Any lessons from America?


As reported last week Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard University and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University studied the school records and income tax records of 2.5 million students in a major urban district (probably New York City) over a 20-year period. They concluded that good teachers cause students to get higher test scores, which lead in turn to higher lifetime earnings, fewer teenage pregnancies, and higher University enrolment. The report has caused a stir in the States where education reforms  are focused on improving the quality of teaching through rating teachers on value added measures. In value added measurement student  test scores become a vital  means of measuring teacher performance. The report concluded that “ The most important lesson of this study is that finding policies to raise the quality of teaching–whether via the use of value-added measures, changes in salary structure, or teacher training—is likely to have substantial economic and social benefits in the long run.”

So, in short, teachers jobs will largely depend on the rise or fall of their students’ test scores.

No bad thing, say reformers. This would flush out poor teachers and incentivise good teachers. Given that teachers effectiveness is a vital driver in raising pupil performance  and improving educational outcomes this is precisely what is required to deliver transformational change throughout the schools system . It’s a compelling argument.  But there is a fly in the ointment. Quite a big one, as it happens. Setting aside the problems associated with measuring added value (and there are quite a few) there is one issue that stands out here. If tests are made so important to teachers’  careers  they will do everything they can  to ensure that their pupils  do well in tests. So they will teach for the test. And prioritise their work and resources around these tests. They would then spend extra time preparing students to take them, even more so probably  than  they do now.  And, of course ,the temptation for teachers  to cheat, because so much hangs on the results of these tests,  will be increased (several cheating scandals  have already been exposed ).

Education is not all about passing tests, or at least it shouldn’t be. You cant, and  so don’t, test  quite a lot of what happens in a good school.  Driven by the imperatives of a testing culture and the incentives that go with it  there would be less  school time  allocated to giving pupils a rounded education to encourage the development of good, responsible citizens with well –developed cognitive and (of increasing importance) non-cognitive skills. The Arts would probably suffer too and as for  extra -curricular activities, well  they  would drop off the agenda.

What matters most will be getting the right answer to the test .Sir Ken Robinsons divergent, creative thinking would be discouraged because divergent thinking might produce the wrong answers for the test. Independent, lateral and unorthodox thinking, and indeed teaching, will  not be  admired  or recognised  in a system that encourages  the pursuit of the right formulaic answer. Outcomes in the form of improved test scores might well improve and teachers who raise test scores will doubtless be rewarded, but at what cost?

In pursuit of the noblest of ends- raising the quality of teaching in the classroom which in turn will drive up pupil performance- there is surely a danger of failing to properly educate students and to prepare them for life.

The focus on the importance of high quality teaching is crucial but how you achieve this with fairness, transparency, clear lines of accountability   and without creating perverse incentives ,which skew the system in the wrong direction, seems to me the biggest  and most pressing challenge that  reformers now  face.



  1. Did you by any chance read the fabulous Diane Ravitch on this study?

    Her analysis also reveals how limited the effect size was between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teachers. A whole load of extravagant conclusions have of course been drawn by republicans about how the study validates their favourite mechanism for improving education, eradicating teachers’ employment rights.

  2. Lots of issues with judging teachers on the performance of a small group of students, apart from – as you nicely point out – the problems of teaching to a ‘bad’ test, or at least one which is limited in scope. Not that politicians are good at listening to the evidence. . .

  3. And of course, if they’d read Freakoconomics, they would know that in a huge study of formal exam papers in Chicago (I think over 700,000 scripts) researchers discovered a 24% rate of teacher cheating!

    The bitter truth is that at the bitter end of the school spectrum. The only one that matters to policy makers, politicians and strategists. An entire battalion of excellent teachers isn’t go to make a difference because no one is honest enough to acknowledge the nature of the problem. For many children, the entire concept of schooling, that fundamental human desire to learn, develop and improve, common across cultures and ages, is absent. In its place is an invidious, dysfunctional dependency on any adult, fool enough, misguided enough, or as is so often the case, simply kind enough to want to help.

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