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Diane Ravitch, Education, Find Out More, GERM (Global Education Reform Movement), Good Teaching, Government Policy, Mainstream Media Reports, New Zealand, OECD Research - Education, Parata (Hekia), Poverty & Socio-Economic Status and Education, Research on Education

Unpacking the sound bite “quality teaching eliminates socioeconomic disadvantage”

Picture 1Hekia Parata this weekend said that experts had found that four consecutive years of quality teaching eliminated any trace of socio-economic disadvantage.

In her now typical teacher-bashing way, she went on to say “In New Zealand we provide 13 years. You’d think it would not be too much to expect that four of those are good quality.”

Ignoring the snarkiness, just think about what she said:  Four consecutive years of quality teaching eliminates any trace of socio-economic disadvantage.  Override poverty.

That’s a mighty big claim.

Where did it come from and does it stand up to scrutiny?

Where did they find their catchy soundbite?

Neither The Southland Times nor Hekia Parata provide a reference for their claim.  You’d think someone making bold statements like that would be more than happy to cite their source, wouldn’t you?

They merely use it to end their article with a flourish.  After all, it sounds good, doesn’t it?  Very catchy. And they’re not alone – many newspapers and online publications including The Boston Globe used the same quote, also with no reference,

Whatever.  I searched on.

A Bit of Digging

diggingA flicker of something I read on Twitter came to mind, and a quick search led me to an article called The economic case for sacking bad teachers.  Nice title.  I felt sure this would be a clear, research-based, unbiased article…

The article largely ignores the actual report it is supposedly based on and, indeed, misrepresents its conclusions. But wait!  They manage to get a nice soundbite out of their expert, Eric Hanushek.  I sense he is going to prove interesting.

In the article, Hanushek is quoted as saying:

‘A good teacher can get 1.5 years of learning growth; a bad teacher gets half a year of learning growth.’

The article goes on to say:

Having four consecutive years of high-quality teaching, [Hanushek] says, can eliminate any trace of economic disadvantage. (5)

That issue  is not discussed at all in the OECD paper the article is meant to be about.  Why throw it in?  Did the journalist just find Hanushek’s most famous tidbit and throw it in for good measure?  Who knows.

And again, no reference.

Just an acceptance that this bold statement is fact.

And why would the journalist question it?  It sounds good doesn’t it?  And look at the great headline it gave them.


Further Digging

Still no clearer as to where this assertion had come from, I enlisted the combined research abilities of the experts I  know. With their help, I found some very interesting stuff.

Take this quote from Diane Ravitch:

[Eric] Hanushek and Rivkin projected that “having five years of good teachers in a row” (that is, teachers at the 85th percentile) “could overcome the average seventh-grade mathematics achievement gap between lower-income kids (those on the free or reduced-price lunch program) and those from higher-income families. (7)

Ravitch goes on to say that, at the conference where they claims were presented, they were fervently disputed. Richard Rothstein  said they were “misleading and dangerous.” (7)  Criticism continued after the conference, and the debate of the statement’s validity raged.  

New reports came out, suggesting that 3, 4 or 5 years in a row with a good teacher could override the socioeconomic status (SES) of a student.

And despite being incredibly contentious and there being many experts arguing against the claims and plenty of research to say otherwise, it is too good a headline grabber and too utterly irresistible  for journalists.

Ravitch tells us that:

Over a short period of time, this assertion became an urban myth among journalists and policy wonks in Washington, something that “everyone knew.” 

This is the danger.

The sound bite wins the day.

reading-newspaperYour Average Newspaper Reader

Do you think the readers of The Southland Times will stop to wonder how rigorous was the research that lead to that soundbite?

Do you think they will ponder whether it has been challenged?

Do you think they will have eight solid hours and a goodly handful of experts to help them look into it, like I did?

No, me neither.

Luckily, I had the time.  And even more fortuitously, some anti-GERMers with a larger platform that I did, too.

A Fallacy and a Rebuttal

Renowned education expert, Pasi Sahlberg tackled the “four consecutive years of quality teaching” fallacy:

“This assumption presents a view that education reform alone could overcome the powerful influence of family and social environment mentioned earlier. It insists that schools should get rid of low-performing teachers and then only hire great ones. This fallacy has the most practical difficulties.

The first one is about what it means to be a great teacher. Even if this were clear, it would be difficult to know exactly who is a great teacher at the time of recruitment.

The second one is, that becoming a great teacher normally takes five to ten years of systematic practice. And determining the reliably of ‘effectiveness’ of any teacher would require at least five years of reliable data. This would be practically impossible.

Everybody agrees that the quality of teaching in contributing to learning outcomes is beyond question.  It is therefore understandable that teacher quality is often cited as the most important in-school variable influencing student achievement.

But just having better teachers in schools will not automatically improve students’ learning outcomes.” (8)

As Sahlberg says, there are many other factors that lead to students. success, and global reforms tend to ignore those that the most successful countries have implemented, namely

“… freedom to teach without the constraints of standardized curricula and the pressure of standardized testing; strong leadership from principals who know the classroom from years of experience as teachers; a professional culture of collaboration; and support from homes unchallenged by poverty.” (8)

Controversial Expert

Eric Hanushek

Eric Hanushek

But back to the original statement.  Who is Eric Hanushek, that made the claim?

Hanushek is an economist. He is not without controversy, and his research methods have been called into question in the past. (6)

However, disputes with his methods and conclusions have not stopped him from promoting his views widely in professional and public media, nor have they prevented the US administration and now our very own Education Minister, Hekia Parata, using his work and his words to justify further education reforms that education experts argue are not in the best interest of students. (3, page 40-42) and (4)

What does Hanushek say makes a Good Teacher?

His measurement of a good teacher is one whose students get high test scores.

One wonders what this means for a teacher of special needs students of lower cognitive ability, or students with English as a second language, or students who have a low educational ethic.  Are those teachers bad because their scores are lower than a teacher with more able students?

It’s a tad disconcerting, isn’t it?

You will have your own ideas on what makes a good teacher.  Anecdotal evidence tells me that for many Kiwi parents, it is more than test results.  I shall tackle this in detail some other time.  Meanwhile, you might want to read this and ponder the issue further.

rich kid poor kidFact or Snappy Sound Bite?

Back to the sound bite, then.

Quality teaching is, of course, of huge importance.  But the best that can be said for the assertion that four consecutive years’ quality teaching eliminates any trace of socio-economic disadvantage is that it is contentious.

Certainly there is evidence out there that supports the view that poverty has an impact on student achievement.  And great teachers are likely to do more than just improve test scores.

One thing I know for sure: Whether even the best teachers can completely override the impact of a student’s socioeconomic situation is not something that can or should be tackled by a sound bite.

~ Dianne

With sincere thanks to the many experts who were kind enough to help me today.

References and further reading:

(1) The high cost of low educational performance

(2) The Market for Teacher Quality  Eric A. Hanushek, John F. Kain, Daniel M. O’Brien and Steven G. Rivkin* December 2004

(3) School Reform Proposals: The Research Evidence (Research in Educational Productivity) by Alex Molnar (Mar 1, 2002)

(4) Minister: I don’t like deciles

(5) The economic case for sacking bad teachers – The Spectator

(6) Does Money Matter?  A meta-analysis of studies of the effects of differential school inputs on student outcomes, by Hedges, Laine, and Greenwald (1994)

(7) The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch

(8) What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools? by Pasi Sahlberg

(9) The Washington Post – The Answer Sheet – The “three great teachers in a row” myth

(10)  The Boston Globe Gets It Wrong on Teacher Evaluation

About Save Our Schools NZ

"One needs to be slow to form convictions, but once formed they must be defended against the heaviest odds." Gandhi


14 thoughts on “Unpacking the sound bite “quality teaching eliminates socioeconomic disadvantage”

  1. Hmmm…sounds ike a great right-wing reason for Total Funding Package rhetoric, or PACT ie Bulk-funding repackaged like Charter Schools were re-branded PPP Schools.
    about a minute ago. Re-Polishing the turd of Bulk0funding


    Posted by Motecuff (John McCartney) | July 1, 2013, 8:36 pm
  2. Thanks for the great research Dianne. This war of words continues and it is great to have a warrior like you on our side!


    Posted by Susan McRoberts | July 1, 2013, 8:43 pm
  3. Well done on this rebuttal Dianne. This message is becoming more and more pronounced from Parata and it’s one that has to be challenged or, like you say, it will become accepted.
    One thing I’m wondering about what you wrote – Hanushek says good teachers get higher achievement, and you then say what about teachers of special needs etc… I feel that this isn’t really the main argument here, as the proponents of his approach will simply respond “we’re using value added and not raw scores, so a special needs/ESOL teacher can do just as well.” From here I think the argument gets into valid uses of assessment data – something I know you’ve written a lot about too!


    Posted by Tom Haig (@ThomasHaig) | July 1, 2013, 8:51 pm
    • You are quite right, Tom. Fortunately, experts far exceeding my knowledge and/or talents are onto that. It will be another month of so, but expect to read some quality research on that very point. I will share when the time comes. Meanwhile, if I have time, I will ponder that very issue myself and blog about it. Unless some wonderful person out there fancies doing a guest blog on the issue???? ~Dianne


      Posted by Dianne - SaveOurSchoolsNZ | July 1, 2013, 9:00 pm
  4. Thanks for this. Very in-depth.
    Socio-economic (fancy word for rate of poverty) has nothing to do with education is a joke.
    Teachers get 25 hours face time with students per week. That’s 25 out of 168 ( excluding holidays). That’s a mere 14% of a students week is in front of a teacher.
    So that leaves a staggering 86% of their time out of school, in their community, at home, living in the socio-economic state that supposedly has nothing to do with how they are raised and how they learn.
    If those percentages were swapped around, then blaming teachers would be more than excusable. But in the 14% of time teachers do have, they work hard to make the most of that small amount of time.


    Posted by alingham | July 1, 2013, 9:42 pm
  5. I’m a class room teacher so I barely have time to reply much less research. Thank you. The constant critism I recieve is sole destroying


    Posted by Hazel McIntosh | July 2, 2013, 1:35 pm
  6. The Min of Ed must be going on an offensive – Rowena Phair had an article in the Dom/Post newspaper today –

    She appeared ignorant of the role that parents have played in schools for decades, that teachers have been evaluating kids via PAT tests et al etc, for decades and that teachers have reported home to parents for decades via school reports – while National Standards have only been going for three years. Her ignorance was so bad I thought I’d go look where she was born because I couldn’t believe a NZer could be so ignorant especially one with the title “Deputy Secretary Student Achievement”. It turns out she is a NZer but her background is a “post-graduate degree in economics’ and she’s only been working in Education a year. For someone who is supposed to be raising student achievement to have a degree in economics, no degree or experience in teaching children, explains it all.


    Posted by mpledger | July 2, 2013, 7:26 pm
  7. Usual Political Pondering. This statement may have some truth to it, BUT, and it’s a BIG BUT the students who the article is talking about are very unlikely to have 4 year of consecutive education. The lower socio-economic student body are the students who are most likely to truant, change schools, be suspended etc. I am sure there is plenty of reasearch on this. Therefore the biggest issue to these students progressing is attendance. If they were to actually attend and pay attention then things may change. Again the government is looking for a quick easy fix. The real answer is a lot harder.


    Posted by Carl Rushton | July 3, 2013, 7:22 pm
  8. ‘Value added’ is the measure of success??? My child is not milk powder!!! Why do we have economists influencing the education system? As for anything in the Southland Times – I wouldn’t trust anything in there. Their journalistic integrity would fit in a pin head.


    Posted by Mumma2 | November 22, 2015, 11:50 am


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