Thursday, January 31, 2013

What is the Value of High Value-Added Teachers?

NB: Things got a little crazy this week, so this is a repost from one year ago. However, the sentiments are as true today as they were then. 

Great news emerged this week for elementary- and middle-school teachers who make gains in their students' test scores – while the teachers themselves may not be pulling down big salaries, their efforts result in increased earnings for their students. In a study that tracked 2.5 million students for over 20 years, researchers found that good teachers have a long-lasting positive effect on their students’ lives, including those higher salaries, lower teen-pregnancy rates, and higher college matriculation rates.

In the midst of the debate surrounding this study, it is important to remember that its authors, Raj Chetty, John N. Freidman, and Jonah E. Rockoff, are all economists. Their study measures tangible, economic outcomes from what they call high versus low “value-added” teachers. This “value-added” approach, which is defined as “the average test-score gain for his or her students, adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores,” may work for measuring such tangible outcomes as future earnings, but it misses so much of the point of education.

I asked my husband's Uncle Michael, a professor of law and economics, what he thought of the study, and he compared the proponents of the study’s mathematical economic approach to education to acolytes of The Who’s Tommy, pinball wizards who “sought to isolate themselves from the world so as to improve their perception of a very narrow sliver of that world. The entire ‘assessment’ enterprise defiles education as that word once meant.”

He attempted to explain his feelings about the study in terms of mathematical equations – something to do with linear regression thinking and educational outcomes, but I got lost in the Y = a + bX + errors of it all.

Tim Ogburn, 5th grade teacher in California, phrases the debate a bit more simply: Why are we educating children?

His answer goes like this: Until fairly recently, teachers would have answered that they were educating children to become good Americans or good citizens, but now we seem to teach only to prepare elementary- and middle-school children for high paying jobs. When money figures into the goal, we lose so much along the way, such as curiosity, a love of learning for its own sake, and an awareness that many of the most worthwhile endeavors (both personally and socially) are not those with the highest monetary rewards.

To which I reply: Hear, hear. If economic gain is the measure of our success, we have lost sight our goals in education.

In order to round out the definition of “value” as defined by Chetty’s study, I conducted my own research project. Sure, my sample was smaller - about thirty versus Chetty’s 2.5 million, and the duration of my study was three days rather than 20 years…and of course there might just have been a wee bit of selection bias in my Facebook sampling. Oh, and I chose not to apply Uncle Michael’s formulas because they gave me a headache.

The goal of my study was to find out what some of the other, less measurable benefits of good teaching. I asked people to write in with examples of good teaching, teaching that has resulted in positive outcomes in their lives. Who were their “high value-added” teachers?

Sarah Pinneo, a writer from New Hampshire, recalled her third grade teacher, who took her aside one day and said, “You are going to be a writer. Here’s your portfolio. Every poem you finish, we’re going to save it in here.” Sarah’s first novel, Julia's Child, will be released on Feb 1.

Carol Blymire, a food writer and public relations executive in Washington, D.C, recalled her kindergarten teacher “who taught me that letters make words and words make sentences…and is the reason I love to write today.” She counts among her low value-added teachers, “Every other teacher who reprimanded me for asking questions that came across as challenging them, even though it was really my way of wanting to know more and understand the bigger picture.”

My favorite example came from Dr. Jeffrey Fast, an English teacher in Massachusetts. “One morning, when I was a senior, we were discussing Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset. While I can no longer remember exactly what I said, it was something about the interaction among the characters. Immediately after I spoke, [my teacher] responded by saying – for all to hear: ‘I like you!’ His response, of course, was coded language to identify and mark – for both me and my peers – something insightful. I felt enormously rewarded. That was the benchmark that I tried to replicate in dealing with literature ever afterwards. That was 50 years ago. He never knew that those three words catapulted me – to a Ph.D. and a career as an English teacher!”

I have written about my value-added teachers, but who are yours? What value have they added to your life?


  1. Interesting! And thank you for prompting me to remember what Ms. Bacon did for me.

    The economists' take on the subject doesn't bother me, though. Can't we hold these two questions separately, each for its own usefulness? A) Are their conclusions correct, that better teachers create superior economic outcomes and B) is this a meaningful inquiry--i.e. do we care about the economic outcome.

    It is absolutely important to remember that economic outcome is not the purpose of education. But that doesn't negate the usefulness of the question in policy debates. The fact that teacher contribution is grossly undervalued in our society is something that pinball wizards can potentially help demonstrate.

  2. Sarah P., you are absolutely right. I just like to stir the pot.

  3. I wrote a long blog post back in October about some teachers I had who had a really profound influence on my life:

  4. For me, it was Pete Martins, a fifth grade teacher at Jefferson elementary school. He had the great good understanding to know that the traditional study was boring some of us to tears. As long as we demonstrated fluency in the basics, we were allowed to spend as much time as we wanted in the school library, and study what we wanted, when we wanted, as much as we wanted. Whatever esoteric subject matter that caught my fancy, Peter would encourage me to follow. They had to force us out of the school at the end of the day. This approach created a love of learning which always seemed to me to be the point. I believe that today's thrust—teaching in order to improve average test scores—is complete poison to genuine education.

  5. My third grade teacher was Mrs. Morris, she was the first one to give me any inkling that writing was my forte by awarding me a certificate for a story I wrote. The story was called Naughty Needle, and I am super-glad I didn't retain a copy of it as I suspect it was actually very, very bad. In middle and high school I was exceptionally bad at math. Everyone seemed to think I excelled in writing, but never really encouraged that as much as they tried to help me achieve in the mathmatical arts ;) However in college, my professor B.C. Hall, a writer and teacher, was an influence as he was no one but himself, and he took the time to help me learn to write in MY own voice.