Jesse Rothstein on Teacher Evaluation and Teacher Tenure

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Last week, released via the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Max Ehrenfreund wrote a piece titled “Teacher tenure has little to do with student achievement, economist says.” For those of you who do not know Jesse Rothstein, he’s an Associate Professor of Economics at University of California – Berkeley, and he is one of the leading researchers/economists conducting research on teacher evaluation and accountability policies writ large, as well as the value-added models (VAMs) being used for such purposes. He’s probably most famous for a study he conducted in 2009 about how the non-random, purposeful sorting of students into classrooms indeed biases (or distorts) value-added estimations, pretty much despite the sophistication of the statistical controls meant to block (or control for) such bias (or distorting effects). You can find this study referenced here.

Anyhow, in this piece author Ehrenfreuend discusses with Rothstein teacher evaluation and teacher tenure. Some of the key take-aways from the interview and for this audience follow, but do read the full piece, linked again here, if so inclined:

Rothstein, on teacher evaluation:

  • In terms of evaluating teachers, “[t]here’s no perfect method. I think there are lots of methods that give you some information, and there are lots of problems with any method. I think there’s been a tendency in thinking about methods to prioritize cheap methods over methods that might be more expensive. In particular, there’s been a tendency to prioritize statistical computations based on student test scores, because all you need is one statistician and the test score data. Classroom observation requires having lots of people to sit in the back of lots and lots of classrooms and make judgments.
  • Why the interest in value-added? “I think that’s a complicated question. It seems scientific, in a way that other methods don’t. Partly it has to do with the fact that it’s cheap, and it seems like an easy answer.”
  • What about the fantabulous study Raj Chetty and his Harvard colleagues (Friedman and Rockoff) conducted about teachers’ value-added (which has been the source of many prior posts herein)? “I don’t think anybody disputes that good teachers are important, that teachers matter. I have some methodological concerns about that study, but in any case, even if you take it at face value, what it tells you is that higher value-added teachers’ students earn more on average.”
  • What are the alternatives? “We could double teachers’ salaries. I’m not joking about that. The standard way that you make a profession a prestigious, desirable profession, is you pay people enough to make it attractive. The fact that that doesn’t even enter the conversation tells you something about what’s wrong with the conversation around these topics. I could see an argument that says it’s just not worth it, that it would cost too much. The fact that nobody even asks the question tells me that people are only willing to consider cheap solutions.”

Rothstein, on teacher tenure:

  • “Getting good teachers in front of classrooms is tricky,” and it will likely “still be a challenge without tenure, possibly even harder. There are only so many people willing to consider teaching as a career, and getting rid of tenure could eliminate one of the job’s main attractions.”
  • Likewise, “there are certainly some teachers in urban, high-poverty settings that are not that good, and we ought to be figuring out ways to either help them get better or get them out of the classroom. But it’s important to keep in mind that that’s only one of several sources of the problem.”
  • “Even if you give the principal the freedom to fire lots of teachers, they won’t do it very often, because they know the alternative is worse.” The alternative being replacing an ineffective teacher by an even less effective teacher. Contrary to what is oft-assumed, high qualified teachers are not knocking down the doors to teach in such schools.
  • Teacher tenure is “really a red herring” in the sense that debating tenure ultimately misleads and distracts others from the more relevant and important issues at hand (e.g., recruiting strong teachers into such schools). Tenure “just doesn’t matter that much. If you got rid of tenure, you would find that the principals don’t really fire very many people anyway” (see also point above).
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