Good Teachers Can Make a Difference, How About Bad Ones?

I have had my share of bad teachers (of course, this is based only on my opinion) while I was a student. But I do remember the good ones. A good teacher can indeed have a long term impact on a student. I guess one can wonder what would have happened if all I had as a student were good teachers. Kevin Drum in a recent article on Mother Jones provides an estimate to this question. Drum's article, "Firing Bad Teachers Has Surprisingly Meager Effects", makes use of a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled "The Long Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood", which has the following abstract:
Are teachers’ impacts on students’ test scores (“value-added”) a good measure of their quality? This question has sparked debate largely because of disagreement about (1) whether value-added (VA) provides unbiased estimates of teachers’ impacts on student achievement and (2) whether high-VA teachers improve students’ long-term outcomes. We address these two issues by analyzing school district data from grades 3-8 for 2.5 million children linked to tax records on parent characteristics and adult outcomes. We find no evidence of bias in VA estimates using previously unobserved parent characteristics and a quasi-experimental research design based on changes in teaching staff. Students assigned to high-VA teachers are more likely to attend college, attend higher- ranked colleges, earn higher salaries, live in higher SES neighborhoods, and save more for retirement. They are also less likely to have children as teenagers. Teachers have large impacts in all grades from 4 to 8. On average, a one standard deviation improvement in teacher VA in a single grade raises earnings by about 1% at age 28. Replacing a teacher whose VA is in the bottom 5% with an average teacher would increase the present value of students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 for the average class- room in our sample. We conclude that good teachers create substantial economic value and that test score impacts are helpful in identifying such teachers.
Drum highlights the finding that replacing a bottom 5% teacher ("the worst of the worst") results only in a 1% increase in earnings for a student at age 28. Drum heavily emphasizes the 1% figure, explaining the "meager" word in his Mother Jones' article. The bottom 5% teachers are not teaching in one school so the chances that a student gets more than one teacher from this group is statistically unlikely. Thus, Drum concludes at the end of the article:
Am I the only one who finds that surprisingly meager? I'm all for getting rid of horrible teachers, but if anything, this study makes me put a lower priority on this than I used to—especially considering how difficult it would be to carry out a policy like this. I was surprised that this study got such a euphoric reception when it was published, and I still am.
The above observation does deliver a serious blow against this cover story on Newsweek:

March 2010 Newsweek issue

There are about 3 million teachers in elementary and middle schools in the United States. Firing 5% means laying off 150,000. This is a huge number and, as Drum points out, will only have a meager effect.

There are indeed far better ways of improving teacher quality. A lot can be achieved when teachers are given time to work together so that, for example, they can compare notes. Teachers can observe other teachers and this practice helps both, the one observing and the one being observed. Teachers must be afforded time to reflect, prepare and review. For the Philippines, teacher quality is, without doubt, a crucial issue in addressing the problems Philippine basic education faces. DepEd secretary Luistro noted:
“In government, whether in teaching or in other areas, no one has ever been dismissed for incompetence. People have been dismissed for corruption, but not for incompetence. In most schools, teachers with tenure, however incompetent, cannot be fired without due cause.
So we have to work with them. We have to continue to train and retrain them to be able to do K to 12 well.”
This statement acknowledges that it is difficult to fire bad teachers. However, it should be made clear that even if that option is possible, it is not going to work. What is truly needed is realizing what "training" and "retraining" really encompass. One must review if regional workshops or seminars are really effective. My initial guess is that these are of very low utility. Teachers really face highly individualized cases and efforts and time are probably better spent at the school level - in terms of greater involvement of the principal as well as collaboration among teachers in a school. This brings us back to one of the seven elements of Finland's education reform:

Diversity: The school network is based on the idea of inclusive education that promotes diversity in schools and classrooms. Steering of teaching and learning has never been based on written standards, but rather upon guidelines encouraging creative solutions within increasingly diverse social and human environments.

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