Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Desperately Seeking Suzanne (Null)

In Life in Hell, Matt Groening once asked if there was anything scarier than an open-mic poetry night. As a general rule, I have the same reaction to comment sections. There are exceptions (Andrew Gelman's site come to mind) but most of the time your chances of happening upon an intelligent and insightful conversation are better when you sit down between two strange drunks in an unfamiliar bar.

So you can understand why I initially skipped over the comments to Ray Fisman's recent post (if comments are usually less intelligent and well-written than the articles they accompany, just imagine the Stygian depths these would have to sink to in order to follow Fisman). Fortunately Joseph did brave the bottom of the web page and discovered that the comments here were actually better than the piece that inspired them.

The best of that very good crop were the entries was by Suzanne Null, who is (I believe) an education professor in the Northeast. [update, strike that last part. It looks like Suzanne is a fellow Westerner.] In this series of comments she takes down Fisman brick by brick:
Didn't Fisman's teachers ever teach him to conduct some research and check the validity of his sources (there is better and more recent information than the 1997 research he cited) before he publishes something? Virtually all of the information in this article has already been debunked. See Ravitch's copiously-researcherd "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" (particularly Chapter 9) and practically everything by Stanford's Linda Darling-Hammond. For example:

1) There is a great deal of evidence that better training helps teachers improve instruction (see research by Darling-Hammond and on the "Research" section of the site). Teachers are "made" (not born) through training, professionally supportive school environments, and supportive communities. Experience makes a difference in teacher effectiveness (Ravitch 190) and one of the most major problems with the teaching profession is its high rate of attrition; many teachers leave the profession by their fifth year.

2) Despite what this article says about identifying "bad" teachers, we haven't yet found a reliable way to identify who the "bad" teachers are. Test scores are one-dimensional and subject to numerous validity and reliability issues (Ravitch 152-154). In addition, despite the claims made in this article, test scores can vary significantly by teacher from year to year because there is so much variation among the students in the teachers' classes. (Ravitch 185-186). A teacher who the tests identify as "high performing" one year might appear to be "low performing" the next.

3) The article insinuated that schools can "close the gap" simply by hiring the top quintile of teachers. This research comes from Gordon, Kane, & Stagler 2006; Hanushek & Rivkin (2004), and Sanders (2000), all cited by Ravitch (183-184). This has also been debunked because the learning gains cited in these articles don't persist over time (Jacob, Lefgren, & Simms 2008) and because of the general unreliability of the tests, particularly when used for the purpose of evaluating teachers, which was not the primary goals when most of these tests were designed.

4) The effectiveness of Teach for America (TFA) has been inconclusive (Rativich 188-191). For example, an extensive study by Darling-Hammond's found that TFA teachers "had a negative or non-significant effect on student achievement" (2005, cited by Ravitch 189). Thus "degrees from prestigious colleges" are also NOT a predictor of effective teaching. In any case, it is delusional to believe that the entire country can sustain the constant turnover of teachers that has characterized TFA (particularly given schools' current budgets for teacher pay) or that this level of turnover would be desirable for our students (Ravitch 190).

5) The research on the "cumulative effects" of attending NYC charter schools has been proven to be invalid. Charter schools are not all successful -- some post higher test scores than their comparative "public" schools and others post lower scores. When they have higher scores, it is usually because they take the students who chose to enroll or enter the lottery system. These students and their families tend to be more engaged with their education in general, and thus tend to perform better, no matter what the teacher does. Charter schools also take fewer students with special needs, such as Special Education students or second-language learners. When researchers have adjusted for these differences in their data pools, they have found no significant differences between charter schools and public schools (Ravitch 140 -143).


What's particularly worrisome and insidious about the author's arguments are that they will further harm students within our school system. If the "thought experiment" of abandoning teacher selection based on qualifications and teacher training is ever carried out in favor of allowing anyone to try to teach so that the "data" can winnow out the top 20%, it will mean that our students will bear the brunt of training and selecting teachers. They will be subjected to a revolving door of completely untrained teachers, and they will lose educational time and opportunities as they experience the steep learning curve that is present for teachers in their first two years. Our students deserve trained and experienced teachers; they don't deserve to be the guinea pigs that have to test out anyone who walks in off the street.

If we really want to overcome "mediocrity" in schools, we should focus on retaining the best teachers, giving them the professional freedom and support to do their jobs, and incentives for high performance, not just on tests, but on other measures of teacher success. Since I began teaching in 2000, I've watched many of the hardest working, most committed, and most motivated teachers leave. Those who stay are a few of the truly exceptional ones, and many of the ones who are happy to administer lectures and scan-tron tests and then go home. Teachers have few opportunities for professional advancement (aside from maybe becoming a principal), and few incentives to go "over and above" in their jobs. If we really want to improve education, our school SYSTEMS' tendency to support the mediocre and discourage (or even fire) the best is what will need to change. This change will require better working conditions, better support, more resources, smaller classes, and even better pay incentives for our hardest working and best-performing teachers.

I would add that the whole "martyr" or indolent "loser" dichotomy presented in the media's portrayals of teachers allows our society to evade responsibility for actually improving schools. If the best teachers are great because they CARE so much about their students and are willing to sacrifice so much, and if as the article says they are "born great," then they won't require smaller classes, better materials, more manageable work responsibilities, or higher pay. And if the worst teachers are indolent, then more money isn't going to help them anyway. The entire construction allows our culture to continue to alternately lionize and blame teachers while doing nothing that would actually help support teachers in their endeavors to help students learn.

Actually, the one strategy that's been proven to raise test scores is to winnow out the low-scoring students. This can be accomplished by re-drawing school attendance boundaries, creating "choice" or charter schools (which of course don't have the "resources" for Special Education students, second-language learners, or students with behavioral issues), or by "encouraging" the low-performing students to drop out or leave. The schools that have done this have been able to tout the "excellence" of their school management and teacher training, and their principals and superintendents have often gotten promotions and large pay raises.

So maybe our schools should all try that.
Just to clarify, this last suggestion was facetious. If our only way to "improve" our schools is to stop serving all of our students, is that a form of "success" that's worth having?

EB, I've particularly heard stories about nepotism and favortism from teachers in rural schools, so I know it happens. But many teachers' major fear about "performance based" pay is that it will be subject to the same dynamics. Even if teachers are evaluated solely on "data" such as test scores (which isn't a good idea for other reasons), it is very easy for principals to stack the deck against teachers they don't like by giving them the lower-performing students, making them change grades, or subjects, giving them unfavorable schedules, etc. I've already heard from some teachers I know in a rural area that principals will "drive a teacher out" by say, transferring them from fourth grade to first, only to then blame the teacher when test scores dip because the teacher hasn't had time to accumulate the practice and materials for the new grade level.

Many teachers are supportive of standards, accountability, and even incentive pay, but they want to be evaluated in fair and equitable ways.
Suzanne, if you've got a place you're posting on a regular basis, let us know and we'll add you to our blogroll. What you have to say deserves the widest possible audience.

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