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Is Education on the Wrong Track?

A TNR Symposium.

From: Richard Rothstein

To: Diane Ravitch, Ben Wildavsky, Kevin Carey, and Andrew Rotherham

Subject: Want to improve teacher quality? Fine. But that won't help the environmental factors outside of schools that are eroding student learning.

It is fair to say that I’ve asserted that “school reform efforts are distracting from more important social welfare goals,” but a little misleading when phrased in this way. A better summary of my concern is that “school reform efforts are distracting from more important environmental causes of low student achievement.”

It is conventional in education policy these days to say that the most important influence on student achievement is the quality of a teacher. This is only true if it is qualified as the most important school influence on achievement. Fifty years of social science research has confirmed, over and over again, that the best predictor of student achievement is not teacher quality or any other school influence, but the social and economic circumstances of the children.

Consider this: We are all aware that the national unemployment rate is an unacceptably high 10 percent or so. But the unemployment rate for black adults of an age likely to have school-aged children is now 15 percent. This number includes only those actively looking for work. In the current economy, many of the unemployed have concluded that looking for work is futile. Considering the officially unemployed, those who are so discouraged that they have dropped out of the labor force, and those who are working part-time because they can’t find full-time work, the unemployment rate for black parents of school-aged children is now 25 percent.

What are the consequences of this social disaster?

1. Mobility: Families become more mobile because they can no longer afford to keep up with rent or mortgage payments. They are in overcrowded housing, often doubling up with relatives in apartments that were already too small. Children have no quiet place to study or do homework. They switch schools more often, falling behind in the curriculum and losing the connection with teachers who know them well-enough to adapt instruction to the their individual strengths and weaknesses. Inner-city schools themselves are thrown into turmoil because classes must frequently be reconstituted as enrollment rises and falls with family mobility.

2. Hunger and Malnutrition: When more parents lose employment, their income plummets and food insecurity grows. More children come to school hungry and/or inadequately nourished and are less able to focus on schoolwork.

3. Stress: Families where parents are unemployed are under greater psychological stress. Parents, no matter how well-intentioned, become more arbitrary in their discipline, less supportive of their children. Children from families in such stress are more likely to act out in school, less able to progress academically.

4. Poor Health: Families where parents lose employment are also more likely to lose health insurance. Their children are less likely to get routine and preventive health care, and more likely to miss school days because of illness. They are less likely to get symptomatic treatment for illnesses like asthma,the most common cause of chronic school absenteeism. Andchildren with asthma, even when they attend school, are more likely to come irritable, having been up at night wheezing.

All these consequences of unacceptably high unemployment rates for black parents contribute to depressing student achievement for black children. It is obtuse to expect to narrow the black-white achievement gap in such circumstances. It is fanciful for national policymakers to pick this moment to raise their expectations for academic achievement from children of families in such stress.

It would inappropriately undermine the credibility of public education if, in such an economic climate, educators were blamed for their failure to raise black student achievement. Indeed, they should probably get credit for preventing black student achievement from falling further.

So when I say that school reform efforts are distracting from more important environmental causes of low student achievement, I do not suggest that we should ignore school improvement. We should improve teacher quality, reduce class sizes for the most disadvantaged young children, and improve curricula. But, in the current economic environment, these measures are likely to be overwhelmed by the impact of unemployment. Reducing unemployment is not only a "social welfare goal." It is also an educational issue, likely as important, if not more so, than the school reforms now advocated by the education policy community. And educators should be outspoken in calling attention to this critical impediment and resist demands that they meet “utopian” achievement goals when environmental forces are so forcefully arrayed against them. Politically, educators should be a mobilized constituency for new job-creating economic stimulus measures, for increased aid to state and local governments to prevent teacher layoffs (resulting in growing class sizes), and for increased formula funding for compensatory education funds (proposed for real inflation-adjusted reductions in the administration’s “blueprint” for education funding).

As a second issue, let's examine more carefully the "urban myth" that "low-income children would benefit hugely from being assigned to the best teachers." A previous contributor to this symposium attributed this finding to "multiple econometric studies," but there is less here than meets the eye.

What policymakers who've been told about these studies--few have actually read them--have concluded is that, if low-income students were assigned for five years in a row to teachers who were better than roughly 80 percent of other teachers, these low-income students would achieve at the level of typical middle-class students. In other words, they would close the "achievement gap."

The Death and Life of the Great American School System dismisses this claim by asserting that it is not feasible to seek a policy that would move all teachers up to the level of effectiveness of the top quintile of teachers. Even for the average teacher, this would require a full standard deviation in improvement, and, for teachers who are below average, up to a two standard deviation improvement would be required. No social policy can aspire to such a degree of improvement. A more realistic expectation is that average teachers might, with the right guidance, be transformed into, say, sixtieth percentile teachers--something like a 0.3 standard deviation in improvement. Even this task is especially difficult because the "econometric studies" from which this enthusiasm is derived cannot identify a single characteristic of a "good teacher." Their conclusions are only circular: The best teachers are teachers whose students have better achievement, and students will get better achievement if they are assigned to the best teachers.

But there is a bigger problem, arising from a misunderstanding by policy enthusiasts of the econometric findings. What these studies actually find is that, in any year, some teachers get achievement gains from students that are about 0.2 standard deviations better than those of students who have typical teachers. The policy enthusiasm for closing the achievement gap simply by improving teacher quality stems from multiplying this result by five and concluding that a student who had such teachers for five years in a row would gain a full standard deviation (5 X 0.2) advantage. This assumes that the gains students make during the year in which they had a good teacher persist and can be added to in each subsequent year. But there is absolutely no evidence for such a proposition in the econometric studies or elsewhere. No econometrician has actually observed students, or data regarding such students, who have achieved such cumulative gains for five years in a row under the tutelage of superior teachers. The most reasonable speculation is that students who make big gains in a year will find it more and more difficult to make similarly big gains in subsequent years, even with the best teachers. The earlier gains are likely to be much easier. Would the decline in gain be less if the next teacher was also in the top quintile? Nobody knows. It is a topic on which there has been absolutely no research.

And finally, even if we could confirm that the effect of teacher quality on student achievement was as great as these misinterpretations of econometric studies suggest, we should remember that the studies themselves are based only on basic skills test scores of math alone or reading alone. As we have learned from the corruption stimulated by No Child Left Behind (and documented in Death and Life), teachers responsible for greater gains might be accomplishing this with more test preparation, and less quality instruction, than teachers responsible for smaller gains. Are high-quality teachers of math the same teachers as high-quality teachers of reading? Do teachers who do a great job of teaching math also do a great job of inspiring a love of the arts, of teaching history and civic responsibility, of developing students’ ability to solve conflicts peaceably? We have no answers to these questions? If we did, should we seek to replace teachers who only do an average job of teaching math, but a spectacular job of developing character?

Of course, some teachers are better than others, and consistently so. Figuring out what makes these teachers better, and whether these characteristics can be taught to other teachers, would be a useful policy initiative that could result in raising the level of disadvantaged students' achievement. But better teachers are not so much better that improvement in teacher quality is a plausible way to make a serious dent in the achievement gap. It is what Death and Life says it is: a nonexistent silver bullet or miracle cure.

Richard Rothstein ( is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute. His most recent book is Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right.


By Ben Wildavsky: Ravitch misunderstands the roles of charter schools, teacher professionalism, and bipartisanship in education reform.