The World Series: Public School Teacher Edition

The Bridge and Tree would like to welcome guest author David Cappella, PhD student at The Ohio State University for one of two contrasting perspectives on how to increase teacher quality in the United States.

Teachers at Bat: How Do We Value Educators?  

David Cappella, The Ohio State University

“James’ first proper essay was the preview to an astonishing literary career. There was but one question he left unasked, and it vibrated between his lines: if gross miscalculations of a person’s value could occur on a baseball field, before a live audience of thirty thousand, and a television audience of millions more, what did that say about the measurement of performance in other lines of work? If professional baseball players could be over- or under-valued, who couldn’t? Bad as they may have been, the statistics used to evaluate baseball players were probably far more accurate than anything used to measure the value of people who didn’t play baseball for a living.” -Michael Lewis (Moneyball, p. 72)

The story of the Oakland A’s under general manager Billy Beane is extraordinary (Moneyball, 2003). With one of the smallest budgets in baseball ($40 million payroll) he consistently fielded a team capable of competing with the Yankees ($126 million). How’d he do it? With two big ideas: Beane placed value on underrated player skill measurements that were most relevant in winning ball games and he was willing to oppose conventional drafting wisdom to implement it. The baseball scholar Bill James found that batters were not being adequately credited for being walked, i.e. the ability to not swing on a bad pitch was unaccounted for in baseball stats. Correcting for this, and putting less emphasis on superficial qualities meant drafting players that were overlooked by other organizations but would still make huge contributions to the success of the team.

“No one in big league baseball cares how often a college player walks…the important traits in a baseball player were not all equally important. That foot speed, fielding ability, even raw power tended to be dramatically overpriced. That the ability to control the strike zone was the greatest indicator of future success. That the number of walks a hitter drew was the best indicator of whether he understood how to control the strike zone…if a guy has a keen eye at the plate in college, he’ll likely keep that keen eye in the pros…plate discipline might be an innate trait, rather than something a free-swinging amateur can be taught in the pros.” -Michael Lewis (Moneyball, pp.33-34)

My argument (derived from Stanford economist Eric Hanushek) is that we have a similar situation in education. American teachers are paid as a function of their education (master’s degree) and their experience, with little account for effectiveness in the classroom. Hanushek and other scholars find that experience has diminishing returns to teacher quality after only a few years and that a master’s degree may have very little effect on teacher quality. Hanushek has found evidence that it is intangible, perhaps even unteachable skills that make a good teacher (Billy Beane likewise found a batter’s ability to not hit a strike is also independent of more training). Therefore one method of improving our schools may be to more efficiently allocate and reward teacher quality: incentivise highly effective teachers to teach at schools that need the most help. Pay quality teachers more with less pay emphasis on education and experience.

The studies that Hanushek has conducted show that if teachers are assessed on how much learning their students gained in a given year (math and reading tests), teachers near the top of the quality distribution give their students an entire year worth of additional learning than the students of those near the bottom; these results hold for teachers of students of minority and poor inner-city families. The charts below show projections of the potential student earnings associated with teachers at certain percentile rankings of quality based on this value-added measure. Hanushek proposes that if 8% of the poorest quality teachers in America were replaced with average teachers, everything else equal educational achievement would reach the level of high performing countries like Finland and Canada.Graph1


      Teachers may not have as high salaries as pro baseball players but the stakes for education are much higher. Over the course of a teacher’s career millions of dollars in the future income of their students is an indirect result of their efforts. We trust teachers to mold a new generation of thinkers, innovators, citizens, and artists; it’s time we give credit to those best able to rise to this noble cause and achieve it year after year, student after student. If Billy Beane can change how the game of baseball is played, surely we can find a way to change how education values high-quality teachers. For our students that sounds like a winning strategy.

Who’s the Pitcher? Effects on Teacher Performance and Quality

Pearce Edwards

How can the United States address its lagging educational achievement relative to other OECD countries, the club of nations who are the most economically prosperous? Education reform is a fiercely debated topic, as it bears implications for our future economic position, innovation, demand for growth-sector jobs and health of American communities. Yet too often the question of quality improvement becomes one of quick fixes and shortcuts rather than substantive, long-term changes. “Improving the teacher pool” is one such issue.

Teacher quality is a clear determinant of future educational performance, but is teacher quality an innate ability, or something that is developed – or constrained – through factors beyond the control of the teacher? Teachers’ true ability is masked behind confounding factors which prevent clear identification of who the best teachers really are or can be. Teacher quality policies, such as replacing low-quality teachers with high-quality ones in the neediest schools, must be made with these confounding factors in mind.

The first confounding factor is the scope and definition of a highly-qualified teacher. Data-driven evaluation of teachers is well-intentioned, but breaks down when exemptions, loopholes and “on-the-job training” constitute high-qualifications for teaching. Education reform organizations  which run these alternative certification pathways actively lobby legislatures to preserve this definition. Teachers should have alternate means to enter the education profession, but quality starts from high-ability individuals also participating in highly-rated training programs.

Additionally, as teachers are evaluated within school systems, measures of quality, such as the ones required in Georgia’s Teacher Keys Effectiveness System (TKES), are not enforced evenly or objectively. Administrators themselves are evaluated for how they evaluate teachers, in other words giving them an incentive to intentionally rank teachers low and then slowly raise the scores over time to demonstrate their ability to develop the teachers they evaluate. Qualifications for teachers must have valid measurements before teacher quality can become a lever of policy.

Second, a replace-teachers policy paradigm produces widely different results in its delivery. Schools and districts face a no-win scenario when they can either keep existing teachers and focus on training an often disillusioned and underappreciated staff, or wipe their slate clean and focus on delivering immediate results with the highly-qualified teachers mentioned above. Turnaround schools, such as Maynard Jackson High School in Atlanta, may illustrate success stories. But what is the rate of success for such a gamble? The opposite outcome can just as well come to pass, as did in Dallas ISD this October with the dispute over mass teacher removals by Superintendent Mike Miles in South Dallas. The teacher removals drew the ire of the local Dallas ISD trustee and community anger.

Public school educators in the United States are already deeply unhappy, and have the turnover rates to match. Adding to the volatility of the teacher market with alternative certification pathways, aggressive teacher reassignment and removal policies and the steady drumbeat of teachers’ unions on the issue will continue to hobble American public education. School reform, then, should more seriously weigh the consequences of its novel, yet “disruptive innovations.”


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