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Radical Eyes for Equity: Education Lies That Won’t Die: Teacher Value

The list is mind-numbingly long—education lies that won’t die.

I have detailed often the standard manufactured crisis/miracle rhetoric surrounding discussions of education in media, among the public, and by politicians.

And currently, the manufactured reading crisis is grounded in the Big Lie about NAEP and reading proficiency.

Many education lies that won’t die are ideological beliefs masquerading as evidence-based claims; two of the most persistent of those involve assertions about teacher value and merit pay schemes.

Of course, teacher value is incredibly important to student learning; however, this argument is misleading at best, at worst a lie: “Research has shown that the number one factor influencing individual student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.”

It is an incredibly compelling misrepresentation of the data available, primarily because it appears to support the value of teachers.

Yet, the evidence over many years shows that measurable student achievement is mostly driven by out-of-school factors (OOS) with in-school factors and teacher quality as a subset of that, both significantly overshadowed by those OOS factors:

Teachers Matter, But So Do Words
ASA Statement on Using Value-Added Models for Educational Assessment (2014)
Family Background Accounts for 40% of SAT/ACT Scores Among UC Applicants

The paradox is that teacher value is very difficult to measure through student achievement tests. Further, claims about teacher value that misrepresent that value force teachers and students into nearly impossible conditions to be successful.

Locally, a district is revisiting value-added efforts to attract and retain teachers in high-poverty, majority-minority school, paired with merit pay schemes (that have been tried multiple times in South Carolina unsuccessfully).

Value-added methods of teacher evaluation and merit pay are ideological commitments, and both are strongly refuted by a large body of evidence.

Simultaneously with these failed schemes, education is increasingly hostile to teachers—parent organizations framing teachers as groomers and indoctrinators along with states and districts trending toward curriculum bans and scripted curriculum that de-professionalize those teachers:

“Phonics Monkeys” and “Real Life Reading”: Heteroglossic Views of a State Reading Initiative

If we genuinely value teachers—and having been in this profession 40 years, I suspect that on balance we do not—we would address teaching and learning conditions (class size, teacher autonomy, etc.) within a larger effort to address social inequity in children’s communities and homes.

Ideology is not evidence, and education, teachers, and students deserve much better than political leaders and administrators using our schools as experiments of that ideology—especially when we have ample evidence that ideology is flawed.


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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...