What Do Teachers “Produce”?

by Guest Blogger
April 12th, 2011

by Diana Senechal

In a recent head-scratcher of an article in Education Next, economist Eric A. Hanushek puts forth the argument that effective teachers produce higher salaries in their students.

The logic? Well, according to labor data, students whose high school test performance is one standard deviation above average (that is, students at the 84th percentile) can expect to earn 10 to 15 percent more per year than the student of average achievement. Hanushek assumes, apparently, that this high performance was the result of large gains over the years (as measured by test scores). We’ll get to that in a moment.

Now, according to Hanushek, if we consider that a “high-performing” teacher (at or above the 84th percentile) produces achievement gains of 0.2 standard deviations above those of students with an “average” teacher, and if one takes into account attenuation over time, one finds that such teachers will boost their students’ collective earnings by hundreds of thousands of dollars. The figure offered for a teacher in the 84th percentile with a class of 20 students is $400,000 per year; even a teacher in the 60th percentile will raise students’ earnings by $106,000.

With all due respect to Hanushek, I find that his argument oscillates between the silly and the scary. The silly part is this: there is no evidence (as far as I know) that students in the highest percentiles in high school are those who made the greatest gains on their standardized tests over the years. In fact, I suspect that most of them did pretty well on those tests all along. The top level on many of these tests is not very high; once you reach a certain level of proficiency, your gains don’t show. Unless it can be demonstrated that these top-percentile students did indeed have the greatest gains—and that their teachers had the highest value-added scores—the argument flops.

Also, there’s no reason to assume that “high-performing” teachers—those whose students make the greatest gains—bring their students to the 84th percentile or higher. It is quite possible that the larger gains occur at lower levels. For many reasons, I suspect that they tend to cluster around the average—but whether or not that is the case, there is no indication that they continue in linear fashion up to the top.

As for the scary part, let us take the argument to its logical conclusion. Suppose teachers could “produce” higher salaries in students, and suppose the “highest-performing” teachers produced the highest salaries, on average. Wow—then you’d have a cadre of test score virtuosi churning out lawyers, CEOs, social network inventors, surgeons, and change readiness consultants by the thousands. Now, some people enjoy those professions, but not all do.

Who, then, “produces” the foresters, violinists, English professors, marine biologists, simultaneous translators, teachers, firefighters, museum guides, electricians, editors, and cabinet makers? Does this fall to the not-quite-so-high-performing teachers? If so, maybe the ultimate “effectiveness” is not entirely desirable. This does not mean, of course, that anyone should settle for so-so teaching and learning. Yet we cannot assume, across the board, that more or higher equals better.

Now, most people want a good salary, up to a certain threshold. Very few want to live in poverty, to depend on others, or to be left without choices. But beyond that threshold, many may choose a profession or job that doesn’t pay spectacularly but is otherwise rewarding. Many want to keep their job low-key so that they can do things outside of work.

I realize that that isn’t quite the point—that we are talking about the difference between those who reach a certain level of achievement in school and those who don’t—and the consequences of such a gap. But even there, many ambiguities remain. Although high achievers tend to earn higher salaries, not all do or wish to do so, nor do lower achievers (within a certain range) necessarily end up lost and impoverished.

What do teachers “produce”? If there is free will, they produce nothing. They teach, inspire, and encourage their students; they demand the best of their students; and they point to many possibilities, through the subject matter and their own examples. They help students reach a point where they can support themselves and do something they enjoy. But it is the student who takes off and does it—often making choices that confound the teachers and parents. That is how it should be. Otherwise, for all our fanfare over the Future, we would be trapped in an eternal Industrial Age, with teachers turning out remote-control dolls.

Diana Senechal’s book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in November 2011.

Does Teacher Turnover Matter?

by Robert Pondiscio
April 8th, 2010

The ed reform metanarrative around failing schools is that kids lose because adults in a sclerotic system fight like hell to preserve pay and perks and avoid accountability.  That’s why ”good teachers” leave struggling schools while “bad teachers” linger in safe harbors.  But a new paper by economists Eric Hanushek and Steven Rivkin finds it’s the weaker teachers who tend to leave underperfoming schools.  Is teacher turnover about to join class size and teacher’s advanced degrees on the trash heap of factors that supposedly don’t matter to performance? Maybe, maybe not. 

“The authors add that the benefits of losing weak teachers in these schools are offset by the fact that such schools often restaff with new teachers, who generally don’t become maximally effective until they’ve been in the classroom about three years or so,” sums up Stephen Sawchuk, who broke the news of the study earlier this week at Education Week.

The idea that veteran teachers who stick around hard-to-staff schools are more successful than those who leave is surely no surprise to those who have worked at such a school.  Stability breeds success (think of your own elementary school; chances are there was little teacher turnover).  People who are successful tend to stick around in any line of work; no one likes to come home feeling like a failure every day.  The takeaway seems to be turnover’s not so bad, but Sawchuk correctly notes “the paper doesn’t take into account the disruption and low morale that seem likely to accompany an always-revolving staff door.”

I also wonder what this study means for champions of performance pay.  The logic of merit pay suggests successful teachers need an incentive to stay put.  The study suggests they’re already doing so.

School Turnaround Secrets of The Queen of Hearts

by Robert Pondiscio
February 18th, 2010

The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. ‘Off with his head!’ she said, without even looking round.

Identifying and replacing 6 percent of a school system’s least effective teachers can turn around student performance and have a greater and more positive impact than any other expenditure designed to stimulate economic growth, according to Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek, who gave a speech last week on teacher quality at the University of Kentucky.

Speaking to a rapt audience of faculty and students, Hanushek lamented the years the United States has wasted on resource solutions to improve student outcomes that have not worked. Among the factors not found to impact student achievement were per-pupil expenditures, class size, pupil/teacher ratios, whether or not teachers have master’s degrees, years of experience possessed by teachers and teacher certification. Hanushek concluded the United States is enduring the consequences of “losing focus and failing to direct sufficient attention to teacher quality and teacher effectiveness.”

“What would happen if we simply adopted policies of systematically removing the most ineffective teachers?” Hanushek asks.  Here’s my guess:  we’d have a brand new bottom 6%, while doing nothing to make the other 94% any better.   There’s nothing wrong wanting to improve teacher quality — who wouldn’t want to replace the worst teachers? — but we’d get further, faster if we attended to curriculum and pedagogy, rather than simply looking at bad teachers and shouting “off with their heads!”

Look outside any school and you will not see a line of superstar teachers waiting patiently for the broken bats to be removed to make room for them.  Economically, we may never see a large enough raise in teacher salaries sufficient to attract a stable, permanent number of bright, superbly trained professionals to the field.  Hanushek, a first-rate scholar, surely knows this.  But the dialogue around teacher quality threatens to reduce it to just another ed reform bumper sticker. Consider:

1)      We define teacher quality as the ability to raise test scores, which is narrow, insufficent and unsatisfying.

2)      We think we can raise teacher quality through incentives like merit pay, which is naïve at best.

3)      Talk of teacher quality tends to ignore curriculum, which can improve the quality of teaching by letting struggling teachers focus on delivery, engagement, differentiation, etc. – the “how to teach” rather than the “what to teach.”

It’s faster, easier, cheaper and far more practical to give every teacher a good curriculum than give every kid a good teacher–and again, it’s NOT a question of either/or–plus a solid curriculum may improve the efficacy of mediocre teachers.   The bottom line is that improving curriculum can be done today; without it, improving teacher quality will likely remain a distant, ill-defined and therefore unachievable goal.

You can’t uncouple effective instruction from the content of the instruction, a point that is typically overlooked in teacher quality talk (What exactly do you think effective teachers do all day?).   Personally, I’d be a lot more excited about the move to improve teacher quality if its advocates showed they understood the crucial role of curriculum and pedagogy in making teachers effective and promoting true student achievement.