Research Notes

By Lynn Olson — February 05, 1997 6 min read
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Bad News About Bad Teaching

The harmful effects of a poor teacher can linger well into the future, and a string of bad teachers can leave students at a huge academic disadvantage, researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, have concluded.

Their study is based on an analysis of scores from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, which measures performance in math, reading, language arts, science, and social studies each year in grades 2 to 8.

Using a controversial, “value added” method that he developed, William L. Sanders, a professor and statistician and the leader of the research team, predicted how much a student should improve on the test each year, based on that pupil’s previous scores.

For the two unnamed metropolitan school systems in the study, the researchers divided teachers into five categories--from low to high effectiveness--based on whether their students scored much better or worse than anticipated over a four-year period.

In the study, published in the November issue of Research Progress Reports, Sanders and his colleagues analyzed the math scores for students in the two districts. They found that groups of students with comparable achievement levels in grade 2 had vastly different test scores by grade 5, and that their scores were strongly correlated with the quality of teachers they had been assigned.

Fifth graders who had three years of teachers who were deemed very ineffective averaged 54 to 60 percentile points lower than students who had a series of highly effective teachers.

The effects of even one bad or good teacher were still reflected in test scores two years later.

“I just got floored, frankly,” Mr. Sanders said. “I had not expected to see those latent effects as long as we’re seeing them--both positively and negatively.”

Mr. Sanders said his advice to principals, based on those findings, is to assign students to teachers carefully. “And for goodness’ sake, make sure no child gets two relatively ineffective teachers in sequence.”

Richard G. Wolfe, an associate professor of education at the University of Toronto, who co-wrote an evaluation of the value-added method for the Tennessee comptroller’s office, said it is “fundamentally correct” and can be used to examine a teacher’s effects on student achievement over the course of a year.

But he said it was odd “that teachers’ characteristics in 1991 would seem to have an additional impact on students in 1993, as if they’re reaching out from the educational grave.”

“Are further deficits down the road still the responsibility of that teacher?” he asked. “That’s a little bit unfair.”

Steven Ross, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Memphis, said the TCAP is a valid measure of student learning. But he cautioned against using students’ scores on the multiple-choice, norm-referenced test as the only basis for judging teacher effectiveness.

Teaching: A Path Not Encouraged

More students might pursue teaching careers in math and science if their college professors didn’t talk them out of it, a new book by two sociologists concludes.

Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences, by Elaine Seymour and Nancy M. Hewitt of the University of Colorado at Boulder, explores why undergraduates abandon science, mathematics, and engineering majors. It is based on interviews with 460 students from 13 institutions who were pursuing majors in those three subjects, considered doing so, or began working towards a major and then switched.

About one-fifth of these students had considered teaching careers, the authors found. But about two-thirds of that group had changed their minds at the time of the interviews.

“We commonly heard that more people would follow their inclination to teach were the pay or prestige of the profession better, or were it less time-consuming and expensive to undertake an education qualification on top of a baccalaureate degree,” the authors write.

But they also found that parents, peers, and professors actively discouraged students from teaching careers in those three areas.

“Worst of all, the professors--whose support and approval they sought in formulating a career path--effectively defined their ambition [to teach] as deviant,” the authors found. “Faculty were also commonly believed to withdraw from students who openly expressed an interest in teaching.”

One white male student, who had switched from a science major, told the researchers: “If you wanna teach science in high school, that’s taboo: You’re treated as an outcast by the faculty here.”

Ms. Seymour said only one institution in the study--a large private research university--actively encouraged its science and math majors to teach. The names of the institutions were kept confidential. Teaching was supported less strongly as an option at one small liberal-arts college.

Nor, Ms. Seymour added, did the researchers find science, math, and engineering departments engaged in dialogue with specialists in science and math teaching at colleges of education. Neither were there efforts at the institutions studied to develop a coherent career path for students in those majors who expressed interest in teaching.

The authors are preparing a more detailed, seven-campus study that will examine the potential pool of science and math teachers and what can be done to encourage these prospects to enter the profession.

In the face of so much discouragement, almost 8 percent of current and former majors in science, math, and engineering who were interviewed for the study still planned to teach or had not ruled it out. That, the sociologists write, “seems quite remarkable.”

Copies of the book are available for $39.95 each from the Westview Press, (800) 386-5656.

The Limits of ‘High Stakes’

High-stakes tests will not motivate all students to work harder and could alienate some young people from learning, according to a monograph from the American Educational Research Association.

The paper summarizes the research on motivation and the use of incentives in industry and education. “What we conclude is that it’s simplistic to think just by mandating a high-stakes external exam--a la the European model--this is going to radically change the motivational outlook of a lot of students,” said George Madaus, a professor of education and public policy at Boston College and one of the paper’s authors.

He cautioned that students’ responses to state or national exams will vary based on the children’s ages, the value they place on academic achievement, and whether they believe they can learn.

Young children, for example, may be less motivated to do well on such tests because the payoff--either promotion or high school graduation--is too distant. Students who see the exams as “insurmountable obstacles” may be tempted to quit school or avoid learning rather than work harder.

The authors also assert that intrinsic motivation is more effective than external rewards and sanctions. The latter may reduce children’s creativity, narrow the focus of the curriculum to what is tested, and encourage students to concentrate on test performance instead of learning the subject.

Based on their review, the authors conclude that “we can have little confidence in external examinations as a panacea for the ills of American education.”

Copies of the report, “The Use of External Examinations to Improve Student Motivation,” are available for $8 each, plus $3 shipping and handling, from the American Educational Research Association, 1230 17th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036-3078.


A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 1997 edition of Education Week


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