Gold Stars and Dunce Caps
Those ideas are cribbed from a provocative report on education from the Hamilton Project, which is affiliated with the Brookings Institution. The report was prepared by Robert Gordon of the Center for American Progress, Thomas Kane of Harvard and Douglas Staiger of Dartmouth, and it fits in with a burst of other research pointing in similar directions.
In the past, we tried to ensure the quality of teachers through certification procedures. But that has failed. Growing evidence indicates that certification requirements limit the pool of potential teachers--and discourage midcareer switches into teaching--without accomplishing much else.
"Teachers vary considerably in the extent to which they promote student learning, but whether a teacher is certified or not is largely irrelevant to predicting their effectiveness," concluded a report last year for the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The reality is that paper credentials can't predict who will be an effective teacher. A half-dozen studies have found that teachers with graduate degrees aren't any better than teachers without them. Other studies show that teachers who did well on their own SATs, or went to selective colleges or had high G.P.A.'s, don't make significantly better teachers, either.
Yet teachers still vary tremendously in their effectiveness, as the Hamilton Project study found when it examined results in Los Angeles schools. It looked at the 25 percent of teachers who raised their students' test scores the most, and the 25 percent who raised students' scores the least. A student assigned to a class with a teacher in the top 25 percent could expect--after just one year--to be 10 percentile points higher than a similar student with a bottom-tier teacher.
"Moving up (or down) 10 percentile points in one year is a massive impact," the authors wrote. "or some perspective, the black-white achievement gap nationally is roughly 34 percentile points. Therefore, if the effects were to accumulate, having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap."
The Hamilton Project study recommends that the weakest 25 percent of new teachers should be denied tenure and eliminated after two or three years on the job (teachers improve a lot in the first two years, but not much after that). That approach, it estimates, would raise students'average test scores by 14 percentile points by the time they graduated.
"There's no decision that school districts make that's more important than the decision regarding who is going to stand in front of the classroom," Professor Kane said. "Yet most districts spend more time choosing textbooks than they do reviewing the performance of teachers on their first few years on the job."
School reform could also play a major role in fighting poverty and spreading opportunity. One sound proposal is to pay substantial bonuses to get the most effective teachers into schools with low-income students. It's simply unfair for America's neediest students to be continually assigned to the weakest teachers, perhaps consigning them to another generation of poverty. Higher pay will help recruit and retain excellent teachers.
Neither Democrats nor Republicans have offered much leadership on education. Democrats have been too close to teachers' unions to rock the boat, and Republicans don't invest in education-- so Mr. Bush's No Child Left Behind effort has ended up as an underfinanced mess.
What we need now is for a presidential candidate to seize these ideas and run with them. Any takers?
You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof's blog .
FAIR USE NOTICE
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.