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MSPnet Blog: “Sisyphus visits Teacher Impact Mountain”

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posted November 12, 2014 – by Brian Drayton

I guess one of the underlying themes of this blog is the search for perspective amidst the ever-whirling winds of ed reform rhetoric. With regard to ed reform policy as it’s usually construed, the latest election won’t make a lot of difference — both parties’ reform hawks are into accountability for teachers and students (but not school boards, legislators, governors…), privatization, charter schools, more high tech, etc.
But if you lift your weary head over the mounds of think tank documents to just to one side or the other of the usual frames, lo and behold! there’s a whole society out there, and it turns out that the social matrix has a lot of impact on what happens inside the school walls.
With this flourish, I present this week’s interesting read, from P.L Thomas’s blog The Becoming Radical. His latest post is entitled “Unpacking education and teacher impact.”  Deploying more statistics than you might expect from a literature professor, he explores the evidence about how much teacher impact upon student outcome measures it is realistic to expect.  In so doing, he does not claim that teachers have no impact on such measures;  and he also points out that teachers can have a lot of impact in other ways, which might be more important, on the whole.  (He also places this question of teacher impact alongside other questions for which the evidence is pretty strong, such as the ill effects of grade retention, and of corporal punishment, and provides excellent examples of  How to Clarify the Terms of A Debate.)

The bottom line is that research has repeatedly established that school effects explain between 14% and 20% of student achievement;  things outside of school account for about 60% (the other 20% is noise).  Of the (let’s call it) 15% weight that can be attributed to school factors, perhaps ±50% (so something like 7-10%, ±) can be attributed to teachers.   On this basis of this and other evidence, Thomas concludes “making claims about education being the single or sole factor in success or that the teacher is the single most important factor in achievement is misleading, overly simplistic.”

But he goes further, because what is all this pressure for educational attainment about?  Mostly the arguments are for gains in students’  financial welfare/social mobility (and other data he adduces show how little of that our society currently has).  But if you’re interested in increasing equity, the data show that “within social class and race, educational attainment has significant influence, but…education alone appears less effective in overcoming large social inequities such as classism and racism.”

My dad always used to say, “Welp, if you want a better society, you’re going to have to get better people.”  But if we’re really about evidence-based policies, we have to admit that if we want freer people we are going to have to get a better society.  Schools are a part of the picture — but we’ve got to keep looking at the whole landscape.

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posted by: Arthur Camins on 11/13/2014 2:56 pm

Agreed. Education is part of a interacting system. Changing only one input teaching can't fundamentally alter the outcome. I wrote about the limits of the "escape from poverty" strategy here:

productive interventions

posted by: David Thomas on 11/13/2014 3:01 pm

Avoiding the issue of interventions that motivate and engage all students (if such miracles exist), shouldn't we identify and celebrate efforts that offer real help to target groups? How do we do that?

The Big Picture

posted by: Andy Zucker on 11/13/2014 3:56 pm

Brian, your post makes sense to me. Most of our political leaders seem intent on quick, cheap answers and small frames of reference. Not only are proposed solutions (e.g. charters; new computer-based tests) unlikely to lead to better education outcomes without many other reforms, but average median wages are going down even while productivity has gone up; the stock market soars but the electorate continues to be in a very sour mood, and does not have a high regard for either political party. We badly need more big picture thinkers in the political arena but in too many places that is not what we are getting. In education, Linda Darling-Hammond and Marc Tucker are examples of big picture thinkers.

"Sisyphus visits Teacher Impact Mountain"

posted by: Mary Govan on 11/14/2014 9:14 am

I agree with you Brian. We need a better society. Education is one of the factors but not all of the factors. In order for a better society, it needs to start with the families. Families need to have willingness to change.

Families and school reform

posted by: Brian Drayton on 11/18/2014 3:24 pm

Mary, how does families' willingness to change relate to school improvement, as you see it?