What teacher research doesn't say

Teachers are the “most important factor” in students’ success, President Obama told the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He’s wrong, writes Linda Pearlstein, now blogging at The Educated Reporter. Researchers don’t say teacher quality is more important than what parents are doing at home.

Of the various factors inside school, teacher quality has had more effect on student scores than any other that has been measured. (Principal quality: Nobody’s effectively isolated this yet, that I know of, but I’d venture to guess it makes as much if not more of a difference.) And that an effective teacher can move students of all backgrounds forward. Certainly nobody has ever proven that good teaching matters more than, say, genetic endowment, or home environment.

I’d like to see more foundation money go into looking for ways to help “at risk parents” do better with their kids. In my years of reporting on poverty and my work on Our School, I met many parents who didn’t understand what they could do to help their kids succeed in school and stay away from gangs.

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  1. The government can affect teacher quality. It can promulgate policies which will weed out ineffective teachers, and encourage bright young people to consider a career in teaching.

    I don’t see that the line of argument, “family background matters more,” is very productive. Maybe it has a great influence, but it’s outside the realm of government control, as it should be. Government can’t meddle with genetic material, nor can it improve family structures. Do we want governmentally directed eugenic campaigns? (No.) Do we want to go back to the days of persecution of illegitimate children and “loose women?” (No.)

  2. Margo/Mom says:

    I don’t know that there’s a lot of mileage to be gained from trying to decide whether teachers or parents bear a greater share of responsibility for student lack of success. Certainly research bears out that good parenting gets a bigger bang for the buck in schools that are doing well. As one researcher put it, the efforts of low-income parents are not sufficient to overcome bad schools. And in terms of school related work that occurs at home–the most powerful and also the most invisible–the research shows as much, if not more, of it going on in the homes that we categorically consdider to be at risk.

    To my mind the most promising efforts may have to be led from outside the school, and focus on rallying parents to call for school reform. Historically this has had sporadic success. I don’t know if there is anything left of Moms on the Move (MOM) in NYC. Harvard’s Family Project has led and studied some of these. I have read an evaluation of at least on university led project in California.

    In the end, it takes cohesive efforts of parents and teachers–not only in the one-to-one as we are accustomed to envisioning the relationship–but in collaborative groups aimed not on what is wrong with this child, this teacher, this parent, but on the ways in which the school, or district, overall, can better meet the needs of all children, families and the community.

  3. Districts, schools and government can help foster those kinds of collaborative groups by aligning their initiatives and resources more effectively. This does not raise the specter of social engineering by government.

  4. I left the following comment on Linda’s site.

    When I read President Obama’s comments, I assumed he was talking about the school environment – not life in general. Consider this line:

    “From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents, it’s the person standing at the front of the classroom.”

    … from the moment students enter a school, not from the moment kids pop out of the womb. In the context of that part of his speech – which is about recruiting and preparing excellent, talented teachers – it’s difficult to read his speech the way you [Linda] have. There is absolutely no confusion in the paragraph you cite about what President Obama does and doesn’t refer to.

    Since we’re playing “gotcha” journalism, I’ll say no, Linda – “you’re wrong.”

  5. Quoth Parent2:

    Government can’t meddle with genetic material, nor can it improve family structures. Do we want governmentally directed eugenic campaigns? (No.)

    I’d modify that to “maybe, indirectly”.  We certainly can adjust rewards and punishments for various behaviors, and removing any reward (and perhaps adding punishments) for bringing children into a situation where education and financial support are inadequate would push good behavior and maybe weed out those people who are genetically indisposed toward it.


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