Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Edu policy wonkage: Please wear your protective gear!

Andrew Rotterdam over at Eduwonk weigned in on a education policy debate at the freakonomics blog, which he posted on his website. It's worth reprinting here:

Different schools have different effects on similar students. That is the primary finding from social science research, and a fact around which education policy should be organized. Put more plainly: schools matter. They can be a powerful force to address the gap, and demographics are not destiny for students.

That does not mean that schools can eliminate all social inequality, or that policymakers shouldn’t take common sense steps like expanding access to healthcare and prenatal care in low-income communities. But it does mean that many schools can do much better with poor and minority students, and that holding schools accountable for student learning is neither punitive nor unfair.

Unfortunately, there is a small industry in the education community built around tacitly giving schools soothing reassurance that they really can’t do much better with poor and minority kids than they are today. They can. And rather than attacking the gaps poor students bring with them when they first arrive at school, we actually exacerbate gaps by giving the least to the very students who need the most. Rhetorically, people say that schools matter, but our public policies do not yet systemically reflect it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Research, such as that by William Sanders and Eric Hanushek, shows that teacher effectiveness is the most important in-school factor affecting student learning. Good teachers can actually close or eliminate the gaps in achievement on standardized tests that separate white and minority students. Conversely, when at-risk students have a couple of lousy teachers in a row, it almost irreparably harms them. Consequently, policymakers should be unyielding in their efforts to ensure that there are effective teachers in every classroom.

Unfortunately, a recent report from Education Week shows that, overall, we are doing anything but. Parents should support these efforts, most of all because good teachers teach; they don’t resort to drilling kids, rote memorization, or other strategies that suck the joy out of learning.

It is not just about training, pay, and accountability for teachers, but also about creating schools where high performers want to be — and are — supported in their work. As former California Board of Education president and Netflix founder Reed Hastings points out: today we have as much a shortage of places where good teachers want to work as we do a shortage of good teachers.

That’s why this is not just a teacher problem, it’s a systemic one. But if we organize the public education system around the idea that teachers and schools matter to student outcomes — instead of implicitly around the idea that they don’t — we’ll see results and gap closing.

[emphasis mine]

A few thoughts to round this out.

First, he makes a critical distinction that is almsot never emphasized enough, that improving schools in low income areas can have a large positive impact, despite the terrible carnage from all of the usual socio-economic ills. It cannot fix them, and it should not be a subsititute for policies to address them. But it can help, and it's worth doing.

Second, the point Reed Hastings makes about teacher working conditions is critical. One of the biggest issues low performance schools have is teacher recruitment and retention. Many people believe the solution to this is higher pay. That's not a bad idea, but I don't think it really is the main issue. The main issue is, those schools suck to work at. Teachers do their time there to work at easier places, where they often take an initial pay cut, and likely won't be able to live close to where they work.

The research on education is often confusing to those of us without graduate degrees in statistics and the social sciences, so evaluting competing methodologies is problematic. Conclusions and remedies are often all across the spectrum. But one thing keeps popping up again and again; teachers. The qualilty of the teacher seems to be a critical factor in poor and good outcomes in most of the research where the subject is relevant. This leads to several questions, foremost among them is, how do we define good teachers? When we do define that, how do we recruit, train, deploy and retain them? Bitching about teacher unions and testing regimens are, to my mind, tangential to these critical questions.

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