Research: relationships trump ‘teacher excellence’

If you think the way to build a great education system is simply to hire more great teachers and school leaders – and get rid of those who aren’t great – read this article and think again.

Improving relationships and communication within schools holds more promise than focusing on the effectiveness of individual teachers and principals, writes University of Pittsburgh professor Carrie R. Leana, describing research that she and colleagues have conducted over the past decade.

“The results of our research challenge the prevailing centrality of the individual teacher and principal leadership in models of effective public education,” Leana writes in Stanford Social Innovation Review. “Instead, the results provide much support for the centrality of social capital — the relationships among teachers — for improving public schools.”

Leana’s findings contradict three widely accepted ideas: 1) “human capital,” individual teacher effectiveness, is key; 2) outsiders, whether state curriculum experts, leadership academy graduates or Teach for America recruits, know best; and 3) principals should be “instructional leaders” who coach teachers on how to teach.

“Unfortunately, all three beliefs are rooted more in conventional wisdom and political sloganeering than in strong empirical research,” she writes. They constitute an ideology of school reform. “And although this, like all ideology, may bring us comfort in the face of uncertainty and failure, it is unhelpful and perhaps dangerous if it leads us to pursue policies that will not bring about sustained success.” Continue reading

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. Continue reading

There he goes again

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels gives an inspirational speech, and you almost want to believe him when he says his call for school reform is rooted in “a love for the children whose very lives and futures depend on the quality of the learning they either do or do not acquire while in our schools.”

The changes he is proposing – performance-based evaluation of teachers, restrictions on the power of teachers’ unions, even vouchers for parents who can’t afford private school tuition – are worth an honest debate. But it doesn’t help when the governor keeps repeating myths and half-truths, as he did in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Once again he made this claim: “Teacher quality has been found to be 20 times more important than any other factor, including poverty, in determining which kids succeed.” As School Matters reported last week, the statement simply isn’t true.

And again he said the following: “Only one in three of our children can pass the national math or reading exam.” The truth is that about one in three Hoosier eighth-graders score “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A proficient score, according to former NAEP advisory board member Diane Ravitch, is “equivalent to an A or a very strong B,” not a minimal passing grade.

We’ll let others fact-check the governor’s claims about taxes and job creation. But when it comes to education, he keeps bending the truth.

More questions about basing teacher evaluations on test scores

Following up on last week’s post, here are some articles and studies about the pros and cons of using test-score data to measure the effectiveness of teachers.

The topic is timely, because Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett want to make such data a major part of teacher evaluations. Evaluations that rely on student test scores, they say, should be used “to inform decisions about hiring, firing, professional development, compensation, placement, transfers and reductions in force.”

This is a national issue, and much is being written about assessing teacher effectiveness with “value-added” measures, which employ sophisticated statistical techniques to rate teachers at improving the test scores of students. (Indiana will apparently use a “growth model,” a less complex measure than value-added, to gauge teacher effectiveness).

Some examples:

An article in District Administration magazine provides an overview. It connects value-added analysis with issues such as merit pay and teacher retention and examines how the approach has been used in New York, Houston and Winston-Salem, N.C.

A New York Times story reveals problems with a teacher ranking system in New York City, where the school district is caught in a battle between the news media and the teachers’ union over whether value-added rankings for individual teachers should be made public. Continue reading

PDK poll, teacher effectiveness, Friedman on ‘what works’

Results of Bloomington-based Phi Delta Kappa’s annual Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools were released this week, and they were, as usual, interesting.

Much of the news coverage focused on the fact that only 34 percent of the public gave President Obama a grade of A or B for his education policies, compared with 45 percent last year. But there wasn’t a lot of evidence that the public knows what the president’s education policies are.

In fact, only 20 percent of respondents were aware that any federal stimulus money went for education when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocated $100 billion for schools.

The public claimed teacher effectiveness is the No. 1 issue facing the schools, putting it in synch with the Obama administration. The poll also found increasing support for charter schools, an administration priority.

But respondents did seem to disagree with the administration’s “school turnaround” approach, which prescribes closing failing schools or removing principals and/or teachers. Continue reading