The myth about teacher effectiveness that won’t go away

Like a bad nickel, the claim that a teacher’s influence on learning is 20 times greater than any other variable, including poverty, keeps turning up in the debate over Indiana education policy.

The latest to pass off the proposition is the Oregon-based organization Stand for Children. Stand landed in Indiana last month to lobby for legislation mandating a new system of teacher evaluation and performance-based pay, which it has labeled “Great Teachers, Great Schools.”

The “20 times greater” claim is at the top of a “comprehensive list” of research findings on which Stand’s positions are supposedly based. Gov. Mitch Daniels made the same claim in his State of the State address. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett has made it too.

As we reported in January, the claim comes from a policy speech that attributed it to a preliminary draft of a paper written in 1998 by Texas researcher John Kain. But Kain’s paper didn’t actually make the “20 times greater” claim. And Eric Hanushek, Kain’s collaborator and probably the best-known academic advocate for measuring the effectiveness of teachers, told School Matters it’s not a legitimate claim.

As for other studies on Stand for Children’s list, some of the interpretations are at least questionable.

— Stand cites the McKinsey research group’s “Closing the Talent Gap” report from last year as the basis for its contention that failing to fire bad teachers makes the profession less attractive to talented prospects. School Matters wrote about the report in December. If that specific claim is there, it’s well hidden.

— It makes the often-repeated statement that “four consecutive years with an effective teacher can erase the black-white testing gap.” But as Matthew Di Carlo explains on Shanker Blog, that claim is “little more than a stylistic riff on empirical research findings, and a rough one at that. It is not at all useful when it comes to choosing between different policy options.”

— It gets some of Hanushek’s teacher-effectiveness research right but, oddly, cites as its source a promotional companion book to the anti-union movie Waiting for “Superman.”

— Finally it repeats the shibboleth that, after two or three years, experience doesn’t make a difference in teacher effectiveness. It’s true that some studies have reached that conclusion. It’s also true that some studies have found experience does matter.

Stand for Children was set up in Indiana with $242,300 from the Indianapolis-based Mind Trust organization and $150,000 from Chicago’s Joyce Foundation, and it’s working to make its presence felt.

Founder Jonah Edelman took phone calls from listeners on Amos Brown’s “Afternoons with Amos” program on on Indianapolis radio station WTLC. Linda Erlinger, the executive director of Stand Indiana, had a guest column in the Indianapolis Star. The group ran half-page display ads Sunday in the Bloomington Herald-Times (and presumably other Indiana papers). And it arranged a meeting Monday of pro-reform teachers and parents with Daniels and state legislators.

Stand comes across as reasonable, centrist and informed in its advocacy. It reaches out to parents and teachers. It casts itself as an advocate for treating teachers as professionals. It acknowledges that changing education policy is complex business.

Erlinger’s guest column in the Star, for example, avoided the “20 times” claim and made the defensible argument that teacher quality is the “No. 1 in-school factor affecting student achievement” (italics added).

But on the group’s website, it passes off as “facts” a set of propositions that should be subject to scrutiny. As we said in January, there’s a lot at stake when you set out to turn teacher compensation and retention systems on their head. If you’re going to do it, you need to get it right. And that starts with being honest about the facts.

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One thought on “The myth about teacher effectiveness that won’t go away

  1. What about parent responsiblity in their childs education. No one can ever have more influence on YOUR child than a parent it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. When are people going to take resonsiblity for their family and life and quit blaming others no wonder kids never think they do anything wrong.

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