Nicholas Beaudrot of Donkelicious has some good points about a typically biased piece on education evaluation from the Times, written by Jenny Anderson, but I also think he's missing the forest for the trees. He says:
The evaluation systems seem to place an extremely high number in the highest-two rating categories, and only identifying a handful of teachers--2-3% seems to be a common number--as ineffective. The reformers seem to have this hazy, not-very-well-thought-out view that perhaps 10, 20, or 50% of teachers (no one is willing to put a number on this) are inadequate to the task of teaching, which would be astonishing for any large enterprise. The 2% figure lines up roughly with the number of LAPD cops who averaged at least one excessive force complaint per year during the late '80s (keep in mind this covers allegations, not proven cases or even disciplinary actions). Over that same timeframe, 0.5% of officers averaged about 1.5 complaints per year, and a handful of cops were truly disastrous. Even if America's public schools were to have double or triple the number of bad apples as the LAPD, that would still mean the overwhelming majority of teachers are at least doing their jobs adequately.
Beaudrot is correct to point out that the constant assertion of ed reformers that we have a teacher quality crisis in this country is not supported by evidence. However, I will persist in saying that there are some prerequisite questions which underlie all of these other questions. The most important, to me, is simple: what portion of the observed variance in perceived educational outcomes among different students is attributable to teacher effects, and what portion attributable to other factors? Also, is that attribution static, or does it change with age and circumstance? And is the portion equal between students, or is it too conditioned by demographic factors? To ask these questions is both to engage in elementary social science and to ask for basic fairness and efficacy from education reformers, yet as the Times piece demonstrates, the question essentially does not exist in our educational debate.
I have been tinkering for a long time with a long-form piece on these questions, where I look at extant empirical research and try to assess the question of how much impact teachers can have on the worst-performing students and their educational outcomes. I hope to publish it elsewhere. First, though, I have to make it through this month and finish my coursework. Until then, you'll have to take the conjectural, asserted version: any summation of the broad swath of educational research suggests that in fact demographic, parental, and environmental factors vastly outweigh teacher inputs in conditioning student outcomes. What's more, the students who perform least well are those who are likely the least subject to instructional effects as expressed in their student outcomes. Selection bias is not a factor in perceived educational outputs; it is the factor. But I'll have to make that case, and you can feel free to disregard my opinion until then.
If nothing else, these questions are empirical. The notion that teacher quality leads straightforwardly to student outcomes is one that would have to be empirically assessed, has not been proven to any minimal satisfaction, and yet is endlessly asserted by school reformers. As is typical, educational reformers' interest in empiricism is directly proportional to the degree to which empiricism confirms their preexisting assumptions. Again and again and again, uselessly emotive statements about how we must rescue every child drown out carefully considered questions about what, actually, could do the most good.
I've said this before: let's have an academic decathlon. You choose a team based on whatever pedagogical criteria you want. You can choose students from public school or private, unionized teachers or not, parochial or secular, from charter or magnet, from Montessori or KIPP or whatever else you want. However, I choose the demographics of the students on your team. For my team, the situation is reversed: you choose the pedagogical factors for my students, but I choose the demographics. You stock your team kids from whatever educational backgrounds you think work, and mine with whatever educational systems you think don't work. Meanwhile, I give you all children from the poverty-stricken, crime-ridden inner city and impoverished rural districts where we see the most failure. I stock mine with upper-class children of privilege. I would bet the house on my team, and I bet if you're being honest, you would too. Yet to accept that is to deny the basic assumption of the education reform movement, which is that student outcomes are a direct result of teacher quality.
If you think that take is harsh, remember that I am a socialist, and if I had my druthers, there would be no more poverty and no more entrenched disadvantage to set these kids back so far before they even enter school.
Now here's what's really funny. The ed reformers assume that these current evaluation systems are flawed because too many teachers are being rated as effective.
Grover J. Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, said variations in teacher quality had been proven to affect student academic growth. If an evaluation system is not finding a wider distribution of effectiveness, “it is flawed,” he said.
“It would be an unusual profession that at least 5 percent are not deemed ineffective,” he added.
In other words, Whitehurst assumes that there is a natural distribution of quality in any field, where some significant percentage of people are always going to be below a necessary level of ability. That's an interesting case to be made in this context, the context of No Child Left Behind and the typical assumption of education reform, which ludicrously asserts that all children are capable of meeting certain arbitrary quality standards. But perhaps that's the inevitable consequence of a movement in which the person whose voice is heard is the person who shouts the loudest, rather than the person who pays most attention to what is constructive, to what is achievable, and what is true. In that context, it becomes a crime to state the simple reality that in a system of massive entrenched inequality, we will always have educational failure.