In Schools, Teacher Quality Matters Most

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Education Next — a non peer-reviewed journal with a mission to “steer a steady course, presenting the facts as best they can be determined…[while]…partak[ing] of no program, campaign, or ideology,” although these last claims are certainly of controversy (see, for example, here and here) — just published an article titled “In Schools, Teacher Quality Matters Most” as part of the journal’s series commemorating the 50th anniversary of James Coleman’s (and colleagues’) groundbreaking 1966 report, “Equality of Educational Opportunity.”

For background, the purpose of The Coleman Report was to assess the equal educational opportunities provided to children of different race, color, religion, and national origin. The main finding was that what we know today as students of color (although African American students were of primary focus in this study), who are (still) often denied equal educational opportunities due to a variety of factors, are largely and unequally segregated across America’s public schools, especially as segregated from their white and wealthier peers. These disparities were most notable via achievement measures, and what we know today as “the achievement gap.” Accordingly, Coleman et al. argued that equal opportunities for students in said schools mattered (and continue to matter) much more for these traditionally marginalized and segregated students than for those who were/are whiter and more economically fortunate. In addition, Coleman argued that out-of-school influences also mattered much more than in-school influences on said achievement. On this point, though, The Coleman Report was of great controversy, and (mis)interpreted as (still) supporting arguments that students’ teachers and schools do/don’t matter as much as students’ families and backgrounds do.

Hence, the Education Next article of focus in this post takes this up, 50 years later, and post the advent of value-added models (VAMs) as better measures than those to which Coleman and his colleagues had access. The article is authored by Dan Goldhaber — a Professor at the University of Washington Bothell, Director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER), and a Vice-President at the American Institutes of Research (AIR). AIR is one of our largest VAM consulting/contract firms, and Goldabher is, accordingly, perhaps one of the field’s most vocal proponents of VAMs and their capacities to both measure and increase teachers’ noteworthy effects (see, for example here); hence, it makes sense he writes about said teacher effects in this article, and in this particular journal (see, for example, Education Next’s Editorial and Editorial Advisory Board members here).

Here is his key claim.

Goldhaber argues that The Coleman Report’s “conclusions about the importance of teacher quality, in particular, have stood the test of time, which is noteworthy, [especially] given that today’s studies of the impacts of teachers [now] use more-sophisticated statistical methods and employ far better data” (i.e., VAMs). Accordingly, Goldhaber’s primary conclusion is that “the main way that schools affect student outcomes is through the quality of their teachers.”

Note that Goldhaber does not offer in this article much evidence, other than evidence not cited or provided by some of his econometric friends (e.g., Raj Chetty). Likewise, Goldhaber cites none of the literature coming from educational statistics, even though recent estimates [1] suggest that approximately 83% of articles written since 1893 (the year in which the first article about VAMs was ever published, in the Journal of Political Economy) on this topic have been published in educational journals, and 14% have been published in economics journals (3% have been published in education finance journals). Hence, what we are clearly observing as per the literature on this topic are severe slants in perspective, especially when articles such as these are written by econometricians, versus educational researchers and statisticians, who often marginalize the research of their education, discipline-based colleagues.

Likewise, Goldhaber does not cite or situate any of his claims within the recent report released by the American Statistical Association (ASA), in which it is written that “teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores.” While teacher effects do matter, they do not matter nearly as much as many, including many/most VAM proponents including Goldhaber, would like us to naively accept and believe. The truth of the matter is is that teachers do indeed matter, in many ways including their impacts on students’ affects, motivations, desires, aspirations, senses of efficacy, and the like, all of which are not estimated on the large-scale standardized tests that continue to matter and that are always the key dependent variables across these and all VAM-based studies today. As Coleman argued 50 years ago, as recently verified by the ASA, students’ out-of-school and out-of-classroom environments matter more, as per these dependent variables or measures.

I think I’ll take ASA’s “word” on this, also as per Coleman’s research 50 years prior.

*****

[1] Reference removed as the manuscript is currently under blind peer-review. Email me if you have any questions at audrey.beardsley@asu.edu

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