of Rhee’s “star” programs is most likely guilty to cheating to improve their standardized test scores. This is precisely the problem I wrote about a few weeks ago: standardized testing as a diagnostic tool is great, but standardized testing as a means of punishing particular districts, schools, or (most especially) individual teachers is a terrible, awful, no-good idea. Gosh, no one could have predicted…wait, I predicted it! I mean, how about this for a conundrum: when you design a high-stakes testing system, who is going to implement the tests? The school districts, and most frequently the teachers. All right, so who gets in trouble if the test scores are below expectations? Why, the teachers. Congratulations and welcome to your gigantic conflict of interest. Under the proposed regime, everyone in the educational system has an incentive to cheat – superintendents, principals, teachers, everybody. There’s a word for this sort of thing on the internets that I think is a good fit: epic fail.

Today’s critique of Matt Yglesias’ latest post on education: in response to criticism of Rhee and the use of high stakes testing, Matt points out that a large proportion of students perform very poorly on standardized tests. I believe this is what his philosophy professors would have called a non sequitur. He assuming the premise that high stakes testing is a means to improving educational performance – which is the very thing that critics of neoliberal education reform are contesting.

Oh, and do remember the nice things I said about the KIPP charter schools a few weeks ago? I might have to take it back - it turns out that they get more money and have higher turnover among students than regular public schools. Hence, their superior performance is called into question. (h/t Oliver Willis)

And now at last I shall return to the topic I promised to discuss two weeks ago: the focus on bad teachers. One of the latest fads of neoliberals is to focus on the problem of eliminating bad teachers from the classroom. The logic goes something like this:

1) research suggests that teacher quality is a key ingredient in student performance

2) given that some teachers are much worse than others, if we can get rid of weaker teachers then student performance will improve

2) collective bargaining agreements guarantee due process, making it difficult to eliminate teachers

3) therefore, by eliminating collective bargaining and making it easier to fire teachers, you can increase student performance.

Now there is definitely something to point #1. Teachers certainly have an effect on student performance. Eric Hanushek, one of the leaders in this field, has a good review here. Now where Hanushek gets really aggressive is with the idea that if you replace “bad” teachers with “good” ones you will necessarily improve student achievement. Well, maybe, assuming you have a good mechanism for identifying good teachers in a fair way. Which as I suggested before, we don’t. I’d like to take this opportunity to throw in one more piece of evidence that the teacher accountability systems that use the VAM are questionable: Rothstein’s recent article in which he uses future teacher effects to predict how students did in the past. Sounds crazy right? Well it is – that’s what Rothstein is tested, whether the VAM results were taking into account student sorting by teacher. I’ll let you guess what he found.

What we also don’t have is any research that tests what happens when we put this policy into practice. I for one am profoundly worried at the potential spillover effects on the rest of the teaching force at the focus on firing teachers rather than improving them, with respect to morale, retention, and recruitment. Furthermore, I have yet to see any evidence that the spillover effect from bad teachers is worse than the spillover effect from less effective employees in other professions. It’s also a real question whether the effects of a bad teacher in one grade are permanent, or whether future mediocre or good teachers would dilute/nullify their effects. As you can see there’s a ton we don’t know and haven’t studied carefully. Now we do have one field test of what happens when teachers don’t have due process protections: they’re called charter schools, and the result has been higher teacher turnover and efforts at unionization.

So what we have is a neoliberal proposal, championed by political conservatives, that might have a theoretical effect on the academic performance of some students, but for which there is no clear basis in the research literature and has never been adequately tested. Again.

Next time: teacher tenure.

Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:34 AM
  • It's so difficult to know what to do. I'm a staunch union supporter, but when I hear about 70% of a class failing in a subject, I have to figure that is the teacher's fault. Whether a teacher can be improved or not, to me, is secondary to the fact that a class of students is not getting the education they deserve. But I'd still prefer some objective metric to determine employment and pay scale, rather than leave it up to individuals who might base their decisions on petty, irrelevant factors.

    Still, it's tough to figure out how to make things work. It's just so depressing that the educational system in this country is in such a sorry state, and has been allowed to remain so for decades.

    In all this time, how is it possible that we have not been able to figure this out? Surely it is not only a teacher problem, and I don't believe it is mostly a funding problem either. We are missing a basic, crucial approach to education and people in control need to start figuring this out. Maybe look to countries with better success for some pointers.

    By Blogger Rebecca, at 9:22 AM  
  • So that I understand, you really don't think that #2 holds any weight? Really? Clearly, removal of lower performers in the ABSENCE of performance development efforts is a recipe for low morale and lower performance, but removal of low performers is something that school leadership should be able to do.

    I'm not so sure that measurement of what great teaching is can be standardized across all disciplines, student ages and a tremendous host of other contextual variables. I don't love the sole use of student standardized test results for this purpose. As such, I stand by the importance of having great leaders in place that are willing to and capable of assessing teacher performance within the full context of the situation.

    Policies and systems that get in the way of great leaders' ability to engender a high-performance / high-morale learning culture should be removed. This includes the previous commenter's suggestion for objective metrics for compensation/employment decisions. Sure, this may help protect teachers from incapable leaders, but it constrains effective leaders. Any policy that punishes the right-doers as much, if not more than, the wrong-doers is poorly conceived.

    On a related note, yes, leadership skill and capability can be developed, so just as there is a call to develop teachers, there should be efforts to build and attract great education leadership.

    By Blogger Alicia Parr, at 12:04 PM  
  • I think making the survival of our educational system dependent upon "great leaders" is one of the most naive things I've ever heard. Anyone with the least bit of experience in an average working environment should be aware of the kind of politics and favoritism that is the norm. This is what unions were created to prevent.

    Having a majority of teachers and administrators demonstrate a high degree of competency is about the most anyone can realistically hope for in a system the size of the one that exists in this country. Simply, our approach to education does not work. And we would be much better off trying to find one that does, within a framework of average human capabilities, than chasing some ideal of instilling great leadership qualities into school principals.

    By Blogger Rebecca, at 12:17 PM  
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