The journal Education of Economics Review recently published a study titled “Teacher Quality Differences Between Teacher Preparation Programs: How Big? How Reliable? Which Programs Are Different?” The study was authored by researchers at the University of Texas – Austin, Duke University, and Tulane. The pre-publication version of this piece can be found here.
As the title implies, the purpose of the study was to “evaluate statistical methods for estimating teacher quality differences between TPPs [teacher preparation programs].” Needless to say, this research is particularly relevant, here, given “Sixteen US states have begun to hold teacher preparation programs (TPPs) accountable for teacher quality, where quality is estimated by teacher value-added to student test scores.” The federal government continues to support and advance these initiatives, as well (see, for example, here).
But this research study is also particularly important because while researchers found that “[t]he most convincing estimates [of TPP quality] [came] from a value-added model where confidence intervals [were] widened;” that is, the extent to which measurement errors were permitted was dramatically increased, and also widened further using statistical corrections. But even when using these statistical techniques and accomodations, they found that it was still “rarely possible to tell which TPPs, if any, [were] better or worse than average.”
They therefore concluded that “[t]he potential benefits of TPP accountability may be too small to balance the risk that a proliferation of noisy TPP estimates will encourage arbitrary and ineffective policy actions” in response. More specifically, and in their own words, they found that:
- Differences between TPPs. While most of [their] results suggest that real differences between TPPs exist, the differences [were] not large [or large enough to make or evidence the differentiation between programs as conceptualized and expected]. [Their] estimates var[ied] a bit with their statistical methods, but averaging across plausible methods [they] conclude[d] that between TPPs the heterogeneity [standard deviation (SD) was] about .03 in math and .02 in reading. That is, a 1 SD increase in TPP quality predict[ed] just [emphasis added] a [very small] .03 SD increase in student math scores and a [very small] .02 SD increase in student reading scores.
- Reliability of TPP estimates. Even if the [above-mentioned] differences between TPPs were large enough to be of policy interest, accountability could only work if TPP differences could be estimated reliably. And [their] results raise doubts that they can. Every plausible analysis that [they] conducted suggested that TPP estimates consist[ed] mostly of noise. In some analyses, TPP estimates appeared to be about 50% noise; in other analyses, they appeared to be as much as 80% or 90% noise…Even in large TPPs the estimates were mostly noise [although]…[i]t is plausible [although perhaps not probable]…that TPP estimates would be more reliable if [researchers] had more than one year of data…[although states smaller than the one in this study — Texs]…would require 5 years to accumulate the amount of data that [they used] from one year of data.
- Notably Different TPPs. Even if [they] focus[ed] on estimates from a single model, it remains hard to identify which TPPs differ from the average…[Again,] TPP differences are small and estimates of them are uncertain.
In conclusion, that researchers found “that there are only small teacher quality differences between TPPs” might seem surprising, but not really given the outcome variables they used to measure and assess TPP effects were students’ test scores. In short, students’ test scores are three times removed from the primary unit of analysis in studies like these. That is, (1) the TPP is to be measured by the effectiveness of its teacher graduates, and (2) teacher graduates are to be measured by their purported impacts on their students’ test scores, while (3) students’ test scores are to only and have only been validated for measuring student learning and achievement. These test scores have not been validated to assess and measure, in the inverse, teachers causal impacts on said achievements or on TPPs impacts on teachers on said achievements.
If this sounds confusing, it is, and also highly nonsensical, but this is also a reason why this is so difficult to do, and as evidenced in this study, improbable to do this well or as theorized in that TPP estimates are sensitive to error, insensitive given error, and, accordingly, highly uncertain and invalid.
Citation: von Hippela, P. T., Bellowsb, L., Osbornea, C., Lincovec, J. A., & Millsd, N. (2016). Teacher quality differences between teacher preparation programs: How big? How reliable? Which programs are different? Education of Economics Review, 53, 31–45. doi:10.1016/j.econedurev.2016.05.002