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Birthday Presents for NCLB: Some Thoughts on School vs. Teacher Effects

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Today is NCLB’s 6th birthday. NCLB is, at its core, a policy predicated on the idea that schools vary widely in their ability to improve students’ test scores. By holding schools accountable, the hope is that “bad” schools will become more like “good” ones. (Note - this is a post about NCLB on NCLB's terms, so I'm going to focus on test scores. For more posts on NCLB, take a look here.

However, as I wrote yesterday, once we take into account students’ background characteristics, school effects on standardized test scores are pretty small. The good news is that teacher effects on test scores are quite large (you can find more posts on teacher effectiveness here). In short, the differences between teachers in improving test scores are much larger than the differences between schools. This finding has significant implications for the potential success of school-based efforts to improve test scores, as Barbara Nye, Spyros Konstantopoulos, and Larry Hedges wrote in their paper, “How Large Are Teacher Effects?”:

Many policies attempt to improve achievement by substituting one school for another (e.g. school choice) or changing the schools themselves (e.g. whole school reform). The rationale for these policies is based on the fact that there is variation in school effects. If teacher effects are larger than school effects, then policies focusing on teacher effects as a larger source of variation in achievement may be more promising than policies focusing on school effects.

(You can click to enlarge the picture above - courtesy of the Halloween Edu-Parade, Rod Paige is Armstrong Williams.)
1 Comment

I don't know that the universe of NCLB is adequately described by the assumption that some schools are bad and others good. I think more accurately the assumption is that when budget dollars are dedicated to leveling the playing field for students from impoverished circumstances there ought to be some measureable difference in outcomes--that is, the playing field ought to become more level.

That aside, I would agree that one of the largest effects within the locus of control of schools and districts is that of teachers. But what we know is that effective teachers (to the extent that this is measureable--frequently with the proxy of years of experience, or occasionally with greater specificity related to either student outcomes or individual teacher aspects such as SAT scores, college attended, etc) are more highly concentrated in schools serving lower concentrations of poor and minorities.

There are policy considerations at both the building and the district (as well as the state) that have the potential to impact this positively. At the building level, professional development ought to be of high quality (meaning that it is ongoing--not drive-by) and specifically related to identified problem areas. It is silly for schools to say for years on end that their teachers can't succeed with kids who have disabilities because they haven't been trained and NOT focus on training (as a for instance).

At the district level, policies should encourage the building of balanced and successful teams of teachers, based on the needs of schools--rather than a seniority based-teacher's choice award of entry through the most challenging schools with the ability to go some place more desireable with time and experience. This does not help to level the playing field.

In the US, we have gotten very fatalistic about our inability to impact, through education, the great economic divides. Yet many of the countries of the world that are surpassing us by significant margins on international tests, are the ones where the educational gap between the haves and have-nots is considerably smaller.

I think that we are at a crossroads regarding education and its purpose in our country. Do we want to support education for the purpose of reinforcing the existing levels of social stratification--or do we want to support public education for the purpose of approaching equity?

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