Teacher Choice!

I’m not opposed to many kinds of school choice but it’s not a panacea – as they say.  Yet lost under that cliche is the more important point that even having choice among schools isn’t enough – parents have to drill down more because teachers matter more.  It’s especially true if you don’t enjoy school choice.  That issue is the topic of this week’s TIME School of Thought.

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.

You can choose to read the entire column at TIME via this link.

24 Responses to “Teacher Choice!”

  1. Attorney DC Says:

    This sentence doesn’t make sense: “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.”

    First, seniority rules (generally regarding tenure and who gets laid off in event of a Reduction-In-Force) have nothing to do with which students get assigned to which teacher.

    Second, teachers (as opposed to principals) have little input on deciding which students they will teach. In my experience, having taught in several schools, the principal determines which students are placed in which class. This may be done randomly by using a computer system, or may incorporate some active effort on the part of the administration to place students in the appropriate classroom. Teachers, in some cases, may be asked their opinion about a particular student (e.g., do you think Daniel would do OK if he’s in class with mostly older students?) but the ultimate decision rests in the hands of the school’s principal.

  2. Attorney DC Says:

    I would add that to the extent that a teacher is friends with a principal, he or she may have an edge in requesting certain class (such as honors classes) or certain students, but that’s a matter of internal politics, not anything built into the teacher’s contract. An unfavored teacher would be at the mercy of the principal to be assigned the worst students and/or course assignments. In any event, the ultimate power to determine student placement rests in the principal.

  3. Paul Bruno Says:

    Given the extent to which VAM systems rely on random assignment into teachers’ classrooms, I’m a little surprised to see you suggesting undermining them by encouraging parents to selectively sort their kids.

  4. Matt Says:

    Attorney DC,

    I think Andy’s point isn’t that teachers are selecting their students individually (I.e., Mrs. Smith chooses Tim but not Tommy within a school), but rather demographically (Mrs. Smith chooses Tiger Elementary over Lion Elementary because Lion has 50 percent Free and Reduced Lunch versus Tiger which only has 5 percent). Senior teachers who earn the perk (supported by contracts that make seniority the golden ticket via voluntary transfers) are able to choose schools where the students are generally easier to education (wealthier).

    Matt

  5. Attorney DC Says:

    Matt: I haven’t had time to read the entire article, but the clip above contains the following quote, which belies your interpretation: “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.” Based on this quote, the author is clearly indicating that parents can/should try to select a particular teacher WITHIN A SCHOOL for their child.

  6. Attorney DC Says:

    Matt: Just finished reading the rest of Rotherham’s article and determined that the full article supports my position that he is arguing that parents should push for particular teachers w/in a school. Rotherham says nothing about the concept that, on average, more experienced teachers are more highly represented in weathlier schools (even though I believe that that statistic is correct, on average).

    I think that many people reading his article (especially those only reading the first paragraph or two) will come away with the erreneous impression that teachers get to pick and choose their students on a regular basis, and that this perk is somehow related to seniority rules.

  7. Matt Says:

    Ah, I see your point. Though I wasn’t as confused as you might think. I did take away precisely what you said that AR was arguing that parents should be keen about choosing teachers within a school. All I was saying was that his rhetorical point about teachers choosing kids more than kids choosing teachers these days was a broader point about teacher sorting applied to the education system at the school (rather than classroom level). His rhetorical analogy then doesn’t make much sense (after all parents sort into districts based on wealth too).

  8. Attorney DC Says:

    Matt: I agree with your point that parents, in effect, pick their students’ teachers by choosing to live in certain neighborhoods and/or sending their kids to certain schools. I’m not arguing with your theory — just noting that AR’s article doesn’t really concern that theory.

    As a former teacher, I just like to keep an eye on what appear to be anti-teacher or anti-union comments (like Andy’s line about teachers choosing their students as a seniority perk) that aren’t grounded in fact, and point out the correct information.

  9. Kent Says:

    As a HS teacher I suspect that the popularity of teachers at the HS level is going to have more to do with their grading then their effectiveness. Teachers who give easy A’s are going to be more popular than teachers who are more demanding.

    That’s probably not going to be as much of an issue at the elementary level. But at the HS level, letting kids pick their teachers is always going to be problematic for that reason. And understand it will be the kids doing the picking for the most part, not the parents when we are talking about HS.

  10. Linda/RetiredTeacher Says:

    When my sons were little I resisted the temptation to choose their teachers. It just didn’t seem right to me because one of the biggest practical lessons in life is learning to get along with all kinds of people. Besides, all the teachers at their schools had good reputations, although of course there were some “stars.” I know these anecdotal comments mean nothing on a grander scale, but I’m proud to say (once again) that both my sons succeeded academically beyond my wildest dreams.

    Long ago, when my kids were little, the mother of five brilliant and accomplished children said this to me, “Follow the interests of your child. If they express an interest in rocks, run to the nearest library and help him choose books on geology. Sign him up for Summer Science Workshops and do whatever you can to help him develop his interest. ” I followed her advice and now I tell other parents to do the same.

    Professor Frank Smith had this to say in his book “Understanding Reading” – “Respond to what the child is trying to do.” What good advice for the wise parent or teacher!

  11. Chris Smyr Says:

    Kent, I think effectiveness is much easier to gauge for parents than if the teacher is demanding. Parents at my school were very adamant about getting strong teachers; they had very little way of knowing who would ace the most kids, however. Getting into classes that will guarantee a good grade seems more like an argument for specific classes (knowing the class content is easier) than for specific teachers teaching the same class. If parents are making the effort to choose, it also seems likely they will want to pick the teacher most able to teach their son or daughter, preparing them for future exams and learning down the road, than just for an empty grade that crumbles under scrutiny.

    Kids themselves might just want teachers who will best support their efforts to learn instead of passively watching movies all the time. Or it could be based on personalities; had students who would wanted specific teacher because they knew how they operated from extracurriculars or interactions with their friends.

  12. Chris Smyr Says:

    hmm, that should be “students who would want a specific teacher” above,

  13. Kent Says:

    Chris:

    My point is that at the HS level, especially at the upper grades, there is often not much parental involvement at all in terms of which classes kids are registering for. The kids are doing it themselves. Yes, in the leafy wealthy suburbs that are full of stay home moms and super-achieving kids you get a lot of parent over-involvement. But in the more mixed and poorer areas (where we are most focused when it comes to school improvement) there is often little or no parental involvement. The kids just do it themselves.

  14. Chris Smyr Says:

    I witnessed parents who didn’t fit your archetype of “stay home moms” that wanted just as much for their kids. And I don’t remember any students openly clamoring for a certain teacher because they were easier. Regardless, the 2nd point fits: I don’t see how a student would readily know which teachers are least demanding.

    Also, what specifically would be the trouble with this kind of sorting, if it occurred? Is it an argument against teacher choice if some students make bad choices?

  15. pgteacher Says:

    Although it may not fit your experience, Attorney DC, I have seen more than a few schools where the more senior teachers are allowed to choose their classes, which often serves as a proxy for choosing their own students. Ultimately, of course, the principal assigns students, but you’d have a hard time arguing that the students in an AP Calculus class at any school are the same type of student you’d find in an Algebra 1 class.

    Again, of course, the principal does have the final say in which students go into a class and which class a teacher teaches, but that doesn’t stop the convention of seniority determining class that occurs more often than I thought before I got into the field.

  16. Tim Says:

    Students openly clamoring or angling for certain teachers is one of the few things I DO remember about high school. How do students know? They talk to their older siblings, upperclassmen on sports teams and in clubs, etc.

    I’m not sure that it’s universally good advice to tell parents of elementary-school-aged children to request the “best” teacher. Some principals and school communities take an extremely dim view of the practice, and being a squeaky wheel can lead to your kid not getting the superstar that year or any other year.

  17. Attorney DC Says:

    pgteach: Like I said, being friends with the principal can help a teacher get the ‘better’ classes or students. To respond to your comment above, it wouldn’t surprise me if more senior teachers, who’d been at the school for more years, tended to be personally closer to the principal than newer teachers.

    However, that doesn’t mean that ‘seniority’ per se gives teachers the ability to legally determine their course schedule: It just provides a slightly better chance to get into the principal’s good graces! A younger, personable teacher could do the same thing.

  18. Kent Says:

    Chris wrote:

    “I witnessed parents who didn’t fit your archetype of “stay home moms” that wanted just as much for their kids. And I don’t remember any students openly clamoring for a certain teacher because they were easier. Regardless, the 2nd point fits: I don’t see how a student would readily know which teachers are least demanding.”

    The point is that in most schools you do not currently have the option to pick your teacher. Obviously you can pick classes for which there is only one teacher. For example, most of the AP classes at most schools generally only have 1 teacher teaching them so if you sign up for AP chemistry you pretty much know who you are going to get. But for something like General Chemistry which is taught by 5 different teachers at my school students have no ability to chose which teacher they are going to get.

    And you had better believe that if the school actually opened it up to students selecting their teachers it would create an enormous mess at the HS level. The kids would all quickly figure out which teachers they wanted. That sort of information spreads at light speed at the typical HS through texting, facebook, twitter, etc. But it would be completely unmanageable for the registrars and counselors to accommodate. It is hard enough for them to juggle the kids and teachers between 7 different class periods and give everyone the classes they want and keep all the classes relatively level in terms of class size. The counselors at my school would probably rather put a bullet in their heads than have to deal with additional thousands of requests for specific teachers.

    In any event, at my school kids are distributed between classes at random. It’s done by computer. The counselors plug the classes that the student requests into the computer. They are first assigned into those classes that are only offered specific class periods and then for the remaining classes the computer just automatically puts them into the class sections with the lowest enrollment irrespective of class period or teacher. I suspect that is how it is done in most large high schools.

  19. Chris Smyr Says:

    Think it’s more than just good graces, AttorneyDC. There is little chance being “personable” will get a new teacher’s class swapped with a senior teacher. Did you ever see that happen at your schools? I didn’t. Did anyone else?

    *****

    Kent,

    Agreed that teacher choice does not exist as it is currently being discussed.

    Agreed that kids would mostly figure out which teachers they wanted if they could choose, but don’t see how they would be basing this decision on easy ‘A’s, or why they wouldn’t instead choose more easily identifiable variables such as teacher characteristics and quality. Asking their friends if they had an easy time getting an A would be too subjective to even matter, since their friends likely would not have had the same class with the other teacher. In contrast, I’d think most students should be fully able to easily identify if the teacher is a caring person, or is fun to learn from, or simply if he/she is good at what he/she does. This is all assuming zero parent input, as well, and it’s more obvious what a parent would want.

    Let’s even assume that every student picked the least demanding teacher: so what? They’d put in a request for a class (as they typically do now) and then add an additional request for a teacher. Registrar just looks at another variable in placing students. Could be easily automated, as well, to randomly decide which students get in to a highly sought after teacher’s class and which do not. It doesn’t imply that switches between teachers have to occur, or at any larger frequency than they do currently. What’s the dilemma?

  20. LaborLawyer Says:

    Andy’s linked article in TIME School of Thought includes a fatal blow to the argument that teacher quality is the main problem in our public schools.

    In the linked article, Andy approvingly notes research showing that there is little difference in average teacher quality between schools, including between high-income and low-income schools:

    “[R]esearch 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.”

    It is undisputed that there are huge differences between schools regarding student achievement — indeed, if the inner-city school test score results were roughly the same as the suburban school test score results, we’d all be pretty happy with our public schools and school reform would not be a pressing national concern.

    If, as Andy notes and the studies show, average teacher quality is roughly the same in the inner-city schools as in the suburban schools and if student achievement is much lower in the inner-city schools than in the suburban schools, it necessarily follows that something other than teacher quality is responsible for the lower student achievement in the inner-city schools.

    And, most importantly, it also follows that school reform based on high-stakes-testing/teacher-discharge will not raise student achievement in the inner-city schools.

  21. Chris Smyr Says:

    You’d have a point if “teacher quality is the main problem in our public schools” was the argument being made.

    Also, here’s a paragraph from the referenced study’s conclusion, further diminishing the point you are trying to make:

    Our findings show that teachers in high-poverty schools are generally less effective than teachers in lower-poverty schools, though the differences are small and not consistent across states and subject areas. We do find consistent evidence, however, that the variation in effectiveness among teachers in high- poverty schools is greater than the variation among teachers in lower-poverty schools. Differences in the distribution of teacher quality appear to be driven by the relatively poor performance of the least effective teachers in high-poverty schools; the best teachers in high-poverty schools are on par with the best teachers in lower- poverty schools but the least effective teachers in high-poverty schools are much less effective than their counterparts in lower-poverty schools.

    Lastly, “school reform based on high-stakes-testing/teacher-discharge will not raise student achievement in the inner-city schools” is a bold claim with no evidence to support it.

  22. LaborLawyer Says:

    Chris –

    These studies — and Andy — argue that there is little difference between average teacher quality in high income/high-achieving schools and in low-income/low-achieving schools.

    Your quoted study language confirms this conclusion, but goes on to suggest that, although there’s not much difference in average teacher quality between the two school groups, the worst teachers in the low-income schools might be much worse than the worst teachers in the high-income schools.

    These two conclusions are simply inconsistent — if teacher overall teacher quality is about the same (high-income vs. low-income) and if best-teacher quality is the about the same, then it follows that worst-teacher quality must be about the same. Or, that the differences are all pretty small.

    A likely explanation for this apparent inconsistency is that the value-added models do not fully compensate for the non-teacher-controlled variables impacting teacher performance.

    For example, the value-added models largely ignore the negative impact that a disruptive student (as opposed to a low-achieving student) has on a teacher’s ability to teach effectively. There are many more disruptive students in low-income schools than in high-income schools. As the number of disruptive students in a class increases, the resulting interference with instruction will also increase, perhaps exponentially. Test scores in the classes with disruptive students will be lower than they would have been in the absence of the disruptive students. This effect will occur much more frequently in low-income schools, this effect will be increased by the number of disruptive students in a given class, the VA models will not compensate for this effect, and, as a result, teachers in low-income schools will receive lower VA-modeled teacher-effectiveness ratings teachers than they deserve.

    This unfair reduction in the low-income teachers’ VA-modeled effectiveness ratings will be most pronounced for those teachers who have the largest number of disruptive students — possibly explaining the study’s finding that, using VA-modeling, the worst teachers in the low-income schools are worse than the worst teachers in the high-income schools.

    In any event, Andy’s basic point — that differences in average teacher quality between schools are relatively small — means that ineffective teachers are not the main cause of poorly-performing schools and that school reform focused on discharging poorly-performing teachers will not solve the problem of poorly-performing schools.

  23. Chris Smyr Says:

    First, you didn’t address my first and last point mentioned above. You’re attacking a straw man to continue pointing out that “ineffective teachers are not the main cause of poorly-performing schools”. There are also several lines of evidence to suggest that school reform as it is being currently implemented will have net positive benefits for students and families. On the contrary, there is little evidence supporting the idea that school reform will “not solve the problem of poorly-performing schools”.

    These two conclusions are simply inconsistent — if teacher overall teacher quality is about the same (high-income vs. low-income) and if best-teacher quality is the about the same, then it follows that worst-teacher quality must be about the same. Or, that the differences are all pretty small.

    More than likely it has to do with statistical significance. The effects of ineffective teachers in specific can be lost in averages, which looks like what happened with their data. Even then, the averages still point to differences in most cases.

    Regardless, it’s illogical to use a study in support of your claim while simultaneously ignoring much of the results in said study. Furthermore, the authors’ conclusions and policy implications run counter to what you are trying to argue (“Our findings on the variability of teacher effectiveness call for accountability mechanisms that take into account not only school level performance measures, but also the individual level teacher contributions”).

    A likely explanation for this apparent inconsistency is that the value-added models do not fully compensate for the non-teacher-controlled variables impacting teacher performance.

    No, it’s very unlikely, actually. We just had a big discussion about a tremendous study supporting the accuracy of VAM, in case you missed it:

    http://www.eduwonk.com/2012/01/10047.html/comment-page-2

    Here, you’re also arguing contradictory points: that we can believe VAM when it suggests little difference between these schools but cannot believe *the same data* when it suggests the least effective teachers in high-poverty schools are *very* ineffective.

    the value-added models largely ignore the negative impact that a disruptive student (as opposed to a low-achieving student) has on a teacher’s ability to teach effectively.

    Ah, the perennial peer effects argument! First, no, they didn’t ignore classroom characteristics:

    First, we estimate the determinants of individual student achievement in a “value-added” framework that takes into account prior student test performance and other factors (family background, peer characteristics, school management) that might contribute to student performance.

    Second, VAM has now been shown to accurately forecast future benefits to students as well as accurately depict changes in grade-level scores with a quasi-experimental analysis.

    Lastly, the claim that disruptive students are orthogonal to the measurement of teacher quality is bizarre. Effective teachers can work with disruptive students better than less effective teachers can, and the capacity to teach in tough placements should obviously weigh on a teacher’s effectiveness measurement. How is this still a debatable point?

  24. Chris Smyr Says:

    and another bump, because I’d like to hear what LaborLawyer has to say

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