Better teachers make for better students

by Brian Keaney

"Teacher Appreciation" featured phot...
Image via Wikipedia

Cross posted to

Since news broke on myDedham last week about the Avery School being identified for improvement by the federal government – and parents subsequently being offered the choice to transfer their kids to other schools – its been a hot topic of discussion around town.  Traffic to the blog has been way up, and when I ran into an Avery parent at a bar on the Cape last weekend it’s all we talked about.

It’s also got me thinking about the research I did in grad school.  My Master’s thesis was on what cities and towns in Massachusetts can do to improve their education systems.  My single biggest surprise was reading over and over again about just how critically important teachers are. Obviously everyone understands that they play a crucial role; without them a school is just a building full of books and kids.

However, teacher effectiveness is the single biggest variable when you look at how successful students are. It’s more important than poverty, language spoken at home, parents’ education level, and the like.  A disadvantaged student with a great teacher will leap ahead while a student with everything going for her will likely fall behind if she is stuck with an ineffective teacher.  Studies show this over and over again.

To mention one recent study, a Harvard economist has found that by age 27, students with good kindergarten teachers are earning about $1,000 more per year than students who had average teachers.  In fact, they “estimate that a standout kindergarten teacher is worth about $320,000 a year.  That’s the present value of the additional money that a full class of students can expect to earn over their careers.”

In the midst of our school choice discussion here in Dedham, evidence is being put forward on the west coast that suggests transferring schools may not be the best option.  The Los Angeles Times has begun a series of articles examining how effective teachers are in that city, and the sometime tragic – one principal called it “criminal” – results that can occur when students are put in poor teachers’ classrooms.  One of their key findings was that

Highly effective teachers routinely propel students from below grade level to advanced in a single year. There is a substantial gap at year’s end between students whose teachers were in the top 10% in effectiveness and the bottom 10%. The fortunate students ranked 17 percentile points higher in English and 25 points higher in math.

Having established (I hope – if you want more I’ve got hundreds of pages of notes from my own research) that the quality of teachers varies, sometimes dramatically, we move on to a findings from their study that speak directly to the situation at Avery.

Although many parents fixate on picking the right school for their child, it matters far more which teacher the child gets. Teachers had three times as much influence on students’ academic development as the school they attend.

And the one that I think is most useful for our purposes here (with my emphasis):

The quality of instruction typically varied far more within a school than between schools.

As I said at the School Committee meeting tonight, a parent who pulls their child from Avery and sends her elsewhere may get a far worse teacher than they would at Avery.  The data shows consistently that it is the teacher who matters most, not the school.

At Dedham Rocks, Jen has taken a characteristically ‘glass is half full‘ view of the situation.  In a column in the Transcript she lays out several good reasons why she has decided to keep her child at Avery.  The first reason she offers is “because I love my daughter’s teacher, that she had in first grade and knows her well and will help her grow and develop emotionally and academically.”

Unfortunatly, as the LA Times points out, “parents have no access to objective information about individual instructors, and they often have little say in which teacher their child gets.”  The teacher Jen’s daughter has (and I don’t know who it is) may be beloved by students, parents, and administrators, but still no good at what she does.  Alternatively, she could be despised but highly effective.  I imagine the reality is somewhere in between.

As I’ve said on previous occassions, I don’t have nearly enough information to make value judgements on any particular teacher or on the quality of the faculty as a whole.  Nor, I might add, do I have the experience or expertise to be able to tell a good teacher from a bad teacher.  On the other hand, we pay some experts in this town very good money who are able to tell a good teacher from a bad teacher.

Given that the quality of teachers can vary dramatically,  it’s entirely possible that the scores that have gotten Avery into trouble are concentrated in just a few classrooms.  I don’t have any data to examine, so I asked at the meeting tonight if it was a few teachers who were bringing the averages down, or if the scores were uniformly low.

At first the administration tried to tell me they didn’t have that information, but after pushing a little bit I got Superintendent June Doe to concede that they do have it (albeit not the most recent scores) and that they “analyze the data every year,” including on an individual teacher basis.  I then asked if we are seeing low scores every year in certain classrooms, and June responded “No, we are not.”

Without seeing the numbers for myself, I can’t comment on how truthful she was when she then told me that the scores were uniform across the school. However, the LA Times said

In Los Angeles and across the country, education officials have long known of the often huge disparities among teachers. They’ve seen the indelible effects, for good and ill, on children. But rather than analyze and address these disparities, they have opted mostly to ignore them.

I am hard pressed to believe that the teachers at the Avery School are so unlike their counterparts in LA and across the country.  Sure, the circumstances are going to be different from city to city, school to school, and classroom to classroom.  That said, I don’t care if you are a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker, some employees in every industry are going to do a better job than others.  Common sense tells you it also has to be true of teachers – even Avery teachers – as well.

I’ve thrown a lot out here, more than I originally intended.  I did so for two reasons.  First,  I offer it in response to bakeman’s comment the other day that “I am not a fan of teachers or their unions but , It still seems to me that not always is the teacher to at fault.”  No, it’s not just the teachers, but the overwhelming data shows they play a huge part in it. Enough to make it an issue.

Secondly, I got chewed out by an Avery teacher after the meeting tonight who told me she was insulted when I made similar comments there.  Perhaps I wasn’t as articulate or as clear as I could have been when I spoke extemporaneously, so I hope this was a little clearer.  It’s also not intended as a knock on all teachers.  I’ve got the highest respect for what they do every day.

So, that’s why this has been so long. Now, three quick things to make it even longer.

First, I was told by a mother tonight that the Greenlodge School didn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress in English last year. Not a word was said about it during the formal part of the meeting tonight. Greenlodge isn’t a Title I school so the circumstances are slightly different, but I don’t want to have to repeat this next year.

Secondly, I think the School Committee, and particularly Chairman Tom Ryan, did an excellent job tonight reassuring parents that they had the situation under control. I was impressed.

Finally, I want to close by quoting how Jen began. I think she is right on the money.

The silver lining that came out of Monday nights meeting at the Avery School was that … Parents are engaged and education is on everyone’s minds. This can only mean good things.

Enhanced by Zemanta