An Inconvenient Truth About Teacher Quality

by Robert Pondiscio
December 5th, 2011

If teacher quality is the most important school-based factor in student outcomes, then why are math scores rising, while reading scores stay flat?  Do we just happen to have really good math teachers and really lousy reading teachers?  That can’t be: in the case of 4th grade teachers, the exact same teachers are responsible for both subjects.

Or maybe it’s not the teachers. Could it be the curriculum?

That’s the question posed by Dan Willingham and David Grismer in an op-ed in the New York Daily News this morning.  They point out intriguing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that has been hiding in plain sight:

“Reading scores over the last 20 years have been flat. But in math, scores have increased markedly. A fourth-grader at the 50th percentile in 1990 would score at about the 25th percentile compared to the kids taking the test in 2009. That’s an enormous improvement.

“This raises an uncomfortable question for teacher quality advocates: If teachers are so vitally important, why have fourth-grade math scores dramatically improved, but reading scores have flatlined, given that — at least at the elementary level — the same teachers are responsible for each?

Perhaps the secret sauce is not who’s teaching but what’s being taught.  It’s a lot easier to align standards, curriculum and assessment in math. “There is little controversy as to the subject matter to be covered, and the order in which one ought to tackle subjects is more obvious,” Willingham and Grissmer write.  “Indeed, substantial effort has been made over the last 25 years to develop coherent math standards and curricula from K-8.”

In reading? Not so much.

As we’ve discussed many times on this blog, there’s no direct correlation between the subject matter that gets taught and tested in reading.  We teach random, incoherent content that bears no relation to the passages children ultimately encounter on their reading tests.  We insist on teaching and testing the “skill” of reading comprehension when it’s clearly not a skill at all.  Willingham and Grissmer conclude:

“Yes, overall teaching quality would improve with a more sensible method to usher hapless teachers out of the profession. Better teacher training would help too. But in addition to these longer-term goals, policymakers ought to focus on ensuring that the unglamorous but vital work of curriculum design is done properly. The popular perception is that America’s teachers are largely ineffective compared to international peers. But the data show that when given a clear, cogent curriculum to work with, they’re a lot stronger than we think.”

11 Comments »

  1. Some good test-sleuthing by Willingham and Grissmer.

    Is it true that “The popular perception is that America’s teachers are largely ineffective compared to international peers”?

    I’m open to that. Just never seen that question posed in public opinion polls, and it’s not what I’d have guessed.

    Comment by MG — December 5, 2011 @ 11:26 am

  2. I’ve heard it said that the average IQ of American kids has also been moving up. The video game community has championed the idea that by playing games, kids are learning deductive and inductive reasoning (as they figure out the game mechanics and impute probable outcomes of different actions) as well as building spatial reasoning skills. They would claim that this could appear as higher IQs and math skills.

    What do you think?

    Comment by Retro EdTech Collector — December 5, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

  3. Robert: Your first sentence says, “If teacher quality is the most important factor in student outcomes…”

    Teachers only account a very small portion of the total variance between student academic performance. Studies I’ve seen point to ALL school-based variables accounting for only about 20% of variance between students, and teachers accounting for maybe 1/2 of the school-based variables. Therefore, teachers account for only about 10% (or less) of the difference between students on their academic performance.

    Please don’t perpetuate the myth that teachers are responsible for all student achievement! The truth is that teachers are the biggest school-based factor in student achievement (that is, they matter more than the textbooks or other school factors).

    Writing that teachers are the “most important” influence on student performance simply serves as fodder for those who wish to “evaluate” (and then terminate) teachers of low-performing, low-income students (like Michelle Rhee’s approach in DCPS). People like this ignore all the other differences between students (especially SES issues) and like to heap all the blame on teachers when low-income students struggle in school.

    Comment by Attorney DC — December 5, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

  4. @Attorney DC Good catch. You’re absolutely correct. I’ve changed the lede to reflect your suggestion.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 5, 2011 @ 4:12 pm

  5. Robert: Thanks! Just trying to go to bat for our nation’s teachers, who seem to be getting blamed for all of society’s ills these days…

    Comment by Attorney DC — December 5, 2011 @ 5:01 pm

  6. Improvement?, stagnation?, percentiles?, raw scores?, change teachers?, same teachers?: Have students been taking the same tests all these years?

    Standards and testing tools are changing faster than the curriculum and teaching skills can adjust. Any comparison of math and reading scores is silly at best.

    “over the last 20 years” means we’re putting our kids up against their parents.

    I’m not privy to any of the raw scores involved; but locally, we had reading scores in the 80-90% mastery while math was down around 50-60%. Guess which group is able to improve more?

    Comment by ewaldoh — December 5, 2011 @ 7:38 pm

  7. [...] Pondiscio of the Core Knowledge Blog has an interesting piece questioning whether it is curriculum that is the major factor in student achievement as opposed to quality teaching.  While it could [...]

    Pingback by Curriculum versus Teaching | A Christian in the Classroom — December 5, 2011 @ 11:59 pm

  8. Hiding in plain sight! Yeah, as a high school teacher where math and reading are taught differently by different people, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t recognize that powerful argument. As Homer says, “Doh!”

    I’d add another two points. Before we started spending tons of additional money due to NCLB and the need to increase test scores, I wonder how many teachers had a clue about teaching math, and that implies that pd has helped, also. Most importantly,to teach reading comprehension we need to battle a culture that is increasing alein to reading. It is no contradiction to say that NAEP patterns help document the importance of curriculum, but it is not more improtant than creating a culture of reading. On the contrary, they go hand in glove.

    The goal of “reform” should be creating learning cultures, and curriculum as well as teacher quality should be huge parts of it. It is hard to see a a culture of reading and learning is compatible, however, with NCLB’s culture of accountability.

    Comment by john thompson — December 8, 2011 @ 10:54 am

  9. Robert, you say, “Do we just happen to have really good math teachers and really lousy reading teachers? That can’t be: in the case of 4th grade teachers, the exact same teachers are responsible for both subjects.”

    The leaders of DC’s school reform movement would disagree. According to their dogma, in which teachers are held completely responsible for all student learning, this would be an obvious case of teachers putting more energy into teaching math than they put into teaching reading. They really are not effective teachers unless they can teach both math and reading in such a way that their students perform at high levels in both subjects.

    I do not subscribe to this concept and I haven’t heard Michelle Rhee or her former deputy and successor Kaya Henderson say this, but after watching DC school reformers closely for almost 5 years, it’s clear that everything must fit into their bedrock belief of teacher responsibility. In fact Henderson and Rhee been extremely quiet about the disappointing results of the latest NAEP testing. So has the rest of the media — perhaps because DC has not turned out to be the huge success that they hoped to report on. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    Comment by Anonymous — December 11, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

  10. Robert, you say, “Do we just happen to have really good math teachers and really lousy reading teachers? That can’t be: in the case of 4th grade teachers, the exact same teachers are responsible for both subjects.”

    The leaders of DC’s school reform movement would disagree. According to their dogma, in which teachers are held completely responsible for all student learning, this would be an obvious case of teachers putting more energy into teaching math than they put into teaching reading. They really are not effective teachers unless they can teach both math and reading in such a way that their students perform at high levels in both subjects.

    I do not subscribe to this concept and I haven’t heard Michelle Rhee or her former deputy and successor Kaya Henderson say this, but after watching DC school reformers closely for almost 5 years, it’s clear that everything must fit into their bedrock, dogmatic belief of teacher responsibility. In fact, Henderson and Rhee been extremely quiet about the disappointing results of the latest NAEP testing. So has the rest of the media — perhaps because DC has not turned out to be the huge success that they hoped to report on. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    Comment by Efavorite — December 11, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

  11. I’m with you, Efavorite. The teacher quality orthodoxy suggests that what teachers teach and what children learn is firmly established, and the variable is effective delivery. It would be simple and easy if this were so, but of course it’s not. The idea the teachers put more energy into teaching math that reading should be easily addressable and refutable. Simply look at the amount of time 4th grade teachers spend on each subject. My guess is the average would be 120 minutes per day on literacy, and 90 for math. If I’m right, that would further bolster the point that the X factor is less the teacher than the curriculum, since you’d be seeing greater gains in less instuctional time.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 11, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

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