Good teaching, happy lives, and Students Come First.

Like winning was for Vince Lombardi, it turns out that great teaching isn’t the most important thing—it’s the only thing. This was made crystal-clear recently in a Harvard University study quantifying how important good teaching is to society. In Idaho and everywhere else we need to ask ourselves: What are we doing to ensure our kids are being taught by great teachers?

The study looked at the relationships among teaching, test scores and life outcomes for 1 million New York City public school students from the fourth grade through adulthood. The authors first measured the “value-added” (VA) of students’ teachers by measuring student academic growth over the course of a school year. For example, the teacher whose students started the year below grade level, but then caught up by the end of the year, would receive a higher VA number than the teacher whose students started at or above grade level, but did not grow as much.

After teacher VA numbers were established, the study looked at their students’ life outcomes over a 20-year period. The study found that the higher a teacher’s VA, the more likely his students were to attend college, to make greater amounts of money, to live in better neighborhoods and to save more for retirement. It further found that students of high VA teachers would be less likely to become parents while still teenagers.

Astoundingly, students who had the good fortune to be assigned for only one year to teachers in the top 5 percent of the value-added measurement would go on to earn an average of $50,000 more over their lifetimes than students of teachers with lower VA measurements.

The study controlled for student demographics, meaning that regardless of whether a student came from a poor background or a rich one, the value added by his teacher accurately predicted the percentage by which his income would change relative to his family of origin. The study also took advantage of natural teaching personnel changes and discovered that when a high VA teacher joins a school, test scores for his or her students immediately rise. When a high VA teacher leaves, test scores drop. Further, just one year’s worth of data tells most of the story about the value a teacher will add over the course of his or her career.

Again, if getting the best teachers possible in front of kids is so vital, what are Idaho policymakers doing about it?

In 2011, one thing the Idaho Legislature did was pass Students Come First, a collection of three omnibus education bills with each bill having many different parts. One part of Senate Bill 1108 deep-sixed seniority reduction-in-force (RIF) rules. Even though the Harvard study confirms the common sense notion that number of years on the job has very little to do with teacher quality, in Wisconsin and Indiana seniority RIF rules have led to ridiculous outcomes that hurt kids, including Teachers of the Year getting laid off. Thanks to Students Come First, that can no longer happen in Idaho. Idaho teachers who do a good job, regardless of how long they’ve been on the payroll, are more likely to keep their jobs during tough times.

Idaho policymakers also have recognized that effective teaching can be leveraged digitally. Obviously, there will always be a place for live teaching, just like there’s nothing like live music. However, in the same way that my rendition of “Respect” likely wouldn’t resemble Aretha Franklin’s (and might, unfortunately, remind you of this), sometimes the best teaching isn’t rendered by a human being standing in front of a classroom.

That’s why Idaho policymakers did the right thing by passing Senate Bill 1184, another part of Students Come First that promotes learning technology. Today, a student in the most remote mountain hamlet can take calculus from an expert Idaho teacher over the Idaho Education Network, or be tutored by expert Sal Khan over the Internet, or take classes from an online course provider. Geography is no longer destiny. Students these days are digital natives who are utterly comfortable with technology that can put them before the best teachers, no matter the location of teacher or student.

“Pay for performance” is another aspect of Students Come First that has garnered much attention. For decades, teachers have been compensated according to where their years on the job and graduate credits place them on a salary grid. Starting in the 2012-13 school year, Idaho teachers will be able to earn above and beyond the grid when their performance is above and beyond.

On the “pay” side of things, funds will be distributed by the state to high performing schools, not individual teachers, which may not be such a bad idea. Private sector employees often earn bonuses according to group profits, not individual performance. Companies think this prods people to band together and work as a team, and there’s wisdom to this. Not everybody gets fired up by the idea of working on commission.

However, Idahoans need to watch for skulduggery on the “performance” side of pay for performance. Starting this year, at least 50 percent of teacher and administrator performance evaluations will be tied to student academic growth. Tennessee is a year ahead of Idaho in this effort, and the Tennessee Senate recently passed a bill exempting teacher evaluations from public information transparency laws. Proponents argued that only principals and other officials need to know the results of teacher evaluations insofar as they need to know what to pay.

Nonsense. Teacher performance information needs to be public so families can decide for themselves whether Junior should spend the next nine months with a particular teacher. Further, informal networks forever have passed gossip about good versus bad teachers through the parent grapevine. Wouldn’t student performance measurements that are essentially teacher VA measurements be not only more reliable, but also more fair to the demanding teacher who pushes kids to excel, but who might not win a popularity contest?Idaho policymakers need to be vigilant and ensure pay for performance laws aren’t sabotaged in future legislative sessions.

Maybe money can’t buy happiness, but more wealth can mean more choices in life and more freedom—and we here at Idaho Freedom Foundation think people would rather be more than less free. It turns out a wealth value can be assigned to good teaching not only in terms of teacher salaries, but also in terms of life outcomes for those who have been taught.

The health, wealth and freedom that will accrue to students who had the benefit of good teaching ought to be multiplied across society by making sure as many kids as possible have good teachers. The Students Come First education reform package of laws contains many elements that are helping to make that happen.

2 Responses to “Good teaching, happy lives, and Students Come First.”

  1. Jerel Thomas 16 April 2012 at 4:40 PM #

    Interesting article. As a teacher of 5 years with deep conservative roots, I see some flaws in the above article. While doing away with seniority is a good thing, there seems to be a presumption that experienced teachers are inherently the bad ones that need to go. If teachers with a high VA index are leaving the field, we should be discovering why that is.

    Undoubtedly this is tied to teacher pay. This leads to your discussion on Pay For Performance. You state “Starting in the 2012-13 school year, Idaho teachers will be able to earn above and beyond the grid when their performance is above and beyond.” While this does indeed sound great, it is not true. I work in a hard-to-fill position as a Special Education teacher. All of my reviews have been stellar. However, I have still received a $6000 pay cut over the past 3 years. By meeting all of the PFP metrics, I will get a $2000 “bonus”. What does this mean in real numbers? With a Masters Degree and continueing education the state mandates I take and 5 years of experience, I earn $30480 per year, down from $36,000. In order to get $2000 of that back, I must take on additional duties. This is not the way to attract and retain VA teachers.

    You suggest making teacher evaluations public. You state “Teacher performance information needs to be public so families can decide for themselves whether Junior should spend the next nine months with a particular teacher.” So what makes a good teacher? A teacher who was fantastic for me is not a good teacher for you. Is the best teacher the one who can write a great lesson plan so he or she looks great on paper? Are test scores supposed to be used? Many people compare education to the private sector. There would rightfully be outrage if a private company released employee files for all to review. Why should teachers have to have their evaluations put out for public scrutiny and not all other public employees? By your same logic, policeman evaluations should be made public because I need to know if I want a particular officer patroling my neighborhood.

    Perhaps what is most frustrating is that we conservatives have ignored the economic laws we champion for all other agencies. You champion what the legislature has done to help education. In other words, we are championing that government has intervened to make government better. So now teachers are the enemy because teachers are the problem to education. It would be beneficial if the people crtiquing teachers would actually spend time in a school trying to keep up with all the regulations that federal and state government put upon education. Perhaps then people will correctly see that the best thing for education is to decentralize and de-regulate, just like we champion for all other industries.

    Teachers are not the problem to education. Just like any other industry, govt. only stifles educational innovation and efficiency. In other words, education constantly hears the fearful words warned to us by Reagan. “I’m from the govt. and I’m here to help.”

    • Briana LeClaire 16 April 2012 at 6:32 PM #

      Hi Jerel -

      I appreciate your interest. I hope this response can clarify a few things.

      First of all, I’m not saying Students Come First is the end-all-be-all of education reform. I’m saying it contains some steps in the right direction. For example, Students Come First allows prinicpals to make personnel decisions at the building level that they weren’t allowed to before.

      Do I think the education of the public would occur more effectively if market forces were allowed to work as they do for college, where we can use public dollars (Pell grants, other public scholarships) to choose between public and private schools? Yes. But nationwide, out of 115 million workers total, 6 million people work in the public education system in some capacity. That’s a lot of vested interest in the current system. I don’t look for it to get dismantled in a rapid fashion.

      I’m not advocating for the release of, in your words, teacher “employee files for all to review.” I am advocating for the release of teaching RESULTS for all to review. And yes, I think most of the time, test scores show teaching results. In Special Education, there will be special metrics. But teaching is measurable, and when the public pays for it, the public should know what the results of those measurements are. Besides, I think the burden of explanation is upon teachers: why do those who measure for a living then object to being measured in turn?

      The public also needs real choices between education services. I even think real choice would be fine in lieu of publicized test results. People may have reasons for choosing a teacher for their children that has to do with something other than a number on a test. However . . . back using test results as a metric . . . you might be interested in the effects special education vouchers have had on performance. Increased choice led to better outcomes for both sets of students: those who left the system with a special ed voucher, and those who stayed in.

      I’m sorry your paycheck has shrunk. That is a serious bummer. Public budgets have shrunk . . . along with budgets in the private sector. Lots of people are hurting, not just teachers. I will note that the teachers’ union, which represents you in salary negotiations whether you belong or not (if your district has an education association, that is) would rather have lots of dues-paying teachers than fewer teachers who make more and leverage their excellent teaching using technology, for example. See this hybrid classroom at work to see what I’m talking about. The union is all about the number of dues-paying members, even when the number of members hurts the paychecks of those in the profession.

      For the first time (again, thanks to Students Come First) the unions have to prove more than half of the teachers working in a district belong before they can negotiate on behalf of them all. If we can loosen the death grip the union has on the profession, I think people with master’s degrees will be able to find the best employment deal, without the union’s “help.”

      Thank you again for being interested enough to write a response. Take care.

      ~ Briana