Blog: The Educated Reporter

What the teacher research DOESN’T say.

In his education speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in March, President Obama said, “From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents. It’s the person standing at the front of the classroom.”

To put it bluntly: “He’s wrong.”

That assessment comes from noted teacher quality researcher Dale Ballou at Vanderbilt’s National Center on Performance Incentives. As well, Doug Harris at University of Wisconsin, Doug Staiger at Dartmouth—and, well, those are just the first three I called. Not that any of them have any dearth of concern about the variance in teacher quality, or the power of a good teacher to drive improvement. But they agree that in their speeches and writing, politicians, policy makers and journalists often misrepresent what, exactly, the evidence has shown.

Which is: Of the various factors inside school, teacher quality has had more effect on student scores than any other that has been measured. (Principal quality: Nobody’s effectively isolated this yet, that I know of, but I’d venture to guess it makes as much if not more of a difference.) And that an effective teacher can move students of all backgrounds forward. Certainly nobody has ever proven that good teaching matters more than, say, genetic endowment, or home environment.

There’s much more about the research that I’ll talk about later, such as the nature of the good-teacher-several-years-in-a-row findings and the complications of translating all this into policy. But for now, just remember: When you read that teachers are the most important school factor, you can’t drop the “school” and pass it on.

Researchers: Is there anything else you think people are consistently getting wrong in the public conversation on education? Let me know.


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