The Becoming Radical: Addressing Teacher Quality Post-NCLB

While the transition from NCLB (the federalization of accountability-based education reform) to ESSA (returning accountability-based education reform mostly to the states) is a microscopic change at best, it appears that teacher quality will remain a key mantra of those seeking reform—even though the use of value-added methods for evaluating teachers appear to have lost some steam.

My home state of South Carolina has been an early and dedicated home for education reform based on standards and high-stakes tests. SC is also a very high poverty state—ranking 5th in highest childhood poverty in the U.S. These pockets of poverty have been well documented by Corridor of Shame and years of court battles over equitable education funding across the state.

SC also shares with the entire U.S. a pattern of resegregation in public and charter schools as well as the historical and current reality that impoverished students, black and brown students, English language learners, and special needs students disproportionately are assigned to new and early-career teachers, and un-/under-certified teachers (notably in math). Compounding those inequities, these vulnerable populations of students also sit in high student/teacher ratio classes and are less likely to have access to challenging curriculum (such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and gifted and talented programs), courses often taught by experienced and highly qualified teachers.

Recently, Associate Editor Cindi Ross Scoppe (The State) has argued: Key to improving poor schools: a good teacher in every classroom.

This call for a post-NCLB focus on teacher quality, I must note, does admit that teacher quality is a key part of in-school only influences on student achievement; however, we must begin to frame concerns for teacher quality in ways political leaders, the media, and the public fail to do.

First, we must note that the impact of teacher quality is dwarfed by out-of-school factors:

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998Rockoff 2003Goldhaber et al. 1999Rowan et al. 2002Nye et al. 2004).

However, that assessment is relative conservative when compared to Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage by Donald Hirsch (JRF, 2007):

Just 14 per cent of variation in individuals’ performance is accounted for by school quality. Most variation is explained by other factors, underlining the need to look at the range of children’s experiences, inside and outside school, when seeking to raise achievement.

So the caveat for focusing on teacher quality must include that as long as we use measurable data for determining student achievement and teacher quality, failing to address out-of-school factors likely guarantees we’ll see little change in measures such as test scores.

Nonetheless, we must address teacher experience and qualifications/expertise at high-poverty, majority-minority schools; however, without social reform that alleviates the burdens of poverty on the lives of students and their families, we are unlikely to see the sorts of changes in data that would justify any in-school only reforms.

Also, the teacher quality debate often fails to make clear at the outset just how we are designating “good” or “bad” teachers (as well as “good” and “bad” schools). We must make sure that we are not using labels of quality as markers for those out-of-school factors. In other words, we tend to say schools and teachers are “good” when the student population is affluent, and both are “bad” when the student population is high poverty.

We are also apt to overreact to outliers (when so-called “bad”—high poverty—schools or teachers of poor students have higher than typical test scores) as if those outliers prove some possible standard for all teachers and schools. However, outliers are just that, outliers. And research shows that high-flying schools simply are extremely rare, and often not as high-flying as originally claimed.

Also the teacher quality discussion suffers from the false belief that “teacher quality” is a distinct and permanent quality. In fact, teacher quality is dependent on many factors and contexts. I often am a great teacher and an ineffective teacher for two different students in the same class.

Teacher quality is hard to identify and often relative to dozens of factors, including changing student populations and content being taught.

As a result, so-called low teacher quality in high-poverty schools in SC is likely a mislabel in some ways for the state being the fifth worst child poverty state in the country. But teacher quality is also a marker for our failure to address teacher experience, teacher certification, and funding at high-poverty schools.

So, yes, SC does need to insure high teacher quality for all students, addressing directly the historical and current failures associated with the most vulnerable students in the state’s high-poverty schools.

Jobs programs, comprehensive healthcare reform, food stability legislation, proving books in the homes of all children, and addressing directly the teaching and learning conditions of all schools—these reforms are likely to show greater positive outcomes than traditional approaches to the teacher quality problem.

Therefore, without addressing poverty broadly or how we determine quality teachers and schools—including moving past test-based rankings doing both—we are likely to be again disappointed with any teacher quality reforms we attempt.

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010) and 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate? (Springer,...