Nicholas Kristof has a piece in today's NY Times titled The Value of Teachers. In this piece he points to a recent comprehensive study that looks at the earning gains for students who have "good" teachers.
The money quote comes in the third paragraph:
That’s right: A great teacher is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to each year’s students, just in the extra income they will earn.
Kristof buries the fact that the study is based on value-added methodology and conflates student performance on test scores with good teaching. He alludes to value-added in the 11th paragraph, but never actually addresses the fact that test scores and value added analysis aren't infallible.
The study authors (and this piece shouldn't detract from the worth and value of the study, which merits a read) are clear on this, even though Kristof is not. The executive summary (pdf download) of the study leads with a discussion of value added analysis:
Researchers have not reached a consensus about the accuracy and long-term impacts of VA because of data and methodological limitations.
The researchers conclude that, for their study, value-added analysis is a valid tool, as they look at over a million students from 4th grade to adulthood. As I said earlier, the study is a good read.
However, in his article on the study, Kristof uses false equivalencies:
Conversely, a very poor teacher has the same effect as a pupil missing 40 percent of the school year. We don’t allow that kind of truancy, so it’s not clear why we should put up with such poor teaching.
Truancy and the quality of a teacher are two very separate things. Conflating them here serves a rhetorical purpose (truancy = bad; bad teaching = truancy) but aside from being an interesting rhetorical gimmick, it just doesn't make sense.
The piece also commits one of the standard mistakes made in many pieces about teacher quality: it assumes that there is an objectively "good" teacher that will work for every kid in every class. The reality is (and people who have worked in school with kids can attest to this) different teachers connect with different kids. Sally's great teacher will be Jimmy's average teacher. We're dealing with human beings here, and human experiences differ.
However, the main (intentional?) oversight in the piece is the complete inattention to the elephant in the room in the school reform debate. If a kid comes from an upper middle class or higher in the socioeconomic ladder, they will attend one of the best schools in the world, in the United States Public School System. The "crisis" in public education is not present in high-rent zip codes. So, when we talk about the problems facing public education, let's situate them honestly. They are connected to issues of poverty, and issues of health, and in many cases, to problems surrounding food insecurity.
Kristof alludes to the importance of poverty, but then dismisses the importance of the issue as something that can be undone by good teachers:
we need an array of other antipoverty measures as well, especially early childhood programs. But the evidence is now overwhelming that even in a grim high-poverty school, some teachers have far more impact on their students than those in the classroom next door.
In the piece, Kristof declares that the problems facing education have an "obvious" solution:
The obvious policy solution is more pay for good teachers, more dismissals for weak teachers.
Wouldn't it be awesome if it was that simple? Unfortunately, the realist in me has a hard time believing that poverty and inequal access to quality education can be solved just by giving good teachers a raise. Until we start talking about education, poverty, and health together, as three related issues, the "obvious" solutions will obscure our vision of the hard challenges we need to overcome.
And part of that discussion needs to include what happens to education when good teachers are forced to work under the limits of bad policy.
Image Credit: "Ms. Powaga - Fifth Grade, an Oasis in the Desert" taken by Michael 1952, published under an Attribution license.