Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer on the Sources of School Effectiveness

by Reihan Salam

For the last four decades, local governments have devoted immense resources to reducing student-teacher ratios. At the same time, economic opportunities for educated women, who constituted the bulk of the traditional teacher talent pool, increased considerably. The end result has been a deterioration of average teacher quality. We’ve known for some time that the evidence for reducing class sizes as a strategy to improve the quality of instruction is thin. But new evidence from Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer, drawn from a detailed study of 35 New York city charter schools, might finally drive a stake through the heart of this particular shibboleth:

We find that traditionally collected input measures — class size, per pupil expenditure, the fraction of teachers with no certification, and the fraction of teachers with an advanced degree — are not correlated with school effectiveness. In stark contrast, we show that an index of five policies suggested by over forty years of qualitative research — frequent teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and high expectations — explains approximately 50 percent of the variation in school effectiveness. Our results are robust to controls for three alternative theories of schooling: a model emphasizing the provision of wrap-around services, a model focused on teacher selection and retention, and the “No Excuses’’ model of education. We conclude by showing that our index provides similar results in a separate sample of charter schools.

Unfortunately, public conversation around improving school quality continues to emphasize class size and per pupil expenditure and arbitrary indicators of teacher quality (certifications, credentials, etc.).  

Feedback strikes me as particularly interesting:

The typical teacher at a high achieving elementary school receives feedback 16.41 times per semester, compared to 11.31 times at other charter schools. The typical teacher at a high achieving middle school receives feedback 13.42 times per semester, 6.35 more instances of feedback than teachers at other charter schools. Teachers at high achieving schools also work longer hours than teachers at other charter schools; an additional 7.75 hours per week at the elementary level and 10.29 hours per week at the middle school level. Despite this higher workload, the maximum salary of teachers at high achieving schools is the same or somewhat lower than other charter schools. [Emphasis added]

One gets the impression that teachers who feel as though they have an opportunity to do good work in a supportive environment are happy to accept somewhat lower compensation. This reflects my intuition — that per Richard Robb’s “economics of becoming,” individuals are more driven by a desire to overcome obstacles that arise naturally and authentically in the pursuit of various goals than for disposable income as such. A person who wants to be a good teacher will flourish in an environment in which feedback is available, instructors and administrators are joined together in effective teams united by a sense of mission, etc. A person who teaches because it is his or her best way to achieve income X at effort level Y might not be your best bet. This is not to say that we shouldn’t increase compensation for the strongest teachers. Compensation will of course enter the picture. But my sense is that we should focus more on improving the quality of the work itself, which will require structural reform and higher quality school leadership. 

In Clifford Levy’s brilliant account of his children’s experience at a progressive Russian independent school, he noted one of the headmaster Vasiliy Georgievich Bogin’s innovations:

Bogin had another innovation: classes were videotaped. This was not a vestige of Soviet surveillance. Rather, he wanted to critique how teachers interacted with — and nurtured relations between — children. Bogin and his staff often worked late into the night, reviewing footage and discussing methodology.

How might the modal public school teacher feel about being videotaped as a matter of course? Many would view this as an unacceptable invasion of privacy, including some who champion the video surveillance of police officers. Some would object to the videotaping of their children. I favor videotaping teachers and police officers. The former case is, for obvious reasons, quite different. Ideally, it would be associated with a genuine school-wide desire to improve performance, not as a punitive strategy. And there is no question that videotaping would radically improve the ability of administrators and master teachers to offer frequent, well-targeted feedback. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.