Good teachers make a difference

Very good teachers can compensate for not-so-good parents, argues Eric Hanushek in a Children of the Code interview.

If you make the most conservative estimates possible, we find that if you have a good teacher, meaning a teacher that’s at the 85th percentile or one standard deviation above the mean. If you had a good teacher five years in a row, you could completely make up for the difference between low-income and middle income achievement, on average. Having good teachers a number of years in a row can offset the disadvantages that some kids have from being less prepared coming to school and from their families not giving them the same start.

The ways we judge teacher quality don’t correlate well to ability to raise student achievement, he says.

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  1. I couldn’t agree more; the problem is turnover, failed school levies and bumping teachers around from grade to grade to subject to subject. I don’t know the answer, but I do know we need some teacher retention programs and consistency in schools.

  2. Mrs. Davis says:

    You could knock me over with a feather. I always thought teachers were irrelevant /sarc

    The more important quote in the interview was:

    The U.S. has grown well in the past, because it has lots of things going for it. It has free and open markets, unregulated markets for labor and products. It has little regulation. These are things that affect growth rates.

    We’ve ignored the growing importance of school quality, so other nations are catching up in terms of opening up their markets, cutting down on regulations, and providing more quantity of schooling. Few people in society realize that the U.S. is only at the middle of the developed countries in terms of the quantity of schooling our population gets. European and Asian nations pushed hard at increasing how much schooling people get, and they’ve done it while maintaining quality.

    The U.S. is starting to face a situation where we are not that competitive, in terms of either the quantity or quality of schooling that we’re providing our population.

  3. Rusha Sams says:

    It’s not just “good teachers make the difference”; it’s that good teachers make ALL the difference. In Tennessee, we’re familiar with Value Added scores based on teacher effect. What we’ve been told is this: If a student has 2 years of weak instruction not targeted to standards, he/she will be behind for years to come. The teacher effect is, in my opinion, more powerful than socio-economic factors, parenting, a school’s physical plant, and even the textbooks students use. We need to hug good teachers…and encourage them to continue doing what they do best: improving the quality and quantity of student learning!

  4. That good teachers make a difference should be obvious. Now the hard part, how to make sure that kids have a chance of getting good teachers. The idea of a kid getting five years of good teachers (in a row, no less) would be wonderful. I thought the conventional wisdom was that a child was lucky to get two good teachers over the course of a K-8 education.

    But…to have in place an opportunity for kids to get five years of good teachers, I suspect that you would need to be able to:

    1. identify the good teachers and the bad teachers
    2. reward the good teachers
    3. get rid of the bad teachers

    I suspect most parents know who the good and bad teachers are. They certainly do at my kids school. But items 2 and 3 are the most difficult if not impossible.

    re: “Very good teachers can compensate for not-so-good parents” I wonder/hope the converse is true “Very good parents can compensate for not-so-good teachers” I certainly hope it is. And that my kids have good enough parents.

  5. Jane, you make some excellent suggestions. My only point of contention is with your belief that parents know the difference in good and bad teachers. I think you give a bit too much credit.

    I’ve found that the average parent has absolutely no idea what I do in the classroom. Some laud my efforts, when I do nothing more than email them a progress report. Others vilify nationally-recognized interdisciplinary projects that my colleagues and I have spent tireless hours planning and executing.

    As far as very good parents compensating for bad teachers, I don’t know. Let’s hope so.

  6. Mrs. Davis says:

    Remember this is a comment about the Coleman Report and how to get teachers to make up for the difference in low income and middle income achievement. That took identifying the 5 best teachers from a population of 33 teachers and assigning them to the least capable, least prepared and least motivated students. Sound likely? Not with this union.

    What are you going to do with the other 28 teachers? Give them to the middle and upper income children? I’m sure their parents will be willing to settle for the second best teachers. How will you fill the open positions when it’s look to the left, look to the right, look in front, look behind; somebody else will be left here in two years? That’s worse than public accounting. And it’s not a formula to get better results.

    So how about focusing on reducing the number of children in low income situations? I’d bet we could do a lot more to improve scores by stigmatizing and penalizing those who produce illegitimate children. And how about a divorce fee, sort of like real estate developers’ fees, to cover the cost to society of the now single-parent-child put into poverty as a result of abandonment by a parent.

  7. Good teachers are the key.

    Bad governance interferes with teachers being good, and with good teachers staying.

    I’ve experienced quite a few bad administrators who are bad for these reasons:

    1. They are poorly educated and not very bright, and can’t tell the difference between thought and cant.
    2. They are poor politicians in an overly politicized environment, running scared from belligerent students and noisy parents
    3. Their focus is on a thousand things besides teaching and learning, so they don’t organize their work day around these things: supporting good teachers by ensuring they have a coherent teaching assignment, the necessary materials, and the authority to teach

    I would suggest these changes:

    1. Require all prospective principals to pass at least three high school advanced placement courses in different subjects, to ensure the educational leaders know at least as much as the bright students
    2. Work for governance models, via charters and vouchers, that allow professional educators rather than political boards to be the final deciders of school policies, while parents keep their freedom by having choice rather than by becoming little activists applying pressure to timid administrators

  8. Charles R. Williams says:

    It may be true that staffing our schools with super-teachers would erase differences in student achievement arising from SES. This isn’t going to happen because it can’t happen. There just are not enough super-teachers to go around. Where do super-teachers come from? I suppose most of them spent years on the job making mistakes and learning from their failures. For that matter, how hard do super-teachers work? I imagine they put in long, long hours. Few people are in a position to do this for a decades-long career due to reasons of health, physical stamina, family obligations and changing personal interests. Would even super-teachers stick around if they were required as a condition of employment to do those things they now voluntarily choose to do out of personal dedication?

    Yes, we would have much better schools if we could clone our top performing teachers. What else is new?

  9. “If you had a good teacher five years in a row, you could completely make up for the difference between low-income and middle income achievement, on average.”

    How about if the middle income students had a good teacher also, or do we have to ensure that middle income kids only have poor to average teachers?

  10. I certainly agree that good teachers are key. In fact, lack of really good teachers (in sufficient numbers) is one of the top two or three problems in education today. However, I agree with Rory’s point. If you give equally good teachers to good students and to poor students, the kids from the better homes are still going to outperform the kids from the bad homes.

    The implication of Hanushek’s comments are that lousy students should get the good teachers and the bright students should get the lousy teachers. If all we care about is equalizing the results in the system (which seems to be the obsession of the political Left), then this might be a reasonable approach. If we care about the future of our society, though, we’ll elevate teacher standards across the board and give ALL kids better teachers, to the degree possible.

    Of course, this would require doing away with schools of education and letting teachers learn actual academic material, so that’s probably just a utopian fantasy. 🙂

  11. @Mark Barnes I think you give too much credit..
    “I’ve found that the average parent has absolutely no idea what I do in the classroom. Some laud my efforts, when I do nothing more than email them a progress report.” I suspect the average parent knows more than they say to the teachers. It just isn’t safe to say too much. If my kids teachers would email home progress reports I would laud them too. I would be even more happy is my kids managed to make a years’ progress in a year’s time.

    @ Mrs. Davis I’m middle income. If I could be assured that my children did not get a bad teacher, I would settle for the second best teachers.

    So, we have a shortage of good teachers…How about pay the good teachers more and let the parents decide where to send there kids to school.

  12. Also? If you have a school district with good teachers and bad teachers as well as good parents and bad parents, the good parents are going to do what they can to make sure that their children get the good teachers! … Or at least what are PERCEIVED as the good teachers! 😉

  13. SuperSub says:

    Let us not forget that the first “teachers” are the parents. With good parents students will not be 2-3 years behind when they begin schooling.

    I’m not diverting responsibility, but reminding everyone that this is a multi-faceted problem and all areas need to be addressed.

  14. There’s an objective measure that differentiates teachers based on teaching skill? This is good news.

    Uhh, does this measure have a name or is it just a good idea? I mean, as long as we’re throwing “standard deviations” and such around shouldn’t we know the name of the method by which teaching skill is determined?

  15. Allen, teaching skill is determined by how much teachers have raised students’ test scores in the past. It’s called “value-added” analysis.

    Hanushek talks about this in the interview:

    Dr. Eric Hanushek: “The quality of teachers is essential and has a huge impact on student achievement, but this is hard to measure. People want to measure teacher quality in simple terms, by their backgrounds or other easily observed characteristics. They are not good measures of teacher effectiveness. The phrase “quality of teachers” means a person who gets higher rates of achievement out of students than other teachers. There are teachers who get high rates of learning out of their students each year, and some do not.

    . . . Behind all my statements about teacher quality are complicated statistical analyses designed to make sure we know it is the teacher and not other characteristics of the classroom. We look at the same teachers with different groups of students and see if they consistently get achievement improvements. We look at individual students and see whether they learn more with some teachers than with others. By looking at those two things, we narrow the variables to the impact of teachers, as opposed to the impact of the students themselves.”

  16. With good parents students will not be 2-3 years behind when they begin schooling.

    Behind what? I believe part of the problem with the current system is that children are not treated as individuals, but as products that must all meet up to some arbitrary standard of quality control, and if they don’t, they are labeled for the rest of their academic lives. Why not just tattoo “Nimrod” on their little foreheads and be done with it?

    Studies have been done (check out The Moore Foundation) that show some children, especially boys, are not developmentally ready for formal schooling until 7-8-9 years old. I believe that and proved it to myself by waiting until my boys were 8 years old to start ‘school’. The first two went from 1st grade to seventh grade in 3-4 years. I have an 11 yob ready to start Algebra. They aren’t anything special or different- I was able (because I home educate) to wait until I believed they were ready for formal schooling. Try that in a system where there is NO flexibility or allowances for individual needs and abilities.

    There really should be a process whereby those in education programs are tested for their affinity for children and their communication skills (two things that are indicators of successful teachers), where talented teachers are allowed to excel and dysfunctional teachers are eliminated, where teachers and parents can have a major impact on the system, and where parents have recourse when their child is having problems in the classroom. Kids should be allowed to work at their own level without pressure, shame, and labels.

    Let’s face it- the system overall is not set up to nurture and educate children, but to garner power for educrats and to push children through an academic sausage grinder.

  17. Oh, I understand what teaching skill is, I was remarking on Dr. Hanushek’s claim to an objective method of measuring teaching skill.

    Perhaps I was being a bit too liberal in my interpretation of his use of terms like “standard deviation” and “percentiles” but the terms create the impression that Dr. Hanushek is laying claim to an objective method of measuring teaching skill.

    If that’s not the case, if he isn’t claiming to have developed an objective means of measuring teaching skill then it seems all he’s doing is belaboring the obvious. After all, who doubts that teaching skill has an effect on learning? But an objective means of determining which teachers possess superior skills, without having to wait to see which ones have movies made about them, would be a worthwhile capability.

    Not that it would have much impact on the public education system of course. But it would enable the selection of the superior practitioners by schools in which teaching skill is professionally valued. As it is, teaching skill, like class, is one of those things that everyone can recognize and no one can measure.

  18. @Mark Barnes: “Some laud my efforts, when I do nothing more than email them a progress report.”

    Good; they’re right. Do more of that. Good ideas do not necessarily require hard work.

    @Mark Barnes: “Others vilify nationally-recognized interdisciplinary projects that my colleagues and I have spent tireless hours planning and executing.”

    Similarly, hard work does not necessarily mean the idea behind that work is a good one or that the work invested was invested wisely. “[N]ationally-recognized interdisciplinary project[]” is not necessarily a code phrase for “pointless, makework, feelgood waste of time”, but it’s the way to bet.

    Do less of that.

    Sounds like your parents are smarter than you think they are.