Teacher Quality Illustrated

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

No, that title does not refer to a new glossy magazine for education wonks. It’s the title I’m giving to the following totally unscientific (N=2) but really amazing story that happened to my mother last week.

My mother is a retired teacher living in a mid-size Indiana exurb, where she does volunteer work at the local museum and art center. Last week she was tapped to take a couple of third grade classes around the town and talk about the town’s history.

The first group was out of control and spent the entire trip picking up leaves and throwing them at each other. Their teacher did nothing either to address their behavior or get them to pay attention to the historical talk. She was essentially on vacation.

“This is Lincoln Park,” said my mother as they entered Lincoln Park. “Does anyone know who Lincoln was?”


Abraham Lincoln?”

More silence.

And then, a hand goes up.

“Does he live here in [name of town]?”

My mother comes back exhausted and demoralized. She announces to the head of the art center that she’s through dealing with kids whose teachers can’t even be bothered to keep them in line on a field trip – or to teach them who Abraham Lincoln is.

“But you have another group you’re supposed to take today.”

Out my mother trudges to take the next group, which is already romping around on the lawn outside. This is another third grade class from the same school, serving the same population. The only difference is their room assignment, which is probably close to random.

Seeing my mother appraoch, the teacher claps her hands once.

The entire class falls silent, stops what they’re doing and pays attention. When asked, they organize to set out on the trip. They pay attention at every stop on the trip, and throw no leaves.

“This is Lincoln Park,” said my mother as they enetered Lincoln Park. “Does anyone know who Lincoln was?”

Not only do they know, but – with no prompting from the teacher – they begin to rattle off everything they’ve absorbed about Abraham Lincoln.

“He came through our town once on the back of a train.”

“Yeah, they say he wasn’t planning to stop, but there were so many people he stopped and made a speech.”

Then one child says:

“Every year on President’s Day, my father brings us to Lincoln Park so we can say ‘thank you’ for Abraham Lincoln because he did so much for us.”

On the way back, my mother compliments the teacher and tells her she has a real gift.

“It’s my first year,” she responds.

Taken aback, my mother can only respond that she hopes it’s the first of many.

It later transpired that it was only her first year of teaching in public school; she had two years of experience in private school before that. But under the state’s teacher-union contract, her two years in private school aren’t recognized (as is the case for some private schools in some states), so she’s paid like a first-year teacher.

I do not suggest that we can generalize anything from this story, or from any other story, or even from any number of stories (the plural of anecdote is not data). But I insist that we can, and ought to, generalize from scientific studies, especially when we have a large number of them and the findings are fairly consistent.

The studies on teacher quality find:

  1. While demographics matter for student outcomes, other things also matter – a great deal – and teacher quality is one of the most important things that matter.
  2. Years of experience, which are one of the two primary determinants of teacher pay, are not strongly associated with improved student outcomes, particularly after the first few years. (Neither are teaching credentials, the other major determinant of teacher pay.)

Yes, I know that the kid whose father takes him to Lincoln Park every year has a good family environment. But the kids in the other class have good family environments, too – this is a high-income exurb in Indiana we’re talking about.

I just thought that, in addition to being a lot of fun (“Abraham Lincoln? Does he live here in town?” Yeah, he and Tom Jefferson own the big antiques store on Main Street, right next to Billy Shakespeare’s used book shop), the story illustrated what we know from the science about teacher quality in a striking way.

Oh, and here’s another point worth making: Now that America’s public school system has apparently decided not to name schools after important civic figures any more, it’s all the more important that we hire teachers who will make sure their students know who Abraham Lincoln was. Either that, or public schools will continue to lag behind private schools in teaching students good democratic values.

5 Responses to Teacher Quality Illustrated

  1. Hobart Milton says:

    As I googled and searched out information on teacher quality studies, the national studie I looked at stressed state policy and teacher education as the problem areas. It seems somewhat ironic that you are discussing civics when this research indicates that state governments and state education colleges are at fault for not leading and preparing teachers for the field.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    I’m not sure I follow you. Why is that ironic?

  3. Hobart Milton says:

    Situational irony – the reality of your civics experience in the library in which the lesson is the importance of civics in childrens’ lives and that this is in contrast or incongruous with the reality that public or civic institutions are in large part to blame for the problems of teacher quality. Admittedly, it is a stretch and would take suggestions for a better choice of words that reflect the connection between the two.

    Maybe Andy over at Eduwonk has a piece on this. Will check there.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    Gotcha – the failure of our civic institutions causes the failure of civic education, which will no doubt in turn lead to further failure of our civic institutions.

    Adding irony to irony (meta-irony?), the status quo is defended in large part by the insistence that any change will undermine civic education!

  5. Hobart Milton says:

    It does seem like a Catch-22 all the way around. People want things to change, but are hesitant to change themselves. I have also seen some cases where there have been many changes and people feel like they were in a revolving door of experimental ideas.
    One of the problems I saw with implementing positive changes was the inadequate amount of training/preparation given teachers to learn the ropes of a new program, especially one that required a major shift in paradigms and practices. Programs that took months and years to develop were condensed down into a one or two day workshop and a pile of handouts and exercises.
    I’m sure you’re aware of the 100th monkey principle (that mass acceptance of an idea or action takes place after reaching a critical number of practitioners). It probably drives you to convert more followers to your viewpoints. It is why I believe that research into methodology has more lasting and far reaching effects in the classroom than research on financially-oriented solutions or school choices.
    I would suggest that research into ways that help teachers better handle adopting new methods into their reportoire would be very beneficial to all teachers, no matter what type of educational system they work for. There are some very successful methods of involving parents, teaching children, bringing teachers together, and making education more relevant.
    Back to the irony part. The national reports were quite brutal in their assessment of the failures of state legislatures, state educational agencies, and teaching universities in failing to address teacher quality. If I had brought home a report card like that when I was younger, I would’ve been told in no uncertain terms that there were going to be changes and improvements made post haste.

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