Misleading Manifesto

Friday, October 8, 2010
I'm sorry, but the "manifesto" published in today's Washington Post really pisses me off because it is built upon a false premise. It is authored by a number of urban school superintendents, including Chicago's Ron Huberman, New York City's Joel Klein, Washington DC's Michelle Rhee, and New Orleans' Paul Vallas. And it -- intentionally? -- misstates educational research.
"[T]he single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income -- it is the quality of their teacher."
No. That is patently false.

Now, listen here. I work for a teacher-focused, non-profit organization, the New Teacher Center (NTC). Wouldn't it be powerful to go out and say that teachers matter more than ANYTHING else? But they don't. In terms of school-based variables, they do. But in terms of all variables that impact students, they simply do not. No research says that. In our messaging at the NTC, we are always careful to say that teacher quality is the most important school-based variable for student achievement (examples here and here (on page 4)). That's accurate, honest and powerful in its own right.

So why not make the case for improving teaching in a honest fashion? There is an incredibly strong case to make that improving teaching quality is a critically important and policy amenable part of the solution to increasing student achievement and closing achievement gaps for disadvantaged students. But it's only part of the answer which requires solutions beyond the educational system. Let's not lose sight of that.

At the Shanker Blog, Matthew Di Carlo explored this same issue last month and took journalists to task for making similar claims. Back in July, he summarized existing teacher quality research.

September 16, 2010:
The same body of evidence that shows that teachers are the most important within-school factor influencing test score gains also demonstrates that non-school factors matter a great deal more. [emphasis added] The first wave of high-profile articles in our newly-energized education debate not only seem to be failing to provide this context, but are ignoring it completely. Deliberately or not, they are publishing incorrect information dressed up as empirical fact, spreading it throughout a mass audience new to the topic, to the detriment of us all.

Even though the 10-15 percent explained by teachers still represents a great deal of power (and is among the only factors “within the jurisdiction” of education policy), it is nevertheless important to bear in mind that poor educational outcomes are a result of a complicated web of social and economic forces. [emphasis added] People have to understand that, or they will maintain unrealistic expectations about the extent to which teacher-related policies alone can solve our problems, and how quickly they will work.
July 14, 2010:

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). [emphasis added] Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

Let's take Di Carlo's and Joe Friday's advice. Just the facts, please.