Green V. Thomas

Evan Thomas and Elizabeth Green debate teaching in Newsweek. 

Worth reading.  But per the post below, Elizabeth casually compares two studies of Teach For America teachers.   Not to pick on her, but this is a classic example of the problem our field faces.  Those two studies she cites are not the same in terms of their methodological quality.   Until our field learns how to actually consume research rather than just piling up “studies” to see which stack is higher we are going to chase our tails. 

In the case of TFA, the evidence base is quite clear based on multiple high-quality studies done independently of the organization:  Teach For America teachers perform as well or better than other teachers, including veterans etc…

But, and you’d think this is what the critics would seize on because it has implications for the debate Evan and Elizabeth are having, the variance among TFA teachers is as great as among other teachers and, overall, while substantively significant (hence the popularity of the program among school districts) the effect sizes are not enormous.    But to make that point you still have to acknowledge that the organization is doing a lot of good and has other important externalities as well.  Yet right now the critics are more interested in castigating TFA than figuring out how to learn from what they’re doing, hence the confusion that surrounds the various “studies.

13 Replies to “Green V. Thomas”

  1. Elizabeth also readily buys into Deborah Ball’s sales pitch that teaching knowledge matters more than content knowledge. She does disclose in her NY Times piece that Ball is her sponsor for a Spencer fellowship. I’ve spoken with many veteran teachers about Ball’s philosophy. In her pitch that pedagogy trumps content, she does succeed in making ed schools look more important than they currently are. Knowing students’ errors is helpful to a point; after some experience, certain mistakes become commonplace to the point that one can talk about avoiding them. But for the many types of mistakes a student might make, developing a taxonomy of all those possibilities seems a sheer waste of time, though probably a good research paper for AERA. The teachers I’ve spoken with tell me if they don’t know how a student got their answer, they just ask him/her. Then they correct the mistake, and show the right way. And then move on.

  2. Any 6-12 teacher that has a degree in the course they are teaching will be better than a generalist because they have a deep, comprehensive, and fluid understanding.

    The question I have is where do the TFA kids stand in relation to elementary generalists, particularly people in their age cohorts? This could be one good measurement of how well education degree programs work.

    It probably has little to do with k-12 schools unless you want to measure backward to the “Lake Woebegone Period” of neoconservative history.

  3. OK visited the MPR site. Why isn’t research on the generally dismal results of education degrees making headway with the researchers at MPR? The variance among TFA subjects should point them in the differences in departmental and college effectiveness. How much is credential inflation affecting the institutions teachers attend? That sort of thing.

  4. Having read the Newsweek article of Green and Thomas, and having retired as a math teacher and principal in 2006 in a major urban district, I offer the following comments:

    1) Ms. Green highlights Prof. Deborah Ball’s belief that a teacher has to recognize there are 30 different ways of perceiving a math question/solution within a classroom. This is silly. The teachers have to know the content of the discipline so well that they can explain it clearly and succinctly, hopefully in several different ways—and not because of students’ different learning “styles.” It’s called enhanced repetition of the topic that finally allows enough practice for the student to see the steps involved in the solution. The students must also be taught that it’s their responsibility to attend to the explanations and recognize they must learn an established method for solving math problems efficiently and effectively. Once the “inside of the box” is mastered—or the historically developed concepts and principles of a discipline, then “outside the box” thinking should be encouraged and those “30 different” approaches can be entertained for “critical thinking” exercises.

    2) Teachers can indeed become polished in their abilities, but there are those who do have the innate ability to relate and be reflective and remembered for the lessons they impart to children. The standard rule is that no one really understands what teaching is all about until the end of the third year. The first year, you survive. The second year, you think, “Oh, that’s what I should have done with that lesson.” The third year, you’re embarrassed because you realize how much you didn’t do know the first two years. But you’re finally beginning to feel a bit secure in your knowledge base and ready to put your experience to better use the fourth year. This is because teachers not only have had to learn how to work with children’s behaviors and academics, they have to learn the “system” in which they are working—the rules, paperwork, infrastructure, pecking order, etc. It’s exhausting. This is the one area that is missing for new teachers: Good, solid mentoring from established teachers who WANT to mentor a young teacher.

    3) This brings me to the next big issue: Getting rid of both incompetent teachers AND administrators. While unions have made getting rid of bad teachers almost impossible, it can be done. It’s called documentation and supervision. Most administrators don’t know how, and want to learn how, to do this. It is horrendously time consuming. And, in fairness, this resistant behavior can often be laid at the feet of central office staff who don’t support building administrators when they do take action. It’s easier just to shuffle the teacher to another site. This means there are a bunch of people above the principals (including school board members) who need weeding out as well as teachers in the classrooms and general building administrators. I can guarantee that if a school or district has a reputation of firmness, fairness, and clarity about issues, staff, and parent expectations, supported by a strong school board and central office, there will be good workers seeking employment in the district. (That means poverty kids, who rarely have structure and consistency in their lives, had better be able to find those two variables in their schools if they are to experience success.)

  5. The best line in this article is the one about the one million new teachers who will be needed by 2014. With women now entering many professions, who will take these jobs? Hopefully districts will be so desperate that they will offer teachers higher salaries, stronger job protections, better benefits and professional respect and autonomy. I hope I live to see it.

  6. linda writes: Hopefully districts will be so desperate that they will offer teachers higher salaries, stronger job protections, better benefits and professional respect and autonomy. I hope I live to see it.

    I don’t understand this mentality. if a county or state were facing a deficit of police officers (another government job), who would say Hopefully the chief of police will be so desperate that they will offer cops higher salaries, stronger job protections, better benefits and professional respect and autonomy. I hope I live to see it.

    no, they would say, i hope our county will be able to find enough good cops to protect us and keep our streets clean. why is it always about the adults in education? we should really be quite indifferent about how the need for one million new teachers will impact the benefits for a particular group of prospective government employees. what matters is how this will impact kids.

  7. If doctors, police officers or any other workers were suffering from something akin to teacher-bashing, I would wish the same for them that I do for teachers.

    The only way our children are going to get the teachers they deserve is if society values teachers enough to treat them with dignity and respect. Once our country is desperate enough for these dedicated and hard-working professionals, I predict they will be treated a lot better than they are at the present time. I hope that explains my “mentality.”

  8. Unfortunately, teachers will not be valued until education itself is valued for what it can mean to a family and a society and not what it means to the power players in education–bureaucrats, vendors, and politicians. This is a serious cultural issue facing America. The surge of persons toward teaching may happen now because other jobs are scarce. If we’re lucky, the best candidates will be chosen and they will choose to remain if the economy improves and in spite of the adult issues that drown children’s needs.

  9. HA HA HA HA –Andy, you are hilarious. You ignore, spin, and obfuscate research on a daily basis, Yet, you have the cajones to call out people in the field to be better consumers of research.

    How is that dissertation coming?Make A’s in your research courses? Exactly what quantitative methodology courses have YOU completed that makes YOU qualified to compare the studies?

    Take a LONG hard look in the mirror buddy.

  10. “The only way our children are going to get the teachers they deserve is if society values teachers enough to treat them with dignity and respect.”

    Name the inputs you want? Pay, autonomy, x, y, z?

    Would you take a deal in which you get everything you want on the input side for teachers in exchange for a guarantee of accountability on the outcome side in the form of getting a substantially greater share of kids at NAEP proficiency?

    I’d take that deal. In fact, I think one could argue that we’ve done a lot of inputting in the last 20 years, but not so much good stuff has happened on the output end? I just doubt teacher associations would sign off on that kind of deal. Give them everything they want, but would they still want to be held accountable at the end of the day? Not accountable based on portfolios or what teachers think they should be held accountable for. Accountable for what the majority of taxpayers who fund the system want: college and career readiness and global competitiveness (e.g. PISA).

  11. Amos, you are right. The problems in education that we face are mainly cultural and that is why they are so difficult to solve.

    The lack of respect for the education of children and for the teachers who serve them can be clearly seen on this blog.

  12. billy bob-

    andy merely points out that not all studies on TFA are created equal. what’s your problem with that. it doesn’t take a rocket scientists or a PhD to know that a randomized study is better than a cross sectional observational one. journalists need to become wise enough to distinguish that in their effort to translate research findings to the public.

    make sense? not quite sure what your point is in this regard. andy’s was relatively simple, and pretty on target. if you disagree that his point isn’t on target, why do you disagree?

  13. Roger, I believe K-12 teachers should have salaries, benefits and working conditions similar to community college instructors with similar degrees and experience. More than money, I would have wanted autonomy, the ability to choose materials, serious input into the curriculum, time to plan lessons and support for children with serious learning and behavioral problems. And it would have been nice to have all the supplies I needed for books and materials so I didn’t have to spend about $4000 a year of my own money.

    Of course teachers should be accountable for the work that they do! Isn’t that just common sense? The problem is how to do it. During all my years of teaching the principal (or anyone else) hardly even knew what I was doing because he or she was so busy with his own job. If my class was under control when they passed my door, then all was well.

    Personally I would not mind being evaluated by the NAEP or another test if (1) it could be secure and (2) experts agreed that the test was capable of measuring the progress of every child in the class and evaluating the teacher of that class. So far as I know, there is no test designed to do this. Non-teachers seem to think these tests measure only what a child has learned in class, but they actually measure what a child has learned in school, at home and in the environment at large (TV, Scouts, summer camp, trips to the museums, etc.)

    However, a teacher CAN be evaluated. It’s not difficult, but it’s time-consuming. Here’s how it must be done at the elementary level: At the beginning of the year a psychologist, administrator or experienced teacher must administer an achievement test to every child in the class. This must be done individually because the examiner has to establish the child’s instructional level. For example, if a sixth grade child who has just moved to the United States doesn’t know the alphabet, the examiner needs to note that and start testing at a beginning level. In the spring, the same person would have to test each child again in order to determine the progress made during the year. In addition to this, the teacher would need to be observed to evaluate her classroom management skills, her rapport with students, her ability to involve the children and so forth. And yes, samples of student work are also very valuable, especially if given by an independent evaluator. Personally I always felt that student compositions collected over a year’s time presented invaluable information about a child’s academic progress.

    What is wrong with my plan? It’s expensive! Yes!

    Everyone wants cheap shortcuts in education. Well, there aren’t any.

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