Nicholas Kristof has discovered education. Health care is no longer our greatest national shame—education is. skoolboy thinks that responsible op-ed reporting can’t be far behind. Breathlessly, Kristof reports in Sunday’s New York Times that teachers are “astonishingly important.” “It turns out that having a great teacher is far more important than being in a small class, or going to a good school with a mediocre teacher,” he writes. “A Los Angeles study suggested that four consecutive years of having a teacher from the top 25 percent of the pool would erase the black-white testing gap.”
Wow, erasing the black-white testing gap in four years sounds like a pretty good deal. And just from being taught by some really great teachers! There must be some evidence of this for it to show up in the New York Times, wouldn’t you think? Some study somewhere that actually showed that black students exposed to teachers in the top quarter of the teacher effectiveness distribution for four years in a row can routinely move from the 16th percentile in the test score distribution (roughly the black average) to the 50th percentile (roughly the white average)?
Maybe that Los Angeles study will show the way. Nah, that’s just a “suggestion” by Robert Gordon, Tom Kane, and Doug Staiger that the five percentage point increment in performance from having a teacher in the top quartile, and the five percentage point decrement from having a teacher in the bottom quartile, could cumulate over time—a 10 percentage point swing for four years in a row would more than close the 34 percentage point gap between the average black student and the average white student.
What’s creaming, and why does it matter? This topic gained some momentum earlier this week in a comment by Seth Andrew, the head of the Democracy Prep Charter School, a relatively new 6-12 secondary school in Harlem, on a GothamSchools post on KIPP. Pointing to the use of standardized tests for admission to New York City’s citywide specialized high schools and citywide gifted and talented programs, he wrote, “traditional public schools are far more guilty of ‘creaming’ (both in terms of aggressiveness and quantity of students effected) than charters could ever be. We have a legal mandate to enroll by a random lottery.”
I’m going to hazard a guess that Andrew has a particular image of creaming in mind: the intentional and systematic use of selection criteria to choose which students attend a school. But there’s another view which I’d like to put forward: creaming is any selection process, intentional or unintentional, that results in the students within a school being more likely to succeed due to their differences from the broader population of students from which they were drawn. Andrew’s definition helps to illuminate the intentions and actions of school leaders; but I think mine is more useful in making comparisons among schools both in terms of the kinds of students they serve and their relative effectiveness in promoting student outcomes.
I’ll use Democracy Prep as an example, but want to make clear that I am not criticizing the school or its practices. Democracy Prep, like most charter schools, is staffed with talented, hard-working people who are trying to promote the best outcomes for their students, and they are doing so within the provisions of the rules governing charter schools.
DC schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee took to the pages of the Washington Post on Monday to sell her proposal for a new teacher contract to the public—and maybe to a few teachers too. Her primary message: Teachers are the solution, not the problem. They’re not to blame for the low achievement levels in DC schools. Heck, she was a teacher herself. So she knows the challenges and rewards of teaching.
Of course, there’s the pesky case of ineffective teaching, Chancellor Rhee’s version of the Ronald Reagan “welfare queen” rhetorical ploy. “I do not believe that most of our teachers are shortchanging their students,” she writes. “But in the worst cases, we have teachers who put their feet on their desks and read the paper while students run around. Or they use corporal punishment. Or they intentionally abuse their current contract, leaving for three months at a time and returning for the one day that will keep their job active.” Powerful words, but I’m left to wonder how many teachers we’re talking about, and why the current contractual provisions can’t address such problem cases. (Since we’re only talking about the “worst cases,” after all.) Does the Chancellor mean to suggest that the District has no mechanism to remove a teacher who is using corporal punishment in the classroom?