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The Best Places To Learn What Impact A Teacher & Outside Factors Have On Student Achievement

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'Lockland High School, entrance 10' photo (c) 2007, Paul Fisher - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

It’s not uncommon to hear someone inaccurately state that the teacher has the biggest influence on student achievement — period. Of course, the true statement is that — of the in-school factors — teachers have the biggest influence. On top of that, research has shown that over two-thirds of the factors that influence student achievement occur out of school.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t continually look at ways to help teachers become better. It does mean that we should also figure out ways to change the outside factors, too — lack of affordable housing, health care, safety. That is one of the main messages of my book, Building Parent Engagement In Schools, which offers practical suggestions on how schools can work with parents on these issues. It also means that placing all the blame on teachers, which some “school reformers” are prone to do, is disingenuous.

In addition to my book, I thought I’d bring together links to other resources that provide research (and analyze it) about this topic. Feel free to offer additional suggestions.

Here are my choices for The Best Places To Learn What Impact A Teacher (& Outside Factors) Have On Student Achievement:

How To Fix Our Schools by Richard Rothstein

Teachers Matter, But So Do Words from the Shanker blog (thanks to Alexander Russo for the tip)

The Family: America’s Smallest School from The Educational Testing Service

I’m embedding this very good thirty minute video of a talk by one of my favorite education writers and researchers, Richard Rothstein. Here’s how the Education Testing Service describes it:

Rothstein, a former New York Times national education columnist, discusses the false narrative about public education — especially urban schools — that currently exists. Rothstein maintains that many education reform proposals, especially those that focus on teacher accountability, are based on a misinterpretation and misuse of data. He stresses the direct correlation between poverty and educational failure.

Rothstein makes many important points but, because of some of the key ones he makes, I’m adding the video to this list.

Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage is the title of a good report from the Rowntree Foundation

Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success is from The National Educational Policy Center.

Thanks to Paul Thomas for the tips on the last two links.

A Big Fish In A Small Causal Pond is by Matthew Di Carlo at the Shanker Blog.

Joe Nocera at The New York Times takes on school reformers in a column:

…school reform won’t fix everything. Though some poor students will succeed, others will fail. Demonizing teachers for the failures of poor students, and pretending that reforming the schools is all that is needed, as the reformers tend to do, is both misguided and counterproductive.

Over the long term, fixing our schools is going to involve a lot more than, well, just fixing our schools. In the short term, however, the reform movement could use something else: a dose of humility about what it can accomplish — and what it can’t.

Is Poverty the Key Factor in Student Outcomes? is from The Texas Observer.

Says Who? Lots of Folks, Actually… is by Robert Pondiscio. He’s gathered quite a few quotes from school reformers on the topic of the role of poverty and the role of teachers. I’m adding it to The Best Places To Learn What Impact A Teacher & Outside Factors Have On Student Achievement. He also raises some questions about a post written by Nancy Flanagan. You can find her response in the comments section there and in her post here.

Is Poverty the Key Factor in Student Outcomes? is an article and video from The Texas Tribune.

Closing the Poverty Gap: The Way Forward for Education Reform is the title of guest column in Ed Week by Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville.

After citing some pretty irrefutable data documenting the role of poverty in student achievement, here are some excerpts from what he writes:

Some want to make the absurd argument that the reason low-income youngsters do poorly is that, mysteriously, all the incompetency in our education systems has coincidentally aggregated around low income students. In this view, all we need to do is scrub the system of incompetency and all will be well. An equally absurd variant on this theme is that poor performance in low-income districts is a function of, again coincidental, misalignment between state standards and local curriculum. Get these in line and all will be fine say the ideologues. Others want to banish any discussion of socio-economic status (SES) and educational performance for fear that it suggests that SES is destiny. It does not. We all know of notable individual exceptions to this rule, but they are exceptions. The averages tell the story….

It is now blatantly apparent to me and other education activists, ranging form Geoffrey Canada to Richard Rothstein to Linda Darling-Hammond, that the strategy of instructional improvement will not, on average, enable us to overcome the barriers to student learning posed by the conditions of poverty.

As others have argued, we need “a broader, bolder” approach, one that meets every child where he or she is and gives to each one the quality and quantity of support and instruction needed to attain the standards. Those of us who have the privileges of affluence know how to do this at scale with our children. We wrap services and supports around these children from the pre-natal period through their twenties. We know how to do it, but do we have the will to do it for “other people’s children”? And do we know how to institutionalize the necessary services and supports that are best provided through families?

Why Attention Will Return to Non-School Factors is a guest commentary in Ed Week.

Bolder, Broader Action: Strategies for Closing the Poverty Gap is by Paul Reville.

We need to fix the economy to fix education was written by David Sirota and appeared in Salon.

The hard bigotry of low expectations and low priorities is by Gary Ravani at The Thoughts on Public Education blog.

Can Teachers Alone Overcome Poverty? Steven Brill Thinks So is by Dana Goldstein.

What No School Can Do is a ten year old article recently recommended by Walt Gardner at Ed Week.

Public education’s biggest problem gets worse is by Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post.

Why school reform can’t ignore poverty’s toll appeared in Valerie Strauss’ blog at the Washington Post.

NCLB bill: The problem with ‘continuous improvement’ is by Richard Rothstein.

A broader and bolder approach uses education to break the cycle of poverty is by Pedro Noguera.

In Which I Cite My Sources in an Attempt to Deflate the Hot Air from the Teacher Quality Debate is by Dana Goldstein.

Education and Poverty:Confronting the Evidence is by Helen F. Ladd.

Why Are the Rich So Interested in Public-School Reform? is by Judith Warner at TIME.

Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It? is an op ed in The New York Times about poverty’s effect on our students. Here’s how it ends:

Yes, we need to make sure that all children, and particularly disadvantaged children, have access to good schools, as defined by the quality of teachers and principals and of internal policies and practices.

But let’s not pretend that family background does not matter and can be overlooked. Let’s agree that we know a lot about how to address the ways in which poverty undermines student learning. Whether we choose to face up to that reality is ultimately a moral question.

Student Achievement, Poverty and “Toxic Stress” is by Robert Pondiscio.

Can Schools Solve Societal Problems? is from Learning First.

How to predict a student’s SAT score: Look at the parents’ tax return is from Daniel Pink.

Why Does Family Wealth Affect Learning? is by Dan Willingham.

A new poverty-doesn’t-really-matter-much argument is by Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post.

Cartoon: Burden – Or Excuse? is a great cartoon you can find on This Week In Education.

Education and the income gap: Darling-Hammond appeared in The Washington Post.

A Significant Error That Policymakers Commit is a post by Larry Cuban that I’m sure will be a candidate for the best educational commentary of the year.

In it, he discusses differences between “good” teaching and “successful” teaching, and describes “successful” learning. It’s too difficult — at least for me — to summarize succinctly, so I’d recommend you read his entire post.

Here are his final two paragraphs:

Not only does this policymaker error about quality classroom instruction confuse the personal traits of the teacher with teaching, it also nurtures a heroic view of school improvement where superstars (e.g., Geoffrey Canada in “Waiting for Superman,” Jaime Escalante of “Stand and Deliver”, Erin Gruwell of “Freedom Writers”) labor day in and day out to get their students to ace AP Calculus tests and become accomplished writers and achieve in Harlem schools. Neither doctors, lawyers, soldiers, nor nuclear physicists can depend upon superstars among them to get their important work done every day. Nor should all teachers have to be heroic. Policymakers attributing quality far more to individual traits in teachers than to the context in which they teach leads to squishing “good” teaching with “successful” learning doing even further collateral damage to the profession by setting up the expectation that only heroes need apply.

By stripping away from “good” learning essential factors of students’ motivation, the contexts in which they live, and the opportunities they have to learn in school–federal, state, and district policymakers inadvertently twist the links between teaching and learning into a simpleminded formula thereby mis-educating the public they serve while encouraging a generation of idealistic newcomers to become classroom heroes who end up deserting schools in wholesale numbers within a few years because they come to understand that “good” teaching does not lead automatically to “successful” learning. Fenstermacher and Richardson help us parse “quality teaching” into distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching and learning while revealing clearly the error that policymakers have made and continue to do so.

The fantasies driving school reform: A primer for education graduates is by Richard Rothstein.

Berliner on Education and Inequality is from Diane Ravitch’s blog.

The Danger Of Denying The Coleman Report is by Gary Rubinstein.

Responding to the Gates Foundation: How do we Consider Evidence of Learning in Teacher Evaluations? is by Anthony Cody.

Dialogue with the Gates Foundation: Can Schools Defeat Poverty by Ignoring It? is from Anthony Cody.

Wow, What A Chart On International Education!

Public school grades – what’s really being graded? is from The Oklahoma Policy Institute (thanks to Wesley Fryer for the tip). This is a very interesting piece.

“8.5% of the variation in student achievement is due to teacher characteristics”

Research: Blame It On The Lead? is from This Week In Education.

Do Teachers Undercut Our “Relevance” By Pointing Out Other Factors That Affect Student Achievement?

Teacher Quality Mania: Backward by Design is by P.L. Thomas.

Martin Luther King Jr. Understood Poverty and So Do Teachers is by John Wilson at Ed Week.

New Research Shows Why Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Character Education Are Not Enough

Quote Of The Day: “No Rich Child Left Behind”

Quote Of The Day: “The Opportunity Gap”

The cost of child poverty: $500 billion a year is from The Washington Post.

Social Emotional Learning Can Help, But More Research Shows It’s Not Enough

Education and poverty, again is by Matt Bruenig.

How Poverty Impacts Students’ Test Scores, In 4 Graphs is from The Huffington Post.

Excellent Pie Chart On What Influences Student Test Scores

New US Dept. of Ed Finds That “Less Effective Teaching” Responsible For 2-4 Percent Of Achievement Gap

Another Nail In VAM’s Coffin?


“Kids who get health insurance are more likely to finish high school and college”

Morality, Validity, and the Design of Instructionally Sensitive Tests is by David Berliner and appeared in Ed Week. Here’s an excerpt:

A consensus is that outside of school factors account for about 60% of the variance in student test scores, while schools account for about 20% of that variance (Haertel, 2013; Borman and Dowling, 2012; Coleman et al., 1966). Further, about half of the variance accounted for by schools is attributed to teachers. So, on tests that may be insensitive to instruction, teachers appear to account for about 10% of the variance we see in student achievement test scores (American Statistical Association, 2014). Thus outside-of-school factors appear 6 times more powerful than teachers in effecting student achievement.

Additional suggestions are welcome.

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Legacies of the Civil Rights Era: Accountability and Attention to Poverty (John Spencer) | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

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