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Good teaching, happy lives, and Students Come First.

Good teaching, happy lives, and Students Come First.

Mitch Coffman
April 13, 2012

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.

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