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.


by Robert Pondiscio
June 11th, 2010

“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered I’ve seen lots of funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen” –Woody Guthrie.

In the least surprising education story of the year, the New York Times reports that cheating is increasing as the stakes grow higher on standardized tests.  Cue sounds of earnest clucking and charges of sloppy journalism.   There’s a bigger and better cheating story to be told and it goes far beyond tales of individual or even school-wide mendacity.  Lower cut scores, scoring rubrics that award generous and undeserved partial credit, and dumbed down tests are cheating too.  So is using these debased metrics to create an illusion of proficiency or progress where none exists.  One doesn’t need to be cyncial to wonder if the real story isn’t who is cheating, but rather who isn’t?

Every year — EVERY year — that I taught fifth grade, I had students in my classroom who had tested on grade level the previous year who added and subtracted on their fingers and struggled to retell details from even simple stories.  Was someone cheating?  Maybe.  Was someone cheated?  Definitely.

What Works is Boring

by Robert Pondiscio
December 6th, 2009

Important, but frustrating piece in the Washington Post this morning about the difficulty of sustaining test-score growth in underperforming schools after dramatic one-time boosts.  “Studies across the country show that many low-performing schools falter after big one-year gains in test scores.  Of the seven D.C. public schools that increased proficiency rates by 20 percentage points or more in both reading and math in 2008,” Bill Turque reports, only showed growth in 2009.  “Most of the schools that surged 20 points or more in a single category last year also had difficulty building on the increase this year.”

The piece looks at any number of reasons–from turnover to cheating–why scores might spike in a given year and then plateau or decline.  But if the piece is any indication, DC schools are overlooking the obvious: a key to long-term growth in reading scores is the steady buildup of background knowledge.  Without knowing anything about the particular schools discussed in the Post piece, I’d bet real money that we’re talking about mediocre schools that got religion (or were forced to get religion) about testing and focused on it.  Hard.  But no one should be surprised to see one-time gains.

“Given the relationship between academic background knowledge and academic achievement, one can make the case that it should be at the top of any list of interventions intended to enhance student achievement,” wrote Robert Marzano in his 2006 book Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement. ”If not addressed by schools, academic background knowledge can create great advantages for some students and great disadvantages for others.”

E.D. Hirsch has obviously spent much of his life banging on this same drum, pointing over and over that reading tests are essentially tests of background knowledge.  If DC school leaders understand this, the Post piece doesn’t say. 

Test prep and simplistic reading strategy instruction that focus on trivial stories–students learn to predict, to summarize, to infer — does nearly nothing to add to a child’s store of knowledge, making an such a one-time boost nearly inevitable.   An absence of background knowledge is the difference-maker and left unattended it eventually shows up in the test scores. 

At a recent Aspen Institute panel discussion with Hirsch, Randi Weingarten observed that the reason we’re not seeing more of this is because “what works is boring.”  Building background knowledge is a slow, steady process.  Boring as hell.  And absolutely effective. 

The Incredible Shrinking Education Beat

by Robert Pondiscio
December 3rd, 2009

A new Brookings report bemoans a lack of education reporting noting that “only 1.4 percent of national news coverage from television, newspapers, news Web sites, and radio dealt with education.”  Some are taking issue with the study’s methodology, noting it only counts page A1 stories in the newspaper.  Still nobody seems to be arguing that we are well-served by the amount and quality of ed news in our major media. 

A call for more coverage, however, is a bit like King Canute calling for the tide to recede.  It’s not going to happen,  The forces that conspire to limit ed coverage — dwindling advertising, staff cutbacks, greater competition for fewer readers– are nothing new.  Time Magazine, where I used to work, hasn’t had a reporter solely dedicated to education for nearly 20 years.  Today, they barely have reporters at all.  There is no reason to expect these trends to do anything other than accelerate.   

I don’t wish to paint a picture of the Brookings report as naive, but newspapers and other media are simply not public interest vehicles.  They are businesses that profit from what the public is interested in.  That’s not nearly the same thing.  The call for more, better and nuanced education news is fine, but the idea that our oxygen-starved major media ought to be the standard-bearer is a bit of wishful thinking.   It ignores too many irreversible trends in the way news is produced and consumed.

Also, I’m not sure the paucity of education coverage is always a bad thing.  Even when our elite media focus on education, they tend to oversimplify or focus on conflict or human interest.  More of that we can surely live without.  The Brookings report also argues ”there should be better use of education research that evaluates school reforms, teacher quality, and classroom practices.”  You might just as easily say “there should be better research.”   Media coverage that looks at schools through the lens of test scores has value, but it’s not the only lens.  If research-based reporting means more media coverage that further enshrines the test scores uber alles mindset, well, thanks but no thanks. 

The Brookings report calls for foundations and non-profit organizations to “focus on developing alternative forms of education coverage both nationally and locally.”  On this point I agree completely.  The opportunity would be for a major foundation to bankroll an education news site that attempt to do on a national scale what Gotham Schools, for example, does for New York City.  Perhaps an ed version of ProPublica, the independent, nonprofit investigative journalism outfit let by Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal.  Indeed, the most efficacious move might be for Gates, Wallace or some other ed-minded foundation to write a check to ProPublica to staff up an education beat. 

The world has largely moved on from the day when national media — even strong local media — drove and dominated the conversation on education.  The education beat, never a national media strong suit, is largely viewed as expendable.  People want information about education when they want it, not when an editor in New York or Washington decides to give it to them.  And most of us outside the education and policy bubble are not interested in education; we’re interested in our kid’s school.  These are not necessarily bad trends.  And whether they are or not, they can’t be stopped.

I Caught California Being Good!

by Robert Pondiscio
November 5th, 2009

It’s the oldest trick in the elementary school classroom management book:  using positive reinforcement to get children to behave in the hope of earning a reward or recognition.  When it’s time to clean up before lunch the teacher says, “Let’s see who’s ready to line up first.  I’m looking to see who has their desk cleaned up and is sitting up nicely.”  Suddenly 25 kids are racing to sit up straight with their hands folded on their spotless desks.  Works like a charm on seven-year-olds. 

State legislatures, too. 

President Obama’s education speech in Wisconsin reinforced the criteria the Adminstration wants to see in order for states to qualify for a piece of the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” fund.  What’s remarkable, however, is how much change in behavior is occurring in states just  hoping for a reward.  Like a first grade teacher, the President is essentially looking across the country and asking, “Who wants to be my special helper?  I’m looking for states that are doing the right thing and making good choices!”

“Oh, I like the way California is linking teachers and test scores!  You too, Indiana and Wisconsin! What an excellent job you’re doing!  Uh-oh, Nevada is definitely not ready!  Let’s see who else is doing the right thing?   Oh, look! Illinois and Tennessee must really want Race to the Top money. Look how they have lifted their charter caps!   Louisiana is ready!  Delaware is ready!  New York?  Are you making good choices? Let me see…”

“The administration has done a good job of having a lot of states make a long-odds bet that they’re going to win Race to the Top funds, so they’ve shaped their behavior a lot in advance of a single dollar being awarded,” Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution tells the Christian Science Monitor.  “Most of what the administration is going to get [in terms of reform] it will get before the competition is actually completed.”

There must be some very shrewd former teachers at the DOE.

Fanaticism, Factions and SAT Scores

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
September 24th, 2009

(Ed. Note:  A version of this essay appears in today’s edition of  The New York Daily News.  Both are based on ideas in E.D. Hirsch’s new book The Making of Americans)

In town hall meetings and the Internet people address fellow citizens with whom they disagree as though they were dangerous creatures from another planet.  The animosities on display have an almost tribal flavor — Hutus versus Tutsis, white versus black, Democrats versus Republicans. 

“People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?”   Rodney King, a man whose beating by the police became a flashpoint in U. S. race relations achieved with those words a place in national memory.  Coming at a moment of tension and resentment, they resonated with Americans’ deep desire for comity – just as we now wish for greater civility at health-care town hall meetings and more cooperation among members of Congress.    

Quasi-tribal domestic hostilities constitute a mortal danger to our nation that the founders of the United States were anxious to overcome.  They believed that the deepest threats to any republic were the two F’s: faction and fanaticism.   When Ben Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a lady asked him:  “Well, Doctor, what have we got?”  To which he replied: “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”   His remark reflected a worry shared by other delegates to the convention, including George Washington and James Madison.  Washington bequeathed part of his estate to the creation of a system of schooling that would “do away local attachments and state prejudices.”  And Madison acknowledged in the Federalist Papers that we need to develop a new kind of citizen through our schools:  “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust; So there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.   Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”    Unless we could educate citizens and leaders who could rise above personal ambition and special interest to seek the common good, our new republic would fail as had all prior republics in history.     

Throughout the nineteenth century, American schools deliberately fostered a sense of commonality with other Americans.   It was the great era of the common school movement which featured a benign conspiracy among the writers of schoolbooks to teach many of the same things across all subjects in the early grades, and especially in American history. As one early textbook author put it, the aim was “to exhibit in a strong light the principles of religious and political freedom which our forefathers professed . . . and to record the numerous examples of fortitude, courage, and patriotism which have rendered them illustrious.”    During the 19th century, American politics were as hardnosed as now, but compromise in Congress and civility in the public sphere were greater then.   During the 19th century the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville reported that the schools of the United States were being far more successful in the effort at citizen-making and allegiance to the common good than the schools of Europe.   

Today, our schools are failing to raise the language proficiencies of high school students.  We see clear evidence in disappointing scores on college entrance exams like the SAT.  It is no coincidence that we are seeing a rise in public incivility along with this decline in verbal skills.   The key point in understanding the profound connection between the two is that language proficiency is chiefly based on wide knowledge, and more specifically on knowledge that is silently shared by every competent member of a speech community.   This tacitly shared knowledge constitutes the public sphere — the commons upon which civic discourse takes place.  The key to being a good speaker, reader, and writer is the possession of the broad unspoken knowledge that is shared by other effective speakers, readers, and writers within a nation. 

Space won’t permit an elaboration of the strong scientific consensus that explains the connection between shared, unspoken knowledge and effective communication.   I’ve done that at length in various books, most recently in The Making of Americans.   Here I’ll simply assume that basic point about communication and make a further point about the decline of civility.  The shared knowledge that enables communication in the public sphere also induces a sense of community, and helps overcome tribal antipathies.   Horace Mann, often described as the father of public education, said: “The spread of education, by enlarging the cultivated class or caste, will open a wider area over which the social feelings will expand; and, if this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society.”   

Mann, and education pioneers like Noah Webster, as well as our brilliant founders understood that shared knowledge and loyalty to the common good could only be fostered through a common elementary education – a shared core curriculum in the early grades.   By 1950, that insight became neglected and, indeed, aggressively rejected in our schools.    The subsequent fragmentation of the elementary-school curriculum is the root cause of our students’ low verbal scores, and of the wide gap in verbal proficiency between our low-scoring white students and far lower-scoring black and Hispanic students.    We will recover verbal proficiency, economic justice, and social comity only if we institute more coherent substance and greater commonality in our elementary schools.

What’s Yours Is Mine

by Robert Pondiscio
September 30th, 2008

In Louisiana, some school districts are giving credit for high test scores to schools the students don’t attend.  It’s called “re-routing.”  East Baton Rouge, Jefferson and Iberville Parishes, “re-route” the test scores of students from seven magnet schools to the public schools those kids would have otherwise been assigned to.

Jefferson School Board member Judy Colgan, defends the practice, arguing the magnet schools were draining neighborhood schools of their brightest students and lowering their test scores. “I’m not saying magnets shouldn’t have their own set of scores,” she tells the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “They do have their own scores, and they are always at the top of the list. But we felt that because the neighborhood schools were losing those higher achievers to the magnet schools, it was only fair that their scores go back to the home-based schools.”


Barry Erwin, the head of Council for A Better Louisiana, a Louisiana think tank, blasts the practice, calling it “pure deception” and “a sham.”

“Re-routing” scores in this fashion has a number of bad consequences. First, it allows school districts to create a false and inaccurate impression that some schools are performing better than they are. That’s not transparent and it’s not right. It also hurts the magnet schools because it makes it impossible to track their performance and could prevent them from receiving rewards they might earn from the state’s accountability plan. Perhaps even worse, it artificially raises the scores of some schools that may be in danger of takeover by the state because they are low-performing – and in doing so bypasses the intent of our school accountability system.

It’s hard to view this as anything other than a way to evade accountability, and state education officials are said to be examining the practice.  Woody Allen said it best: No matter how cynical you are, you can’t keep up.

Game On

by Robert Pondiscio
July 11th, 2008

Miracle of New York or smoke and mirrors? It’s Chris Cerf vs. Sol Stern over at Eduwonk.