By Paolo von Schirach
January 9, 2013
WASHINGTON – The WSJ reports that evidence gathered by a research project funded by the Gates Foundation demonstrated that good teachers improve students’ test scores in American public schools. In other words, good teachers make a difference.
We need a study to prove that good teachers make a difference
The fact that it took a three year study using using complex (and apparently controversial) methodologies to reach this simple conclusion is astounding. It is truly incredible is that we even need studies in order to “prove” that good teachers are the critical variables, (other factors, such as children socio-economic background, being also relevant), in determining students’ academic proficiency.
It should be intuitively obvious that quality education outcomes are mostly about high quality educators. Everything else being equal, better teachers should get you better educated children.
A bureaucratic public education system
But no, not in American public education, a horrendously bureaucratic system run by functionaries posing as teachers who get tenure and higher salaries on the basis of seniority, rather than professional merit.
We like to think of America as a meritocracy. Well, except for public education, a system in which teaching careers advancement are separated from demonstrable professional abilities. So much so that any attempt to evaluate educators on the basis of students test scores is treated as an impudent attack.
To those who propose test scores to assess performance, educators and their powerful unions are quick to respond that test scores are affected by many other factors, such as poverty and overall quality of life in lower income households. In other words, they claim that it would be unfair to penalize teachers who have to deal with low performing students who are themselves the victims of extremely unfavorable circumstances.
Fair enough. We have to take the entire context into account. Of course, it is a lot easier to get better test results teaching kids coming from affluent families who have books at home and highly educated parents who can help with home work and a lot more.
Test results are indicators of teachers abilities
That said, to say that children academic results are not relevant in assessing a teacher’s ability is plain stupid. But this is where we are in America. The very notion of merit pay, based on teachers’ proven abilities in the classroom, is extremely controversial and fought against by the teachers unions.
But we know that this cozy system designed to give cushy jobs to teachers rather than to educate their students is not working. We all know that the quality of American public eduction is mediocre to bad or very bad. Poor and minority kids on average get the worst education. The need for dramatic improvements has been repeatedly asserted by many.
Attract good teachers
It seems obvious that the first order of business should be attracting and retaining high quality teachers. This means changing recruiting criteria, while providing monetary incentives so that smart people will look at a teaching career as a good move, as opposed to a cop out for people who could not find anything better.
Along the same lines, it should follow that teachers’ career advancements should be tied to their performance. If their students do consistently well, it means that they are good teachers who should be rewarded for their good work. If the students do poorly, then these teachers should be told to look for a different line of work.
The very fact that any of these common sense considerations should be even remotely controversial, is an indication of the disrepair of US public education.
How to get kids educated
The purpose of education is about getting our kids educated. In order to achieve this goal we need excellent professionals in the class room. If it takes a three years study by the Gates Foundation to prove that good teachers improve students test scores, so be it.
That said, it is unlikely that this study will make waves. The schools are still run by bureaucracies that instinctively protect their members, that is the teachers.
Getting from here to a point in which the teaching career in American public education will be determined mostly by merit rather than seniority and bureaucratic entrenchment requires a revolution. Stirrings across many states indicate that big changes are underway. But the battle just began; its outcome still uncertain. Let’s hope for success, as we are talking about this country’s future.