09/25/2012 06:11 pm ET | Updated Nov 25, 2012

When Bad Students Happen to Good Teachers

There is a shared delusion driving education reform. A Kool-Aid being served up in school districts, teacher colleges and the education bureaucracy.

The delusion is that everyone assumes better teaching means students learn more.

The delusion takes two forms. Some people are actively convinced the delusion is true, and that policy can take wing from this departure point. Others are mere passive enablers, willing to believe by default that the delusion is probably true, or at least that it's not worth seeking an alternative explanation.

What if it doesn't? Where is the data directly linking improved teaching to improved learning?

Or, more precisely, what if improved learning coincides or correlates with improved teaching, but there's no significant causal link between putting a better-trained teacher at the front of the room and getting a better result on student assessments?

Now, before you hit the comment button, permit me to stipulate:

  1. By "bad students," I mean students who perform poorly on standardized assessments, and particularly those students whose state test scores don't truly represent what they know.
  2. It's always and everywhere a good thing to improve teaching, just like it's a good thing to keep your tires properly inflated and to maintain a balanced diet. But it's also the case that teaching is not the sole engine pulling the school train, just like a car with perfectly inflated tires may yet stall, and someone can get sick despite eating their fruits and vegetables.
  3. Teachers who are highly qualified in their subjects, especially at the secondary level and particularly in mathematics, are probably going to do a better job, on average, than teachers who lack those qualifications.
  4. Dollars to doughnuts, there are studies out there directly contradicting the ones I cite, but are there really independent studies (read, neither a specific political agenda nor financial interest in a particular product) over large populations and a significant time period, showing a causal link? I doubt it.
NCLB and the education establishment place the entire onus for student learning on teachers -- more teacher education, more professional development, more performance evaluations, filing lesson plans, submitting assessments for approval, tying pay and retention to student performance on NCLB-mandated tests -- all without direct evidence.

Much of what's being implemented in our schools shows classic post hoc ergo propter hoc thinking and non-systemic evaluation, so that correlation appears to be causation. Just because two things happen in sequence doesn't mean the first one caused the second, and things that happen at the same time don't necessarily share causes.

I'm a teacher. I work hard and am open to new ideas and training. I don't threaten to strike, though I understand why the teachers in Chicago went out.

But my students' performance is the result of numerous inputs -- parental support, commitment to learning, what they ate for breakfast -- and that includes whether the student really tries.

Should I be rewarded for the work I do, or rewarded/penalized for the work of my students?


Clabaugh, G. & Rozycki, E. (1990). Understanding schools: the foundations of education. New York, NY: Harper & Rowe.

Goe, L. (2007). The link between teacher quality and student outcomes: a research synthesis. National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, retrieved online.

Wayne, A. & Youngs, P. (2003). Teacher characteristics and student achievement gains: a review. Review of Educational Research 73 (1), 89-122.