Teaching Profession Opinion

The Miracle Teacher, Revisited

By Diane Ravitch — February 17, 2009 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I was about to move on to a new topic but on Sunday read a column in The New York Times by Nicholas Kristof titled “Our Greatest National Shame.” Well, as you must surely realize, it is American education that is “our greatest national shame.” Kristof says that "...we do know that the existing national school system is broken, and that we’re not trying hard enough to fix it.” I believe that when he uses the collective noun “we,” he is referring to himself and other newspaper columnists, not to people working in America’s schools, who are working very hard “to fix” the problems.

Kristof then moves on to repeat the very things that I wrote about in my previous blog, about the search for teachers who produce miracles.

He says “there’s a real excitement at what we are learning about K-8 education.”

“First, good teachers matter more than anything; they are astonishingly important. It turns out that having a great teacher is far more important than being in a small class, or going to a good school with a mediocre teacher. A Los Angeles study suggested that four consecutive years of having a teacher from the top 25 percent of the pool would erase the black-white testing gap.”

His second revelation is that “there is no correlation between teacher certification and teacher effectiveness...[and] it doesn’t seem to matter if a teacher has a graduate degree or went to a better college or had higher SATs.” He concludes that we should scrap certification, that we should measure which teachers are effective by testing (not clear whether he means testing the teachers or observing the test scores of their students), and then pay more to those who teach in “bad” schools.

So, let’s deconstruct a bit.

Kristof approvingly cites the economists who say that four consecutive years of a great teacher would close the achievement gap. Unfortunately he does not seem to realize that the economists were writing theoretically (and the relevant studies actually say that five consecutive years of a great teacher would have this result). This happy outcome has NEVER been demonstrated in any school or school district. It is a projection of an econometric speculation.

If I read Kristof correctly, a “great” teacher is one who can produce higher test scores. We know that this can happen through relentless test-prepping. Is that what a great teacher does?

But if that is the definition of a great teacher, then we can’t possibly identify them until they have had at least three, or better yet, five years in the classroom, so there is sufficient data showing that they produced dramatic gains in their classroom.

So, that means that no new teacher—certainly no Teach for America teacher—could possibly be a great teacher, because we don’t know whether they are great teachers until they have created a consistent record of big test score gains over three-five years.

Let’s suppose that a district uses its data to identify the teachers who consistently produce big gains. What happens next? Do these teachers get assigned to the lowest-performing schools? Which children in those schools are assigned to these teachers? What happens to these teachers if they don’t get the big gains in the next years? No one has tried to explain how this would be implemented, whether successful teachers would be willing to go wherever they are assigned, and how their services would be parceled out among many needy students.

As for entry into teaching, it sounds as though Kristof is saying that anyone should be accepted as a teacher. He is ready to scrap certification, graduate degrees, SAT scores. Maybe you don’t need to be a college graduate to be a great teacher. Why not hire college freshmen as teachers? or high school seniors?

Isn’t it wonderful that we have economists with tons of data (but no practical experience) to tell us how to find and reward great teachers?


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