Friday, December 12, 2008

Teachers are what really matters

The most recent New Yorker magazine features a very interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell about how to select teachers and the impact good teachers have on education versus any other factor. Below you'll find an excerpt from the article. Click here to read the full article. It's long but well worth the read.
Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers. But there’s a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like. The school system has a quarterback problem.

Click here to read the full article. What are your thoughts on the article?

37 comments:

  1. Obviously good teachers can make a big difference, but I think it's simplistic and teacher-bashing to claim that teachers make the ENTIRE difference. That's the scorched-earth tack that D.C.'s superintendent Michelle Rhee is writing and insights (the New Yorker writer cited), but he ****ed up by claiming that Eric Hanushek is a Stanford researcher. That gives Hanushek's work an aura of academic legitimacy that it doesn't deserve. Hanushek is a researcher for the Hoover Institution, a right-wing organization (called a think tank but really an advocacy organization) LOCATED at Stanford. Hoover's work in education is aimed at pushing privatization and busting teachers' unions. Hanushek's work is not impartial research but advocacy propaganda.

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  2. Ouch -- some of my post disappeared. It's supposed to say "that's the scorched-earth tack that D.C.'s superintendent Michelle Rhee is taking," and "I really admire Malcolm Gladwell's writing and insights, but..."

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  3. I have to say that I was quite disappointed in this article by Malcolm Gladwell whose writing I usually like. Gladwell is typically a more thorough thinker.

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  4. Favorite quote from the article:
    "Taxpayers might well balk at the costs of trying out four teachers to find one good one."

    Now that's pretty funny. We've been cutting back on schools and school personnel for years. All the focus is on how to save more money, not how to educate our children better - not if it's going to increase costs.

    I am interested to know how Mr. Hanushek would suggest we evaluate kindergarten teachers. Principals are hard-pressed to do yearly or bi-yearly evaluations of their staff, who could possibly have the time and money to do the observations necessary?

    Can a comparison between searching for star quarterbacks, elite financial advisers, and public school teachers even be meaningful given the vast discrepancies in compensation?

    I'm tired of all this being dumped on teachers who do more with less every year. Pay teachers more like financial advisers and quarterbacks and higher quality candidates will be attracted to the profession.

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  5. This is what drove me nuts on school tours: I got the sense that there were good teachers out there, but that they were forced to wear straight-jackets and were not allowed to teach to the best of their ability.

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  6. Caroline: You're not arguing that it is okay to have mediocre teachers, are you? And that there is no difference in educational attainment between students who have good teachers and students who have lousy ones, are you? Because Hoover or no Hoover, I think it is pretty obvious that having a great teacher makes a HUGE difference.

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  7. It's nice to see comments that don't bash teachers!

    Now that the country is broke, maybe parents will step up and see to it that they take an interest in their children before they get to school!

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  8. The teachers' unions are probably too strong. I do have a problem with tenure granted after 2 years.
    I do have a problem with poor performers not being able to be removed, when they have such a huge impact. I don't think that is necessarily a right wing or left wing position.
    And lastly, I think teachers are seriously underpaid, but thats a society problem. We pay our preschool teachers, day care workers peanuts and yet we pay our baseball players and financial wall street scam artists and greedy out of touch CEOS ridiculous sums of money. Maybe one day our country will get it right without having to be communist.

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  9. IMO the comparatively low salaries of teachers goes hand-in-hand with their high job security: the teachers' union has traditionally pushed for the second at the expense of the first. It would not be possible to reexamine tenure for teachers without dramatically increasing teachers' salaries.

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  10. i work in the school district and what jumped out at me after reading this article was that at a gut level i agree with a lot of it (sorry if this is teacher-bashing) but what should be happening is much more emphasis on mentor teacher programs. teachers do not spend enough training and on the job time observing and being observed by great teachers. getting a master's in education may not hurt, but spending a good amount of time with a great teacher could not only provide better training, but possibly also a chance to weed out "poor performers."

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  11. As much as I would love to pay our teachers more, I don't think it's a reasonable argument to compare their salaries to CEOs, baseball players, etc. The sources of those incomes are entirely different. The owners of baseball teams make a bucketload of money and they damn well better share it with their players. Our government doesn't make a bucket load of money... A better comparison would be how do teacher's salaries compare with the salaries of similar government workers, i.e. police, fire, mayor's office, district attorney etc. And I agree that job security is a factor in that calculation for those jobs as well. I don't know the how the comparison works out, but it seems to me if teachers are paid considerably less than our police officers that would demonstrate how screwed up our values are and a pretty big lack of foresight and judgment.

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  12. What I thought was fascinating about this article was its description of the "withitness" that excellent teachers have. I've observed this many times with my kids -- the best teachers maintain order while still being responsive to the children. It's wonderful to watch, and my kids have been lucky to have a number of truly excellent teachers.

    Pay and tenure issues aside, "withitness" is an interesting concept. The article seems to present it as something you have or you don't, and to a certain extent that may be true. But, just being aware of the concept may help some borderline teachers become better teachers, or some good teachers become excellent teachers.

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  13. No, I'm not arguing that it's OK to let mediocre teachers fester. And I agree that a "good" teacher -- or the right teacher in the right circumstances -- makes a big difference.

    But IMHO it's just the latest fad to claim that it's ALL about the teachers and that what we need to do to magically fix the schools is just get rid of the "bad" teachers.
    I do NOT agree that the problems of urban schools are all due to the fact that it's impossible to fire bad teachers.

    Does anyone really think that the difference between Orinda and Richmond schools, or Mill Valley and Marin City, or Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, is that the Orinda, Mill Valley and Palo Alto schools have "good" teachers and the Richmond, Marin City and East Palo Alto schools have "bad" teachers? No one with any actual experience inside a diverse classroom (even as a volunteer) would be so naive. Pick up the Mill Valley teachers and plop them into Marin City schools and vice versa, etc., and the overall outcomes are not going to change.

    BTW teacher friends tell me it's not actually true that teachers get tenure -- that's only true for college profs. Public K-12 teachers do have good job security and protection (and I agree that the profession seems to have traded decent pay for it, bizarrely), but technically not the same thing.

    And still -- I've seen principals who are also good managers get problem teachers outta there really fast. I WILL name a name -- Dr. Patricia Gray at Balboa High, a rock-star principal who has famously turned around a once-troubled school. Somehow what is so "impossible" for some principals (those names I won't name publicly) isn't for others. But by the way, that was only part of what Dr. Gray did, and Balboa has improved steadily under her leadership even though many longtime teachers are still there. Were they all "bad" teachers before who have magically become "good" teachers?

    And defining "bad" teachers is more complicated that these "media elites," as the Daily Howler blogger calls them, would have it. One of my kids' elementary school teachers (and now a family friend) is just a fantastic, gifted teacher, but he has an exceptional amount of trouble with disruptive kids. If he were teaching in a school with a critical mass of challenging, high-need kids, he would undoubtedly be a "bad" teacher. What does he need -- retraining? A system that more aggressively removes disruptive kids from his class and deals with them some effective way? A school with just plain fewer disruptive kids? This stumps me.

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  14. But low-performing schools typically have higher than their share of novice teachers. One advantage of plunking down all the Mill Valley teachers in an urban school is that a much higher percentage of those teachers would be very experienced. It would not be a miracle solution by any means, but on the whole, these teachers would have an already developed knowledge base of general teaching skills. They would certainly have new challenges, but neither would they be starting from scratch.

    Probably better than plunking down Mill Valley teachers though, would be to plunk down the teachers from the highest performing SF public schools. Even the least diverse SF elementary school is way more diverse than most suburban schools.

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  15. I know that teachers really matter -- I just can't figure out which teachers work for my kid! He's had a teacher that by any measure was one of the most creative and innovative elementary school teachers -- I observed one of her classes and found myself wishing I'd had teachers like her when I was little! -- yet my son had terrible difficulties with her. We almost ended up pulling him out of school that year. And he's had a teacher that many parents felt was not good enough --a recent immigrant, her English was heavily-accented and she ran a strictly controlled classroom and loaded on the homework. Yet my son loved her and did phenomenally well under her! The only thing I can figure out is that he is picking up on "subtle" things that adults (or maybe me?) just don't get. Perhaps it is charisma? Perhaps it is that some teachers can subtly put down kids, while others are able to exude a more general cheerleader demeanor. demeanor? I do want to comment on an earlier reference to how district policies "straight-jacket" some good teachers. I really haven't found to be the case. I know the district has strict guidelines, but there is still tremendous room to have major and significant differences between teachers. Or at least that's what I've seen with my kids' teachers. They've run the gamut across a broad swath of types of teaching methods.

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  16. 7:41 Some kids seem to thrive in more disciplined environments whereas others prefer some flexibility. Your son may crave structure and do better in a more structured environment. My own son has done wonderfully when he's had flexible, creative teachers but miserably with more rigid disciplinarians like the one he has currently.

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  17. Caroline, why don't you e-mail
    Dr. Hanusek (hanusek@stanford.edu) and tell him that he is not an impartial researcher but an advocacy propagandist whose work has no aura of academic legitimacy. I may not agree with everything he has written (which is a considerable body of work), but I think you do a disservice to your viewpoint by flippantly dismissing arguments or people that do not match your own worldview.

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  18. 9:39, that particular comment was not about the content of Hanushek's work. What I'm doing is pointing out that his credentials were misrepresented. He is doing advocacy for an advocacy organization that devotes its work to espousing its causes. His work was not doing impartial academic research for a major university, as implied. How his credentials continue to be misrepresented is an interesting question; I would assume there's some deliberate misleading going on. However, that particular point of mine was not about the content of his work.

    Please again note that I have done work for the Hoover Institution -- I did a major freelance writing/editing project for them in 1998 as a subcontractor. That's both in the interest of full disclosure and to note that I'm somewhat informed in this area.

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  19. I think the primary points of Malcolm Gladwell’s article are as follows:
    • Qualities of excellent teachers (like quarterbacks) can be identified.
    • It is not easily determined which individuals will exhibit the qualities of an excellent teacher (or quarterback) in a real life situation.
    Secondary points:
    • The current process of selection for a teacher (or quarterback) does not directly correlate with the selection of excellent teachers (or quarterbacks)
    • This matters because (according to some research ) teacher quality matters more than any other factor for success in the classroom. (which is also true for the quarterbacks on the football field).
    On an anecdotal basis, my wife – the teacher – notes that most practicing teachers, even the bad ones, know who the good teachers are, who the bad teachers are and who has the potential to become a good teacher, even after 10-15 minutes watching someone teach. One of the interesting assumptions of the article is that effective pedagogy is not easily taught and transferrable and there is an element of instrinsic talent involved.
    The remaining question, politics and dogma aside, is what does one do about this situation? In my educational policy fantasies, I have long advocated an apprenticeship period for teachers before they become credentialed. They would work under a master teacher and practice teaching and classroom management in subsidized universal aftercare programs and only become a teacher after proving their ability to a board of master teachers. I also think that teachers should work for a district and should be assigned to specific schools. Thus, experienced teachers (with adequate compensation) would have to work in more difficult classrooms for a set period of years, where they could have the most impact. Like I said, fantasies.

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  20. The high-profile Daily Howler blog posted today about the New Yorker article in question. Because this item is not at the top of the blog, I'm just pasting the whole thing here (fully attributed; fair use). The Daily Howler focuses on media criticism, education and general national politics; blogger Bob Somerby is a journalist and former teacher in tough Baltimore schools. He is bombastic, obnoxious and very often right.
    ***
    Special report: Schools daze!

    Part 1—Gladwell, unblinking: Who will Obama pick to be Secretary of Education? Some slightly-odd writing has surfaced of late as big mainstream news orgs ponder this question. The writers often have little background in education issues—and their lack of experience often shows. One other attribute tends to show up: The way these mainstream scribes sometimes seem to be in thrall to “conservative” educational notions.

    There’s nothing automatically “wrong” with conservative educational ideas, of course. But something is a little bit wrong with uninformed public ed writing.

    For starters, consider this piece by Malcolm Gladwell in last week’s New Yorker. Gladwell ponders a worthwhile question: How could school districts improve their performance in deciding which new teachers to hire? According to Gladwell, it’s hard to review a college graduate’s resume and determine if he or she will become a good teacher. How might school districts do a better job picking applicants who turn out to be top-notch teachers?

    As he starts, Gladwell compares this to a problem from the world of sports: Football scouts have a hard time knowing which college quarterbacks will succeed at the NFL level. How might school districts address their version of this problem? This is the perfectly sensible question Gladwell attempts to address.

    Gladwell discusses a serious issue—but does he have the chops to do so? He starts with ruminations about quarterbacks—but what follows is his very first paragraph about public education. And his reasoning here strikes us as odd. Frankly, it makes us wonder if he might be somewhat over his head discussing public school issues:

    GLADWELL (12/15/08): One of the most important tools in contemporary educational research is “value added” analysis. It uses standardized test scores to look at how much the academic performance of students in a given teacher’s classroom changes between the beginning and the end of the school year. Suppose that Mrs. Brown and Mr. Smith both teach a classroom of third graders who score at the fiftieth percentile on math and reading tests on the first day of school, in September. When the students are retested, in June, Mrs. Brown’s class scores at the seventieth percentile, while Mr. Smith’s students have fallen to the fortieth percentile. That change in the students’ rankings, value-added theory says, is a meaningful indicator of how much more effective Mrs. Brown is as a teacher than Mr. Smith.

    Let’s see if we have fully grasped the reasoning found in that passage:

    According to Gladwell, two classes were even at the start of the year—but by the end of the school year, one of the classes was doing much better. Our question: Why would it take “one of the most important tools in contemporary educational research” to deduce that this group’s teacher had been “more effective as a teacher?” Why would we need an “important tool in educational research”—a “theory,” no less—to draw such an obvious conclusion? Has any principal ever lived who wouldn't have reached this obvious judgment? The conclusion here is comically obvious. But it’s buried beneath some ponderous talk about “contemporary research” and “important research tools.”

    But then, we’re often struck by writing like that when mainstream journalists proclaim about public schools. In fairness, we might say that Gladwell has merely constructed an exceptionally simple example to illustrate some larger point—though we’re not sure what that point might be. Who wouldn’t “use standardized test scores to look at how much the academic performance of students in a given teacher’s classroom changes between the beginning and the end of the school year?” We started teaching fifth grade in Baltimore in 1969. And sure enough! Not being the dumbest humans on earth, everyone in our low-income school was doing this, even back then.

    So that opening paragraph made us wonder a bit about Gladwell’s competence in this area. But we were also struck by his third paragraph about the schools. Our view? In this passage, the gentleman’s lack of background really does seem to show through:

    GLADWELL: Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

    In that passage, Gladwell starts considering a serious policy question: Should money be used to reduce class size? Or would such money be better spent attracting more capable teachers? On that question, we have no view. But we’re not real sure that Gladwell’s the man to help us sort it out.

    In the sentences we have highlighted, Gladwell claims to be paraphrasing Hanushek, who is actually a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, not a lowly faculty member at miserable Stanford itself. There’s nothing “wrong” with working at Hoover, of course, and Hanushek’s research and views are surely well worth considering. (In recent weeks, he’s certainly had a lot of success getting mainstream scribes to recite them!) But does that slightly puzzling, highlighted passage really reflect something Hanushek said? “The students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year?” And: “The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material?” We’ll take a guess: That might mean that an average student (a kid near the fiftieth percentile in reading or math) will typically learn that much in those situations—although the statement means almost nothing until we’re told how many teachers qualify as “very good” and “very bad.” Did Hanushek really say something like this: On average, students will learn three times as much from a very good teacher? We have no clue, but Gladwell’s presentation is mired in the murk and the gloam.

    In short, that presentation—by Gladwell, not Hanushek—is thoroughly lacking in clarity. Does this reflect a lack of chops on Gladwell’s part when it comes to educational issues? We have no way of judging that just from this piece. But in the mainstream upper-end press corps, journalists often orate at length about public schools—even though they seem to have no background in the area at all. And uh-oh! Such people may be inclined to believe whatever dang-fool thing they get told.

    As we’ve said, Gladwell ponders a worthwhile question—and that may be the problem. He ends up making a somewhat eccentric suggestion about teacher recruitment—a suggestion he seems to source to no one but himself. And the validity of his suggestion turns, almost completely, on his unblinking acceptance of (paraphrased) claims about the fruits of Hanushek’s research. This is the passage where Gladwell’s rubber really starts hitting the road:

    GLADWELL: Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers.

    Could the U.S. really produce some sort of major change “simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality?” We don’t have the slightest idea, although we’re hugely dubious. But we note that Gladwell’s claim is based on a paraphrased account of something Hanushek supposedly said—a claim Hanushek supposedly based on “a back-of-the-envelope calculation.” Once again, we’re forced to rely on Gladwell’s basic chops in such matters.

    Does Gladwell know what he’s talking about? Does he have a suitable background for such ruminations? We’re not sure—but in the world of mainstream journalism, reporters and editorialists often expound on educational matters, often without showing the slightest sign of anything like expertise. And oh yes: In the current climate surrounding the schools, they will often be found recommending “conservative” views—and showing that the word “reform” now extends to conservatives only.

    When it comes to public education, there’s absolutely nothing “wrong” with “conservative” ideas and perspectives. But in the world of the mainstream press, many things are often wrong with the way these ideas get reviewed. In recent weeks, a bit of a tipping point has been reached in the way this familiar old game is played. Did Gladwell know whereof he spoke? We’re not sure—but then again, how about Time’s Amanda Ripley?

    Tomorrow—Part 2: Why did Ripley say that?
    http://www.dailyhowler.com/

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  21. I don't think its teacher bashing to agree that teacher quality matters and that some teachers are better than others. I think teachers sell themselves short when they cry "teacher bashing" any time someone points this out.

    Of course teachers aren't the only factors, but they are certainly a major part of the equation. Anyone whose child has had a very poor teacher or an amazingly competent teacher can attest to this.

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  22. It is teacher-bashing to blame the problems of urban public education on the claim that it's impossible to fire bad teachers, and to claim that simply making it easier to get rid of bad teachers will be the miracle fix. And that's where Michelle Rhee, the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell and Time's Amanda Ripley are all going.

    It appears that this is a new Hoover Institution project, given that the name of its previously little-known so-called researcher (Hanushek) is popping up in major media all of a sudden. It seems pretty creepy that this powerful, wealthy right-wing institution can get deftly manipulate the major media at its whim (especially thoughtful journalists like Malcolm Gladwell -- we're not talking about Fox News, either). It's like Hoover is letting us know "just because Obama got elected doesn't mean we've lost a bit of our might..."

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  23. Caroline is right. It is one thing to say something that most of us, broadly speaking, would agree with, which is that good teachers can make a big difference and are a factor in school success. I am one who would prefer the good teacher at a lowly school for my kid to a lousy teacher at a popular one.

    It is another thing to leap from that idea--which might lead to interesting questions that Gladwell purports to ask, such as how do we get more of those good teachers?--to the idea that we need to remove teacher protections and "get rid of" the bottom 6 percent (however that is determined).

    I've been interested and cheered to see that the leadership of the teachers' unions have been saying they are willing to look at new ideas that would make it easier to let go of the worse teachers, and also make it easier to pay teachers more who are willing to teach hard-to-teach subjects and in more challenging schools. Part of the equation for the unions would also be more livable salaries overall, which seems fair and smart to me in terms of recruiting talent! And look at our own recent Measure A campaign in SF, in which UESF signed an MOU with the district that if the measure was passed by the voters to raise more money for teacher salaries overall, the union would agree to pay differentials, pay for master teachers, and other "concessions."

    It's looking more and more as though the unions are willing to play ball when it comes to school reform on these issues. Any conversation therefore should be including the voices of the teachers themselves, and avoid these leaps that blame the teachers for most of the problems. Not that there are not problem teachers, and absolutely, let's find new ways to attract and mentor the best teachers....but there is ideological battle going on here.

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  24. Somewhat OT, but since it was brought up -- many of the 'academics' at universities are actual of liberal bent, so even do not always assume you are getting unbiased research from a professor.

    Sure, Hoover may be more conservative and other think tanks the other way.

    But its a fact that most professors at universities espouse liberal policies and theories. Just the way it its in higher education.

    Also - in total agreement with Teamlala..points well taken re the article, politics and all aside.

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  25. There are several overlapping issues being thrown around in this discussion.

    If you are a parent trying to decide between several different school options and academic performance was your main criterion, one of Gladwell’s assertions in his essay is that you would be better off trying to select the school with the greater number of ‘good’ teachers and trying to make sure that your child is in those classrooms rather than looking at API scores, PTA involvement or enrichment opportunities. How you determine ‘good’ teachers and frankly, whether or not you accept the basic proposition is up to you.

    Perhaps the internet community should develop a version of what they have in college campuses; where the students anonymously review the professors for the quality of their teaching and the students can make course choices based on that information. The professors hate it, and probably so would the teachers – but if the greatest determinant of student success is teacher quality – then such reviews would be invaluable.

    The second issue being discussed is more political and philosophical. Are teachers’ unions good for education? Conservatives of a certain type hate teachers’ unions because they generally support Democratic candidates - but that is an ideological opposition. I would argue that teachers’ unions definitely benefit the teachers and may benefit society at large but it is open question in my mind whether or not teachers’ unions benefit education. If you actually ask teachers, I think a lot of them would probably agree to some extent. All of them have horror stories of do-nothing teachers who teach using concepts from the previous age or have some resentment at being paid the same wage as a teacher who mails it in everyday while they work late on lesson plans and go the extra mile.

    I personally think that teachers’ unions as currently organized negatively impact education but that this is not an intrinsic quality of unionism. As a previous poster noted, the teachers’ unions themselves recognize that they need to be involved in the solutions at the risk of being swept aside as obstructionist. They do not want to be in the position, whenever an educational reform is mentioned from either the right or the left, of being the cause of its failure because “ you could never get the unions to agree”. I am not an expert in the subject, but it seems that the nurses’ union would be a better model to follow than the autoworkers’.

    And to address the expected charges that I am teacher-bashing; that may be, but my family has directly benefited from the actions of teachers’ unions. (which may make it worse). I do not think that the state of education is all the teacher’s fault. Parents need to do their part. Education should be a priority of society – rather than corporate welfare. Etc. etc.

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  26. reasonable points, teamlala.

    in related news, obama has announced his pick of arne duncan of chicago for education secretary. seen as a compromise between the so-called reformist and traditionalist factions.

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  27. It's true that academic research isn't intrinsically impartial. One example in my area of interest is Arizona State University's Education Policy Research Institute, which studies school privatization and definitely takes an anti-privatization angle. And there's a department at the University of Washington that does similar research in the pro-privatization/charter/voucher vein.

    However, the Hoover Institution is heavily funded with major right-wing money (big conservative funders like Scaife). It's part of the movement that began after the 1964 presidential election to finance the spreading of conservative policy ideas -- yes, the vast right-wing conspiracy. That's its reason for existence. I mean, it already existed, but it was a major tool for that project, and its influence grew accordingly. And I would place a large bet that the two journalists for major media to whose work we're referring (Gladwell at the New Yorker and Ripley at Time) THINK this Hanushek dude does impartial research for Stanford and are clueless about how Hoover would differ. (They probably assume that research for Stanford IS impartial, too.) My bet is that they got snookered, and then misled their readers.

    Re teachers' unions and this comment:
    "... horror stories of do-nothing teachers who teach using concepts from the previous age or have some resentment at being paid the same wage as a teacher who mails it in everyday while they work late on lesson plans and go the extra mile."

    ...but doesn't this happen in almost any workplace? It happened in my last place of full-time employment, a daily newspaper. It WAS a union shop with contractual job protections. But doesn't this happen in nonunion workplaces too, because some staffers are highly skilled butt-kissers? I mean, it's worse when children are impacted, but it's still the way of the world that this happens.

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  28. Thanks for the info, 4:01! I was hoping for Linda Darling-Hammond (of -- ta-da! -- Stanford), but I guess Obama has ties with Duncan.

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  29. I agree that the article may have been a bit one-sided, but I think it is healthy to start a debate and looks like it has done so. I'm glad that the focus is coming back to what reflects my personal experiences: that, yes, teachers matter a great deal. And my experience with my kids' public school here is that, of all the teachers in a large K through 5, there are only three who are, as the comments put it, "mailing it in." 95 plus percent of the teachers are wonderful, excellent teachers in a broad sense. If that is representative (and I kind of think so because my kids' school is very definitely NOT one of the "tier one" public schools here), then, one, Caroline is right that bad teachers are not the only source of the problem and, two, maybe, as one commenter suggested, we can start a constructive dialogue with the teachers union, to steer that 3 to 5% into non-front line teaching. Like, maybe some of these "bad" teachers could be great administrators or great HQ personnel? My experience at my own government workplace is that most of the folks "mailing it in" are simply in the wrong job and would probably be starts doing something else.

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  30. In the end, for me this ends up being the art vs. craft argument: is teaching an art at which some are simply better (so training can be short and sweet and some certain subset of the population can do it) or a craft that has to be developed?

    The Rhee reformers, TFA et al come down for art: the so-called "best and the brightest" have it and the unions protect those who don't. Training isn't necessary. Darling-Hammond et al come down for craft: teaching is refined.

    Ultimately, I think it's both. My first year teaching I wasn't horrible - actually I was pretty good, but I didn't know a tenth of what I know now. I didn't have the tricks, the reflective capability, the content knowledge, the experiences to draw upon...and so on. I've been teaching for nine years and I'm still getting better.

    My issue with the reformers is that they don't see teaching as a lifelong profession leading to retirement and pension (which is arguably more of the reason for the lower salaries - as of right now I have a safe retirement fund). They see teaching as something you do for a couple of years - since it's an art, you won't be missed and you don't have to put many years in.

    BUT for those two years or so, you'll be working fifteen hour days (KIPP, etc.). And that model's not sustainable for people like me who want to stay in the classroom but would also like to be happy in those classrooms because we're not so bloody sick of being in them. I also enjoy seeing my own family now and then - this isn't my TFA "mission", it's my job. And with nine years in, I don't have to put in so many hours.

    This is a little disjointed, but sometimes I look at what is expected of teachers and I feel that even parents don't realize that we don't live at the school, you know?

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  31. Thank you for the teacher perspective.

    It is definitely true some people are born teachers (patient, etc) and others can learn to be good/great teachers. And for sure, one gets better with experience... the better teachers always say they learn so much from their students (only arrogant professors learn nothing from their students because they don't want to be at the lecturn teaching and that's why so many of them make terrible teachers, but I digress).

    But really, folks folks... should not the title of this thread be Parents really really matters too...

    Sure we need good/great wonderful caring teachers. And as one poster mentioned, some kids thrive in a more structured environment, others in a more touchy feely environment, some in whatever. So one teacher cannot fit all.

    But in the end, it cannot be just the teachers or the schools. That is exactly the problem with education in America. The focus has shifted so much to putting the burden on schools. When California has a 25% HS dropout rate, the first thing the legislators and Jack OConnell and everyone else say is "WE will fixed this, WE the DEpt of ED is to blame, we will etc etc". Yes, sure, the DOE and teachers share some of the burden of this failure. But do not absolve the student, or the family from their responsibility.

    I know I preach to the choir here because everyone on this blog obviously cares about their child's education and even care about their neighbors and cross town neighbors education.

    What I mean is the media, on a city wide, state wide national level need to shift the conversation somewhat and start putting the onus on the parents, the community, etc.

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  32. My niece is a teacher in the Midwest (she's taught in urban and rural environments), with a masters in education and an emphasis on reading, and credentials to work with certain special needs kids (autism, dyslexia, adhd, deafness). She has been a teacher for nearly 15 years and now teaches teachers. Student teachers LOVE her classes, which are always in high demand. Her students would rather come to school on their deathbeds than miss her class. She's innovative, yet structured, AND she says she can tell who's going to be a good teacher and who isn't--before they're hired by any school district. Currently, she has a student who's been an "awful" teacher during every one of her observations. So she and her student are working on identifying teaching opportunities that involve small groups rather than standing up in front of a class. I think this is the type of thoughtful, hands on mentoring and training that new (and even poor longer term) teachers need. Similarly, I've toured Starr King twice (once this year and last), and the principal talked about spending a lot of time observing and mentoring teachers. At the end of a recent tour, he walked into a class where a student was being disruptive and gave the teacher some much-needed support on the spot. So you can see that having strong principals with their own strong teaching chops is vital as well. What it comes down to is strong principals supporting teachers and listening to/pushing back on parents (the great balancing act), strong teachers stimulating a childs curiosity and critical thinking skills, parents supplying a decent home environment, and school districts supplying resources that will enrich the basic fundamentals. Alternatively, my husband believes that we should just hire a latterday Aristotle/Socrates for a group of kids and our worries would be over, heh heh.

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  33. I'm sorry, Socrates would be lost in todays world! I think the previous poster is dead on - it takes the ability to structure and be innovative on the whole. That is the whole idea of the traditional / progressive educational model that is espoused in most independent privates these days.

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  34. 8:15pm said "is teaching an art at which some are simply better (so training can be short and sweet and some certain subset of the population can do it) or a craft that has to be developed?"

    It takes years of work and study to become a good artist! That's why we have art schools. Most working artists have been to a four-year art school, and many also have MFAs.

    Other than that quibble, I agree with most of your comment. There are some very talented "natural" teachers, but there are also a lot of hard workers who become excellent teachers through training, practice, and perseverance (things that even the naturals need to be truly excellent!).

    One problem I see with teaching is the lack of collaboration between teachers. Unless you work in a Star school, we (yes, I'm a teacher, too) aren't paid for time to meet with our peers, to plan, share, compare, etc. Teachers don't always value learning from each other, especially once we get set in our ways and our classrooms may become little fiefdoms. Considering the demands on our time, it's easy to see how this gets squeezed out, but it's very unfortunate, IMHO.

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  35. I haven't had a chance to read the New Yorker article, but can't buy into any argument that education is all about one thing, whether it's teachers or anything else.

    What constitutes a "good teacher" varies a great deal from child to child, depending on the teacher's compatibility with the child's learning style, demeanor and personality. Some kids just don't click with a particular teacher, even though the teacher may be highly respected and the child bright.

    That said, a troubled school district like DC faces enormous challenges. For far too many children, the teacher really is the center, if not the only place, in the child's educational universe. Quality has to weigh more heavily in the balance there than in more privileged districts where parents are on average better educated and in a better position to support their children through the bad egg teachers.

    I am not saying I agree with Michelle Rhee's scorched-earth approach, but given her district's past performance and the situation of a large percentage of her district's children, a push to improve teacher quality quickly is not completely out of line either.

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  36. I have been a teacher for several years now and have taught at several different schools in different districts. At each of these schools I have been considered an excellent teacher, both by parents and district administrators. My students do well, and love coming to class. I'm young and energetic, and overeducated.

    However, I'm going to quit in the next two years, most likely to go on to get my PhD. I love being a teacher, but I can't keep working in underfunded schools for too little money. THIS is the real issue-when we start paying teachers a salary more in keeping with the demands of the job, then quality candidates will come AND stay.

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  37. 11:23 You might want to rethink your plan. I have a Ph.D. and have been unable to find a position as a college professor, a job which incidentally pays about the same as a public school teacher. I'm considering teaching HS in the SFUSD as there seems to be a need for math and science teachers and the thought of long summer vacations is an attractive one.

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