Tag Archives: teacher quality

“Good Teaching” and the Failure of Education Reform


 Student achievement is soundly measured; teacher effectiveness is not. The system is spending time and effort rating teachers using criteria that do not have a basis in research showing how teaching practices improve student learning.”–Mark Dynarski, Brookings Institute

Goodbye Mr. Chips. Up the Down Staircase. My Posse Don’t Do Homework. To Sir With Love. Dead Poet’s Society. Mr. Holland’s Opus. The 4th season of The Wire.

The “great teacher” movie has become a bit of a cliche. But decades of film and movies work on our emotions for good reason. That reason is not “Wow, this teacher’s practice is soundly based in practice that research shows improves student learning!”

“You cannot ignore facts. That is why any state that makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations will have to change its ways.”–President Barack Obama, announcing Race to the Top


Reform movies usually fail. Won’t Back Down, a piece of blatant choice advocacy, bombed at the box office. Waiting for Superman was a big hit in elite circles but for a film designed as propaganda, it notably failed to move people to action, or even win considerable praise from the unconverted.

In general, performance-obsessed folks are the villains in mainstream movies and TV.

In Pump Up The Volume, the villain was a principal who found reason to expel teens whose lack of motivation and personal problems would affect her school’s test scores. This was before charters, when such practices became encouraged.

In Searching for Bobby Fischer (the movie, as opposed to the book), the parents reject the competition-obsessed teacher who wanted the boy to spend all his waking hours on chess, giving equal time to a homeless street guy who advocates a more open, aggressive, impulsive approach to chess. The parents preferred a son with a happy, rounded life to a neurotic who wouldn’t know a normal life. (Their son is, today, a happy well-rounded brilliant man who never became Bobby Fischer. In every sense of that meaning.)

In the famous season 4 of The Wire, AVP Donnelly tries hard to “juke the stats” by gaming the test, “spoonfeeding” the “Leave No Child Behind stuff”. Prez rejects this approach: “I came here to teach, right?”

I can think of only one movie in which a teacher was judged by his test scores and declared a hero:  Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver.

But most people throwing about Escalante’s name and achievements don’t really understand that  it took  fourteen years of sustained effort, handpicked teachers, legally impossible demands of his students, and a supportive principal to get 73 kids to pass the AB Calculus exam, with another 12 passing the BC, with around 140-200 in his program, out of a student population of 3500 . Once Escalante lost his supportive principal, he  was voted out as department chair because he was an arrogant jerk to other teachers, and handled defeat by  leaving the school.

Escalante’s story, channeled through Jay Mathews, thrilled policy wonks and politicians, and the public was impressed by the desire and determination of underprivileged kids to do what it takes to get an opportunity they otherwise wouldn’t have. But those same wonks and politicians wouldn’t have tolerated Escalante’s tracking, and 2% would have been an unacceptably low participation rate. He rejected a lot of kids. Mine is a contrarian view, but I’ve never though Escalante cared about kids who couldn’t or wouldn’t do the work he demanded.

“Teachers should be evaluated based on their ability to fulfill their core responsibility as professionals-—delivering instruction that helps students learn and succeed.”–The Widget Effect ((publication of the National Council for Teacher Quality)

In the book We Need To Talk About Kevin, the teacher Dana Rocco makes two brief appearances. The first is in a parent-teacher conference with Kevin’s mother:


We don’t know how Dana Rocco’s students’ performed on tests, or even how she taught. But purely on the strength of this passage, we know she is passionate about her subject and her students, who she works to reach in ways straightforward and otherwise. And in the second passage, we learn that she kept trying to reach Kevin right up to the moment he split her head open with a bolt from crossbow while she was trying to carry another of his victims away from danger.

In Oklahoma, a hurricane blew down a school, and they pulled a car off a teacher who had three kids underneath her. Teachers were pulling rubble away from classrooms before the rescue workers even got there. Were they delivering on their core responsibility as professionals?

The Sandy Hook teachers died taking bullets for their students.

Were they fulfilling their core responsibilities as professionals? Would NCTQ celebrate the teachers who abandoned their students to the deranged young gunman, who left their students to be buried in rubble? Could they argue that their efforts were better spent raising test scores for another ten years than giving their lives to save twenty students?

“Most notably, [the Every Student Succeeds Act} does not require states to set up teacher-evaluation systems based in significant part on students’ test scores—a key requirement of the U.S. Department of Education’s state-waiver system in connection with ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.–Stephen Sawchuk, “ESSA Loosens Reins on Teacher Evaluations”

ESSA is widely acknowledged to have ended the era of education reform, started in the 90s, hitting its peak in the Bush Obama years. Eulogies abound, many including prescriptions for the future by the same people who pushed the past policies that failed so completely, so spectacularly. In future years, the Bush-Obama choice/accountability reforms will ever more be accompanied by the words “roundly repudiated”. The world we live in going forward is as much a rejection of Michael Petrilli, John King, and Michelle Rhee as the “Nation At Risk” era was to the wasteful excesses of the 70s. The only real question left is why they still have billionaires paying their salaries.

They failed for many reasons. But chief among their failures was their conviction that public education is measured by student outcomes. This conviction is easily communicated, and allowed reformers to move politicians and policy in directions completely at odds with the public will. Reformers never captured the  hearts and minds of the public.  They failed to understand that student academic outcomes aren’t what the public thinks of when they think of good teaching.

The repudiation of education reform policies and preferences in favor of emotion-based, subjective expectations is one of the most comforting developments of the past twenty years. Go USA.


Teacher Quality Report: Lacking a Certain Quality

October flew by. I actually did a lot of writing, but not where anyone can see it. Plus, I’ve had my butt kicked, bronchially speaking. Apparently I’m asthmatic, but the only thing that means to me is that I hang on to coughs forever. So here it is October and just two posts? 20 days between? That might be a record. Even weirder, this has been my biggest month–25K+ views. Go figure. But let’s see if I can get two done in a day.

First up is a bit of a greatest hits montage occasioned by this report on Gains in Teacher Quality by Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch.

I noticed some, er, broad claims.

Smart Teachers are Better?

From the report: And the evidence on the importance of teacher academic proficiency generally suggests that effectiveness in raising student test scores is associated with strong cognitive skills as measured by SAT or licensure test scores, or the competitiveness of the college from which teachers graduate.

Nice to see a mention of licensure test scores, although not in the right context. But as Dan Goldhaber himself observed,

..we see that Black and other minority students appear to benefit from being matched with a Black teacher regardless of how well or poorly that teacher performed on the Praxis tests, and these positive effects due to matching with Black teachers are comparable in magnitude to having the highest-performing White teachers in the classroom. Removing the lowest of performers on the exam would necessarily remove some of the teachers that appear to be most effective for this segment of the student population.

He also found that there’s no relationship between licensure scores and reading effectiveness, but that licensure test scores operate as a reasonable screening device for white teachers and math. But not black teachers, I guess.

And RAND found less than that:

The results show large differences in teacher quality across the school district, but measured teacher characteristics explain little of the difference. Teacher licensure test scores are unrelated to teacher success in the classroom. Similarly, student achievement is unaffected by whether classroom teachers have advanced degrees. Student achievement increases with teacher experience, but the linkage is weak and largely reflects poor outcomes for teachers during their first year or two in the classroom.

Is there anything relating teacher quality to SAT scores? I couldn’t find it, but (and I mean this seriously) I may have missed it. Can You Recognize an Effective Teacher When You Recruit One? says there isn’t much of a link:

some researchers have found that teachers with stronger academic backgrounds produce larger performance gains for their children (see, for example, Clotfelter et al. (2006, 2007), in addition to the reviews cited above). However, there are also a number of studies which do not find this relationship (e.g., Harris and Sass (2006) on graduate course work and Kane et al. (2006) on college selectivity). …While several early studies failed to find a significant relationship between college admissions scores and principals’ evaluations of new teachers (e.g., Maguire (1966), Ducharme (1970)), a well cited study by Ladd and Ferguson (1996) did find a link between scores on the ACT exam and student achievement growth.

I often notice a study mentioning the “consistent” or “pervasive” link between teacher cognitive ability and student achievement, but all the research I find says that no conclusive link has been found, that some studies find a relationship, some don’t. Research is no more supportive of the smarter teachers campaign than it is for stricter gun control or tougher drug laws. Sorry.

Teachers used to be smart women, but no more

Another quote:

Over the course of the next 35 years, women still made up the vast majority of the teacher workforce, but their academic credentials began to decline. Research by Sean Corcoran, William Evans, and Robert Schwab indicates that the likelihood of a female teacher having been among the highest-scoring 10 percent of high school students on standardized achievement tests fell sharply between 1971 and 2000, from 24 to 11 percent.

Corcoran, Evans, and Schwab said that, but they said a lot more:

In the results presented here we find some evidence of a slight but detectable decline in the relative ability of the average new female teacher, when ability is measured as one’s centile rank in the distribution of high school graduates on a standardized test of verbal and mathematical aptitude. The magnitude of this decline is even greater when measuring ability using standardized scores. We also find that examination of the entire distribution of new teachers is more informative than trends in central tendency alone. Over the 1964–2000 period, women near the top of the test score distribution became much less likely to enter the teaching pro- fession than their peers near the middle of the distribution. The apparent conse- quence has been a much lower representation of women of very high academic abil- ity in the pool of elementary and secondary teachers. While the sample sizes of male teachers are much smaller, we detect the opposite trend among men.

Huh. So on average, women teachers are mostly as bright. (Consider that we have a lot more special ed teachers, who are predominantly female and who have scores as low or lower than elementary teachers.) But fewer really really smart women. Count that as a big “so what”, particularly since, as the report observes, we’re getting some more bright men.

But again, we don’t even know if we need really smart teachers.

We have no data on teacher quality

Absent persuasive evidence on the impact of efforts to raise the bar, some people have speculated that the rise of test-based accountability associated with NCLB and the ongoing push to establish more-rigorous teacher evaluation systems have made teaching less attractive and thereby contributed to further decline in the quality of the teaching corps. (emphasis mine)

Oh, come on. That’s crap. ETS has been telling the world that teacher metrics, particularly in elementary and middle school, have increased dramatically. I’ve written about this extensively, but I’ll just link in #5 on the list of heavily trafficked posts, Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II, which has the most linked image on this site, and a link to this ETS report on teacher quality:

In summary, the following can be said about overall licensure patterns and academic quality during the last decade, at least for the states included in this study:

  • Passing rates have decreased substantially.
  • The academic profile of the entire candidate pool has improved.
  • The academic profile of those passing the Praxis tests has improved.
  • These improvements are consistent across gender, race/ethnicity, and licensure area.
  • Profiles are markedly different for secondary subject teachers in contrast to elementary, special education, and physical education teachers.
  • The decrease in passing rates is likely attributable to increasingly demanding testing requirements put in place during these intervening years.

Yeah, the licensure tests! How about those?

Things that Shouldn’t Make You Go Hmmmm

After going through the many ways in which teacher metrics have improved over a seven year period, the authors scratch their heads:

What explains the apparent rise in academic competency among new teachers? As we show, the SAT scores of those seeking and finding employment in a teaching job differ in different years. It is possible that alternative pathways into the teaching profession have become an important source of academic talent for the profession. Unfortunately, we cannot explore this issue in any depth because the way in which teachers were asked about their preparation has varied over time. Regardless, alternative routes are unlikely to be the primary explanation for the changing SAT trends given that, with a few high-profile exceptions like Teach for America, alternative certification programs are not highly selective.

Wow, introduce alternative certification and before I have a chance to get huffy, walk it back. Damn skippy alternative certification programs are not highly selective. Many are set up specifically to recruit URM teachers, and in many ways “alternative certification”, outside of TFA, is a proxy for black and Hispanic teachers.

The 1998 Higher Education Act required ed schools to prove that 80% of their candidates passed all licensure tests. If I understand the politics correctly, the law was intended to force ed schools to spend more time covering content, which is absurd. Ed schools responded predictably—who the hell wants to teach 6th grade math in college?—requiring candidates pass at least one licensure test to be eligible for admission. A couple years later, NCLB’s “highly qualified teacher” criteria led to a wholesale increase in elementary and middle school content knowledge requirements, reflected in much tougher licensure tests.

So the 1998 Higher Education Act, coupled with the tougher licensure tests of the NCLB era, led to a tremendous decline in black and Hispanic teachers overall, and their virtual disappearance from education schools. Alternative certification programs sprung up as a way to bring in more URM teachers—they aren’t bound by the 1998 law, so they can bring in candidates and then spend most of the training time teaching them the content to pass the test.

Have you been paying attention? Because it’s pretty friggin’ obvious why the “academic competency” of teachers has improved. I’ve been writing about this forever. THE LICENSURE TESTS ARE HARDER. I shouted this back in March (It’s the test, Zitbrains!) and at least twice on the Clarence Mumford case, and I don’t know how to holler it any louder.

This authors mention the licensure tests twice, but never for the right reason. They never once consider whether the tests might be a source of the increase. In fact, they never seem to realize that their report is largely redundant, since ETS covered the same ground six years ago.

Meanwhile, despite this big boost in teacher “academic competency”, which I’ve been writing about for two years, we aren’t seeing a corresponding huge boost in student academic outcomes, and all research continues to show that, at best, the link between teacher cognitive ability and student outcomes is twitchy and unreliable. All research continues to play the Reverse Drinking Game and ignore student cognitive ability. Math professors assure us that the only difference between “math people” and everyone else is effort, and that anyone with an IQ of 70 can learn algebra.

So, here’s what I think, but can’t prove: our teachers are pulled roughly from the same pool as always, which is the 35-50% for elementary and special ed teachers, and 50-75% for secondary content teachers. But the bottom quintile or so is gone because of higher licensure standards, so the average has increased. This has resulted in far fewer black and Hispanic teachers, particularly black teachers. Existing black teachers are also being forced out of the profession by new requirements (hence the Mumford impersonation fraud ring).

Remember, anyone who pushes for improved teacher qualifications is saying, in effect, we need fewer black and Hispanic teachers. And, as the recent TFA study’s big takeaway shows, all you get for largely eradicating black and Hispanic teachers is, maybe, .07 of a standard deviation.

Just today Dara Zeehandelaar commented on my blog:

The point is that students might benefit if traditional certification programs were more selective in who they admitted (for example, by admitting students with higher GRE scores, higher undergraduate GPAs, undergraduate or even graduate coursework in the content area in which they want to teach, professional experience, etc. — the same things that TFA looks for). “Selectivity” in this case has nothing to do with race.

She said this with a straight face, too.

Sorry, Dara. Selectivity in this case has everything to do with race.

Older Teachers

So I’m the opposite of “blocked”, lately. Lots of ideas and a laptop that’s annoying me. I had two, gave one away and the one I kept hangs so often (memory problems) that I get distracted waiting and watching Broadchurch (not too happy with who the murderer is obviously going to end up being on that one) or not watching Breaking Bad (me and four other people, apparently). Then I fall asleep because hey, it’s the first month of school and that’s how it rolls. So now I have four different ideas, plus two or three straightforward teaching writeups to do, and that’s not good because then I feel overwhelmed and start watching TV shows I’ve already seen 50 times (hello to the mother ship, L&O). I don’t know how actual bloggers do this. Fortunately, I’m just an essayist.

Then a friend who relocated for her job mentions that her husband, a 42 year old teacher, hasn’t yet found a job. I remember telling her when she first got the job to assume that he wouldn’t get hired (she makes enough for that not to be a problem), and she said that I wasn’t the only one to warn her. He has a lot of experience and two master’s, but in most inter-district (much less state) transfers, teachers lose next to all their seniority, so it’s not just about money. It’s a lot about money, but not all.

So I thought I’d talk about older teachers. This is purely an opinion piece; I’m not even sure how much of it I’ll think in a year.

If you know any successful 40-something idealists who dream of “giving back to the community” by becoming teachers, ask if they have jobs lined up. If they don’t, ask them if they are spending a lot of money on their teaching credentials. If they are, tell them to go to a state school. It’s well documented that ed school selectivity is irrelevant in hiring decisions, and they’re going to have enough trouble finding jobs without worrying about loan forgiveness. I can’t really say I’m sorry I went to an elite ed school, but I never fail to consider it an example of luxury spending, as opposed to an educational investment.

Research on this subject is thin, but I did find one study on CPS principal hire/fire decisions on new teachers:

(Note: I suspect the bias against male teachers is at the elementary school level. At the high school level, I see a huge preference for male teachers that I’ve mentioned time and again.)

Anything else I say would be anecdotal. Check any teacher training cohort and see who’s last to sign with a school—assuming they have any candidates over 40, they’ll be the last hired, if they are so lucky. Read any story about “firing ineffective teachers” with deep skepticism. And giving administrators full hire/fire over all teachers would lead to a lot of forty-plus teachers losing their jobs. I saw three teachers, two of them in math, targeted and forced into retirement because the principal wanted “new blood” (the principal said as much, often, to anyone who would listen). All teachers have stories like that. All teachers know that the reason job applications ask about education credits is to weed out older applicants. And some teachers think it’s a great idea.

Lately, there’s been a push to reform pensions, push more money to teachers up front. After all, the thinking goes, it will be fairer to teachers who leave the profession:

First, districts should jettison their current approach to retirement benefits, in which teachers accrue relatively meager benefits through much of their careers, and then abruptly become eligible for much more as they near retirement age. In its place, districts should adopt retirement systems where benefits accrue smoothly, year after year, without sudden, arbitrary jumps late in a teacher’s working life. This would allow talented people to teach for part of their career, or teach in more than one district, without harming their retirement security. It would also end an unfair practice that places the majority of teachers on an insecure retirement savings path in order to support more generous pensions for the minority who work a full career in one system.

So we’ll make it easier for teachers to quit and get a little bit of money, and not have to pay as much in pensions. Saves money, right? Fine. Stop talking about fairness to new teachers, then, and focus on cost-savings.

Education reformers are profoundly clueless about what really drives teacher benefits and, I think, genuinely clueless about what really drives administrators. Paul Bruno has an interesting idea that teacher tenure is a perk. Bruno cites Mathew DiCarlo, who reviews the same study I linked in above from a different perspective (although he agrees that the discrimination against men and older teachers is troubling):

…there is little support for the idea that principals are just dying to fire at will – or that, once dismissed, teachers can easily be replaced by “better” alternatives – despite sometimes being taken for granted in our education debates. Although they are far from conclusive, and pertain only to probationary teachers, the descriptive results discussed above tentatively suggest that the supply of appropriate replacements may not always be quite as robust as is often assumed – and/or that there may be some other reasons for low dismissal rates that are not entirely a function of the difficulty of doing so.

What I take away from all this is complicated, but I think relevant. First, coupling the study with my own anecdata and that of many years in the workforce: principals, like all management, exercise their biases. Given the peculiar nature of teaching and its employment structure, I can build a good case that principals be prevented from doing this more than managers in the private sector. Managers pay a price in productivity if they fire good people purely because of their biases. Principals don’t, in the main. Productivity in schools is a complicated issue.

At the same time, most principals don’t fire teachers often because it’s incredibly hard to find new ones. Better the teacher who shows up on time and gets the job done than too many unknown quantities in any given year.

So a principal who is allowed to exercise biases could always defer to his or her particular preferences on a one-off basis, firing probationary or even tenured teachers for age, gender, race, or teaching philosophy, while in the main keeping teachers when in doubt because of the pain of hiring new teachers. Even more unnerving, that principal could keep genuinely weak teachers while firing/dumping good teachers that just happen to activate a bias. For example, keeping an ineffective new young teacher completely intimidated by her students, while dumping or threatening to dump a new older teacher who does a good job. (Not anything I’d have any experience with, nope.)

But wait, say reformers. Principals are constrained by productivity just as private sector management is! Yeah, this is me laughing at them: ha, ha. Of course, private sector management can exercise bias around the edges, and do. But in the case of older teachers, there’s that pesky money problem, too. Older workers in the private sector can adjust their salary if need be, if their value to the company isn’t as great as it once was. Teachers can’t. So take an existing bias against older teachers and toss in the added expense they usually represent, and the whole situation gets worse.

Ah, says the eduformers. That’s why we should revamp teaching entirely! Change the salary structure, don’t reward older teachers as much, and there’ll be less of a bias against them. Let teachers change districts! Let them move to different states! Let districts shift teachers around where they are most needed! (Hey, one of these things is not like the others.)

To which I say, again, eduformers, you aren’t reading the tea leaves. Finding teachers is the holy grail, not firing them. Most people don’t really have a clue about the enormous scale required to maintain millions of people in a job that has quite a few constraints on it—from regimented potty breaks to fingerprint checks to college degrees and competency tests.

So suppose we create the freedom to hire and fire at will, and we give teachers the same ability.

Let’s imagine some possibilities: A teacher can contract with three different districts to teach a popular AP US History course. Or maybe he’s just really good teaching math to low ability kids, and works three classes at two schools. Still other 50 year old teachers kick back and decide they have enough money. They want to teach three classes and then consult as a master coach in another district. Still others teach a couple classes and then go work in ed schools.

Not just 50-somethings, either. A lot of 5-year veterans decide they want to take off and raise their kids for a while, but are happy to put in a few classes here or there.

Meanwhile, very few teachers with any seniority or any talent are ever found at low income schools. No reason. Nothing to keep them there. In fact, any teachers with any talent have realized they have an easier life contracting out a couple classes a year part-time to a suburban district than teaching full-time in a low income district. Once districts are allowed to actually compete on salary, paying by negotiation instead of salary schedules, rich districts will compete heavily for desirable new teachers. Schools with undesirable kids, not matter how much money they have, will be forced to rely on teachers who view the work as a calling, not being able to count on seniority-bound teachers who probably would have switched elsewhere if they weren’t financially precluded from doing so.

In other words, if teachers are allowed to compete on skill and salary, the results might not exactly be what eduformers imagine. They appear to envision a world in which teachers are still committed to a district, with just a few more options on each side. I very much doubt that’s what will happen.

I do know that if districts and administrators were asked to consider a world in which everyone had more freedoms, they would almost certainly reject it out of hand. Charter schools operate on a very small level. That's part of the problem.

All of this goes back to older teachers. They’re a straw that almost everyone—principals, districts, reformers, well-meaning liberals who think they understand education, even a lot of genuine progressives—would like to remove, or redirect to some other area. But I'm not sure that one straw leaves without a bunch of others coming along. And very few people seem to understand what that could mean.

This is my fifth year of teaching, a job I love with a passion that surprises me. Yet I'm relieved that I qualify for both a pension and a lot of loan forgiveness at the end of this year because it's entirely possible I won't ever get tenure. I love my current school; it's the only one of my three that I say that about. I think they like me, but I'm expensive. I'm also old, and this district can keep teachers as temporary or probationary for a very, very long time (some teachers here have been temporary for seven years; in elementary school it's worse). Since I'm in math, it should move more quickly for me. But I'd be a liar and a fool if I didn't fear the possibility that right around the time I should be qualifying for tenure, the administration team will find some fault with my teaching, after x years of thinking I'm just fine, and blammo, I'm gone. I would never voluntarily leave this school, even if I didn't love it, because finding another job has routinely been a crapshoot that goes until less than a month before school starts. My usual line is "I've gotten this far because I look young for my age, but around the time I'm fifty-five I'm going to look forty-five and then it's game over."

And what, specifically, led to this maundering post, Ed? It's eval time, baby. And the principal who reviewed me last year took a new job. Keep your fingers crossed.


The Takeaway from the TFA Study

Jersey Jazzman’s list of cautions mirrors my own on the TFA study. I would add that the TFA skew towards middle school (in the study) makes a big difference; TFAers push testing excitement heavily in middle school, something that’s very tough to do with high schoolers.

I had an interesting twitter exchange with Morgan Polikoff who, can I just say, makes me feel both ancient and unproductive, about the “significance” of the TFA improvement margin. He explained that hey, that’s what researchers have always used. Well, yeah. I know that. I’m not questioning the study’s use of that particular metric, I’m questioning the value of that particular metric.

Recently, the august NY Times declared that “Guesses and Hype Give Way to Data in Study of Education” but alas, all this knowledge “has another hurdle to clear: Most educators, including principals and superintendents and curriculum supervisors, do not know the data exist, much less what they mean.”

Y’all are going to tell us about it, right? While us teachers are supposed to just go “Wow, thanks! We’ll go put this in action!” (Now I sound like a typical teacher who values practice over data, which I actually don’t, and I find this very annoying.)

But in fact, teachers are actually reading more research than at any time in the past, if only because reformers are presenting us all as a bunch of incompetent buffoons whose results aren’t just equaled, but improved, by smarter, ambitious, desirable college graduates who are in it for the resume improvement. It’s just slightly possible, isn’t it, that when a bunch of teachers become familiar with “research practice”—created by people who usually have very little teaching experience or have been told to ignore that experience in favor of “research practice”—they might question that practice?

Note to those who want to start “educating” teachers on research: expect pushback if you try to sell “significant” improvement that translates to something like a couple questions more on a test. Here’s a small sample of what math teachers will want to know on this particular study: did the TFAers do better at teaching linear equations, factoring quadratics? Were the additional correct questions random, or specific to a content area? Was the improvement consistent over each subject taught, or specific to one subject? Did the classrooms have similar behavior referral rates? Mind you, we’ll see the “significance” as irrelevant either way, but at least we’ll know whether it’s “real”.

But accept the results as “significant” and here’s the big takeaway, hinted at by Dara Zeehandelaar of Fordham:

Both TFA and Teaching Fellows have less experience than their peers, are less likely to be minorities, more likely to have graduated from more selective colleges, less likely to be math majors but more likely to score higher on tests of math content. However, only years of experience and, for high school, math content knowledge were associated with higher student achievement. These findings add to the glut of research indicating that traditional certification programs could benefit from greater selectivity, indeed from a radical overhaul.

Dara is celebrating a future teaching force with fewer blacks and Hispanics. Me, I look at it from the opposite side of the mirror, where it reads something like this:

CAEP, the ed school accreditation organization, is setting new standards that include higher candidate selection benchmarks. Selective ed schools have been left some wiggle room, in that the cohort, not each individual candidate, has to have an average GPA over 3.0 and average test scores in the top third of a nationally normed achievement test. However, it will annihilate predominantly black/Hispanic teacher schools, which include no small amount of public universities. Only 6% of African Americans and 10% of Hispanics get over 600 on each section of the SAT, which is roughly the top 30% nationwide.

So if CAEP doesn’t blink, or ed schools don’t get creative, we will soon have almost no black and Hispanic teachers, since blacks and Hispanics who get over 600 on each section of the SAT go off to become doctors and lawyers and Wall Street hedge fund managers. While the test score requirements will almost certainly be loosened or eliminated as the import becomes clear, our nation will see a lot fewer black and Hispanic teachers. We’ve already cut into the supply back during the NCLB changes, and people are already scratching their heads about these “missing” minority teachers, as Mokoto Rich of the New York Times has termed this, blithely ignoring the reality right in front of her. If the CAEP standards have the intended effect, we’ll lose even more.

But that’s okay, right? Because sure, we’ll lose in the current generation, but the next generation, taught by those newer, brilliant teachers who really care about their kids and aren’t just doing it because it’s some pesky job will raise achievement! Blacks and Hispanics will score the same as whites and Asians! Stricter drug laws will eliminate addiction! Tougher gun laws will prevent Newtowns! Dogs and cats will live together in peace and harmony! Hell, Israel and Palestine will straighten things out.

So the TFA study gives us a preview of that brave new world. TFAers were three times as likely to be white; the control group of teachers had seven times as many blacks. And lo! you see the predictable one standard deviation difference in test score means between the groups. The TFA group is exactly the
highly qualified, selective crew of new penny bright teachers everyone says they want.

And you get .07 of a standard deviation difference in student outcomes.

Of course, we already knew that, since it was an example of what the clearinghouse on education research knows doesn’t work:

For example, Michael Garet, the vice president of the American Institutes for Research, a behavioral and social science research group, led a study that instructed seventh-grade math teachers in a summer institute, helping them understand the math they teach — like why, when dividing fractions, do you invert and multiply?

The teachers’ knowledge of math improved, but student achievement did not.

“The professional development had many features people think it should have — it was sustained over time, it involved opportunities to practice, it involved all the teachers in the school,” Dr. Garet said. “But the results were disappointing.”

So maybe we can add the TFA study to the clearinghouse as additional evidence that past a certain point (unknown), increased teacher ability doesn’t result in improved student achievement. Or are we going to still pretend that .07 of a standard deviation is 2.6 months of instruction, that, as Jerseyman says, the increase is actually “practically” instead of “statistically”, significant?

Both reformers and progressives push “improve teacher quality” as an easy mantra that really doesn’t have much basis in fact. However, reformers go farther. Reformers look at the existing state of affairs and see obvious failure, failure so manifest that it’s a simple matter to fix. Low test scores? Give them teachers who care. Smarter teachers. Higher standards. Over the past decade, their enthusiasm has been blunted a tad by the realization that at best, their “obvious” improvements, if you squint really hard and pretend peer environment is irrelevant, will improve outcomes a squidge around the edges. But still, they keep coming back for more. And so, they push this study as evidence that TFA works, not realizing that the study foretells the lackluster improvement they’ll see at the expense of a virtually closed career path for blacks and Hispanics.

That’s the takeway of the TFA study.

Can someone mention this to CAEP?


More on Mumford

(Totally accidental pun, I promise. The man’s a disgusting sleaze, but he’s not stupid.)

So for some reason, the Clarence Mumford story broke this week. Odd, that.

A sample, just from my twitter feed:

Robert Pondiscio: “Cheating on teacher certification tests? Seriously?? Not exactly the highest bar to clear.”

Eduwonk: “The real scandal is the low-level of the Praxis test and why it continues to be used at all. The Praxis II is different, but the basic Praxis is much too low a bar given what we expect of teachers.”

Sarah Almy, Director of teacher quality at Education Trust: ““These are pretty basic tests….The fact that there were folks who felt like they needed to bring somebody else in in order to meet a very basic level of content knowledge is disturbing, in particular for the kids those teachers are going to wind up teaching.”

Walter Russell Mead: “Massive cheating scandal on teacher certification tests. Worse: tests are pathetically easy, only idiots could flunk.”

Here are the names of the people thus far indicted:

Notice all these people are black. Which is what I predicted back in July, when this story first broke. Some of the other names are Jadice Moore, Felippia Kellogg (somehow, this Fox news story couldn’t find a picture of her), Dante Dowers, Jacklyn McKinnie. (A primary tester was John Bowen; I haven’t been able to find a picture of him, oddly, Fox News couldn’t find a picture of him, either.) If I do some bad ol’ stereotyping based solely on those names, I’d advise gamblers to bet on them being black, too.

I am pleased to be wrong about one thing—I thought it likely the testers who could easily pass the test would be white, but it appears that most of them are black, as well. Notice also that the Fox News story and many others make it clear that many of the people paying for the tests were already teachers, and that some of the tests were Praxis II. I’d written about that, too.

If you’re wondering why I am pretty sure that most, if not all, of the teachers paying for testers are black, here are some helpful graphics:

And yet, no one save little old me is even mentioning the race of the people involved, as if it’s this totally random factor, like you could find white teachers desperately paying thousands of dollars to pass these tests.

Robert Pondiscio, WRM, and Andy Rotherham and the many other people sneering about the people who need to pay someone else to pass the test, be very specific: Only 40% of African Americans can pass the Praxis I the first time. The other 60%? That’s who you are calling idiots.

Let’s be clear what I am not saying. I am not excusing the fraud. I am not hinting that African Americans are incapable of passing the tests (this fraud ring shows clearly that they are not).

And since I’m prone to prolixity, I will bullet my points.

I am saying that reformers are:

  • hammering constantly on the need for “higher standards”,
  • sneering at the low standards on teacher credential tests,
  • scoffing at grossly distorted stats suggesting that all teachers, regardless of content area, have low SAT scores,
  • declaring that the only way to “restore credibility and professionalism to teaching” is to pull teachers from the top third of college graduates, ignoring the fact that high school content teachers are already drawn from the top half, as well as the fact that there’s no real need for elementary school teachers to be rocket scientists

And while they rant on endlessly on these talking points, they are ignoring the following unpleasantness:

  • the low cut score on the basic content knowledge tests are put in place specifically to ensure that some small number of African American and Hispanic teachers will pass. The white averages are a full standard deviation higher; a huge boost to the cut scores in most credentialing tests wouldn’t bother the bulk of all teachers (white females, remember) in the slightest.
  • research has turned up very close to empty in proving that teacher content knowledge has any relationship to student achievement. (Cite to research in my earlier article).
  • research consistently shows that teacher race has a distressing relationship to student achievement–specifically, more than one study shows a positive outcome when black teachers teach black students. (again, cite in earlier article)
  • Raising the cut scores will decimate the black and Hispanic teaching population.
  • Many states dramatically increased the difficulty in elementary school credentialing tests after NCLB, yet research has not shown these new teachers to be far superior to the teachers who just passed the much easier (or non-existent) earlier tests. There hasn’t been research done specifically on this point. Hint. Oh, and by the way–those cut score boosts have already dramatically reduced the URM teaching population.

So reformers, when you call for higher content standards, when you say that teachers who can’t pass the test are idiots who should never be allowed in a classroom, you are talking about black and Hispanic teachers. When you demand that we need far more rigorous demonstrated content knowledge for teachers, you are merely making calls for changes that will decimate the already reduced URM teacher population.

And you are doing this with next to no evidence that your demanded changes will impact student achievement, merely on your own prejudice that smarter teachers would make better teachers.

Maybe you’re right. Maybe there’s a perfect research paper out there waiting to be written that will winkle out the lurking variables to prove that yes, we need smarter teachers and yes, it’s okay to annihilate the black and Hispanic teaching population in a good cause. Fine. Go find it.

Or maybe you just want to be snobby elites who don’t personally know anyone who scored below 600 on any section of the SAT, and think your own personal prejudices should substitute for education policy.

Whatever. Just learn and accept what you’re doing. You are calling for changes that will further homogenize an already white career category, closing off a major career option to over half of all blacks and Hispanics, for what is thus far no better reason than you think teachers should be smarter.

Got it? Own it. Or shut the hell up about it.


Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing

The whole algebra debate kicked off by Hacker’s algebra essay has…..well, if not depressed me, then at least enervated me.

A recap:


We shouldn’t make everyone take algebra. No one needs algebra anyway; we never really use it. Statistics would be much more useful. Algebra is the primary obstacle to high school success; millions of kids are failing because they can’t manage this course. If we just allowed students to have an easier time in high school, more of them would graduate successfully and go on to college.

Outraged Opposition:

Algebra is essential to college success and “real life” and one of many obstacles to high school success. No one is happy with the current state of affairs, but it’s clear that kids aren’t learning algebra because their teachers suck, particularly in elementary school. We need to teach math better in the lower grades, rather than lower our standards. Besides, the corollary to “not everyone should take algebra” is “some people should take algebra” and just how are you planning to divide up those teams? (Examples: Dan Willingham, Dropout Nation)

Judicious Analysis:

Sigh. Guys, this is really a debate about tracking, you know? And no one wants to go there. While it’s true that algebra really isn’t necessary for college, colleges use success in advanced math as a convenient sorting mechanism. Besides, once we say algebra isn’t necessary, where do we stop? Literature? Biology? Chemistry? But without doubt, Hacker is right in part. Did I say that no one wants to go there? Or just hint it really, really loudly?
Examples: Dana Goldstein, Justin Baeder Iand II.

Voldemort Support:

Well, of course not everyone should take algebra, trig, or calculus. Or advanced literature. Or science. Not everyone has the cognitive ability or the interest. We should have a richer and more flexible curriculum, allowing anyone with the interest to take whatever classes they like with the understanding that not all choices lead to college and that outcomes probably won’t have the racial distributions we’d all prefer to see. Oh, and while we’re at it, we should be reviewing our immigration policies because it’s pretty clear that our country doesn’t need cheap labor right now.

Hacker, Outraged Opposition and Judicious Analysis to Voldemort Support:


So really, what else is left to say? The Judicious Analysis essays I linked above were the strongest by far, particularly Justin Baeder II.

Instead, I’m going to revisit a chart I updated from the last time I posted it:

These are California’s math scores by grade and subject, the percentage scoring basic/proficient or higher on the CST. Algebra entry points differ, so the two higher (and slightly longer) of the four short lines are the percentages of “advanced” students with those scores—those who took algebra in 7th or 8th grade. The lower, shortest lines represent the scores of students who began algebra in 9th grade.

Notice that advanced students don’t match the performance of the entire elementary school population through 5th grade. Notice, too, that the percentage of advanced students scoring proficient or higher is just around half of the population. When I just considered algebra students who began in 8th grade (see link above), the percentage never tops 50. Notice that around 40% of the kids who started algebra in 9th grade achieved basic or higher.

NAEP scores show the same thing—4th grade math scores have risen, while 12th grade scores stay flat. In fact, Daniel Willingham, who declares above that we’re doing a bad job at teaching elementary math, was considerably more sanguine about teacher quality back in December, citing the improved elementary school math performance shown in the NAEP. So the strong elementary school performance, coupled with a huge dropoff in advanced math, is not unique to California.

These numbers, on the surface, don’t support the conventional wisdom about math performance: namely, that elementary school teachers need improvement and that the seeds of our students’ failure in higher math starts in the lower grades. Elementary students are doing quite well. It’s only in advanced math, when the teachers are much more knowledgeable, with higher SAT scores and tougher credentialling tests, that student performance starts to decline dramatically.

What these numbers do suggest is that as math gets harder, fewer and fewer students achieve mastery, or anything near it. . What they suggest, really, is that math knowledge doesn’t advance in a linear fashion. Shocking news, I know. We have all forgotten the Great Wisdom of Barbie.

Break it down by race and the percentages vary, but not the pattern. I skipped Asians, because California tracks Asians by subcategory, and life’s too short. I’m going to go right out on a limb and predict that Asians did a bit better than whites.

(Note: I know it’s weird that in all cases, 9th graders in general math have nearly the same percentages as 9th graders in algebra, but it’s easily confirmed: whites, blacks, Hispanics).

Whites in the standard math track perform as well as advanced math blacks and just a bit worse than advanced track Hispanics. Sixty to seventy percent of blacks and Hispanics on the standard track fail to achieve a “basic” score.

Some people are wondering how poverty affects these results, I’m sure. Let’s check.

Hey! Look at that! The achievement gap disappears!

Just kidding. This chart shows the results of blacks and Hispanics who are NOT economically disadvantaged and whites who ARE economically disadvantaged. You can see it on the legend.

So that’s how to make the achievement gap disappear: compare low income whites to middle class or higher blacks and Hispanics and hey, presto.

And that’s all the charts for today. I’m not detail-oriented, and massaged this all in Excel. You can do your own noodling here. Let me know if I made any major errors. The 2012 results should be out in a couple weeks.

Anyway. With numbers like these, it’s hard not to just see this entire debate as insanely pointless. In California, at least, tens of thousands of high school kids are sitting in math classes that they don’t understand, feeling useless, understanding deep in their bones that education has nothing to offer them. Meanwhile, well-meaning people who have never spent an hour of their lives trying to explain advanced math concepts to the lower to middle section of the cognitive scale pontificate about teacher ability, statistics vs. algebra, college for everyone, and other useless fantasies that they are allowed to engage in because until our low performers represent the wide diversity of our country to perfection, no one’s going to ruin a career by pointing out that this a pipe dream. And of course, while they’re engaging in these fantasies, they’ll blame teachers, or poverty, or curriculum, or parents, or the kids, for the fact that their dreams aren’t reality.

If we could just get whites and Asians to do a lot worse, no one would argue about the absurdity of sending everyone to college.

Until then, everyone will divert themselves by engaging in this debate—which, like many kids stuck in the hell of unfair expectations, will go nowhere.


Black teachers, teacher quality, and education reform, revisited

In the interest of focus, I left a few things off my original post.

First, and most importantly: teaching is insanely complicated and non-linear. For me, it’s a free-form high-wire act on a daily basis, interspersed with bouts of intense mental activity outside of class as I try to figure out the best way to explain complicated subjects to kids who don’t want to be there and often don’t have the requisite skills to master the material. But for others, it’s a highly structured daily routine in which each lesson is planned out months in advance. I know many math teachers who have each problem worked out before they teach it (in many cases problems they’d done for years); I often make up my problems as I write them on the board, so I can carefully calibrate the difficulty level based on the students in that class. I know history teachers who have tremendous difficulty lecturing without index cards and can’t casually lecture on any topic in their curriculum without preparation; I can go from complete unfamiliarity to ready to talk in 2 hours.

Many non-teachers visualize their ideal teacher as someone more like me, except a lot younger–smart, fluid, an expert on anything a student might want to inquire about, and particularly an expert in the subject taught. Highly educated elites, in particular, have romantic notions of their little snowflakes being taught by a bright Harvard graduate who went to a top 50 school and wants to help the next generation be as enamored by learning as she is.

Given the tough times I have finding jobs, I encourage all those who hold these romantic notions to find the evidence that teacher IQ and general intelligence is dispositive in successful teaching. (It must be said, however, that principals don’t like teachers that are too smart. Or too old.)

Much as I’d like a world that makes it easier for me to find a job, though, I think the reality is much less comforting to those who want “smarter” teachers. Certainly, research has provided little comfort. When the best news available tells us that teachers in the 95% percentile get very small improvements over the very worst bottom-dwellers, and any improvement at all is considered great news because it’s so hard to find any teacher quality criteria that show any increase at all….well, it’s just possible that being smart ain’t all that.

I really understand the intuitive belief that smarter teachers are better teachers, because I used to hold the same notion, when I was a suburban parent. But that belief was shaken even before I became a teacher and realized that teachers weren’t complete morons and, furthermore, that the demonstrated knowledge requirements for teachers took a sharp increase after NCLB, particularly for elementary school teachers. Huge. So big that, if teacher competency were a factor, we should have seen some improvement in teacher outcomes. Instead, recent research shows, again, that experience boosts performance a bit and new teachers are still weakest of all. I’m open to having my mind changed on that one because no research has specifically tested on this point. But again, the boosts in demonstrated ability were huge in many states, and shouldn’t we have seen some improvement in performance?

But what we got for sure were far fewer black and Hispanic teachers.

Notice that the fraud ring involved existing teachers, teachers who were probably caught in the NCLB net and forced to re-qualify for existing positions. As always, ETS explains this with a helpful graphic (I’ve combined text and image from page 16. ETS has excellent data. That’s why everyone trying to push an educational policy ignores it.)

In 2001, NCLB required teachers to be fully credentialed, forcing many existing teachers with emergency credentials to pass a Praxis test. Many black teachers couldn’t. Hence, the fraud. This wasn’t simply a case of wannabe teachers, but actual teachers, teachers with jobs. What if they were considered competent teachers?

There’s a really interesting study idea: test the outcomes of the teachers who committed fraud, compare them to white and black teachers who passed the test legally. What if they do well?

I’m not fuming at the double standard revealed by the reformers who scream about “unqualified teachers” but duck and cover when black teachers are found to have committed fraud. I am, however, annoyed that reformers are constantly promoting a lie, or at least a fantasy unsupported by research, and they don’t even have the balls to hold consistently to that position. Instead, they wilt and run away from the Clarence Mumford case. They never seem to commit, exactly, to the qualifications teachers should have, and how the current tests fall short.

Why? Because failure to commit to a line in the sand allows them to skate on two points. First, the minute they draw that line, they will be ferociously questioned about the impact their standards will have on black and Hispanic teachers. Race is an area that reformers are absolutely determined to avoid, unless it’s an opportunity to call teachers racist for the uneven performance results, of course.

Furthermore, the minute they draw that competency line, they will be forced to confront the fact that, as I’ve said with some frequency, research doesn’t support their claims. It’s hard to argue for changes that will further obliterate the population of black and Hispanic teachers when you can’t prove being smart makes that much difference—and that the teacher’s race seems to matter.

So instead, reformers prate endlessly about incompetent, mediocre teachers who aren’t anything but white, of course, talking cheap about improving standards while fleeing in terror from the tiniest suggestion that raising teacher test scores will disparately impact black and Hispanic teachers.

It’s too bad, because if they stood up for their beliefs, we could have a meaningful discussion about where, exactly, the line is for teacher competency. One reasonable interpretation of the research thus far is that we are well above the line needed. Bad news for reformers, if so.

I keep wondering about one other possibility, which might explain why a low or failing score on a basic skills tests could nonetheless belong to an effective elementary school teacher.

Maybe they’re underperforming.

My years in test prep have shown me a number of oddities, including more than a few African American kids (by far, the smallest percentage of my demographic), who have a terrible time reading and thinking “on their feet” (that is, a general skills test), and can’t think abstractly at all, yet have very strong demonstrated abilities that they’ve internalized.

Two different African American girls have had exceptional writing skills with a strong demonstrated vocabulary (both got perfect scores on their essay), but struggled to break 500 on the SAT verbal. One of them got a 4 on the AP US History test. More than one boy (including some Hispanics) can do relatively complex math word problems beautifully but, given a simple equation, can’t isolate x. I had one kid who could not solve 4x -3 = 21, but if you asked him what number you could multiply by 4 and subtract 3, and get 21, he’d say “6” before I’d worked it out myself.

I’ve had more than a couple kids ask me why they were being tested on history when they’d never studied it in school. It took me a while to realize they thought the questions on the reading passage were questions they were supposed to know offhand. Their reading scores shot up (from say, the 3rd percentile to the 35th or 40th) when I explained that the big chunk of text on the right had the answers to the questions. They had no idea. And although they did better, they still complained that they wanted to be tested on “what they know” rather than “learn new stuff on the test”. Yes, that sort of thinking is completely alien to me and yes, it’s still pretty common.

In other words, I wonder if maybe crystallized vs. fluid intelligence impacts test scores on the bottom half of the bell curve. This might explain why relatively low skilled people have difficulty showing that knowledge on the test, but can be effective classroom teachers to young kids.

So I’m not as ready as I was five years ago to say that people who can’t pass a basic skills test don’t, in fact, have sufficient mastery of basic skills.

I’m not excusing the fraud. But it infuriates me that everyone’s ignoring it, because the conversations it would kick up are conversations we need to have—and, of course, they’re conversations we’re afraid to have.


Radio silence on Clarence Mumford

The Clarence Mumford case has gotten little traction outside its area. Save for the excellent Joanne Jacobs, probably the best pure education blogger around, none of the usual suspects have tweeted or blogged about it in the week since it happened.

Mumford, a former assistant principal, has been facilitating fraud in the Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi teaching pool for 15 years or more. Teachers and prospective teachers who couldn’t pass the PRAXIS on their own sent him a few thousand dollars each. For that fee, he scheduled a test and created phony driver’s licenses for people who took the test instead.

I understand why the media is reluctant to touch this story, but the eduformer silence is deafening. Here’s devastating, damning evidence of an organized crime ring passing tests in the name of teachers aren’t actually qualified, proving a demand for teachers too weak to pass the credentialing tests, and…..nothing.

Me, I’m thinking race.

None of the articles I’ve seen mention that Mumford is black, although most articles provide the picture. The U.S attorney (also black) who brought charges against Mumford doesn’t provide the names or races of the teachers who gained or kept credentials. I will be extremely surprised if it does not turn out that most if not all of the teachers who bought themselves a test grade are black. (I am also betting that the actual testers are white, but am not as certain. It just seems that if black people were taking the test and guaranteeing passage, the fees would be higher.)

I suspect that everyone not talking about the Clarence Mumford is doing so because they, too, are pretty sure that the teachers paying for test passage are black, even though they’d hasten to holler “racist!” if anyone said this aloud. If I’m wrong, and it turns out that Clarence Mumford has been helping white teachers fake their credential scores, then when that news comes out I anticipate an avalanche of coverage. Everyone will be relieved.

Eduformers pushing for “more competent teachers” (read teachers with higher test scores) are doing their best to pretend away the enormously bad news about the end result if this push were successful. They push the bogus factoid about ed majors’ SAT scores, demand that our teachers be drawn from the top 30% of our college graduates, and do everything they can to promote the notion that teachers are as dumb as stumps.

If their audience were to visualize, without getting needlessly specific, that these low achievement scores were due to the overpopulation of some hapless bong-hitting Millennials who wandered through a state school reading nothing more than the Cheese Doodles packaging when they had the munchies and beer wasn’t sufficiently nutritious, why, that’s purely coincidental. If their audience were then to contrast this know-nothing pile of lazy do-nothings with the freshly-pressed penny bright Ivy League grads and conclude that, by golly, only the Best of the Best should be teachers, who should blame them? Certainly not the eduformers.

And so if this Mumford story were about white teachers, they’d be all over it. Look! Those damn teachers are morons! Burn them! See! Teachers are stupid!

But black teachers? Thud. Silence.

I’ve written on the lurker in the teacher quality debate, but here’s some ETS data. (Cite, and I pulled out images of the relevant points in the gallery below)

The bullets, dressed up with details to drive the point home:

  • The white Millennial bonghitter with a 1.2 GPA who teaches sixth grade science after his parents booted him out of the basement ties the freshly-pressed hardworking black track star with a 3.8 GPA teaching special ed.* ( Cite)
  • The goofball wannabe manicurist who loafed through Podunk U and went into teaching kindergarten after the tenth of her problematic boyfriends dumped her outscores the idealistic black welfare daughter success story on a full scholarship to Harvard who went into teaching sixth grade English to “give back” to her community.* ( Cite)

(*on average, of course)

In so many words: “Improving teacher quality” by increasing test score mandates will result in a dramatic drop in black (and Hispanic) teachers.

Bumping the basement won’t even make a dent in the white teacher population, which is almost certainly meeting or exceeding any realistic score requirement.

And then, the irony: the research base offers little in the way of proof that “improving the teaching pool” (raising required test scores) will improve results.

Best news, from the most optimistic research:

  • “Quite striking” results show that teachers who score 2 or more standard deviations above average in math improved student gains by .068 of a standard deviation relative to average. (2sd is 95%ile).
  • Teachers who scored 2sd below average in math reduced achievement by .062 of a standard deviation.
  • Thus, the teachers from the 95% percentile or higher had a “whopping” improvement of .13 standard deviations over the teachers literally scraping the bottom.
  • No significant difference in reading scores.

And that’s the good news. RAND found “no evidence that [experience, education, scores on licensure examinations] have a substantial effect on student achievement.” (This report also has an excellent overview of the research (including the relatively cheery Clotfelter study above), starting on page 6.)

Meanwhile, there’s this rather unsettling, and recent, finding from Goldhaber’s Race, Gender, and Teacher Licensing:

Same-race matching effects dwarf most any information conveyed through the licensure test signal. We wish to point out that when teaching Black students, Black teachers in the lower end of the teacher test distribution are estimated to have impacts that are approximately the same as White teachers at the upper end of the distribution.

In summary, we find that evidence suggesting the uniform application of licensure standards for all teachers is likely to have differential impacts on the achievement of White and minority students. Specifically, we see that Black and other minority students appear to benefit from being matched with a Black teacher regardless of how well or poorly that teacher performed on the Praxis tests, and these positive effects due to matching with Black teachers are comparable in magnitude to having the highest-performing White teachers in the classroom. Removing the lowest of performers on the exam would necessarily remove some of the teachers that appear to be most effective for this segment of the student population.


Third, when isolating specific teacher-student interactions, we find evidence that Black teachers have more consistent success than White teachers in teaching minority students, and this matching effect is greatest in magnitude for Black teachers at the lower end of the licensure performance distribution.

Despite a decade or more of trying, the link between teacher cognitive ability and student outcome remains tentative at best, and appears to have a floor. Meanwhile, Goldhaber isn’t the first researcher to find that black students seem to do better with black teachers.

And so radio silence on the Mumford story, even though on the surface, it would seem to play right into their case for improving teacher quality. They can’t afford to be seen screaming for the removal of the thousands of African American teachers who would otherwise meet their criteria of “mediocre or worse”, and the mostly white population of eduformers certainly can’t afford to openly acknowledge that their demands for an improved teaching pool means a near decimation of the African American and Hispanic teaching pool–even without the unsettling lack of research to support their teacher quality fantasies. Because the optics, to put it mildly, suck.

Which is why they’re probably all secretly, desperately hoping the teachers are white so they can scream and point fingers. Because it’s fine to call white teachers stupid.

Note: I followed up on this post here:


Update: Hey, after 4 months, the Mumford case gets a bit more attention. I have periodically been checking for updates, and I don’t recall seeing Cedrick Wilson’s name mentioned before. So maybe an ex-NFL lineman makes it a bit more newsworthy.

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Following a factoid

Last week, Diane Ravitch called for a cite on a frequently used factoid from the Big Book of Eduformers: research shows that students with effective teachers make three times the progress of students with ineffective teachers.

More than a few commenters found the cite: Eric Hanushek, “The Trade-off between Child Quantity and Quality,” Journal of Political Economy 100 no. 1 (1992): 84-117 (at p. 107).
The research conclusions are based on the data from the Gary Income Maintenance Experiment, which took place between 1971 and 1975, and which involved 1920 exclusively low-income black children.

Just to show how rarely anyone has read the original article, check out these quotes: “There is… no evidence that changing the immediate circumstances of the family will have any effect on student performance. The work behavior of the mother has no influence on the educational performance of the children. Neither does the absence of a father.” (page 113) and “Of the determinants of teacher expenditures per pupil (ie, teacher experience and degree level and class size), only years of experience are significantly related to student performance. (page 109) (emphasis mine, in both cases).

I suspect the emergence of the actual article will result in Ravitch and others calling bullshit on this cite in the weeks and months to come, and the eduformers will be backing off, for reasons that eduformer Stuart Buck make clear:

“So it’s not the most recent or externally valid finding one could wish for, that’s certainly true.”

Then comes the amusing part of Buck’s post, and the reason for mine:

“But is it so implausible that some teachers could produce 1.5 years of learning while others produce half a year? The real questions would be how many teachers are in each category and how we can identify them accurately, without crediting or blaming them for outside-school factors.”


Melinda Gates: Well, we know from good research that the fundamental thing that makes a difference in the classroom is an effective teacher. An effective teacher in front of a student, that student will make three times the gains in a school year that another student will make.

Suppose Gates had said “Well, I believe that effective teachers are fundamental. Is it so implausible that some teachers can produce three times the gains”? Doesn’t have nearly the ring of authority, does it?

So we’ve seen the research. It’s old, it’s demographically limited and the support is pretty weak to boot.

But hey, it’s pretty plausible, right?

Factoids are so much fun. Until, you know, someone actually thinks about them and the romance goes poof.