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One Part of the Learning Puzzle

Ok, so maybe us teachers aren’t as important to good schools as everyone says we are.  Is it possible that improving teacher quality and getting rid of the bad ones won’t result in the dramatic improvements to our education system as so many politicians and education “experts” claim?

Yes, according to a “senior fellow at the non-profit Albert Shanker Institute”.

All of the research that undergirds the “trifecta” only shows that, in any given year, teachers’ effects on students’ test score gains vary widely. This line of work has served a meaningful policy purpose insofar as it has helped to convince people that teacher quality matters greatly, and efforts to improve it are worthwhile. But no one, on any “side” of the education reform debates, is arguing anything different (if they ever did).

But, as I and others have pointed out repeatedly, teachers are only one factor amongst all of the many factors that make for academically successful students. In terms of in-school effects, they are very significant — the most influential measurable variable. But the same body of research that has shown us that teachers matter – the evidence from which the “trifecta” was born – has also shown that non-school factors matter much more.

While I’m not inclined to accept the word of any kind of fellow at a Washington think tank, this column makes sense.

If you listen the people driving the education reform discussion (Duncan, Gates, Rhee, etc.), their proposals largely center around teachers: pay for performance, removing tenure, eliminating unions, firing “lower performers”.

However, what they don’t realize – or refuse to acknowledge – is that teaching and learning are very complex processes, and to take the approach that simply hiring better teachers for a school will magically produce smarter kids, is not at all realistic.  We can’t even figure out a reliable way to measure teacher quality in the first place.

Certainly finding and training good teachers is important, but we also need to seriously address questions of whether the curriculum, instructional methods, and overall goals – mostly established 50+ years ago – are appropriate for a largely non-industrial society (they’re not).  Not to mention the fact that an increasing number of our students live in poverty, are not native English speakers, and have a variety of learning challenges.

Unfortunately, the huge emphasis on this single factor tends to reinforce in the minds of many the classic school fiction of the individual teacher working in isolation to produce miracles (a myth that will be repeated this weekend on commercial television), when, in the real world, all the different pieces are very much interconnected.

Image: Rubik’s Cube from Doodlepress. Used under a Creative Commons license.

1 Comment

  1. Aaron Harris

    Any oversimplification of a complex system tends to create a lot of false conclusion. I think you’re absolutely right that teachers are only one piece of the system, and, currently, are the in vogue focus.

    But there are a lot of other conversations occurring. There are conversations focusing on nutrition, infrastructure, curricula, etc. Unfortunately, it does not seem as any particular person is considering all of these as a unified problem, but rather as individual tasks.

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