Friday, December 12, 2008

The only way to improve schools

This week’s New Yorker is required reading of anyone interested in improving education.  An article by Malcolm Gladwell (author of “The Tipping Point”, “Blink” and other books) points out how teacher quality is so much more important than anything else:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile.

According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close [the performance gap with the world’s top education systems] simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality. After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers.


A group of researchers—Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard’s school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress—have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master’s degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom.

The fundamental importance of teacher quality makes me pessimistic that public schools are likely to improve their mediocre, over-priced performance, no matter how much money you throw at them.

It’s not just me saying this.  Read Jonathan Alter’s Dec 6th column in Newsweek (“Bill Gates Goes to School”) and read the devastating comments of Microsoft’s founder:

It's no surprise that Gates is a believer in merit pay and incentive pay and has little use for teachers colleges as presently constituted because there's no evidence that having a master's degree improves teacher performance. You never hear Gates or his people talk about highly qualified teachers, only highly effective ones.

[btw, Steve Jobs says the same thing, and so does McKinsey]

I wish I understood the counter-argument.  Defenders of the current system tell me that it’s too hard to evaluate teacher performance fairly.  But do you think it’s easy to evaluate employee performance at Microsoft or IBM or GE or Apple?  It’s not easy, but every world-class company does it, and if we want world-class schools we’ll have to do it too.

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