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Here We Go Again

January 6, 2012

Big news today in education policy and research – or was it?

  • The Gates Foundation-funded Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project continues to update its research findings, and continues to argue that standardized tests and value-added measurement would be useful in teacher evaluations.  (Washington Post article).
  • A study by Harvard and Columbia researchers uses value-added measures to quantify the effects of good teaching in various outcomes for students, well into adulthood. (NY Times article)

A friend of mine sent a Facebook message this morning to ask what I thought of the latter study, but let me say a bit about each of them.  In both cases, I remain skeptical regarding the use of standardized tests to suggest so much about students and teachers.  In the MET project, I actually like much of what I’ve seen reported and summarized regarding their work.  We should definitely pursue ongoing rather than intermittent evaluations, the involvement of multiple evaluators, and try to find ways to include student feedback.  If reformers and politicians would compromise on the use of standardized tests, we would overcome the main policy obstacle in teacher evaluation reform efforts and find much to agree on.  I share Randi Weingarten’s concern, however, that as long as we see anyone coming to this debate with a mindset about ferreting out the bad teachers instead of supporting all teachers, we have work to do to shift that frame.  Her written statement was quoted as follows in the Washington Post (article linked above):  “Until we make a commitment to develop evaluation systems that are first and foremost about continuous improvement and professional growth, we will continue to struggle in our efforts to provide every child with a high-quality education.”

As for the economic analysis of “high value-added teachers” and “low value-added teachers” – yawn.  Did we need another study suggesting that kids who perform better in some measure of academic skills end up earning more money?  Did we need a study to show that some teachers’ students produce better test scores than others and that better test scores correlate with higher earnings, etc.?  These analyses offer little if any guidance for what to do with actual teachers in actual schools.  They try to make their findings sound more significant by multiplying out the variations over decades.  Having that “high value-added teacher” helps a student earn $9,000 more in their working years, so… $9,000 divided by forty-plus years of work, divided by forty-something working weeks in a year, divided by five days per week… we’re talking about loose coins here if we work the math in the opposite direction.  But no – the authors then multiply the effect by all the students in the class and make it look really huge.  Hey, let’s assume retirement age goes up in the future and just throw in another 5 or 10 % on top of that, while we’re at it.

Sadly, if you read the NY Times article, you see the predictable call to make it easier or quicker to fire the weak teachers.  Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of fantasizing about terminations, some fiscal conservatives out there saw these types of studies and said, “You know, if we spent a little more money right now trying to improve the quality of teaching for every teacher, in every classroom, we’d be multiplying these effects by millions of teachers and hundreds of millions of students over the next several decades and we’d be adding billions of dollars in value!  Let’s do it!”

(Note: My reactions to the NY Times article were shaped in part by seeing the reactions of Sarah Goldrick-Rab, Liam Goldrick, Bruce Baker, and Cedar Reiner earlier this morning – so, credit where it’s due!).

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kirk Hitnon permalink
    January 21, 2012 10:17 pm

    The bigger issue that I see with the study in the NYT article is the premise that good teaching should be measured by students’ future incomes. If I do a great job teach my students literature, and I inspire a larger proportion of them to go into academia or (heavens forbid) teaching, they will in all likelihood make less money than they would in business, but could very well have a greater impact on society as a whole through their interactions with their students. Money can be one measure of success, but to make it the definitive measure of success (particularly when so many other measures are intangible) is to be myopic.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      January 22, 2012 3:29 pm

      Thanks for adding that perspective, Kirk. I wonder to what extent that kind of debate or consideration went into the planning and design for this study. My friend Anthony Cody recently laid out a pretty simple and honest critique of this type of research and the predictable policy recommendations that often follow (“fire teachers! close schools!”). His speech in Sacramento this past Friday evening has been posted in his blog:


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