The New York Review of Books has an article by Diane Ravitch, education research professor at NYU and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education. She addresses the background and likely impact of the recent ruling against tenure and other workplace protections for teachers in California. Why do I mention that here?
The theory behind the case is that differences in test scores can be largely attributed to the quality of the teacher. Students who have “great teachers” will get high test scores year after year, which means they are more likely to go to college and earn a higher lifetime income. Even one such teacher, so goes the theory, can have this remarkable effect on students. On the other hand, said one of the expert witnesses cited by the judge, one bad teacher can cause students to lose an entire year of learning.
In fact, however, researchers overwhelmingly agree that family income and family education are the largest determinants of academic performance. Only a few months ago, the American Statistical Association said that teachers account for only between 1 percent and 14 percent of the variation among students in test scores. “The majority of opportunities for quality improvement,” said ASA, “are found in the system-level conditions”—that is, variables such as resources, class size, school leadership, the quality of the curriculum, and other factors that are mostly beyond the control of a single teacher.
The rest of the article lays out a pretty clear picture of a sham lawsuit using plaintiffs with quite dubious standing; deep-pocket special interests and political appointees once more laying down the law. Par for the course these days. This case was decided by ideology rather than relying on research, fact, and data, and will not give students any benefit.
As much as I agree with Ravitch and disagree with the ruling, the case is at least focused on one “real” fact: education – both teaching and learning – are person-driven activities. The quality of the teacher is important, as is the impact of the parents and the effort of the student. Poverty is a primary driver of poor academic performance. When the school itself basely has sufficient funding to meet basic requirements, even routine challenges can become insurmountable.
The whole point of the iPad push is some phantom productivity benefit, so you can stuff more students in a classroom, and still hopefully get away with less experienced, lower-paid teacher. It is not to drive student achievement, and anybody that tells you otherwise is selling you something.
Like an iPad.