Thursday, September 2, 2010

Oh, Canada -- another interesting omission in "Clean Out Your Desk"

We're back with our ongoing coverage of Ray Fisman's recent article in Slate which ran with the provocative tagline "Is firing (a lot of) teachers the only way to improve public schools?" (notice that he didn't say "a way" or "the best way").

If you tuned in late, here's what you need to know:

Dr. Fisman starts by discussing a presidential commission report from the early Eighties that said the damage done by our poor educational system was comparable to an act of war. This somewhat apocalyptic language has since become a staple of the reform movement. It grabs the attention, justifies big, expensive, untried steps and sets up a false dichotomy between action and inaction.

The proceedings are then handed over to Joel Klein. Klein builds on the verge-of-disaster theme by invoking the United States' low ranking on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's PISA tests. I've commented at some length on the implications of citing PISA while completely ignoring the better-established and well-respected TIMMS even when the discussion shifted to elementary schools where the TIMMS scores would seem to be far more relevant. (The term cherry-picking did come up.)

For now, though, let's grant Chancellor Klein and Dr. Fisman the benefit of the doubt. Let's say we accept the premise that OECD's PISA rankings are such a good and reliable measure of the state of a nation's schools that we don't even need to look at other metrics. We'll even stipulate for the sake of argument that a bad PISA ranking is sufficient grounds for radical measures. With all of these conditions in place, take close look at the next part of Dr. Fisman's article:

What could turn things around? At a recent event that I organized at the Columbia Business School, Klein opened with his harsh assessment of the situation, and researchers offered some stark options for getting American education back on track. We could find drastically better ways of training teachers or improve our hiring practices so we're bringing aboard better teachers in the first place. Barring these improvements, the only option left is firing low-performing teachers—who have traditionally had lifetime tenure—en masse.

The emphasis on better teachers—through training, selection, or dismissal—comes from the very consistent finding that improving faculty is one of the best, most reliable ways to improve schools. If the person standing at the front of the classroom has raised the test scores of students he's taught before, he's likely to do so again.

But how do you get good teachers in the classroom? Unfortunately, it turns out that most evidence points toward great instructors being born, not made. National board certification may help a bit, a master's degree in education not at all. It's also difficult to pick out the best teachers based on a résumé or even a sample lesson. It takes a year or so before evaluators (and even teachers themselves) know who is really good at getting kids to learn, and few qualifications are at all correlated with teaching ability. Candidates with degrees from prestigious colleges—the type where Teach for America does much of its recruiting—do a bit better, but not much.
Here's the gist of Dr. Fisman's premise:

1. According to PISA (the test that trumps all other tests) the state of U.S. education is dire;

2. We need to improve the quality of our teachers "through training, selection, or dismissal";

3. So far, no one has found a way to make training or selection work.

If we want education to do well we might just have to start firing teachers en masse, and by "do well," we mean outscore other countries, which raises the question, "How do other countries find all of those natural teachers?"

Of course, comparing educational systems of different countries can be tricky but we should at least be able to look at Canada. It's a fairly large industrialized country. Not that different economically. Very similar culturally with a comparable K through 12 educational system that has to deal with English as a second language (huge immigrant population), relies on roughly the same type of teacher training/certification that we use and continues to pull teachers in with promises of good job security.

In terms of this discussion, the biggest difference between the two countries could well be Canada's somewhat reactionary approach to reform (for example, only one province, Alberta, allows public charter schools). With such limited school choice and no real attempt to clean out the deadwood from behind the podium, the Canadian educational system looks a lot like the American system before the reform movement.

And how is Canada doing on the PISA math test?

From Measuring up : Canadian Results of the OECD PISA Study:

One way to summarize student performance and to compare the relative standing of countries is by examining their average test scores. However, simply ranking countries based on their average scores can be misleading because there is a margin of error associated with each score. As discussed in Chapter 1, when interpreting average performances, only those differences between countries that are statistically significant should be taken into account. Table 2.1 shows the countries that performed significantly better than or the same as Canada in reading and mathematics. The averages of the students in all of the remaining countries were significantly below those of Canada. Overall, Canadian students performed well. Among the countries that participated in PISA 2006, only Korea, Finland and Hong Kong-China performed better than Canada in reading and mathematics. Additionally Chinese Taipei performed better than Canada in mathematics.
That puts them in the top ten (in science they were in the top three). Now let's review the United States' performance (quoting Dr. Fisman):
Despite nearly doubling per capita spending on education over the past few decades, American 15-year olds fared dismally in standardized math tests given in 2000, placing 18th out of 27 member countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Six years later, the U.S. had slipped to 25th out of 30.
How do we reconcile these facts with Dr. Fisman's argument? As far as I can see, there are only four possibilities (if I've missing some please click the comment button and let me know):

1. Though PISA is a useful test, international PISA ranking may not be a sufficient measure of a country's school system;

2. Teacher quality is not a major driver of national educational performance;*

3. Teachers are made, not born. i.e. it is possible to train people to be good teachers;

4. Canada just got lucky and beat the odds hundreds of thousands of times.

If this were a PISA question, I hope no one would pick number four.

* This is really is a topic for another post, but I would expect the administrator effect to overwhelm the teacher effect. Perhaps Dr. Fisman is going to follow up with a Slate article on firing administrators who produce lackluster test performance.


  1. "Teacher quality is not a major driver of national educational performance"

    Or it could just be cultural issues, such as a Canadian emphasis on credentialism. In such a case, focusing on teachers would be looking at the second or thord order effect while neglecting the first order effect.

  2. US 2006 science scores by race/ethnicity:
    White 523 (top ten)
    Black 409

    Do reformers explain how firing teachers can reduce this gap?

  3. 5. Maybe, despite the fact that Canada seems similar to the U.S. on the surface, it is actually different in some important ways.

  4. Reply to 111750895512343024941


    Unquestionably true, but I'd probably roll this partially into #1. If even Canada's not a useful example, what do we hope to learn by studying other countries?

  5. Test scores in the United States have been flat for a while (actually, controlling for demogrpahics changes they have bene going up). See:

    (Figure 2 shows math scores).

    So, with a pattern of consistent improvement of internal performance, the argument that education is in crisis seems to be in comparison with faster gains in other countries or small scale failures in specific school boards. The later does not call for wise scale reform.

    But if Canada isn't a good comparison o the United States specific issues then why is is Finland or South Korea much better?