Thursday, October 15, 2009

Has Kristof Gone Krazy?

Nicholas Kristof is at it again.  He's written another misinformed op-ed about education in the NY Times.

Yes, I'm annoyed that he seems to imply that in-school factors are more important than non-school factors when we know the opposite is true.  And, yes, I'm annoyed that he reverentially references Stephen Brill's hatchet job.  And, yes, I'm annoyed that he cites anecdotal evidence to argue that the exception disproves the rule.  And, yes, I'm annoyed that he assumes enacting certain reforms is moving in the right direction despite very little evidence that these reforms will improve things.

But what bothers me most is his statement that "A study found that if black students had four straight years of teachers from the top 25 percent of most effective teachers, the black-white testing gap would vanish in four years."  Please -- everybody -- please stop saying this.  It's, quite simply, not true

First of all, the study being referenced didn't "find" this -- it was speculation (or, in economist-speak, a back of the envelope calculation).  Second of all, the speculation was based on an erroneous assumption -- that teacher effects were additive.  In other words, that if a really good teacher could help kids close 1/4 of the achievement gap in one year, that four really good teachers could help kids completely close the gap in four years.  But life doesn't work that way.  For at least three reasons:

1.) The effect that a teacher has on students wanes over time as those kids go off and play over the summer and move on to different classes with different teachers.

2.) The large gain brought about by one teacher is, in part, due to the inferior teachers those students had in previous years.  Now that they've had a world-beater, it will be harder for their teacher their next year to help them make as much progress.

3.) That large gain might not have even occurred.  Measurement of teacher effects is notoriously imprecise.  In a number of studies, the correlation between a teacher's effect one year and the next have been surprisingly inconsistent and have only low correlations.

note: Somehow an earlier, different, draft of this post ended up here after firefox crashed.  This is the correct version.

update: really, seriously, his claim isn't true


Mr. Talk said...

What I can't ever figure out is how Kristoff gets so many things right, but on education, he gets just about everything wrong. Unfortunately, he has a giant soapbox and a sympathetic ear in the Obama administration.

KitchenSink said...

You're really passionate about this issue; have you considered getting into academia, if you're not already (I don't know your qualifications), or partnering with someone with the research background and leading a study that could put this claim to bed?

My sense is that you under-estimate the impact of a school and strong teachers on a child. A really good school will lift up a family in poverty, by introducing it to the skills and habits needed to join, or go around, the culture of power.

Of course it's reductionist to say that good teachers alone will close the achievement gap. Change happens on the school level, and my subjective view, after having read some of these studies and witnessed it in the trenches for 10+ years, is that teachers are one (hugely) important factor in a complex soup for what's going to make a difference for at-risk kids.

On the other hand, you can't blame Kristoff for using hyperbole to call attention to the teacher quality issue. I don't think we need any more doubting Thomases on this issue because in the popular imagination, teaching is still a cake-walk that any intelligent (or not so intelligent) stiff can pull off. I mean, look at that summer vacation!!

Rachel said...

I don't think we need any more doubting Thomases on this issue because in the popular imagination, teaching is still a cake-walk that any intelligent (or not so intelligent) stiff can pull off.

But one of the paradoxes, as Corey points out, are that the same people who argue that teacher quality is paramount, tend to argue that teachers need less training than they currently get.

If improving teacher effectiveness is the most promising route to improving student achievement, it seems to me that there should be a lot more emphasis by reformers on how you teach people to be good teachers -- particular the people who we *know* want to be teachers, because they actually are teachers now.

Roger Sweeny said...


The problem is that we just don't know how to "train" teachers.

Most teachers will tell you that they didn't get much from most of their ed school courses. Most will tell you that the best part of their program was the student teaching.

In many places teachers are "incentived" to get additional training. If they take additional ed school courses, they are put on a higher pay ladder. Frequently, the school district covers part of the cost of the courses. Teachers do it but they will tell you the courses haven't done much of anything to make them better teachers (though at least they haven't taken too much time away from the job).

Most everywhere teachers are required to attend "professional development" or "in service" workshops in the district. If you ask around, you will find that most teacher participants find these a waste of time.

Unfortunately, we just don't know how to get the skills of a "good teacher" to a neophyte.

Perhaps some sort of apprenticeship is the way to go but you can be sure that all the people who would lose their jobs by that change will fight it.

Lycos said...

Ah, perhaps we don't know how to train teachers, but it doesn't mean we don't know anything about teacher training.

It is clear, for example, that until teachers know the content they need to teach inside out, they won't be able to teach it well (or correctly). Teachers do acquire pedagogical skills on the job, yet it is a rare teacher who actually acquires significant content knowledge on the job. So one immediate lesson is to require much more content knowledge of teachers for certification. Currently, elementary teachers tend to be tested on middle school content at best for certification, even if all of them hold glorified BAs.