Sunday, August 22, 2010

Disciplined and Engaged Teachers Perform Best

This report by the LA Times is a must read on education.

It presents the case for "value-added" testing of teachers. That is, given how the teacher's students scored entering the year, how well did they score at the end of the year? Did the teacher improve the students rankings or let them slide?

This seems like an obvious way to identify poor performing teachers. Give them a year or two to improve or else and if they don't, let them find another line of work.

But the teachers unions are staunchly opposed, and shortsightedly so. They seem to take the position that anything that might give a reason for one of their dues-paying members to be fired is unacceptable. But if they'd think for a second longer, new teachers would have to be hired to take the fired teacher's place, so the union would add another member to replace the one they lost. So why are they so opposed? Maybe they just want to resist anything that would put more pressure on their teachers to perform? In either case, the teacher's unions do not have the best interest of the kids at heart.

If education was not run as a government monopoly, private schools would naturally find the most effective ways to recruit and/or train the most effective teachers in order to gain the trust of parents. Metrics for measuring teacher performance would be a no-brainer. On the cost side of things, private schools would have an incentive to keep costs as low as possible to maximize profit. As usual, the free market would naturally provide the proper incentives to find the most efficient way to hire the best staff to achieve the best results.

Better yet, private schools would naturally develop metrics to advertise to parents to earn their business. These metrics could then be used to apply to all teachers across public and private schools.

I strongly favor the idea of dividing up the current education spending into a per student amount and simply providing a voucher for that amount to every student's parent(s) so they can decide where to send their kid(s) and pay for schooling and transportation. Parents get to keep any leftover money as an incentive to find the best value. Let all the public schools compete with private schools and any new market competitors to provide the best education! I believe scores would dramatically improve in just a few years, and that the voucher amounts could even gradually be brought down as the system became much more cost efficient. Market competition would provide a better service for a better price, just like it usually does.

Getting back to the LA Times article, I found it satisfying that they confirmed much of what I've been saying for years and years. For example:

• Contrary to popular belief, the best teachers were not concentrated in schools in the most affluent neighborhoods, nor were the weakest instructors bunched in poor areas. Rather, these teachers were scattered throughout the district. The quality of instruction typically varied far more within a school than between schools.

• Although many parents fixate on picking the right school for their child, it matters far more which teacher the child gets. Teachers had three times as much influence on students' academic development as the school they attend. Yet parents have no access to objective information about individual instructors, and they often have little say in which teacher their child gets.

• Many of the factors commonly assumed to be important to teachers' effectiveness were not. Although teachers are paid more for experience, education and training, none of this had much bearing on whether they improved their students' performance.

Other studies of the district have found that students' race, wealth, English proficiency or previous achievement level played little role in whether their teacher was effective.

I've always held that the best teachers are not measured by years on the job or by amount of training. Just about any person who has graduated high school should have the knowledge necessary to teach elementary school. What makes a good teacher is learning how to maintain discipline in the classroom, engaging the students with critical thinking and asking them why, and motivating students to enjoy learning. There are some good teaching strategies, such as different ways to explain concepts and recognizing how different students learn, that can be taught in universities and teaching workshops. But mainly it comes down to how motivated the teacher is and how much they demand that students demonstrate they've learned the material through a variety of ways. That is what makes a good teacher.