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Are Teachers the Most Important Variable?

May 5, 2011

About two weeks ago, Joe Nocera (who has co-written an excellent book on the financial crisis called All the Devils Are Here — a great read which I highly recommend) took it upon himself, as many other high-profile business writers have as well, to write about education.  Agree with him or not, I gotta ask: What’s with all these business writers suddenly offering policy stances on education?  Diane Ravitch might be a bit too loudly insistent on some things from time to time now (since her road-to-Damascus-like conversion), but her alarm over the corporatization of public education in America may be well worth heeding, I gotta say.

Where was I?

Right: Joe Nocera.  Essentially, Nocera makes the point that teachers and schools can only do so much.  That’s why you hear that teachers are the “most important school-based variable” all the time.  (A lot of other times, however, you just get the very misleading shorthand version, like from our own SCORE: “Of all of the factors that determine how much a student learns, research has shown that teachers are the most important“).  No one really points out that school-based variables, though there’s some disagreement about this, make up less than 50% of what (appears to) explain student achievement.  Teachers are just the most important one within the school.  Here’s Joe’s point:

The point is obvious, or at least it should be: Good teaching alone can’t overcome the many obstacles Saquan faces when he is not in school. Nor is he unusual. Mahler recounts how M.S. 223 gives away goodie bags to lure parents to parent association meetings, yet barely a dozen show up. He reports that during the summer, some students fall back a full year in reading comprehension — because they don’t read at home.

Going back to the famous Coleman report in the 1960s, social scientists have contended — and unquestionably proved — that students’ socioeconomic backgrounds vastly outweigh what goes on in the school as factors in determining how much they learn. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute lists dozens of reasons why this is so, from the more frequent illness and stress poor students suffer, to the fact that they don’t hear the large vocabularies that middle-class children hear at home.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Coleman Report was commissioned post-Brown v. Board to discover, essentially, the sources of the achievement gap and what to do about them.  The focus was supposed to be on funding.  But the Report, though roundly criticized and picked-apart over the years, demonstrated, many still feel rather conclusively, that school-based factors only account for about 1/3 of student achievement.  Of course, the gathering and use of the Coleman data has been criticized, and has been subjected to later, “more sophisticated” analysis.  Even so, later analysis still comes up with 40% of student achievement explainable by school-based factors and 60% based on home life, peers, socioeconomic status, etc.  So, what do we do with that?  Here’s where Nocera and I part ways:

Yet the reformers act as if a student’s home life is irrelevant. “There is no question that family engagement can matter,” said Klein when I spoke to him. “But they seem to be saying that poverty is destiny, so let’s go home. We don’t yet know how much education can overcome poverty,” he insisted — notwithstanding the voluminous studies that have been done on the subject. “To let us off the hook prematurely seems, to me, to play into the hands of the other side.”

That last sentence strikes me as the key to the reformers’ resistance: To admit the importance of a student’s background, they fear, is to give ammo to the enemy — which to them are their social-scientist critics and the teachers’ unions. But that shouldn’t be the case. Making schools better is always a goal worth striving for, whether it means improving pedagogy itself or being able to fire bad teachers more easily. Without question, school reform has already achieved some real, though moderate, progress.

What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that school reform won’t fix everything. Though some poor students will succeed, others will fail. Demonizing teachers for the failures of poor students, and pretending that reforming the schools is all that is needed, as the reformers tend to do, is both misguided and counterproductive.

Over the long term, fixing our schools is going to involve a lot more than, well, just fixing our schools. In the short term, however, the reform movement could use something else: a dose of humility about what it can accomplish — and what it can’t.

Nocera thinks that reformers want to (1) ignore background and (2) hold teachers accountable to an impossible standard and destroy them when they can’t succeed.

Nocera is dead wrong.

A lot of this has been covered by Andy Rotherham over at Eduwonk, but here’s the key point: School reformers know what they have control of, and what they don’t.  They know that they can build relationships with parents, give kids good food to eat at school, provide books and supplies, etc., but they know that, in the end, they can’t be there all the time.  They can’t be parents.  They can’t remake the neighborhood (unless you’re Geoffrey Canada).  So, in the face of the wrenchingly intractable problem of poverty in this country, what do you do?

You focus on the things you can control.  Things like teacher quality, principal quality, school culture, etc.  That is why reformers focus on teachers.  It’s not that they “fear” that admitting that non-school factors play a huge role in student achievement will be “giving ammo” to the “enemy” that teachers’ unions apparently are (another thing: I hate the growing assumption that all “reformers” are anti-union; that’s simply not the case.  I consider myself a reformer, but as I think I’ve demonstrated on this blog, I’m very supportive of unions).

Reformers’ basic worry is that focusing on things they can’t control will act as an excuse.  Look: Some students will have overwhelming problems that can’t be solved by the best teacher in the world.  That’s true.  We need to figure out how to avoid slamming teachers/principals/school that have this problem.

But, some teachers may not be doing all the things they could be doing, or doing some things wrong, and that is the reason the student isn’t learning.  In that case, we can’t let that teacher/principal/school/district simply say, “Oh — well, they have a terrible home life, so we’ve done the best we can.”  That’s passing the buck.  This isn’t to say that we should punish the teacher.  That’s stupid and unproductive.  I’m well on the record as a “develop the committed teachers we have (and fire a very few)” rather than try to fire our way to success, which will never work. However, in order to get better, teachers/principals/schools/districts need to (1) have high standards and (2) be self-reflective.  We can’t afford to let ourselves off the hook, or even give ourselves the option.

So, to answer the question in the title: Are teachers the most important variable in affecting student achievement?  Yes and no.  Given everything we know about how student achievement is affected by non-school based variables such as home life and socioeconomic status, teachers are not the single most important variable contributing to student achievement.  On the other hand, teachers are the most important variable we can control, at least right now.  What would be the biggest boost to end the minority, immigrant, and SES achievement gaps?  Ending poverty.  School reformers have decided that that looks like a task that’s not going to happen anytime soon.  Given that reality, they’ve decided to focus on what they can get at, and done well (I know: That’s a big proviso), there’s nothing wrong with that.

Edited 6:40 am (grammar, added link, added art)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Anne-Marie permalink
    May 19, 2011 9:05 pm

    Thanks for the post. The trouble I see with a lot of education “reform” efforts is that the flag is being carried by those with a real right-wing agenda or with very little understanding of learning. Under the banner of reform, we hear that schools are actually overfunded, that interventions for early education, poverty programs, etc. don’t matter and we shouldn’t keep paying for them (a good teacher somewhere down the road will cure all that!), that standardized tests measure everything that counts (and we need them younger and more frequently), and that yes, we can fire our way to an excellent educational system. I think that often political agendas that hurt children are being glossed over with the pretense of being education reform. These messages dominate the conversation right now, largely because people who promote these ideas scream the loudest. What I rarely hear is any pushback against these ideas from those “reformers” with the largest audience. In fact, we get statements like the one you mentioned from SCORE that, frankly, are just incorrect. That’s why, although I’m very interested in how to improve teacher training and effectiveness, and how to design the best systems, my I increasingly cringe every time I hear the phrase “education reform.”

    • May 20, 2011 10:56 am

      Thanks so much for your insightful comments; very well put. I have a hard time myself disentangling political agendas from those good-hearted folks who just have terrible (or incomplete) ideas. I do lament the fact that “education reform” has become all the rage these days — not so much because of a turf war thing (i.e., “I know what I’m talking about — you need to back off because you have no experience/training in this”), but for exactly the reasons you point out. As a consequence of EVERYONE (including business writers, billionaires, economists, conservative think-tanks, liberal think-tanks, etc.) jumping into the fray, all the nuance, healthy (and accurate) debate, and research-based discussion just gets left in the dust in favor of 72-point declarative sentences and talking points.

      Not to be a downer or anything.

      I’m generally an optimist, and know a lot of smart people out there who don’t go to bat simply for talking points — people who are willing to discuss and investigate ideas and proposals not their own or which are contrary to their first impulse. It’s a tough world out there, but as long as there are thoughtful and dedicated people around, I’m willing to carry on.


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