Ed Reform 101: Teachers

Blue Jersey’s Ed Reform 101

Part 2 – Teacher Quality Myths

Ed Reform 101Everyone knows that teachers are important (even if politicians like Chris Christie don’t always show it.). Everyone knows there are great teachers and bad teachers. Everyone knows that a teacher can change a child’s life.

But some corporate “reformers” take this notion about the importance of the teacher way too far. They claim the teacher is the most important factor in determining students’ success, ignoring the role privilege, poverty, and parents play in a child’s life. And they foolishly believe figuring out who teaches well is a simple matter of test scores: it isn’t.

One of the consequences of Christie’s war on the NJEA is a false view of teachers and the processes used to evaluate them. If we are ever going to have a serious conversation about education in New Jersey, we need to get past the myths he perpetuates about teachers.

What you should know about teacher quality:

  • Teachers are important, but they are NOT the most important factor in student learning.
  • Using test scores to evaluate teachers is extremely error-prone.
  • Because of these errors, test scores should not be used to make decisions about hiring and paying teachers; even basing part of the decision on test scores is disastrous.
  • The “three good teachers in a row” myth is exactly that: a myth.
  • Far more than 17 teachers have left their New Jersey schools in the last decade due to incompetence.

    Myth: Teachers are the MOST important factor in a student’s growth and achievement.

    The Truth: While teachers are important, years of research confirms that teachers are not the most important factor in student learning.

    – About 60% of a student’s achievement is explained by student and family characteristics; 20% pertains to school (with 10-15% being the teacher); 20% is unexplained (error). This has been confirmed in many studies.

    – The correlation between poverty and test scores is nearly perfect.

    Funding gaps can account for half of the difference in test scores.

    Myth: We can determine which teachers to fire or pay more by using standardized test scores.

    The Truth: The overwhelming consensus among researchers is that test scores should not be used in high-stakes decisions like firing and compensation.

    – There is a 35% chance a teacher will be misidentified as poor in any given year, and a 25% chance in two years. This is functionally the same as rolling dice.

    – Research organizations against the heavy use of test scores in high-stakes decisions include the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, ETS’s Policy Information Center, the RAND Corporation, and the Economic Policy Institute (p.2).

    Myth: Well, if we only base 50% of a teacher’s rating on test scores, that will be fine.

    The Truth: Using test scores for any significant portion of a teachers rating is biased and prone to enormous error.

    – A rating based on test scores will inevitably take on unwarranted importance compared to other evaluation tools.

    – Only 10-20% of teachers can be feasibly evaluated by test scores; the other 80-90% teach subjects and grades that aren’t subject to test score analysis.

    Myth: But using test scores to evaluate teachers is better than doing nothing!

    The Truth: Using test scores to evaluate teachers will undoubtedly make our schools worse.

    – Evaluations of teachers based on test scores assumes students are assigned randomly to classrooms. Parents, teachers, and principals will not be able to have a say in which students to assign to which teachers.

    – Because of the high error rates, teachers will have strong cases to challenge terminations in court – even teachers who should be fired!

    Contract negotiations will be severely affected.

    Myth: Three good teachers in three consecutive years can erase all the deficits of a child who is behind in school.

    The Truth: The “three good teachers” myth is pure conjecture and has never been proved.

    – The assertion is made mostly based on projection of single-year differences; it is not based on any actual policy outcomes.

    – An analogy from Diane Ravitch:

    This is akin to saying that baseball teams should consist only of players who hit over .300 and pitchers who win at least twenty games every season; after all, such players exist, so why should not such teams exist. The fact that no such team exists should give pause to those who believe that almost every teacher in almost every school in almost every district might be a superstar if only school leaders could fire at will.

    Myth: Firing the “bottom” 5-10% of teachers would lead to big learning gains.

    The Truth: This is, again, pure conjecture with little evidence to support it.

    – There is no guarantee we could replace the “bottom” teachers with anyone better – especially when teacher salaries are in decline.

    – Due to the high unreliability of identifying the “bottom” teachers, this policy would certainly dismiss good teachers and retain bad ones.

    Myth: In New Jersey, only 17 teachers have been fired over the past 10 years.

    The Truth: Without question, many more teachers have been removed for incompetence.

    – This figure only includes tenured teachers dismissed in a formal tenure hearing.

    – “Hundreds of teachers who receive the first tenure charges resign…”

    – 40% of non-tenured teachers do not have their year-to-year contracts renewed, or voluntarily leave their schools; undoubtedly, many of these teachers realize they should not teach.

    ADDING [9/2/11]: Bruce Baker has recently posted about the problems with Student Growth Percentiles, part of the recently announced NJ Teacher Evaluation Pilot Program.

    For more information on teacher quality, we recommend:

  • Dr. Bruce Baker’s School Finance 101 blog, especially his writings on Value-Added Teacher Evaluation.
  • The Economic Policy Institute
  • VAM: A Primer For Teachers

    Next in our series: Merit Pay, Seniority & Tenure

    Tuesday, 8/30/11: Standardized Testing

    Wednesday, 8/31/11: Teacher Quality

    Thursday, 9/1/11: Merit Pay, Seniority & Tenure

    Friday, 9/2/11: Teachers Unions

    Sunday, 9/4/11: Charter Schools & Vouchers

    Tuesday, 9/6/11: Recap

  • Comments (8)

    1. the_promised_land

      Thanks for this info which is helpful – esp. the dice analogy. What kinds of evaluation do you think are better? And what is being done now in NJ under the current system?

    2. KendalJames

      You know, the guy who says he welcomes vigorous debate, but bans EVEN THE MENTION of the incredibly civil Jersey Jazzman on the B4K Facebook page?

      The guy who says those fighting fake ed reform are pushing “conspiracy theories?”

      BlueJersey welcomes all comments, especially the civil kind Bradford claims to endorse. Where is his response to these posts  – will he register an account and start proving us all wrong?

    3. Jersey Jazzman (Post author)

      Right now, almost all teacher evaluation is done by administrators/superiors. It’s based primarily on classroom observation.

      One idea that I think is well worth exploring is PAR: Peer Assistance and Review. The idea is that teachers themselves should take on more of the responsibility of policing their profession.

      In other professions, there are levels of competency granted, and peer review is he standard by which professionals are judged. I’d like us to look at instituting this in teaching – kind of like board certification with doctors.

      The National Board Certification is, in my experience, a great place to start. You have to prove to a board of your colleagues that you deserve this honor, and the process is rigorous.

      Buy even without this, districts could be setting up review panels by peers. Doctors regulate doctors. Lawyers regulate lawyers. Accountants regulate accountants. Why not the same with teachers?

    4. the_promised_land

      otherwise it seems like it would be tough to rate people that you are working with on a day to day basis. Also the other examples aren’t really evaluation systems – they are, on one hand, proofs of levels of competency, and on the other hand, regulation systems for extreme behavior like ethical violations. In between is the decision by a supervisor as to measuring performance – do you see a peer to peer way of doing that too (which I’m not sure really exists in the other professions you mention – e.g. there is a hierarchy in a hospital or a law firm).

    5. Jersey Jazzman (Post author)

      When you consider that NJ districts are often small, you’d probably have to do that. But I think that could be a great thing.

      I, for example, teach music. In my entire career, I’ve been evaluated only twice by an administrator who had any background in music education. I’ve had principals say to me, “Well, it looks like you’re doing a good job, and I can rate you on classroom management and things like that, but half the time, I’m not sure what you’re doing!”

      So it would be more helpful to me to get people in my field to give me advice. Having peers designated as “master teachers” would probably help. But this is only going to work in the context of peers assisting each other – again, like any other profession.

      It’s also worth pointing out that schools are very “flat” organizations: everyone in the building reports to one person (or a few in a large high school). It’s worth discussing whether that should change.

      But the conversation we’re having here is not what’s being proposed. Everything Rhee and Cerf and Christie and Bradford and the rest propose is very heavy-handed, top-down “reform.” No other professions would accept this, but teachers are supposed to. It’s insulting.

      I’ve pointed this out over at my blog: The NJ Educator Effectiveness Task Force has ONE currently practicing teacher. She is not a member of the NJEA (she’s AFT, a much smaller union here in NJ).


      Contrast this to CA Gov.Jerry Brown, who just appointed five teachers and one professor to the beleaguered CTC:


      Not only will Brown’s commission get more teacher buy-in than Christie’s; I can guarantee what they propose will be more effective.

      Professionals should regulate themselves, with strong oversight from government. That’s how all other professionals do it.

    6. Jersey Jazzman (Post author)

      I don’t want anyone to think I am buying into this “crisis” mentality about schools when I talk about this stuff. Yes, we could get better, but NJ’s schools are (a close) second only to Massachusetts in quality.

      The problem with the “achievement gap” is serious and needs to be addressed, but it is largely not a school problem, and it is barely a teacher quality problem.

      Poverty, racism, lack of economic opportunity, poor infrastructure, lack of human services – these are the causes of the gap, way more than whether or not teachers are regulated correctly. I want us to continue to work on that, but let’s get real about why things are the way they are.

    7. William Weber (WjcW)

    8. Jersey Jazzman (Post author)

      I would be delighted to have Mr. Bradford here to share his views with the rest of us.

      Maybe tomorrow…


    Leave a Comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *