Thursday, February 16, 2012

Scapegoating Teachers

This from Counterpunch:

The first to discover that teachers make perfect scapegoats was George W. Bush. When he ran for president for the first time twelve years ago, Bush had a problem. He wanted lower taxes to be his rallying cry, but while taxes in Texas, the state where he was governor, were indeed low, the schools in Texas were notoriously bad.

The numbers are no better today: Texas ranks 47th in the county in literacy, 49th in verbal SAT scores and 46th in math scores. To blind the public to the evidence of what low taxes do, Bush produced evidence of a miracle: When it comes to education money is not what matters, he declared; what matters is holding teachers accountable. In Houston, Bush told voters, the superintendent of schools held teachers accountable, and as a result Houston saw a dramatic improvement in school quality, particularly when measured by high school graduation rates. So convincing was the miracle that as soon as he took office Congress agreed to pass the Bush tax cuts and the No Child Left Behind law.

Eight years later the “Texas miracle” was exposed. It turned out that the numbers had been cooked: Instead of the 1.5% drop-out rate that Houston had reported, the actual rate was somewhere between 25 and 50 percent. And in order to boost test results children who were considered weak in even just one subject were prevented from entering the 10th grade, the year in which the tests were administered. But by then the truth no longer mattered because the ideas that taxes are not needed to run a democratic government and that teachers, not budgets, are responsible for the failure of schools had invaded the body politic.

When Bush ran for office the rate of unemployment was low and there was a surplus in the government coffers, rather than a deficit. Today the economic situation is dire and most Americans believe that inequality is the biggest problem that the country faces. Occupy Wall Street blames the 1% — but the 1% and their elected officials have found someone else to blame: Bad teachers are back.

A new study just out from economists at Harvard and Columbia would seem to offer the proof. The study does not claim that the measurement of teachers will produce better students–this was Bush’s claim and it has already been exposed–but instead that the measurement of teachers will make students richer as adults.

President Obama echoed themes from the study when in his State of the Union Address, instead of acknowledging Occupy Wall Street, he stuck it to teachers:  ”A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance,” he said. “Give them [schools] the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones…and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”

Unlike the Texas miracle, the Harvard-Columbia revelations are not based on fraudulent numbers. But what is deeply problematic is the spin that the authors give to their findings. The study examined the incomes of adults who, as children in the 4th through the 8th grades, had teachers of different “Value Added” scores, with Value Added defined as improvement in the scores of students on standardized tests. The study claims that the individuals who had excellent teachers as children have higher incomes as adults; we will examine the validity of this claim below. But first we must ask what these higher incomes mean. When they were children, these individuals were poor. What the H-C authors fail to mention is that even when they had excellent teachers as children and therefore have higher incomes as adults, these individuals, despite their higher incomes, remain poor.

The devil is in the details: the average wage and salary of a 28 year old in the H-C study who had an excellent teacher was $20,509 in 2010 dollars, $182 higher than the average annual pay of all 28 year olds in the study. How does this compare to the average salary and wage of a 28 year old in this country? The authors excluded from their study people whose income was higher than $100,000. As we shall see, this exclusion is problematic; but to do the comparison we must do the same. The average salary and wage in 2010 of a 28 year old who earned less than $100,000 a year was $29,041, 42% higher than the income of a 28 year old in the H-C who had an excellent teacher. In other words, even if we accept the numbers that the authors of the H-C study choose to spin, having an excellent teacher cannot pull people out of poverty.

The exclusion of people with high incomes involved some 4,000 individuals, or 1.2% of the sample. The authors justify it by claiming that such people are outliers. But what if it turned out those high income earners had “bad”  teachers? Including them in the study would have completely changed the results. Excluding a large number of the best performers from a study about the effect of teaching seems strange.

There’s more. While the H-C study found a statistically significant, if meaningless, relationship between the “value added” of teachers and incomes at age 28, the authors did not find a statistically significant result at age 30. Why?...


Richard Innes said...

The simplistic comparison of SAT scores in the article is nonsense and violates a warning from the people who create the SAT.

The College Board’s Web Site says:
“A Word About Comparing States and Schools
The SAT is a strong indicator of trends in the college-bound population, but it should never be used alone for such comparisons because demographics and other nonschool factors can have a strong effect on scores.”

FACT: At least in eighth grade math (I don’t have time to bother with more right now), Texas turns in outstandingly high performance on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

According to statistical significance tests from the NAEP Data Explorer:

Texas’ white students statistically significantly outscored whites in 45 other participating jurisdictions in the 2011 Grade 8 NAEP Math assessment. Only one jurisdiction among the 50 states plus the District of Columbia and The Department of Defense Education Agency schools had a statistically significantly higher score for whites.

Texas’ blacks did superbly, as well. No state, not one, got a statistically significantly higher score in the NAEP Grade 8 Math Assessment.

Texas was also at the top for Hispanic scores, as well. No state scored statistically significantly higher according to the NAEP Data Explorer.

To be sure, Texas’ education history certainly isn’t unclouded. The graduation rate scams were inexcusable. However, some people eventually got prosecuted in Texas for that.

We have had constant dubious reporting of dropout and graduation rates in Kentucky, too, but I don’t recall a single case of any obviously out of line data even being investigated.

State to state comparison of education data is actually quite complex. Different rates of testing graduates on ACT and SAT, different rates of exclusion on NAEP, widely different racial demographics from state to state, and statistical sampling error issues make fair comparisons of state data challenging. In many cases, simplistic comparisons of overall scores can lead to very misleading interpretations.

By the way, in 2011 Texas’ whites who took the SAT scored 540 in math, above the national average score of 535. Texas’ black in the same test report scored 438, above the black national average of 427. Mexicans in the Texas SAT scored 474, beating the nationwide average of 466, as well.

What I can’t tell from the SAT reports is the percentage participation on the SAT in Texas, or any other state. Still, the results above raise a strong challenge to a blanket statement that Texas is doing terribly in education. That assertion is clearly easy to challenge, and I am surprised you didn’t at least mention that in your main post.

Anonymous said...

I always knew it was my teachers who prevented me from making more money. I guess since they weren't making enough, they thougth they could raise their standard of living by keeping me down. If only teachers in the 70's and 80's had been adding more value to my education I could have been a big shot like a state commissioner of education.