January 18, 2011 The Pitfalls of Putting Economists in Charge Of Education/Building Bridges Blog
A few weeks ago, Mike Rose posted a list of his New Year’s resolutions. One of them was that we should “make do with fewer economists in education.
These practitioners of the dismal science have flocked to education reform, though most know little about teaching and learning.” Mike suggested that so few economists were able to give useful advice about the financial and housing markets that we should now be skeptical about expecting them “to change education for the better.”
I agree with Mike. It is astonishing to realize the extent to which education debates are now framed and dominated by economists, not by educators or sociologists or cognitive psychologists or anyone else who actually spends time in classrooms. My bookshelves are chock full of books that analyze the teaching of reading, science, history, and other subjects; books that examine the lives of children; books that discuss the art and craft of teaching; books about the history of educational philosophy and practice; books about how children learn.
Now such considerations seem antique. Now we are in an age of data-based decision-making, where economists rule. They tell us that nothing matters but performance, and performance can be quantified, and those who do the quantification need never enter a classroom or think about how children learn.
So the issue of our day is: How do we measure teacher effectiveness? Most of the studies by economists warn that there is a significant margin of error in “value-added assessment” (VAA) or “value-added modeling” (VAM). The basic idea of VAA is that teacher quality can be measured by the test-score gains of their students. Proponents of VAA see it as the best way to identify teachers who should get merit pay and teachers who should be fired. Critics say that the method is too flawed to use for high-stakes purposes such as these.
Last July, the U.S. Department of Education published a study by Mathematica Policy Research, which estimated that even with three years of data, there was an error rate of 25 percent. A few months ago, I signed onto a statement by a group of testing experts, which cautioned that such strategies were likely to misidentify which teachers were effective and which were ineffective, to promote teaching narrowly to the test, and to cause a narrowing of the curriculum.
None of these cautions has stemmed the tide of rating teachers by student test scores and releasing the ratings. Last year, the Los Angeles Times published an online database that rated 6,000 teachers as to their effectiveness (one of them, elementary school teacher Rigoberto Ruelas, committed suicide a few weeks later). New York City is poised to make a public release of the names and ratings of 12,000 teachers, if the courts give the go-ahead (in the first trial, a judge ruled that the data could be released even if it was inaccurate).
This trend did not just happen. It was encouraged by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, which urged states to develop quantitative measures of teacher effectiveness. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has issued statements endorsing the publication of teachers’ names and ratings, although few testing experts agree with this practice.
The bulk of studies warn about the inaccuracy and instability of these measures, but the Gates Foundation recently released a study called “Measures of Effective Teaching” (MET) that supports the use of VAA and VAM. As is customary for the Gates Foundation, it hired an impressive list of economists at institutions across the nation to give the gloss of authority to its work. Among its key findings was this one: “Teachers with high value-added on state tests tend to promote deeper conceptual understanding as well.” Ah, said the proponents of measuring teacher quality by the rise and fall of student test scores, this study vindicates these methods and effectively counters all those cautionary warnings.
But now comes a re-analysis of the Gates study by University of California-Berkeley economist Jesse Rothstein, which says that the MET study reached the wrong conclusions and that its data demonstrate that VAA misidentifies which teachers are more effective and is not much better than a coin toss. Even the claim that teachers whose students get high scores on state tests will also get high scores on tests of “deeper conceptual understanding” is flawed, writes Rothstein.