The most important decision you will make about your children’s education is picking their school, right? That’s the conventional wisdom, but it’s actually wrong — or at best it’s only half-correct. Teacher effectiveness varies a lot within schools, even within good schools, which means that just choosing the right school for your kid is not a proxy for choosing great teachers. So while “school choice” is hotly debated (next week is National School Choice Week, complete with Bill Cosby’s blessing and events galore,) there are few rallies being held for giving parents the right to choose a particular teacher. That’s because the whole system is stacked against empowering families in this way. In fact, because of how seniority rules generally work, it’s a lot more common for teachers to choose their students than for students to choose their teachers.
Just how much individual teachers matter is the big implication of an analysis of 2.5 million students and their instructors that was released in December and highlighted recently in the New York Times. The long-term, large-scale study by economists at Columbia and Harvard used two decades of data to examine differences in student outcomes (including such categories as teen pregnancy and college enrollment) and link those differences with how effective their teachers were at improving student scores on achievement tests. The headline-grabbing finding was that replacing an ineffective teacher with one of average quality would boost a single classroom’s lifetime earnings by a quarter-million dollars. And that’s just from one year of assigning that group of kids to an average teacher instead of a lousy one. A second study, released January 12 by the Education Trust-West, an education advocacy group in California, examined three years of data on teachers from the Los Angeles public school system and noted that low-income and minority students are twice as likely to have teachers in the bottom 25% of effectiveness. The Ed Trust study did not get as much attention as the one by the Ivy League economists, but it reached the same obvious conclusion: more effective teachers boost learning for students.
The data are sufficiently compelling that these days it’s only education’s flat-earthers who continue to argue that teachers don’t matter a great deal and that efforts to retain and reward the best ones and remove the worst ones aren’t essential to improving schools. But for parents there is a more immediate issue: research shows that differences in teacher effectiveness are generally greater within schools than between schools. For instance, when analysts at the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) compared teacher quality at high- and low-poverty schools, they found relatively small differences between schools but substantial differences among teachers working in the same schools — especially in high-poverty schools where some really low-performing teachers created an extra drag on the averages. The researchers found that the best teachers in high-poverty schools were as good as the best teachers elsewhere. On the flip side, even “good” schools have lemons.
Let me be clear, though, that there are plenty of reasons to send your child to a school that is high-quality overall. You and your child are more likely to be treated with respect, the school is more likely to be responsive to issues that may arise, and the adults and other students are more likely to model the sort of habits and behavior you’d want your children to emulate. So this isn’t an argument for just trying to find the good teachers in an overall lousy school. Instead, think of it this way: when purchasing a car, you might decide, for instance, that foreign cars are preferable to American cars, but you wouldn’t stop there without care as to whether you get an Audi or a Yugo. Given how important teachers are, deciding that a certain type of school or even a certain school is all you need to worry about is equally foolish.
As a parent, you have to drill deeper. But don’t expect too much help from schools in this area. There are few formal policies, and in most places parents have little information to go on. Some misguided efforts, such as publishing teachers’ value-added scores in the newspaper, don’t do much more than confuse and scare people. Other advocates are proposing more reasonable policies — including preventing students from being assigned for multiple years to teachers who receive unsatisfactory evaluations — but the teachers unions vehemently oppose that kind of “labeling.”
Still, there are a few things parents can do now. First, ask around. Other parents are usually quick to share their perspectives and experiences. Pay close attention to what families with older siblings do with their younger ones — what teachers do they insist on or avoid? You can also ask to drop in and observe a lesson or two. You don’t need to be an expert to get a sense of whether a classroom is a place where there is learning going on and where you’d want your child to spend a lot of time. If you’re not crazy about your kid’s teacher, ask to observe another.
Don’t be shy about telling school officials well in advance of class assignments if you have a strong preference or concerns — there’s no guarantee they will accommodate you, but at the same time, they won’t even think about reassigning your kid to a different teacher unless you push for it. And squeaky wheels do get the grease.
Bottom line: While public-policy advocates, union leaders and academics keep arguing, perhaps the most salient finding from the research about teacher quality is simply that parents cannot afford to treat their children’s education as a spectator sport. You have to get in the game.
Disclosure: I’m on the advisory board for CALDER but was not involved in the study referenced above.