Teachers make the difference–so why treat them the same?

It should be intuitively obvious that it’s better to have a good teacher than a bad one. The Los Angeles Times recently put some data analysis into that observation. Comparing two classes in what might be called a “disadvantaged neighborhood,” it said:

Yet year after year, one fifth-grade class learns far more than the other down the hall. The difference has almost nothing to do with the size of the class, the students or their parents.

It’s their teachers.

As the Times points out, districts usually treat teachers alike. And it’s not accidental. District policies and state laws–and we’re not talking just about LA or California here–ensure that it happens. Those policies, in turn, are driven by the demands of teacher unions and a mindset within the education industry that teacher effectiveness can’t be measured. Besides, goes the thinking, every teacher is excellent. Would that it were so, but there’s no reason to think that teaching is unique among all professions in having a uniformly high quality of performance among its practitioners.

The article in the Times is the first of several that will come out over time, as its researchers pour over district data. (Indeed, one of the saddest parts of this story is that the district could have done the analysis years ago, but has not.)

Compare students who had one of the top 10 percent of teachers for two years in a row with students who had one in the bottom 10 percent for two years in a row, the Times says. The first group of students had English scores that were 17 percentile points higher, and math scores that were 25 percentile points higher.

The best and the worst teachers were scattered throughout the district, and not limited to the wealthiest or the poorest schools.

And here’s the most damning fact regarding personnel policies: “Although teachers are paid more for experience, education and training, none of this had much bearing on whether they improved their students’ performance.”

Is the situation any different in Kansas? If you’re aware of a district that financially rewards teachers whose students excel, please leave a comment and tell me. Not “rewards teachers who acquire a new credential,” but teachers who, more than the average teacher, help students learn.

Another lesson from the Times’ article is that we should not assume that the “best” teachers get that way by luck of having the “right” students:  “Other studies of the district have found that students’ race, wealth, English proficiency or previous achievement level played little role in whether their teacher was effective.”

Will including statistical measures in a teacher’s evaluation lead to automatons, teachers who are act alike? Hardly. “On visits to the classrooms of more than 50 elementary school teachers in Los Angeles, Times reporters found that the most effective instructors differed widely in style and personality.”

On the other hand, a teacher widely heralded for being an effective teacher isn’t, at least according to the value-added analysis used by the Times.

There’s much more in the article that I have mentioned here. It’s definitely a must-read item for anyone with even a passing interest in education.

UPDATE

Newsweek offers another take on this topic, which includes this remarkable statement: “local laws prevent some school districts from publicly identifying their most ineffective teachers by name.” How’s that for recognizing excellent teachers?

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