By Nikolas Kristof, New York Times, January 11, 2011
... a landmark new research paper underscores that the difference between a strong teacher and a weak teacher lasts a lifetime. Having a good fourth-grade teacher makes a student 1.25 percent more likely to go to college, the research suggests, and 1.25 percent less likely to get pregnant as a teenager. Each of the students will go on as an adult to earn, on average, $25,000 more over a lifetime — or about $700,000 in gains for an average size class — all attributable to that ace teacher back in the fourth grade. That’s right: A great teacher is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to each year’s students, just in the extra income they will earn.
The study, by economists at Harvard and Columbia universities, finds that if a great teacher is leaving, parents should hold bake sales or pass the hat around in hopes of collectively offering the teacher as much as a $100,000 bonus to stay for an extra year. Sure, that’s implausible — but their children would gain a benefit that far exceeds even that sum.
Conversely, a very poor teacher has the same effect as a pupil missing 40 percent of the school year. We don’t allow that kind of truancy, so it’s not clear why we should put up with such poor teaching. In fact, the study shows that parents should pay a bad teacher $100,000 to retire (assuming the replacement is of average quality) because a weak teacher holds children back so much.
Our faltering education system may be the most important long-term threat to America’s economy and national well-being, so it’s frustrating that the presidential campaign is mostly ignoring the issue. Candidates are bloviating about all kinds of imaginary or exaggerated threats, while ignoring the most crucial one.
This latest study should elevate the issue on the national agenda, because it not only underscores the importance of education but also illuminates how we might improve schools.
An essential answer: more good teachers. Or, to put it another way, fewer bad teachers. The obvious policy solution is more pay for good teachers, more dismissals for weak teachers.
One of the paradoxes of the school reform debate is that teachers’ unions have resisted a focus on teacher quality; instead, they emphasize that the home is the foremost influence and that teachers can only do so much.
That’s all true, and (as I’ve often written) we need an array of other antipoverty measures as well, especially early childhood programs. But the evidence is now overwhelming that even in a grim high-poverty school, some teachers have far more impact on their students than those in the classroom next door. Three consecutive years of data from student tests — the “value added” between student scores at the beginning and end of each year — reveal a great deal about whether a teacher is working out, the researchers found.
This study, by Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard University and Jonah E. Rockoff of Columbia University, was influential because it involved a huge database of one million students followed from fourth grade to adulthood.
The blog of the Albert Shanker Institute, endowed by the American Federation of Teachers, praised the study as “one of the most dense, important and interesting analyses on this topic in a very long time” — although it cautioned against policy conclusions (of the kind that I’m reaching).
After serving for a quarter-century in Ontario classrooms, in both public and private schools, and, of course, all the while belonging to the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, I was not one of the "federations" most popular members. The simple requirement that if we had a professional complaint against another teacher, we must put it in writing, give it to the teacher and to the federation executive was one of the reasons.
I know of students who came to my classroom immediately following a class in which they literally slept through the forty minutes of that class. I was then expected not only to teach the senior English class, but also to "wake those students up"....something I deeply resented. Did I complain to anyone? No. Did I approach the teacher in whose classroom these grade twelve students had been sleeping? No.
Did I improve the situation? Not at all.
Another complaint I retained throughout those two-plus decades was the "federation" resistance to anything even remotely resembling "merit" pay. The federation had a book of excuses why such a system would not work, mainly based on the fact that some teachers members would receive a larger salary increase, based on their demonstrated merit, and others would receive considerably less, demonstrating their "less effective" performance.
The core of the argument against merit pay always seem to centre on "subjective evaluations" versus objective evaluations...and the implicit danger than friends would evaluate friends more highly than would those whose objectivity was assured.
Another complaint I had about the structure of the teachers' contract was that more university courses in the academic subject to be taught resulted in a pay raise, calibrated into four categories. There was little or no incentive to take courses, few if any were available, in teaching methodology, classroom management, research methods for the classroom teacher.
We all knew that if classroom teachers could and would experiment in their classrooms and using appropriate statistical procedures, determine the validity and the value of the data, then not only would those classrooms become experimental labs for new learning for students and teachers, but the energized life of the teacher would be extended considerably, leading to less "burn-out" and better teacher mental and emotional health.
However, aspiring teachers, ambitious teachers were encouraged to apply for and accept positions of responsibility like vice-principal, principal and eventually superintendent and director.
Good teachers, who loved teaching could aspire to become a department head, but the system really valued the rewards of "administration" much more than "excellent teaching."
A similar and tragic value system existed in the sixties and seventies in universities. Professors were expected to write papers, delivery lectures and symposia, conduct research, as far more important professional activities than classroom teaching. Fortunately, I met one rogue teacher who resisted that pressure and became literally one of The University of Western Ontario's best teachers, Dr. John Wichello Graham, a doctoral graduate in English Literature from the University of Toronto at 24, having written his doctoral thesis on Virginia Wolfe, I believe, under the tutelage of Dr. Northrop Frye.
Not only was my time in Graham's classroom highly instrumental in my own development as an English Teacher, but in high school I had discovered two more English teachers, Ken Fulford and Bill Hughey who graced the classrooms in our small central Ontario town for a few years, (including my high school years) before returning to Toronto and a more stimulating life, to teach at York Mills Collegiate, in 1960 one of the premier secondary schools in the Toronto board.
Teaching, good teachers, and a system that first all of recruits good teachers, and then develops those teachers under suitable and challenging mentors for the first two or three years at least, and then develops a learning path for those teachers in graduate school, in order to bring their learning and their excitement back to the individual classroom, the home school and the employing board, as well as the provincial bodies that could benefit from their newly acquired knowledge, expertise and wisdom....that would do much to reverse both the need to "dumb-down" the lesson material for today's students, and the intolerable drop-out rates especially among male adolescents.
And that will only be reversed when outstanding and committed male teachers are hired with vigor, imagination and vision by all school boards.
We have to stop promoting clones, in an increasingly inward-looking, defensive and even narcissistic school system, controlled by a culture of political correctness, detachment and a significant lack of passion.