Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

There's More to Schools than Teachers

vonzastrowc's picture

It is fast becoming a received truth that teachers, teachers, teachers make all the difference in a child's academic performance. But what if analysis of students' scores on state tests threw that belief into question? It may have in L.A.

That's not the impression you'll get from the recent L.A. Times story on teacher quality. The Times used student test data to estimate 6,000 L.A. teachers' relative effectiveness. The  story suggests that it's all about the teachers:

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.

But blogger Corey Bunje Bower had a look at the report behind the Times analysis, and he drew another conclusion. The Times notes that the best teachers aren't all crammed into the "best" schools. Bower weighs the implications of that finding:

Teacher quality varies widely within schools--just as with test scores, there's far more variation within schools than across schools. ("Teachers are slightly more effective in high- than in low-API schools, but the gap is small, and the variance across schools is large"). Which means that the highest performing schools don't have all the best teachers and the lowest performing schools don't have all the worst teachers. Which means that something other than teacher quality is causing schools to be low and high performing. Which means we should probably focus our attention on more than just teacher quality.

Of course teachers are very important. Why would anyone teach if teachers didn't matter? But should we put ALL our eggs in the teacher basket?

Other bloggers have raised strong objections to the L.A. Times piece. Can we trust the tests? Can we trust "value-added" analysis of test scores? Is it right to publish names and even pictures of ostensibly ineffective teachers in the paper? Is it legal? Is it fair? Will the Times' tactics pit teacher against teacher? Will the threat of public humiliation make it that much harder to recruit new people into the profession?

Those are all important questions. But Bower's suggestive analysis shouldn't get lost in the scuffle. It deserves more attention.

Why not? Our district hired

Why not? Our district hired 75 teachers after receiving just under 3,000 applications. There is NO reason we must keep teachers who are unable to do their jobs well when there are SO MANY others who are happy to take their place. Many of these are younger teachers, too, so I don't see where this coming teacher shortage is happening. At all.

And if parents are concerned about their child's test scores, why should they NOT have this information when it comes time for class assignments?

I would object to classifying teachers and students according to race, however. Joe is Joe, Twila is Twila, and Steve is Steve. Who cares what colour they are if they can do their respective work?

The teachers are hired to teach the children. It's all about the *kids* and giving the public some sort of information to go by. I'd be happy to see *more* information about bullying and violence, or about climate, or other factors that would help parents make good decisions. I would agree with you that test scores do NOT show the whole picture, but if they're already teaching to the test and the kids bomb the test, it has to say something very bad.

"But should we put ALL our

"But should we put ALL our eggs in the teacher basket?"

I think that this is perhaps the single most important sentence in this post. It's dangerous (counter-productive?) to put all of our education reform eggs into any single basket. Of course we all agree that there is no panacea, no magic bullet. But still, with so many individual issues, we argue whether it is or is not the answer. Does teacher quality make all of the difference or not? Is the solution to fill our schools with more effective teachers, or is that not the solution? Shouldn't we instead acknowledge that it is PART of the solution but that we can't invest solely in one option or another?

So that's my concern with the LA Times piece, that stories like these might encourage too myopic a view, just as Bower noted.

AARGH! I am so tired of

AARGH! I am so tired of research reports like this. "It may not be the teachers . . " Then WHAT is it? What are the recommendations? None? Then it's just more random sound bites for the first week of school!

Mrs. C--I'm surprised at you!

Mrs. C--I'm surprised at you! I thought you were dead-set against policies that link test scores to children and then follow those children's progress--as a matter of public (or at least semi-public) record! But I was actually after a different point. Say what you might about the test scores, there is a real question in my post is what the overall data reveal about the factors that influence student performance in schools. Teachers are a big part, but there no where near the only part.

Alexander--I think we're on the same page. It's important to consider all the factors--

SanJoseTeacher--I'm a bit confused by your comment. Is your AARGH directed at me or at the LA Times? If it's meant for me--I think we can point to all sorts of causes of low performance. One partial cause may be ineffective teachers. But let's not forget any manner of other causes: lack of early childhood education, frequent movement in and out of schools, lack of health care, stresses of poverty, etc. Schools can go far in mitigating these problems, but many of the best schools tackle them head-on. That can help level the playing field between "bad" and "good" schools, especially if teachers are truly equally effective from one school to the next.

LOL Claus, don't be

LOL Claus, don't be surprised. I'm against state testing and tracking scores publicly, most specifically insofar each person is defined ethnically and economically and the data gets stuck God-knows-where. But I don't see where individual schools can't use *a* test (or three, or whatever) as *a* measure of teacher effectiveness, and I don't see where parents can't have *a* good idea about what the numbers say about a given teacher without hearing the claptrap from the unions that all teachers are pretty much the same and that homeschooling parents are just "well-meaning amateurs" who couldn't possibly do better than a certified teacher. That sort of thing.

But in response to your point about preschool and the like directed at SanJoseTeacher... if a kid is scoring at the 60th percentile one year and then his score drops, it isn't because he didn't have preschool. Come on. And kids with poor healthcare could see their numbers rise in a given year... (how could you even track "healthcare?" and would you want to?)

These teachers' numbers were followed for SEVEN years, and looking a little at their methodology, I don't see where they were trying to be unfair or paint a particular teacher as the "bad guy." I was heartened that the article specifically stated that hey, the districts aren't helping these teachers with some of the supports they need. Often the teachers themselves were clueless that the numbers were as bad as they were in their classes.

**I** don't think the tests are all that, but the funding structure and schools seem to. And if that's true, why weren't there helps in place for these teachers? Wouldn't that be important to the schools if they really cared for the teachers and children? Just thinking aloud here. If the tests are God, they'd better start tithing. :)

I think that we can not put

I think that we can not put all the responsibility on the teacher. In my 8th grade honors class I cheered as one student's scores increased by 82 points, and cried when another student in the same class went down 49 points. The teacher was the same, the curriculum was the same. The classmates were the same. Sometimes there are other factors - factors that we can not control. Should I be penalized because that student was more interested in her social life than a test?

It's vexing that the media

It's vexing that the media and politicians portray student failure (based solely on test results) strictly on teachers. All I can say is "HUH???"
As a teacher, I probably would be less irritated by these types of portrayals if, as a profession, teachers actually were allowed any decisions about what happens in their classrooms.
I have a solid track record. My students, nearly all ELLs, routinely out-perform their peers in other classrooms in my school. When I compare what my students are capable of to what my friends' children at the "better", more affluent schools, my students still remain competitive. Usually administrators have asked me to share my best practices with colleagues particularly with new teachers. Yet, in the wake of NCLB and RttT, I am allowed less and less control.
The media loves to portray teachers as the villains in education without looking into why teachers don't integrate their curriculum or use manipulatives, or write on a daily basis. Districts and their administrators too frequently mandate strict adherence to scripted programs within the constraints of rigid daily schedules and pacing plans. Many teachers are afraid to stray from these mandates for fear of disciplinary action(s).
I appreciate that the Times began to identify some habits of effective teachers, but they need to paint the whole picture. After all, the Mona Lisa when viewed from a narrow enough perspective is a tiny swatch of paint.