Unpacking the sound bite “quality teaching eliminates socioeconomic advantage”

by Dianne Khan

Reposted from Save Our Schools New Zealand

New Zealand Minister of Education Hekia Parata this weekend said that experts had found that four consecutive years of quality teaching eliminated any trace of socio-economic disadvantage.hekia

In her now typical teacher-bashing way, she went on to say “In New Zealand we provide 13 years. You’d think it would not be too much to expect that four of those are good quality.”

Ignoring the snarkiness, just think about what she said:  Four consecutive years of quality teaching eliminates any trace of socio-economic disadvantage.

That’s a mighty big claim.

Where did it come from and does it stand up to scrutiny?

Where did they find their catchy soundbite?

Neither The Southland Times nor Hekia Parata provide a reference for their claim.  You’d think someone making bold statements like that would be more than happy to cite their source, wouldn’t you?

They merely use it to end their article with a flourish.  After all, it sounds good, doesn’t it?  Very catchy. And they’re not alone – many newspapers and online publications including The Boston Globe used the same quote, also with no reference,

Whatever.  I searched on.

A Bit of Digging

A flicker of something I read on Twitter came to mind, and a quick search led me to an article called The economic case for sacking bad teachers.  Nice title.  I felt sure this would be a clear, research-based, unbiased article…digging

The article largely ignores the actual report it is supposedly based on and, indeed, misrepresents its conclusions. But wait!  They manage to get a nice soundbite out of their expert, Eric Hanushek.  I sense he is going to prove interesting.

In the article, Hanushek is quoted as saying:

‘A good teacher can get 1.5 years of learning growth; a bad teacher gets half a year of learning growth.’

The article goes on to say:

Having four consecutive years of high-quality teaching, [Hanushek] says, can eliminate any trace of economic disadvantage. (5)

Leaving the validity of the first of his statements aside, what on earth does that have to do with the 2nd statement?  That is not discussed at all in the OECD paper the article is meant to be about.  Why throw it in?  Did the journalist just find Hanushek’s most famous tidbit and throw it in for good measure?  Who knows.

And again, no reference.

Just an acceptance that this bold statement is fact.

And why would the journalist question it?  It sounds good doesn’t it?  And look at the great headline it gave them.

large_digger

Further Digging

Still no clearer as to where this assertion had come from, I enlisted the combined research abilities of the experts I  know. With their help, I found some very interesting stuff.

Take this quote from Diane Ravitch:

[Eric] Hanushek and Rivkin projected that “having fiveyears of good teachers in a row” (that is, teachers at the 85th percentile) “could overcome the average seventh-grade mathematics achievement gap between lower-income kids (those on the free or reduced-price lunch program) and those from higher-income families. (7)

Ravitch goes on to say that, at the conference where they claims were presented, they were fervently disputed. Richard Rothstein  said they were “misleading and dangerous.” (7)  Criticism continued after the conference, and the debate of the statement’s validity raged.  

New reports came out, suggesting that 3, 4 or 5 years in a row with a good teacher could override the socioeconomic status (SES) of a student.

And despite being incredibly contentious and there being many experts arguing against the claims and plenty of research to say otherwise, it is too good a headline grabber and too utterly irresistible  for journalists.

Ravitch tells us that:

Over a short period of time, this assertion became an urban myth among journalists and policy wonks in Washington, something that “everyone knew.” 

This is the danger.

The sound bite wins the day.

reading-newspaperYour Average Newspaper Reader

Do you think the readers of The Southland Times will stop to wonder how rigorous was the research that lead to that soundbite?

Do you think they will ponder whether it has been challenged?

Do you think they will have eight solid hours and a goodly handful of experts to help them look into it, like I did?

No, me neither.

Luckily, I had the time.  And even more fortuitously, some anti-GERMers with a larger platform that I did, too.

A Fallacy and a Rebuttal

Renowned education expert, Pasi Sahlberg tackled the “four consecutive years of quality teaching” fallacy:

“This assumption presents a view that education reform alone could overcome the powerful influence of family and social environment mentioned earlier. It insists that schools should get rid of low-performing teachers and then only hire great ones. This fallacy has the most practical difficulties.

The first one is about what it means to be a great teacher. Even if this were clear, it would be difficult to know exactly who is a great teacher at the time of recruitment.

The second one is, that becoming a great teacher normally takes five to ten years of systematic practice. And determining the reliably of ‘effectiveness’ of any teacher would require at least five years of reliable data. This would be practically impossible.

Everybody agrees that the quality of teaching in contributing to learning outcomes is beyond question.  It is therefore understandable that teacher quality is often cited as the most important in-school variable influencing student achievement.

But just having better teachers in schools will not automatically improve students’ learning outcomes.” (8)

As Sahlberg says, there are many other factors that lead to students success, and global reforms tend to ignore those that the most successful countries have implemented, namely

“… freedom to teach without the constraints of standardized curricula and the pressure of standardized testing; strong leadership from principals who know the classroom from years of experience as teachers; a professional culture of collaboration; and support from homes unchallenged by poverty.” (8)

Controversial Expert

Eric Hanushek

Eric Hanushek

But back to the original statement.  Who is Eric Hanushek, who made the claim?

Hanushek is an economist. He is not without controversy, and his research methods have been called into question in the past. (6)

However, disputes with his methods and conclusions have not stopped him from promoting his views widely in professional and public media, nor have they prevented the US administration and now our very own Education Minister, Hekia Parata, using his work and his words to justify further education reforms that education experts argue are not in the best interest of students. (3, page 40-42) and (4)

What does Hanushek say makes a Good Teacher?

His measurement of a good teacher is one whose students get high test scores.

One wonders what this means for a teacher of special needs students of lower cognitive ability, or students with English as a second language, or students who have a low educational ethic.  Are those teachers bad because their scores are lower than a teacher with more able students?

It’s a tad disconcerting, isn’t it?

You will have your own ideas on what makes a good teacher.  Anecdotal evidence tells me that for many Kiwi parents, it is more than test results.  I shall tackle this in detail some other time.  Meanwhile, you might want to read this and ponder the issue further.

rich kid poor kidFact or Snappy Sound Bite?

Back to the sound bite, then.

Quality teaching is, of course, of huge importance.  But the best that can be said for the assertion that four consecutive years’ quality teaching eliminates any trace of socio-economic disadvantage is that it is contentious.

Certainly there is evidence out there that supports the view that poverty has an impact on student achievement.  And great teachers are likely to do more than just improve test scores.

One thing I know for sure, though: Whether even the best teachers can completely override the impact of a student’s socioeconomic situation is not something that can or should be tackled by a sound bite.

~ Dianne

With sincere thanks to the many experts who were kind enough to help me today.

References and further reading:

(1) The high cost of low educational performance

(2) The Market for Teacher Quality  Eric A. Hanushek, John F. Kain, Daniel M. O’Brien and Steven G. Rivkin* December 2004

(3) School Reform Proposals: The Research Evidence (Research in Educational Productivity) by Alex Molnar (Mar 1, 2002)

(4) Minister: I don’t like deciles

(5) The economic case for sacking bad teachers – The Spectator

(6) Does Money Matter?  A meta-analysis of studies of the effects of differential school inputs on student outcomes, by Hedges, Laine, and Greenwald (1994)

(7) The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch

(8) What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools? by Pasi Sahlberg

(9) The Washington Post – The Answer Sheet – The “three great teachers in a row” myth

(10)  The Boston Globe Gets It Wrong on Teacher Evaluation

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