Thursday, December 23, 2010

Teacher Quality and Testing Don’t Mix

Bill Gates, Arne Duncan and others have been spewing the ridiculous lie that teacher experience and education do not matter very much, as indicated by the fact that student test scores are often low, even when their teachers are experienced.

It’s the Class, Stoopid
This should come as no surprise since standardized tests measure students’ material security and social privilege, not the quality of their teachers. Any teacher at a low income school, whether young, old, experienced, or novice, will have lower test scores than those teaching at middle class schools. (The data below offers just one example of the correlation between standardized test scores and poverty). For some explanations of how poverty influences student achievement, please see 8 Delusions About Education, The Dropout Process in Life Course Perspective, Inequality at the Starting Gate, Meaningful Differences in the Every Day Experience of Young American Children and any number of articles by Richard Rothstein.

2005 College Bound Seniors Average SAT Test Scores
                                                                                       Verbal         Math       Total 

Could the Ed Deformers be Right? (Of course not, they don’t even make sense)
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that experience and education do not matter much. Let’s further assume that student test scores can discern the good teachers from the bad ones. This leaves a fundamental question unanswered: How did these good teachers become good teachers?

Was it on the job training, an argument made by those who wish to throw more undertrained novices (like Teach for America) into the ring? If so, then experience really does matter. Throw them into the deep end and, if they don’t sink, they will improve over time.

Or is it some magical ability that certain “supermen” teachers have, that most of us lack? If this is the explanation, then it seems unlikely that the magic can be transferred to the rest of us mortals, and we’ll just have to be happy with the few “supermen” out there and make do with a majority of mediocre grunts.

Or perhaps it’s just that unionized, well-trained teachers are spoiled and lazy and need to have the discipline that only a non-union, down-sized, assembly line charter school can impose? If this was the case, then we should only find good teachers and never any bad ones in charter schools, which is clearly not the case. Or perhaps we just need to abolish the unions entirely, since they are clearly such an impediment to progress. Of course, if this were the case, then why do “right to work” states and districts without union contracts tend to have lower student test scores?


  1. As we found when we worked with students whose parents made less than $20,000 per year, with the right help they can make tremendous gains -- students from poor families can make tremendous strides -- and we need to help them

  2. Thanks for your comments Mark.

    No one is saying that we shouldn’t help poor kids. There are clearly things that can benefit them in terms of school restructure, in class support and different pedagogical approaches. However, this is not the most expedient solution to low student achievement and it is not sustainable to ask teachers to do more and work longer hours for training, planning and implementation of new curricula, while paying them less. Furthermore, these reforms will only help some of them and cannot completely erase the achievement gap or ensure that all students succeed.

    Poor kids start school with enormous disadvantages in terms of vocabulary, pre-reading skills and the soft skills necessary for academic success. Part of this is due to class differences in child rearing. Middle class parents read more to their kids and introduce them to a much larger variety of new words. The soft skills that are important to school are a part of middle class culture, which means that middle class kids are much more likely than working class and poor kids to have them already internalized by the time they start school. The soft skills gap continues outside the home through a child’s upbringing, despite what we do at school, through enriching activities during summer and after school, like sports, travel, camp, and art and music classes.

    Low income kids are also much more likely to live in areas of high pollution, to suffer lead poisoning, iron deficiency anemia, low birth weights and malnutrition, each of which can impair cognitive function and cause learning disabilities. Low income kids suffer higher rates of stress, which can impair memory and learning and weaken the immune system. Low income kids have higher rates of absenteeism, due to lack of health insurance. Even if they are taught soft skills, these other factors may still significantly impair their academic success.

    Rather than expecting teachers to work harder and longer hours, while paying them less, in order to make small test score gains for only some low income students, a much more expedient solution would be to invest in social policies that help bring more material security to all families. Universal health care would not only decrease absenteeism, it would increase prenatal care, and decrease premature births, low birth weights, and other medical conditions that impair student achievement. Increasing housing subsidies and food and nutrition programs would make families more financially secure, while reducing malnutrition and hunger, iron deficiency anemia, learning disabilities and illness. Increasing the earned income tax credit, child care subsidies and tax credits, would allow more parents to work and leave more disposable income in their pockets for food, clothing and other necessities. Investments into public health and education campaigns that encourage better nutrition at home, less television, parental involvement and reading to young children, would improve the soft skills and school readiness of kids. All of these programs will decrease family stress, making kids healthier physically and emotionally.

  3. Seems to me that this also forces new teachers who are looking at their careers to avoid going to schools that have low test scores and results based on whatever the performance criteria will be.

    If your career advancement and pay are going to be determined by the factors described above, that career-minded teachers will always be looking to move to schools that perform better.

    Which sets up low performing schools to not only continue failing but possibly get worse.

  4. You are correct, Lorie.

    The system discourages teachers from working at the schools that have the greatest need for quality teachers.