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

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Dr. Jon Saphier and the Lie That Keeps on Paying Off for His Company

Massachusetts is just one state that has approved Jon Saphier as a licensed vendor to peddle his "Research for Better Teaching" (RBT) to teachers and school leaders across the state.  Saphier's consultants, in fact, are in action tomorrow in at the RBT Conference Center in Acton, MA.  Big bucks.

At the tap root of Saphier's expensive advice is a very old and withered lie that Saphier keeps alive, told so often by Saphier, himself, that it is impossible to know if he has come to actually believe it.  From the preface of The Skillful Teacher . . . (2008):
Of all the things that matter for having good schools, nothing is as important as the teacher and what that person knows, believes, and can do. . . . Teacher effects dwarf all others on student learning.  
Below is a more recent YouTube video where he says the same thing within the first 60 seconds:

What this lie does, of course, when applied liberally to eager or desperate school principals and superintendents who are paying big bucks in Saphier's expensive "professional development" sessions is to provide justification for expecting from teachers what other factors besides teaching makes impossible to achieve.

What the research tells us, in fact, is that teacher effectiveness constitutes the most important school-based factor to variations in test score achievement (Goldhaber, Liddle, Theobald, & Walch, 2010), with the exact percentage depending on the methodology used to measure it. [

Goldhaber (2002) found that teacher characteristics account for 8.5 percent of the “variation in student achievement,” while another analysis published, too, in a peer-reviewed journal (Nye, Konstantopoulos, & Hedges, 2004) found that “7% to 21% of the variance in achievement gains is associated with variation in teacher effectiveness” (p. 240).  

What we know,  as well, is that that other factors, both in-school and out-of-school, have much more influence on student achievement variations than do teachers.  Goldhaber and his colleagues (Goldhaber, 2002) found that additional factors involving family background, peer composition, and other social capital influences make up sixty percent of the variance in student test scores. 

References for sources just cited:  
Goldhaber, D.  (2002).  The mystery of good teaching. Education Next, 2(1).  Retrieved from 

Goldhaber, D., Liddle, S., Theobald, R., & Walch, J.  (2010).  Teacher effectiveness and the achievement of Washington students in mathematics (Working paper no. 2010-6.0).  Seattle, WA:  University of Washington, Center for Education Data & Research.  Retrieved from http://www.cedr.us/publications.html

Nye, B., Konstantopoulos, S., & Hedges, L. V.  (2004). How large are teacher effects?” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 26(3), 237-257.

So, please Dr. Saphier, stop lying.  And please, State of Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, stop endorsing Saphier's lie.  If you need additional research, try this one just published in the April issue of Pediatrics that demonstrates previously undocumented evidence that prematurity and maternal education have highly significant impacts on subsequent infant development and early school achievement as measured by test scores (my bolds):

. . . . Led by Bryan Williams, PhD, lead researcher and associate professor at Emory's Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, the team monitored live births to Georgia-resident mothers ages 11-53 and the test results for all three components of the Criterion-referenced Competency Test (CRCT) for first graders in Georgia public schools. The aim was to determine the association between late preterm births – birth between 36-37 weeks' gestation – and first grade standardized test scores. The findings suggested that preterm birth and low maternal education increase a child's risk of failure of first grade standardized testing scores.

 "While socioeconomic conditions are frequently blamed for the "achievement gap" in educational testing, the role of prematurity in educational achievement should also be explored," explains Williams. "Our findings demonstrate that a child's academic success is much more of a function of birth history than who educates them. It is difficult to argue that a child born at 28 weeks will perform well on a standardized test by simply having a better educator." 

Williams and his team explored additional factors such as maternal age at birth, maternal education, maternal race/ethnicity, child race/ethnicity, sex of the child, and year of birth. Findings of the study suggested that, along with preterm birth, the strongest risk factor for failure of each of the three components (math, reading, and language arts) was low levels of maternal education.

 "Strategies should be implemented to promote maternal academic achievement and full-term gestation," says Carol Hogue, PhD, Terry Professor of Maternal and Child Health at Emory's Rollins School of Public Health. "This also includes proper education of the consequences of early elective inductions and the importance of addressing known risk factors for preterm birth." 

"Given the fact that the fetal brain grows by nearly one third in the last five weeks of pregnancy, it is not surprising that any injury, such as prematurity, at this stage can lead to neurodevelopmental delays," explains co-author Lucky Jain, MD, Richard W. Blumberg Professor and executive vice chairman for the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine. "The surprising finding in this study is the extension of these delays into early school age." 

The developmental risks associated with late preterm births were once thought to be minimal. However, studies have demonstrated that even infants who are at the margins of prematurity suffer disproportionate rates of clinical neurocognitive problems. These late preterm infants may be susceptible to early and long term academic failure. 

"Given our findings, it is reasonable to believe that prematurity could have an even longer and more substantial impact on school achievement as a child progresses through grade levels, says co-author Anne L. Dunlop, MD, MPH, associate professor at Emory's Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. "This information supports recommendations for pregnant mothers to wait until 39 weeks or greater to deliver, when possible, and further underscores the importance of identifying and implementing interventions to address the problem of preterm birth in the United States."


  1. So the major point here seems to be: John Saphier has been trying to affect what the author of the blog post admits is the major factor under a school's control -- teacher effectiveness. But because he hasn't overtly admitted that other factors beyond a school's control also affect student achievement, he's "lying" and perpetrating some kind of fraud? This seems like a gratuitous and hyperbolic attack. What are we supposed to do -- work on the things we can't control? Give up because we'll never help kids who aren't succeeding? Brian Baron, Newton South (MA) High School

  2. What Saphier has overtly claimed is a lie, straight up, and bald-faced, at that: "Of all the things that matter for having good schools, nothing is as important as the teacher and what that person knows, believes, and can do. . . . Teacher effects dwarf all others on student learning."

  3. So, I've got a question, a few years later:
    If this one statement (and any others directly like it) were deleted from his book(s), would the rest of the material be invalidated? Or would it retain both its value and stated purpose, to make the fraction of student achievement that *is* due to teacher quality as positive as possible?