Nowhere to Hide

August 16, 2010

The LA Times used Freedom of Information requests to obtain student achievement data linked to teachers in LA unified.  The students’ names were removed, but not the teachers. The paper then hired researchers at RAND to analyze the data and calculate the value-added of individual teachers.  And then the paper published all of the results.  WOW!

It’s no longer possible to hide the fact that there are some awful teachers who continue receiving paychecks and depriving kids of an education.  School officials have had these data for years and never used them, never tried to identify who were the best and worst teachers, and never tried to remove bad teachers from the profession.  It took a newspaper and a big FOI request.

Now the school district will be forced to do something about those chronically ineffective teachers.  No one is suggesting that analyses of these test scores should be the sole criteria for identifying or removing ineffective teachers.  But it is a start.

This is going to spread.  As long as the data exist, there will be more and more pressure for school systems to actually use the information and develop systems for identifying and removing teachers who can’t teach.

It’s also worth emphasizing that this new reality is a huge accomplishment of No Child Left Behind.  The accountability and choice provisions of NCLB could never work because school systems could never be asked to sanction themselves.  But the one big thing that NCLB accomplished is getting every public school to measure student achievement in grades 3-8 and report results.  NCLB made it so that these data exist so that the LA Times could FOI the results and push schools to act upon it.  NCLB could never get schools to take real action, but the existence of the data could get others to force schools to act.

And what is the reaction of the teachers unions to all of this?  They’ve called for a boycott of the LA Times. As usual, we see how much more they care about protecting incompetent teachers than protecting kids suffering from educational malpractice.

What Makes a Rock Star Teacher?

January 6, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Regular JBGB readers may recall the series of posts about Rock Star Pay for Rock Star Teachers based the Goldwater Institute report New Millenium Schools: Delivering Six-Figure Teacher Salaries in Return for Outstanding Student Learning Gains.

You may also remember Super Chart! from the Brookings Institution:


Super Chart! basically shows that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between traditionally certified, alternatively certified and uncertified teachers. The logical conclusion: shut down the education schools, let the schools hire who they think best, and allow them to reward success and remove failures.

Of course, this would be even better if we had an effective screen to help keep ineffective teachers out of the profession in the first place. In researching the $100k study, it became apparent to me that some of the high-quality foreign systems seemed to have figured this out, but I had never learned the secret. Statistical efforts to predict effective teaching in America have generally proven unsatisfying. 

The Atlantic weighs in with an important article revealing the results of 20 years of Teach for America data answering the question: what makes an effective teacher? Read it now and watch the videos.

Really, go read it now. I’ll be here when you get back.









Okay, so now tell me what you think in the comments section. It’s really not so complicated after all, and it screams out against our entire system of K-12 human resource development, doesn’t it?

Rock Star Pay for Rock Star Teachers Part Deux

April 29, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Last year I was reading the comments section of a newstory online, and came across a comment from a public elementary school teacher. She was complaining that she had 34 students in her classroom.

So let’s do the math. The statewide average spending per pupil in the state: $11,000. Total revenue generated by this classroom = $374,000. Let’s assume the teacher gets a total compensation package of $60,000 including benefits. The question becomes- what did they do with the other $314,000?

Ah, that was what the teacher was really angry about. Her elementary school had 8 teachers in “non-classroom assignments.”

I don’t have a problem with 30 some odd kids in a classroom. It’s been done, and is being done. Remember?


Many insist that the period depicted by this photo constituted the “good ole days” of education. Jay and Greg have felt compelled to dispel the myth of the lost golden age of public education, back in the good ole days, when public schools were far more effective than they are today. The truth, of course, is that NAEP scores for 17 year olds are flat as far back as you can take them.

What has not been flat- public school spending- adjusted for inflation per pupil has steadily increased even while test scores have stagnated, even while Americans have become wealthier and poverty has declined.

Of course, there is no single explanation for this trend, but certainly the national obsession with lowering average class sizes must be viewed to have been an enormously expensive academic failure. Consider the international evidence:




Really big classes in Asia, really small in the United States. However, when it comes to achievement:


The average South Korean seventh-grader scores 21 percent higher than the average American on seventh-grade mathematics, despite having much larger average class sizes. While a variety of factors contribute to the relative deficiency of American public schools, many scholars are beginning to suspect the main factor is the relatively inferior average quality of American teachers.

In How the World’s Best Performing Schools Come Out on Top, the international management consulting firm McKinsey & Company point squarely at teacher quality as a key variable in explaining variation in international academic achievement. In its findings, McKinsey quoted a South Korean policymaker who noted, “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”


McKinsey found that the top-performing school systems around the world recruit their teachers from the top third of each graduating cohort. Moreover, South Korean schools draw from the top 5 percent of college graduates. Larger class sizes create the resources to pay South Korean instructors much higher salaries.


The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development measures relative teacher pay by comparing the average salaries of teachers with 15 years of experience with a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. A high salary compared with per capita GDP suggests that a country invests more of its financial resources in teachers and suggests a relative prestige of the profession. By definition, the average person in each of these countries will earn a ratio of 1. Figure 3 compares teacher-salary-to-per-capita GDP for the United States and South Korea.


An experienced South Korean schoolteacher makes a relatively impressive wage compared with teachers in the rest of the world. In South Korea, teaching is an honored profession—not just rhetorically but in compensation as well. In the United States, meanwhile, a teacher with a college degree and 15 years of experience makes a salary relatively close to the average GDP per person. Not surprisingly, there are many qualified applicants for each open teaching position in South Korea.


McKinsey quotes the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce to contrast the United States with those countries having more successful education systems: “We are now recruiting our teachers from the bottom third of high-school students going to college…. [I]t is simply not possible for students to graduate [with the skills they will need] unless their teachers have the knowledge and skills we want our children to have.”

Son of Super Chart!

January 22, 2009

The only good bug is a DEAD bug!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Readers will recall Super Chart! showing that teacher quality makes a huge difference in student outcomes, while certification status does not. Drawn from the same Brookings study comes Son of Super Chart, showing that you can pretty much tell who your bad teachers are after a couple of years based on student learning gains.

This isn’t rocket science: invite ineffective teachers to do something else with their professional careers other than damaging the prospects of children. Give highly effective teachers more students and more money.

Now that we’ve sorted out this whole education crisis thing, I’ll look forward to reading Jay’s take on the season premiere of Lost.


Akili Smith with Tenure

December 18, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Malcolm Gladwell weighs in on teacher quality, certification and value-added analysis in a must read article drawing attention to the similarities between teaching and the NFL draft.

Now, lots of people like to bust on the San Diego Chargers for drafting Ryan Leaf with the second overall pick in 1998 (one pick behind the great Peyton Manning btw).

Personally, I think the Bengals taking Akili Smith with a similar high pick the next year represents an even more tremendous screw up, and the Bengals turned down the Ricky Williams deal from the Saints to draft a guy who threw 5 touchdowns and 13 picks before getting cut. Instead, the could have had the Saints entire 1999 draft and a couple of high 2000 picks just to move down a few spots.

But I digress. Gladwell’s point is an excellent one: no one can figure out which college QB will translate into the pros, and no one can seem to figure out who will make an excellent teacher. Get them in the classroom and figure it out, but don’t give Akili Smith tenure.

Camp Education

July 21, 2008

“I desire macaroni pictures! And those little shaker things where you put beans inside of paper plates that are glued together! And let us put patterns of glue on the outside of those paper plates so we can then pour glitter on them so they look nice and sparkly!”

As I drop the kids off at sleep-away summer camp, I’ve been thinking about whether school should be more like camp.  At camp the kids learn an enormous amount, including a large amount of traditional academic content.  Two of my children are at a Jewish camp where they learn Hebrew and Judaics in addition to more typical camp activities.  (And no, there is no giant Moses in the shape of the CPU from Tron demanding macaroni pictures).  My oldest goes to a special needs camp that offers an emphasis on independent living skills (just like school) in addition to the usual camp stuff.

They all learn a lot.  But unlike school, the kids love it.  Don’t get me wrong, they like school quite a bit — but they love camp.  They love it even though they are made to do all sorts of challenging or sometimes unpleasant things that they rarely do at home.  They have to do all of the cleaning, they serve and clear all of the meals, and they fold their own clothes.  It can be broiling during the day and freezing at night.  They help tend farm animals.  They climb to the top of a high tower.  They go for long hikes.

The camps my kids go to have very nice facilities and are considered expensive.  Their camps offer activities not usually found at other summer camps, including go-carts, mountain biking, computers, water trampolines, and tennis.  The ratio of counselors to campers at the Jewish camp is less than 5 to 1, and at the special needs camp is about 2 to 1 (including specialists).

How are these camps able to teach kids a lot, get them to work hard, and get the kids to love it, while schools struggle to do any of these things?

What’s more, even these expensive camps are less expensive than the average public school.  The Jewish camp costs $151.92 per day, which given that they are cared for 24 hours per day, comes out to $6.33 per hour.  The average public school, as of 2006-7, cost $10,725 per pupil for 180 days, which works out to $59.98 per day or $8.51 per hour for the 7 hours they are in school.  Even the special needs camp, which seems quite expensive, costs less than the average special education in public schools.  The hourly cost of the special needs camp is $11.02 compared to $16.17 for special education at the average public school.  I also looked up the tuition of a popular Christian camp in the area.  The charge there is only $3.33 per hour.

How do sleep-away camps get kids to work hard, learn a lot, broaden their experiences and love it — all for less than the cost of public schooling?  A big difference is that most of the counselors are young, college kids.  They don’t get paid very much but tend to be enthusiastic, bright, and energetic.  Some will later be doctors or lawyers, but they are happy to be counselors for a few summers in the meantime.  It’s easier to get talented people for low pay for a short time than for an entire career.  Camps always have some wise old-hands to keep the young staff in check and to maintain the norms and mission of the organization, but camps mostly succeed at low cost because of their energetic young counselors.

Could schools be more like camps?  Could we hire a lot of enthusiastic, bright, and energetic teachers fresh out of college, who know full well that most of them will leave in a few years to become lawyers, doctors, or something else?  A few old-hands would stick around to keep the young staff in check and to maintain the norms and missions of the organization.  But schools could potentially attract more talented people as teachers at lower cost if they followed the camp model.  And perhaps schools with a high-turnover, young staff would better connect with students and convey the love of learning and working hard.

I know that current research finds that teachers tend to be less effective in their first few years and that turnover is harmful.  But those are findings about new teachers and high turnover under the current system that rewards teachers for sticking around for 20-25 years.  We can’t simply extrapolate from that to what would happen under a system that attracted a different crop of new teachers and where turnover was effectively encouraged (reform of the pension system and pay scale could move us in that direction).

Maybe the intensity of camp just couldn’t be sustained for an entire school year.  Maybe adding even a little more academic content would ruin the camp magic.  I’m sure many things would go wrong if we tried to make schools more like camps, but I think it’s worth thinking about what we can learn from camps to make schools more effective.

Teacher Quality Illustrated

May 21, 2008

(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.

Indiana Jones and the Teacher Quality Crusade

April 25, 2008

(Guest post by Matthew Ladner)

Indiana Jones returns to the silver screen this summer. When last we checked in on the intrepid Dr. Jones in 1989, you may recall, he was in hot pursuit of the Holy Grail. The Grail of course lay behind a series of deadly traps, guarded by an ancient knight.

The old crusader explained to Indy and company the grail lay hidden among a number of cups, and could only be revealed by drinking from the correct cup. The villain chose an ornate, jewel encrusted goblet, drank from it, and suffered a horrible death.


The knight observed: “He chose…poorly.”

Indy looked for the cup of a carpenter, and drank from a simple wooden beaker. The Knight noted approvingly “He chose…wisely.”

Americans have chosen poorly in many different ways in our running of our public schools, and our children and taxpayers have been suffering the consequences. Americans have been pouring additional resources into public schools for many decades, while the standardized test scores have remained stubbornly flat.

A new report from the McKinsey Company examines education systems from around the world, revealing some of the central problems of the American system in the process. In international examinations of student proficiency in mathematics and science, American elementary students score fairly well. American middle school students slip to the middle of the pack while American high school students rank near the bottom, behind all of our major Asian and European competitors.

Obviously, something is wrong.

The McKinsey report emphasizes the crucial nature of recruiting high quality teachers. Successful school systems recruit their teachers from upper tier of university academic achievers. A South Korean official summarized this practice succinctly “The quality of a school system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”

South Korea in fact engages in remarkably different education practices when compared to the United States. South Korea spends less per pupil, but pays their teachers more. This feat is accomplished through larger average class sizes- which are approximately twice as large in South Korea than in the United States.

Korean teachers however are paid much better and enjoy greater professional prestige than their American counterparts. The McKinsey report cites data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showing that a 15 year veteran teachers in South Korea is paid an average of 2.5 times GDP per capita. In America, the average is a little more than 1 times GDP per capita.

Higher pay and prestige allows South Korea to recruit teachers from those in the top 5 percent of their university graduating classes. Korean schools have many applicants for every teaching job. Meanwhile, in the United States, the low upper cap on the pay fails to attract many of our brightest and most ambitious students. American schools on average recruit teachers from the bottom third of American university graduates.

Additionally, American schools once had a near monopoly on employing bright university educated women. That monopoly has since retired to the dustbin of history and will not be returning. Our national preoccupation with lowering average class size has also impacted lowered the average effectiveness of the teachers we’ve hired. The average class size in American schools has plummeted since the baby-boomers went through the system, but our test scores have remained flat.

Americans have been obsessed with lowering class size, while Korea has emphasized getting the brightest students possible into the classroom while thinking nothing of packing 40 or more children in a classroom. Who made the right choice?

The most sophisticated analyses of student learning gains have consistently found individual teacher effectiveness far more influential in driving achievement than class-size. Studies conducted tracking individual student scores on a value-added basis, for example, have found that teacher quality twenty times more important than average class size, within the observable range.

Teacher quality trumps class size like Indy’s pistol bests an Egyptian scimitar.

South Korea students clobber American students in international examinations despite spending much less, packing their students into classrooms, and a national income per person around twenty percent lower than that of the poorest American state.

In short, we chose poorly, the Koreans chose wisely. If we are to remedy this situation, we must develop school models which recruit high ability students into the teaching profession, track their performance using value-added methodology, pay them much higher wages commensurate with their performance, and give more children the opportunity to learn from them. Larger class sizes can finance higher teacher pay for highly performing teachers.

The medicine we have been giving our schools- smaller class sizes- is a poisonous drug. Looking ahead, the question becomes: can we break our addiction by emphasizing quality over quantity?

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