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Peter Greene recently read a blog debate in the “Néw York Times” on the topic of how to improve teaching. He reacted strongly to the contribution by Eric Hanushek, an economist at the Hoover Institution. Hanushek is well known for his belief that the best way to tell which teachers are best is to see which ones get the highest test score gains; that raising scores will eventually produce trillions of dollars in economic growth; and that teachers who can’t produce higher scores should be “deselected.” That is, fired.
Here is the beginning of Greene’s critique of the economists’ contribution to education policy;
“When you want a bunch of legit-sounding baloney about education, call up an economist. I can’t think of a single card-carrying economist who has produced useful insights about education, schools and teaching, but from Brookings to the Hoover Institute, economists can be counted on to provide a regular stream of fecund fertilizer about schools.
“So here comes Eric Hanushek in the New York Times (staging one of their op-ed debates, which tend to resemble a soccer game played on the side of a mountain) to offer yet another rehash of his ideas about teaching. The Room for Debate pieces are always brief, but Hansuhek impressively gets a whole ton of wrong squeezed into a tiny space. Here’s his opening paragaph:
“Despite decades of study and enormous effort, we know little about how to train or select high quality teachers. We do know, however, that there are huge differences in the effectiveness of classroom teachers and that these differences can be observed.”
“This is a research puzzler of epic proportions. Hansuhek is saying, “We do not know how to tell the difference between a green apple and a red apple, but we have conclusive proof that a red apple tastes better.” Exactly what would that experimental design look like? Exactly how do you compare the red and green apples if you can’t tell them apart?
“The research gets around this issue by using a circular design. We first define high quality teachers as those whose students get high test scores. Then we study these high quality teachers and discover that they get students to score well on tests. It’s amazing!
“Economists have been at the front of the parade declaring that teachers cannot be judged on qualifications or anything else except results. Here’s a typical quote, this time from a Rand economist: “The best way to assess teachers’ effectiveness is to look at their on-the-job performance, including what they do in the classroom and how much progress their students make on achievement tests.”
“It’s economists who have given us the widely debunked shell game that is Valued Added Measuring of teachers, and they’ve been peddling that snake oil for a while (here’s a research summary from 2005). It captures all the wrong thinking of economists in one destructive ball– all that matters about teachers is the test scores they produce, and every other factor that affects a student’s test score can be worked out in a fancy equation.”
I agree with Peter Greene that economists have had far too much influence on educational policy. The attempt to quantify teaching and learning is ruinous to education and buries any consideration of the purpose of education. Children are not widgets. Learning is far too complex to be measured by standardized multiple-choice tests. Education includes many goals other than test scores. Teachers are professionals and should not be treated as interchangeable low-wage workers.