School Choice & Charters Opinion

John Thompson: Gates Foundation Teacher Effectiveness Researcher Seems to Support the ‘Status Quo’

By Anthony Cody — September 27, 2011 4 min read
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The National Bureau of Economic Research just published “School Choice, School Quality and Postsecondary Attainment” by David J. Deming, Justine S. Hastings, Thomas J. Kane and Douglas O. Staiger. Tom Kane, of course, heads the Gates Foundation’s $400 million dollar “Measuring Effective Teaching” experiment, and yet his work provides little or no support for the policies preferred by Gates and other “reformers.” In fact, the study confirms the judgments of teachers and education researchers who the accountability hawks condemn as the “status quo.” If Gates and Kane had had any idea that their research would yield the results reported in this and other recent papers, it is hard to believe they would have started down their market-driven path.

As usual with the Gates crowd, the actual evidence found by these economists is as solid as their interpretations are convoluted and strange. They acknowledge that progress in improving urban high schools has been disappointing compared to elementary and middle schools. Kane and company add the weird explanation that research has been “largely limited to test score gains as outcome measures” because they were focused “almost entirely on elementary and middle school students,"as if the data-driven accountability movement has not played a role in defining student performance by that single metric.

When reporting the results of an ambitious “reform” in the Charlotte Mecklenburg school system based on “choice,” they seemed to forget that the Gates’ $400 million “teacher quality” movement was based on the hypothesis that improved instruction could be the key to increasing student outcomes. If the head of that effort had found that students, who were freed from the lowest quality schools and were given an opportunity for the supposedly better instruction in the high quality schools, had improved test scores, the Gates PR machine would be proclaiming such a finding throughout the education world. If those efforts had been successful and reported during a week when the Charlotte Mecklenburg schools were being celebrated for their market-oriented, standardized test-driven policies, these economists might have remembered that the last decade of “reform” has been based on the idea that holding teachers accountable for academic outcomes is the key lever for change.

Regardless, the better schooling did not improve student performance in English or math. And the new study has gained no more attention than the other embarrassing revelation - the Charlotte Mecklenburg student performance “failed dismally in meeting academic targets for 2011.

Neither did Kane et.al mention that their findings were consistent with a large body of research by “the status quo.” As explained by the old-fashioned research of James Heckman, Gordon MacInnes and E.D. Hirsch, the key to improving student performance is starting early, nurturing socio-emotional skills, and teaching reading for comprehension by third grade. Once children “learn to read,” so they can “read to learn,” the “Matthew Effect” takes over. Those children learn how to learn, almost without regard to teacher quality, while it is virtually impossible for high school teachers to make up for those deficits.

The headline of “School Choice, School Quality and Postsecondary Attainment” should have been the study’s inadvertent confirmation of the Matthew Effect and the limits of high schools alone to remedy deficits from the early years, but it is better late than never. In fact, if the conclusions in the report’s last page were presented in the introduction where they would have received equal prominence, I would be leading the cheers for the paper. Buried in the report’s last page was the reminder that the so-called high-quality schools failed to improve English Language Arts performance of kids from low-quality schools and the extraordinary statement, “Provided that these results could be replicated in other settings, they have important implications for the design of school accountability policies. It makes little sense to hold schools accountable for outcomes that they cannot control.”

The actual headline, however, was that lottery-winners from the lowest-performing schools, attended high-quality schools that did not prove to be better in adding value in terms of test score growth. But these students were 8.7% more likely to graduate from high school and 5.7% more likely to graduate from college.

Kane et. al explained:

Unfortunately, we cannot say much about the underlying explanation for the gains experienced by lottery winners from low-quality neighborhood schools. Because the choice schools were often magnet schools, with specialized programs such as career academies, arts education, and intensive college prep, the benefits could come primarily from improved student engagement in high school. It is possible that having demographically similar but more able peers led to increased student learning and engagement inside the classroom. Better peers could also have an impact on behavior inside and outside of the classroom.

Who would have thunk it? Perhaps engaging instruction and building a respectful learning culture are better ways of helping low-income kids. And heresy of all heresy, perhaps the way to improve college-going rates is to invest in career counseling and courses that stress college preparatory learning for mastery and not rote instruction for jacking up test scores.

It is looking more and more like research by scholars supporting data-driven and market-driven “reform” is providing support for the traditional reforms that the
accountability hawks have ridiculed. By now, Kane and other Gates economists
must be worrying that their money and talent would have been better
invested in traditional academic research and better funding the
educational systems previously known as “the status quo.”

What do you think? Will this research cause any of our leaders to re-think their approach?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.