By Carol Lloyd
"I'll go to my deathbed regretting letting that happen," my old friend Mark confessed on New Year's Eve after I asked about his twin 9-year-old girls. A painter in his fifties, he was one of those enthusiastic older dads who had to reinvent the nurture wheel in isolation – without traditional ties to friends or family. His mother was long dead, his father completely uninterested in being a father much less a grandfather. Many of his closest friends had no children. And his wife and he had gone through a rancorous divorce. Still, it was obvious he cared passionately about his girls and wanted the very best for them.
Yet he now was stricken with remorse. Not about abuse or negligence or even failing to get them to all those soccer games and ballet classes. But something I would have regretted, too – sitting by and allowing his kids to return day after day to a classroom with a terrible teacher.
His girls were been enrolled in a small parochial K-8 school where the teacher stayed with a class for two years at a time. Their 1st and 2nd grade teacher was more Mrs Trunchbull than Miss Honey: She would take his daughter's perfectly done homework except for the missing name and rip it up in front of the classroom. His wife had blocked his suggestions that they move schools: why take the girls out of their routine and away from their friends just because of a teacher? The 3rd and 4th grade teacher, he said, was great but next year they faced the prospect of a 5th and 6th grade teacher with the same vindictive reputation as their 1st and 2nd grade teacher.
Parents' ever expanding job description
Now Mark realized he needed to begin looking for a school at the 11th hour and convince his ex of the merits of this decision with little understanding of the process he was about to embark on. I got him on Greatschools to research schools in his city, and I tried to give him a one-minute definition of magnets and charters.
There are two kinds of parents out there. Those in the know, and those out of the know vis a vis their kids' education. I used to be the latter and gradually – with plenty of missteps – I've become the former. The division between the two groups isn't about love or smarts or even having been well educated themselves.
Like the health care industry which now expects the average patient to manage their own health care, argue with insurance companies, and keep abreast of the latest technology and health care protocols, the education world now demands even more from parents. More school choice brings more responsibility. Less government funding of schools means parents must to do more to shore up those learning gaps. (And as some private schools become more focused on bottom-line thinking, parents need to be more vigilant that their "great private school" isn't selling their children's future down the river toward cost-effectiveness.)
The economics of Miss Honey and Mrs. Trunchbull
That's why I was so heartened to see a New York Times cover story about a big study on the long-term impact of great teachers (and not-so-great teachers). This article, I thought before I read the article, is just the sort of thing Mark needs to absorb and use to convince his ex-wife he's not
crazy for wanting to switch schools. He will see that getting your child in front of good teachers is super-important and bad teachers do indeed take their toll on a child's learning and long-term behavior.
Unfortunately, as with so many education stories these days, this one spoke to a specific debate in the education policy wars (vis a vis evaluating teachers). Not exactly what I was hoping for. The article reported on a new two-decade study of 2.5 million students by economists looking at the correlation between teachers' "value added" (whether they improve or fail to improve their students' standardized test scores) and three long-term outcomes of the students in their classes: teen pregnancy, college attendance at age 20 and earnings at age 28. Sigh. I know we are a metrics-driven society and a metrics-driven epiphany may be the only one that transforms our culture into one that values the teaching profession for what it is – crucial for the evolution of human civilization – but attempting to make that argument by linking value-added scores and long-term earning potential is so inherently flawed that it makes you wonder about what education policy wonks are smoking out there.
There was one very interesting trend revealed in the graphs accompanying the article which I think the article itself sort of missed. Students who had teachers whose students' scores fell tended to have significantly lower incomes, college attendance rates and higher teenage pregnancy rates. But students with teachers whose students' scores improved slightly but not a lot actually had higher incomes, higher college attendence rates and lower teen pregnancy rates. Judging from this, mediocre teachers (vis a vis test score improvement) have a greater positive long-term impact than value-added rock stars. Maybe this is because the best teachers work can't be measured by a multiple choice test or maybe it reveals that there are more variables at work than the study can account for.
Either way, there are plenty of reasons we shouldn't abdicate education policy to the economists -- for a few hundred more, check out the comments at the end of the New York Times' story. I'm not anti-standardized test, but there are just too many variables in the way teachers work, receive student assignments, and respond to difficult students for the value-added score to be used as an accurate predictor of a child's future. When I look back on the greatest teachers in my life, getting their students to ace standardized tests were the very last thing on their minds. I can't imagine how the value-added mind set would have effected their teaching.
But the article did highlight one thing Mark needs to know. If the policy wonks are still a long way from being able to roll out or even measure great teachers, for the foreseeable future, it's on us. While experts wrestle over macro-trends, every parent needs to understand that the teacher standing before their child (or sitting cross-legged in a circle) will make their mark, for better or for worse.