The good-teacher diet

High-value-added teachers raise students’ scores, but the gains fade in later years, complains economist Jesse Rothstein in a review of a recent Gates Foundation report.

Duh, responds Stuart Buck.

Would anyone suggest that the value of vigorous exercise is somehow discredited because a vigorous exercise program has the most effect only in the year that it is actually followed, but its effects mostly disappear after the individual stops exercising?

. . . Would anyone be surprised to find that a healthy diet enabled people to lose weight only when they actually followed the diet, but didn’t have permanent effects that allowed people to quit the diet and eat whatever they wanted therafter?

Well, yes. My ex-husband, who’s turning 60 in a few days, lost a lot of weight about 10 years ago through diet and exercise. Now he’s gained some back and complains that he needs four blood-pressure medications. I suggested he walk every day for exercise.

“I have an app for that!” he said.

“Do you walk?”

“No. But I have the app.”

About Joanne


  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Mr. Buck is a very smart fellow, but he’s drinking the party Kool-Aid on this one.

    The reason that many “value added” teachers’ gains fade is because they aren’t actually teaching anything. What they are doing instead is glorified Kaplan ™ test prep.

    A teacher who actually teaches, you know, a subject, which is to say, a body of connected and useful knowledge, rather than a disconnected series of facts, algorithms, and conditioned responses, will see results that last for decades.

    Learning isn’t like weight loss. It isn’t like vitamins. They goal of learning should be lasting change, not constant maintenance. That’s not what people mean when they say that learning is a lifelong project: they mean to say that you should continue learning new things the whole life long.

  2. Michael– on the other hand, habits of mind DO need to be maintained. If you have one demanding teacher in third grade, and then have puff-classes so that you never have work again, you WILL lose any gains, at least relative to the students who’ve had a better education.

    If you stagnate at “above average for third grade” you may well end up “below average for twelfth.”

  3. I agree with Michael. Real learning becomes part of the brain’s permanent architecture –its piers, buttresses, vaults and tracery.
    Deidre –work per se does not build this architecture. Work that involves hoisting blocks of knowledge into place does build this architecture.

    Or to go to the original diet metaphor: a triathlete training program will not yield strength and fitness if the trainees are fed on Twinkies. The program must go hand-in-hand with a nutritious diet for muscle-building to occur.

  4. A good teacher is like a hit of high-octane gas. The boost will put you ahead, and you will stay ahead of children who never had a good teacher, but the effects will fade compared to children who continue to experience good teaching.

  5. Oh, stop. If a teacher genuinely raised a student’s reading ability, the results wouldn’t fade. But nor would they make the student learn how to read any better in the future.

  6. I agree with Cal. Please stop. These torturned analogies are killing me.

  7. The concern isn’t so much that the learning fades, but that it’s artificial, and actually makes learning harder down the road.

    To use the exercise analogy, the concern is that the ‘high value add’ teachers are like steroids, which help you muscle up for the big game, but actually make it more difficult to get into and stay in shape later in life.

    Instead of focusing on building muscles and special conditioning, a person who wants a lifetime of healthy living will focus on developing good habits, even at the expense of short-term gains.

  8. Roger Sweeny says:

    Buck is referring to a study of elementary school math and reading.

    The learning may be real. The “value added” may be real. However, if the students who did so well one year because of a great teacher are then randomly assigned to classes the next year, they will almost certainly begin to lose their advantage. Their future teachers, unless they are extraordinary, will have to teach to the average student, and the students who shot ahead will begin to “regress to the mean.”

  9. tim-10-ber says:

    Isn’t the point that students need excellent teachers EVERY year not just every so often…I think it is and that was my expectation of government schools. Man was I disappointed! Rarely ever had excellent teachers and definitely never two or three years in a row!

  10. Michael E. Lopez says:

    What works best, and what is seldom if ever realized, is for students to have the same excellent teacher for, say, 3 years in a row in high school. Or perhaps even all 4. That allows the teacher to craft a 3- or 4-year long program, to get to know his orher students’ capabilities, and to work towards definite, well-defined goals over a long period of time.

    Most students just jump from one teacher to another to another, having to start over from scratch in terms of goals, style, and approach, with the new year. Some people might call that a benefit of course… but I don’t think the increase in flexibility and adaptability is worth the loss of depth.

    Of course, if you get stuck with a crappy teacher for 3 or 4 years at a stretch… there’s no way to undo the damage.

  11. georgelarson says:

    Is providing an excellent teacher every year a reasonable goal? Excellence would mean the upper 10 percent of the pool of available teachers on some quality scale. I think providing an average teacher and avoiding bad ones every year would be a reasonable goal.

  12. At present, you only get an excellent teacher if s/he has the ability to create curriculum on the fly, since so many school districts don’t have an actual curriculum for the core subjects. S/he must also know by instinct or observation, which instructional methods are the most powerful. Teachers who are now average in effectiveness would often be much more able to help students learn better if they were provided with, and trained in, research-validated curridulum and instructional approaches.

  13. Roger Sweeny says:

    Alas, there isn’t a lot in the way of “research-validated curridulum and instructional approaches.”

    There are innumerable fads, backed by shoddy research, that come and go. And there are general ideas that everyone agrees on–“Be consistent.” “Make your expectations clear and stick to them.” “Maintain order in the classroom.” and so on–but beyond that, not much.

  14. Not true, Roger. For children entering K with low language skills, there is Direct Instruction. For all children, there is phonics-based reading instruction. For children who sill lag, there is Response to Intervention. I could go on.

  15. Direct Instruction works for all kids and so do good math curricula like Singapore and good content-rich curricula like Core Knowledge and the Classical curriculum from Wise and Bauer. Even better, group by level so that all kids can have the teacher’s attention for the whole of each period.

  16. Genevieve says:

    This year my daughter has a very good teacher: wonderful personality, able to keep the room calm,makes the children excited to learn, has her own children that are gifted, I could go on and on. I’m so glad my daughter has her.
    However, she still uses writer’s workshop. There is very little science and even less history or geography. The math is years below what my daughter is capable of.
    A good teacher can’t fix the system.