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Dueling Findings on Effect of Teacher Quality

Educational research is replete with different conclusions by prominent professors on the same controversial issue. The lack of agreement is healthy in academe, but it leaves taxpayers confused at a time when their understanding is vital for developing support for public policies.

I was reminded of this by an essay in the Wall Street Journal on May 29 ("A Tale of Two Students"). The writer puts into human terms the importance of inspired teachers in changing the lives of disadvantaged students by focusing on two Hispanic students in Oklahoma City. One attended Santa Fe South High School, a charter school, and went on to receive a prestigious scholarship to attend the University of Oklahoma in the fall. The other attended Capitol Hill High School, a traditional public school in the same neighborhood, and has no future plans after graduation.

The piece makes it clear that the difference between the two friends was the direct result of caring teachers, since both schools serve roughly the same percentage of students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches, and both students come from similar working-class backgrounds. Because the Santa Fe South founder who was so influential was the winner of a $25,000 national Milken Educator award, the writer left readers with the distinct impression that charter schools are superior to regular schools.

This facile assessment, however, is called into question by two conflicting studies about charter schools that by now are well known to anyone following the news about education. I'm referring to the Linda Darling-Hammond study and the Caroline Hoxby study that were released several months ago. So let's go beyond this familiar controversy to the larger question about the role that teacher quality plays in student learning and the contrasting research about the issue.

The long held opinion is that socioeconomic factors are largely responsible for the performance gap between groups of students. One of the most outspoken researchers on this subject is David C. Berliner. In March 2009, he wrote "Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success" (Education Policy Research Unit). Certainly, the quality of instruction is important, but it takes a back seat to the former in determining the difference on average between groups.

This deeply entrenched belief, however, was challenged by Ken Rowe in a keynote address delivered at the Australian Council for Educational Research conference in Melbourne in Oct. 2003. In reviewing the literature on the subject, Rowe concludes that the traditional beliefs about socioeconomic factors are really a product of "methodological and statistical artefact, and amount to little more than 'religious' adherence to the moribund ideologies of biological and social determinism." That's quite a mouthful. But upon reflection, it's clear that Rowe's findings constitute a dramatic departure from what has been known about student achievement since the storied Coleman Report in 1966.

Taxpayers demand to know which side is right. If teacher quality is paramount in narrowing the gap between social groups, then there is more hope than previously thought. But if socioeconomic factors are paramount in shrinking the gap, then schools have relatively little effect. It's important to remember that the story of the two students in Oklahoma City was about performance within the same social class - not between social classes. In the final analysis, it's not that poverty is destiny by any means, but its effect on achievement can no more be denied than can gravity's effect on objects. It will be interesting to follow the debate on this crucial question.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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