Recognizing the Value of Good Teachers

This article was originally published for Education Week (April 5, 2011).  It is posted here with the permission of the author.

Written by Eric A. Hanushek

The teachers’ unions have put themselves in a difficult position, with Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio demonstrating that the traditional labor stance is untenable. So far, media attention to the union story has focused on the fiscal side—state deficits, teacher-benefit packages, and the like. Without question, these are important issues, but they are dwarfed by the implications for teacher effectiveness and improved student achievement. Now is the time to go beyond the rhetoric and to show that all of us—including the unions—are truly behind ensuring effective teachers in all classrooms.

Central to this issue are the conflicting strands of the unions’ position. Union leaders want to say that teachers are very important for public schools. But then again, not too important—because teachers should not be expected to make up for poverty and for uninvolved families. They want to highlight the exceptional teachers. But then again, not too much—because they do not want attention drawn to completely ineffective teachers. They want to argue that the pay is insufficient to attract and retain good teachers. But then again they do not want to draw attention to the salary schedule that refuses to acknowledge differences in teacher effectiveness.

Interestingly, recent research into teacher quality strongly reinforces the “buts” in the sentences above.

Studies examining data from a wide range of states and school districts have found extraordinarily consistent results about the importance of differences in teacher effectiveness. The research has focused on how much learning goes on in different classrooms. The results would not surprise any parent. The teacher matters a lot, and there are big differences among teachers.

What would surprise many parents is the magnitude of the impact of a good or a bad teacher. My analysis indicates that a year with a teacher in the top 15 percent for performance (based on student achievement) can move an average student from the middle of the distribution (the 50th percentile) to the 58th percentile or more. But that implies that a year with a teacher in the bottom 15 percent can push the same child below the 42nd percentile. With a teacher in the bottom 5 percent, a student may plummet from the middle of the distribution to the bottom third at the end of the school year. Obviously, a string of good teachers, or a string of bad teachers, can dramatically change the schooling path of a child.

This is not just a problem of inner-city schools or of minority students. The research adjusts for student backgrounds and for what each child knows at the beginning of the year. The results apply to suburban schools and rural schools, as well as schools serving our disadvantaged population.

Why doesn’t this issue reach the level of a national scandal? First, it is likely that ineffective teachers are generally hidden, in the sense that few kids get a string of bad teachers. Principals know very well who the ineffective teachers are, so they can balance a bad teacher one year with a good teacher the next. This implicit averaging process also means that it does not look like schools can do much to alter family background and what the child brings to school.

Second, parents do not quite know how to interpret results on achievement tests. The teachers’ unions have, since the advent of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, conducted a campaign to convince people that these scores do not really matter very much. Here they are flatly contradicted by the evidence.

People who know more as measured by standard math, reading, and science scores earn more throughout their lifetimes. It is indeed instructive to look at the difference implied by higher achievement. Somebody who graduates at the 85th percentile on the achievement distribution can be expected to earn 13 percent to 20 percent more than the average student. This applies every year throughout a person’s working life, yielding a difference in present value of earnings of $150,000 to $230,000 on average.

With this information, we also have the ingredients to calculate the economic impact of a good (or bad) teacher. By conservative estimates, the teacher in the top 15 percent of quality can, in one year, add more than $20,000 to a student’s lifetime earnings, my research found. And that impact holds for each student in the class. For a class of 20 students, we see that this very good teacher is adding some $400,000 in value to the economy each year.

There is also the other side. A teacher in the bottom 15 percent of the distribution is subtracting at least $400,000 from the economy each year.

These differences are clearly large enough that it is worth discussing policies that reward and retain the good teachers but do not keep the poor ones.

There is a national aspect to this issue. In its report “How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top,” the consulting firm of McKinsey & Co., reviewing why students in many nations achieve more than those in the United States, pointed out that high-achieving nations do not let bad teachers stay in the classroom for long. The same analyses of teacher effectiveness cited above indicate that the United States could climb to the top of the international rankings if we followed the McKinsey advice: Replace the bottom 5 percent to 10 percent of teachers with average teachers.

The quality of the labor force, as measured by math and science achievement, has been shown to have dramatic effects on the growth of national income. In fact, moving to the top of the international distribution would mean a present value of some $100 trillion to the United States if past growth patterns hold in the future.

These numbers all seem sufficient to return to the “buts” in the opening. All parties, including the teachers’ unions, need to consider seriously how we can reward the vast majority of teachers who are doing an excellent job while not retaining that small portion that is doing serious harm.

The unions’ slowness in responding to reality has stung them with surprising quickness and force as newly strengthened governors have labeled the unions as the problem. If the unions want to continue, they must now act to get in step with the new reality. Specifically, they must get out in front on the teacher-quality issue.

Interestingly, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, recently gave a major policy speech in which she addressed the issue of establishing an evaluation system that could identify what teachers need to do to improve and that could also form the basis of dismissal actions if an ineffective teacher did not improve. While the improvement process would take a year, the dismissal process would take less than 100 days—a noticeable improvement over today.

Even if all players agree to the structure, however, the central issue is what happens on the ground. Schools and unions have been saying “we need better evaluations” for decades, but there has been little pressure or incentive to produce a superior system, and less to use the system for personnel decisions. Not surprisingly, it generally has not happened. Perhaps with current pressure on the unions, or perhaps with the increased likelihood that newspapers will publish value-added scores in the absence of a comprehensive evaluation system, something will happen.

ERIC A. HANUSHEK is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education.

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1 Comment

  1. Kevin Engstrom

    Hanushek’s ideas are interesting but where is his supporting research beyond anecdotal examples and sweeping statements such as the way he throws out the cost and benefit of the teachers who operate at the “top” and “bottom 15% based on student achievement and the supposed associated drag or boost to the economy. Is he statistically certain of the cause and effect between student achievement and teacher quality or is he just saying it is so? What does “teacher quality” mean and how is it measured? What truly is a quality measure of teacher effectiveness?

    The resource that we start with isn’t homogenous and neither is the potential for each student to grow. If I work with the top students, they might have the potential to achieve at a faster rate and have more ability to understand and apply the information at a level well beyond peers who are disadvantaged, comparatively, for a myriad of reasons. Does that mean that the teacher of the gifted kids is a better teacher than the teacher who is making smaller changes with a more challenging population of students? Each student is a unique learner and the rate at which he/she can learn is not accurately described by such sweeping statements of “top 15% of teachers” causing greater learning. He doesn’t cite his work nor does he actually address key aspects to “the problem” of teacher effectiveness.

    He points to unions as the culprit which is such an easy target to shoot at even if it is completely misguided. If one is trying to shoot at something, then one should know what they are shooting at. Why are you shooting at unions? Unions aren’t the problem with teacher effectiveness. Unions have become necessary because administrators are generally poorly trained and too few good ones exist to act as effective coaches. Collegial teams are far more effective at causing change but what kind of change and does it stick? We start the school year with very few workshop days and they are mostly wasted on pet goals that districts want to expose teachers to so they can check it off their list of things to do. The workshops don’t effectively cause change in teacher behavior because they don’t even follow our understanding of the learning cycle.

    Teachers are learners and we should be treated just like we treat our students. We don’t respond well to “drive by” workshops where we hear about a new idea and then get very little time to practice implementing the new strategies or even reflect on whether they are good strategies to use. Workshops can often be ineffective at eliciting change and therefore are often a huge waste of time and money. In order to effect change in our behavior and thereby improve, we need to be educated. This means we need to experience the same learning cycle we put our students through when we try to get them to grow. We need to be afforded time to overcome our biases and misconceptions with respect to how we might best implement the current research on how students best learn. We need to play with and reflect on new ideas and strategies regarding how students best learn concepts in our areas of expertise.

    There is so much wonderful information available today about how to effectively educate young people but little of it effectively makes it into the classroom to stick because we don’t take the time to create a system that allows for and then demands teachers use these well-tested strategies. We need to use the summer to train our teachers, to place them into collegial teams that allow for vertical and horizontal curriculum articulation, and then force teachers to be evaluated on how well they are implementing the curriculum using best practices. Our laissez faire approach to teacher education allows, in the vacuum of leadership, for teachers to be in charge of deciding what the curriculum is to be and which best practices are to be used. I believe this is one of the biggest causes for variance between teacher effectiveness.

    The reason we don’t do what I have suggested is that society doesn’t want to pay teachers to do this because teachers have traditionally done this on their own and it has been deemed too costly to pay for this comprehensive and laser-like focused training as part of the employment experience. We hire teachers for only 185 days and very little of the 10 days of workshop are focused on effectively changing teacher instructional methods. To be honest, being a teacher is a lot like being handed the mission to build a house without having the experience of being a general contractor and not having the resources to buy the best materials for which to build the house, even if you knew what they were. We know there are tools to use but we haven’t been trained, in an apprentice like way, to use them. With such a small skill set, you would just hope that what you were doing would work well and that the subcontractors would do their job well and in the end you would hope the house would withstand the test of a family living within it and that all the different aspects like the plumbing and electrical work were functional, likely knowing that some aspects were not.

    Students need teachers who can use the best tools appropriately. Far too often, teachers are not given the proper resources to differentiate instruction even if they know it is a good idea to do so. A contractor using a pipe wrench to do electricl work just isn’t going to be as effective as one who understands the tools of his trade and been trained in how to use them. Good teachers learn to manage with the modicum of resources we receive or buy on our own and to not be burned out by the lack of support in time and resources. We survive at best but others look at us as “successful” when in fact we are all operating on a shoe-string budget of time, money, and energy.

    Today, the educational system is being trashed and teachers are feeling the brunt of this disrespectful attack even if it is supposedly aimed at the union. Unions are not the problem either despite such misguided efforts to get the public to believe this falsehood. They are the only protection we have to ensuring we might be treated fairly and equitably. They are not the protection that many who are not in the know, think they are. The unions don’t protect bad teachers. Poorly trained administrators who don’t know how to identify and who lack the tools for effective evaluation and coaching are the most immediate and problematic cause of hiding poor teachers. The union is designed to protect us against unscrupulous, vindictive, and ineffective administrators but it is not really strong enough to really do that. You saw how quickly and easily the union was marginalized in Wisconsin.

    Why anyone would think the union provides anything more than a thinly veiled attempt to protect teachers from poor administrators is not recognizing that unions really lack power except as a lobbying structure. They lobby on behalf of better school learning environments which actually helps kids learn better. I have 35 kids in my course this year. We are moving slower and more kids are struggling. The union position would be to follow NSTA lab safety guidelines and have 24 or fewer students in a lab environment the size of a classroom. They would argue in favor of how reducing class size improves learning despite what others would argue who don’t want to pay for 24:1 ratios. You wouldn’t have poor teachers stay in the system if they were effectively evaluated but are unable to withstand the scrutiny and don’t have the capacity to grow. I have peers who believe that without the unions, they would make more money. That is a laugh. The system only has so much money. If you are too expensive, you become the first they want to get rid of because they can buy 2 rookie teachers for the price of 1 older and experienced one and you see it all too frequently that teachers are offered buy outs to leave. The buyouts are financially sound decisions but they are not educationally effective in that they diminish the quality teachers who have the experience. That means fewer kids are exposed to a quality teacher and fewer younger teachers could be mentored by them as well after they are enticed to leave.

    Without the union, the more expensive teachers would be offered pink slips for no other reason than they are more expensive. Since we haven’t tied actual growth in student learning and growth in teacher implementation of best practices to contract renewal, there would be no data that even suggests that a good teacher is being let go improperly so there will be no recourse due to a lack of a data trail the teacher could follow to show the effectiveness. Unions are protective in light of such systems that have limited resources and would certainly jettison the more costly teacher for 2 younger ones when the economy dictates it is financially sound (albeit educationally dysfunctional) to do so. Again, what is “effective” teaching? Until we all agree to use some meter stick that is practical and legitimate, then we really can’t take this argument any further.

    Teachers need to be trained over the summer and not be forced to build the airplane while they are flying it. This truly needs to be a profession but that is costly and those that are most loudly complaining today aren’t truly upset with the educational setting and the state of teaching. Rather they are upset that they are paying any taxes at all or they are being duped by those who have an agenda that is hidden by the smoke screen of “quality teacher.” They don’t like the concept of a public school system and they are looking for leverage to dismantle it because they don’t believe that our citizenry is entitled to a strong educational system. Their greed to reduce their own tax burden defies the principles that predicate a strong democratic society, which hinges on us having a well educated electorate.

    Those in power behind people like the governor of Wisconsin are people who view the electorate with disdain. They want to reduce the masses of our democracy to 3rd world status so they will once again have cheap labor, outside the interference of any unions getting in the way of their master plan to create a 2 class society of the haves and the have nots. We are all being duped into talking about teacher effectiveness and what is behind it all is a further dismantling of the unions and a shredding of public education so that it is removed as a tax burden to those who evidently see some kind of short term wisdom in diminishing the capabilities of the nation in the short term regardless of the long term effect it has on this nation. These “leaders” of this movement, like the Koch brothers in Wisconsin, are not patriots acting in the best interest of society. Rather they are selfish, ignorant, but very rich people who don’t have a care at all for this country and its people.

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