Maybe There’s No “Teacher Quality Gap” After All

By 04/22/2010

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It’s taken as an article of faith in the education reform community: we’re screwing poor kids by giving them less effective teachers than their more affluent peers enjoy. The evidence seems pretty much open-and-shut. Poor schools are home to more rookie teachers, those with less subject-matter knowledge, lower certification exam scores, you name it.

And based on this evidence, Education Trust and others have been pushing for years for efforts to redistribute effective teachers from rich schools to poor ones. Lots of Race to the Top points depend on states coming up with strong plans for doing so.

But what if it’s not true? In a brand-new Education Next forum, Eric Hanushek and Kati Haycock square off on the question of teacher equity. These two have teamed up on teacher issues for over a decade, yet they come to different conclusions about whether the teacher quality gap even exists. Note Hanushek’s  equivocal response to the question, “What is the evidence that inner-city schools are shortchanged on high-quality teachers?”

Inner-city schools and especially those serving the most disadvantaged students rou­tinely display unacceptable achievement levels, ones that seal their students off from further education and from good jobs. Coupled with the general finding that effective teachers are the key to a high-quality school, it is natural to infer that the children most in need are systematically getting the poorest teachers.

Unfortunately, direct evidence on the distribution of teacher quality and its impact for disadvantaged students is hard to come by. Researcher Marguerite Roza and others have produced considerable evi­dence that teachers in schools serving the most-disadvantaged students have lower average salaries, reflecting in large part the movement of more-experienced teachers away from schools with a higher proportion of minority students and with lower-achieving students. There is also evidence that these schools tend to have more teachers with emergency credentials and without regular certi­fication, although this appears to be declining over time. The problem is that these readily measured attributes of teachers have virtually nothing to do with teacher effectiveness.

Extensive research on teacher quality by me and others suggests that the only attri­bute of teacher effectiveness that stands out is being a rookie teacher. Teachers in their first three years do a less satisfactory job than they will with more experience. And this has an impact on schools serving highly dis­advantaged populations, because the more-experienced teachers who leave these schools are generally replaced with new teachers. The net impact of this on disadvantaged schools is unclear, because there is also some evi­dence that the experienced teachers who leave these schools are on average not their most effective teachers.

Read between the lines and you’ve got to wonder why we’re embarking on an expensive, and potentially futile, effort to move thousands of teachers from one kind of school to another. The argument is intuitively appealing, but appears to rest on shaky ground.

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  • Whitney Tilson says:

    Please see my presentation, “A Right Denied: The Critical Need for Genuine School Reform,” available at

    There are two inter-related problems: 1) overall teacher quality has been steadily declining for decades (see pages 59-62) and 2) teacher quality is unfairly distributed (pages 65-70).
    #2 is the dirty little secret of American education: both between schools and, especially WITHIN schools (Hanushek is correct), the top 1/3 of students (mostly wealthier, white kids; the ones more likely to have parents who read to them, have enriching stuff happening in their lives outside of school, who will likely go to college regardless of which school or teacher they get, etc.) have these advantages reinforced by getting the best 1/3 of teachers; the middle third of students get the middle third of teachers, and the bottom third of kids (mostly low income and minority) get the dregs of our teacher quality pool.  The most shocking slide of the 241 in my deck is page 69, which shows that in Illinois (and, I have ZERO doubt, everywhere else), in the 10% of schools with the highest minority percentage of students, 60% of the teachers are in the bottom 10% on the Teacher Quality Index, and nearly 90% are in the bottom quartile!
    The solution is NOT to “strip mine” good teachers from rich schools and send them to poor schools – that’s a zero-sum game that just screws other kids.  And let’s be real: politically, that will NEVER happen to any degree.
    Instead, we have to do a lot of hard work to fix BOTH problems, as I outline on pages 63 and 64.  Here’s the text from those pages:
    Page 63:
    What can be done to improve teacher quality?
    Broadly speaking, there are four ways to improve teacher quality:
    1.     Attract more talented people into the profession
    2.     Upgrade the skills and teaching ability of current teachers
    3.     Better retain effective teachers
    4.     Remove ineffective teachers
    The best schools and districts do all of these things; unfortunately, most don’t
    Page 64:
    Specific steps to improve teacher quality:
    •      Support charter schools (like KIPP) that have a proven ability to recruit and retain highly effective teachers
    •      Hire/train better principals and give them more control over their staff
    •      Ensure that the placements of voluntary transfers and excessed teachers are based on the mutual consent of the teacher and receiving school
    –         End the “dance of the lemons” (aka, “pass the trash” and “the turkey trot”
    •      If layoffs are necessary, do them based on merit, not seniority
    •      Introduce differential pay (e.g., pay more to the most effective teachers, teachers willing to teach in the schools with the greatest concentration of the most disadvantaged students, and hard-to-find teachers, such as those in math, science and special ed)
    •      Improve the recruiting process; hire teachers earlier
    •      Better support and train novice teachers
    •      Improve overall teacher training; substantially reform ed schools
    •      Measure teacher effectiveness to identify the most effective and ineffective teachers
    –         Studies show that teacher effectiveness can be identified quickly)
    •      Don’t grant tenure to ineffective teachers
    –         Today, virtually all teachers who stay on the job get tenure, regardless of effectiveness
    •      Streamline the process of removing ineffective teachers, while maintaining appropriate protections against arbitrary firings

  • Robert Clegg says:

    Human capital is NEVER the solution to a business turnaround. No venture capitalist interested in innovation ever invests in a company that requires huge investments in human capital.

    Even in the most optimistic theory, by the time it takes America to implement such a turnaround, other countries will be much further ahead of us. The kind of turnaround Tilson is expecting would take 20 years if possible at all.

    This also does not address the need for innovation. We can’t continue to teach the same ol’ same ol’.

    Instead, we should be looking at innovations like Facebook, eBay, Apple, the iPhone, Google, Pixar, xbox/playStation/Wii… Content and delivery systems that can scale AND engage users. Have you ever noticed, kids don’t need parents intervention to use these tools?

    If you solve the engagement problem, you reduce the strain/dependance upon teachers.

    If you reduce the content and delivery problem you create equal access.

    Think of creating the Pixar or Apple of Education. Amazing ly engaging content that draws kids in, interacts, and challenges them to achieve. Possible?

    I created a video game to teach algebra. It won Macworld Editor’s Choice Award in 2007. It improves kids’ grades 2-3 grade levels in the most under-resourced schools. What’s more, kids LOVE it!! … and no, it’s not shoot the numbers/flash card game. It embeds the algebra into the game – think Bourne Identity but you actually work the spy gear and gadgets mixed with the action of Halo.

    Engaging, scalable. A fraction of the cost of a human capital solution (and innovative – players must apply the math, understand a larger system, use analysis, and strategy to inform their choices and decisions – now that’s globally competitive!)

  • Mike Hoffman says:

    Ms. Tilson,
    I concur with some of your suggestions, yet I am skeptical about your assertion to support charter schools such as KIPP. While these types of charter schools work for some students others are driven out by the harsh discipline and rigid climate. In addition, while many KIPP school attract high-quality recruits only a sparse handful have decent records of retaining these folks.

    I do agree that physically moving teachers based on their effectiveness is a fool’s errand. The collegiality they’ve built at their sites is part of their effectiveness. Mentoring and supporting administrators and teachers in collaborative efforts to align curriculum and improve instruction based on the student population will go much further in achieving the goals outlined.
    And, alas, human beings take time to learn and grow — no matter how badly venture eduphilanthropists want to speed up the process, K-12 educational organizations cannot truly be run based on current corporate practices. They can be run business-like, but not like a business. Children aren’t snow tires…

  • Steve Peha says:

    I’m sure that Mr. Clegg has created some fine educational technology. And I’m sure it works just as he says it does. But I question the validity of his “metaphor mismatch.”

    Education is not a business; it’s a cultural institution.

    To say that venture capitalists NEVER invest in a company with a human capital problem is completely correct. Most VCs I know, and others I’ve read about, tend to put their money specifically on people, favoring talented humans even over short-term bottom line considerations. For some VCs, high-quality human capital is the only thing they will invest in.

    But this is a business mindset and education is not a business.

    Even if people like Mr. Clegg can invent software for teaching every subject to every child at every grade level, I don’t think doing so would be the best thing for our children or our society.

    People who have entered education in this last decade of reform tend to see it in stark terms according to the “metaphor of the moment.” Rather than simply undertsand that “education is education”, they tend to reframe reform in terms they themselves are more familiar with. The “human capital problem” in education is just a concept. We’ve had the same needs for human capital in education since the 1950s. Was it a problem then? If so, we didn’t characterize it that way. In fact, it is only recently that we have tended to characterize education at all, and this is precisely why so few reforms have been effective.

    The relentless drive for measurable results is also a new construct. It’s not that people didn’t value results before; they always have. It’s merely that we had a societal construction of the purpose of education that was broader than test scores.

    Having been both a technology entrepreneur and an educator, I have no doubt that kids can learn from video games faster and with more engagement than they can from the average teacher. But learn what? That’s the question.

    If education was just a collection of subject matter to be mastered, cultures would have established their educational systems very differently. In fact, merely distributing paper-based information to kids at home, and holding parents accountable for its mastery, would probably have gotten better results — and built that “ownership” attitude that so many people feel is lacking in our country.

    But there’s always been something greater we hoped to achieve with education in America. And I think we all miss the point when we conflate business models with broader and more complex cultural goals.

    Education is not a business. Education is education. The sooner we begin to see it as it is, the sooner we’ll begin to find reliable ways of improving it.

  • Robert Clegg says:

    Einstein said ,”We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” So to say that “Education is Education” restricts you from innovation.

    I’m assuming Mr. Peha meant ‘incorrect’ when he commented on my assertion the venture capitalists don’t invest in “human captial” solutions. Let me clarify. Mr. Peha is correct in saying the VC’s invest in the management team. But that’s not what is meant by a business requiring a “human capital” solution.

    Entrepreneurs often confuse their technological inventions with scalable businesses. Imagine a guitar teacher who invents a device for teaching guitar. It’s a “new” way to teach guitar using this technology (imagine it’s an ear training device or something). It’s so new in fact, that guitar teachers will have to learn how to use it before they can use it to teach. In order to teach all these guitar teachers, we’ll need hundreds of expert sales people to go around to every guitar shop to train local musicians how to use this technology. It’s an 8 hour course.

    While the entrepreneur is convinced what he has is a technological solution to teaching guitar, as a business, it requires hundreds of expert sales people, and thousands of devoted guitar teachers to use it. The success of your business relies on the training of the expert sales staff, and the training programs you implement. That is what is known as the “human capital” problem. It happens in many industries – cooking, car repair, massage technique, etc. People think they have great solutions but getting everyone to do it, use it, and stick with it rarely works.

    This is why improving our schools teacher by teacher, leader by leader, room by room is a human capital problem. You can’t scale effective leadership and quality teaching. Look at our schools of education in universities.

    As for the “metaphor of the moment”, it is widely accepted that our school system was fashioned after assembly line model of the industrial age. I was first introduced to that in 1986 in a grad school education class. Schools, after all, were created to provide workers for the economy.

    I agree with Mr. Peha that video games are not the solution to all the problems. Although thanks for the vote of confidence ; ) Human touch and guidance are critical in the equation. Having said that, here’s what video games do that can’t be done in a classroom (besides the engagement and individualization parts everyone is familiar with):

    Computer simulations and games model complex systems. Kids develop an understanding of the macro implications their micro decisions make. This puts the micro skills in context with larger understandings of strategy and analysis.

    Think of the NFL draft as kids debate which player to take. They must understand the larger system of the game and the competitive landscape of their division and the current resources they have. Oh yeah, and salary cap issues!!

    Or think of the impact a new railroad yard has on the flow of goods and services. Would you trade more horsepower in your engine units for a passing siding at a critical junction? Kids would learn the impact of operations and logistics on top of delivery schedules and tonnage calculations. Want to see this? check out my youtube video at it’s only 1:33 seconds ; )

    We are losing jobs and industries to globalization. We need innovation, not incremental improvement.

  • Andrew Roedell says:

    Other than K-12 education, I know of no other profession in which the “best” practitioners (however defined) are urged to take the “worst” or least desirable jobs — that is, those jobs that entail especially burdensome working conditions, low pay, and low status. If a top-rated physician chooses to work at the Mayo Clinic, and not at resource-starved local clinic, few observers will condemn that choice; on the contrary, they would congratulate the person on his or her good fortune in landing such an enviable position. When I hear talk of moving top-rated teachers into the most problematic schools, therefore, I can only wonder at the hypocrisy and inconsistency of those who are engaging in such talk: How many of these have actually refrained, in the course of their careers, from pursuing higher pay, higher status, and better working conditions in their chosen fields?

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