"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, January 09, 2012

Chetty Study: "simpleminded, technocratic, dehumanizing and disturbing"

The heart of Bruce Baker's first review of the corporate boot-licking conclusions by Chetty & Co.:
. . . . The authors find that teacher value added scores in their historical data set vary. No surprise. And they find that those variations are correlated to some extent with “other stuff” including income later in life and having reported dependents for females at a young age. There’s plenty more.

These are interesting findings. It’s a really cool academic study. It’s a freakin’ amazing data set! But these findings cannot be immediately translated into what the headlines have suggested – that immediate use of value-added metrics to reshape the teacher workforce can lift the economy, and increase wages across the board! The headlines and media spin have been dreadfully overstated and deceptive. Other headlines and editorial commentary has been simply ignorant and irresponsible. (No Mr. Moran, this one study did not, does not, cannot negate  the vast array of concerns that have been raised about using value-added estimates as blunt, heavily weighted instruments in personnel policy in school systems.)

My 2 Big Points

First and perhaps most importantly, just because teacher VA scores in a massive data set show variance does not mean that we can identify with any level of precision or accuracy, which individual teachers (plucking single points from a massive scatterplot) are “good” and which are “bad.” Therein exists one of the major fallacies of moving from large scale econometric analysis to micro level human resource management.

Second, much of the spin has been on the implications of this study for immediate personnel actions. Here, two of the authors of the study bear some responsibility for feeding the media misguided interpretations. As one of the study’s authors noted:
“The message is to fire people sooner rather than later,” Professor Friedman said. (NY Times)
This statement is not justified from what this study actually tested/evaluated and ultimately found. Why? Because this study did not test whether adopting a sweeping policy of statistically based “teacher deselection” would actually lead to increased likelihood of students going to college (a half of one percent increase) or increased lifelong earnings. Rather, this study showed retrospectively that students who happened to be in classrooms that gained more, seemed to have a slightly higher likelihood of going to college and slightly higher annual earnings. From that finding, the authors extrapolate that if we were to simply replace bad teachers with average ones, the lifetime earnings of a classroom full of students would increase by $266k in 2010 dollars. This extrapolation may inform policy or future research, but should not be viewed as an absolute determinant of best immediate policy action.
This statement is equally unjustified:
Professor Chetty acknowledged, “Of course there are going to be mistakes — teachers who get fired who do not deserve to get fired.” But he said that using value-added scores would lead to fewer mistakes, not more. (NY Times)
It is unjustified because the measurement of “fewer mistakes” is not compared against a legitimate, established counterfactual – an actual alternative policy. Fewer mistakes than by what method? Is Chetty arguing that if you measure teacher performance by value-added and then dismiss on the basis of low value-added that you will have selected on the basis of value-added. Really? No kidding! That is, you will have dumped more low value-added teachers than you would have (since you selected on that basis) if you had randomly dumped teachers? That’s not a particularly useful insight if the value-added measures weren’t a good indicator of true teacher effectiveness to begin with. And we don’t know, from this study, if other measures of teacher effectiveness might have been equally correlated with reduced pregnancy, college attendance or earnings.

These two quotes by authors of the study were unnecessary and inappropriate. Perhaps it’s just how NYT spun it… or simply what the reporter latched on to. I’ve been there. But these quotes in my view undermine a study that has a lot of interesting stuff and cool data embedded within.

These quotes are unfortunately illustrative of the most egregiously simpleminded, technocratic, dehumanizing and disturbing thinking about how to “fix” teacher quality. . . . .

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