An Interview with Marcus Winters: Teachers Matter!

Feb 1, 2012 by

Marcus A. Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

Marcus A. Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, argues that our failure to identify and reward high-quality teachers has been devastating for public school students. The question is, how do we sort out the good teachers from the bad? Winters shows the shortcomings of the current system, which relies on credentials and longevity, and spells out a series of reforms based on results achieved in the classroom. For the first time, standardized test results offer an objective, reliable measure of student proficiency that can be tied to an individual teacher. Sure to be controversial, Winters’s plan will be of interest to the education community, policy makers, and parents concerned about the future of education in America.

  1. In your latest book, Teachers Matter, you indicate that our failure to identify and reward high quality teachers has been problematic. What first got you interested in this area?

I’m interested in reforming the relationship between public schools and their teachers because it is the most promising course for ensuring that all students receive a high quality education. When we think about how to improve schooling, a great place to start is by considering the most important factor within a school’s control for producing student achievement. Empirical research over the last two decades has confirmed our suspicion that teachers are that essential element. The research also shows us that there is wide variation in the quality of teachers, which means that we have a lot of room for improvement in this important area.

  1. It wasn’t that long ago that I was in high school and had a god awful chemistry teacher. To this day, I firmly believe that if I had a good chem. teacher I would be an M.D. instead of a Ph.D.   Is this an example of the harm a poor teacher can do?

It could be. Great teachers do inspire us to achieve our highest potential. Most of us can think of great teachers that inspired us along the way, as well as bad teachers who didn’t help us to achieve our goals. The problem is that the current system treats the good and bad teachers as if they are the same.

3)    And now the perennial problem- how do we sort out the good teachers from the bad?  Are you going to rely on standardized test scores?

Careful use of standardized test scores is part of the solution. We now have both the data and techniques that are capable of measuring a teacher’s independent contribution to student test score growth, and the information provided by such analyses is game changing. However, test scores on their own are insufficient. No one who works with these approaches thinks that test scores should be used in isolation to make employment decisions. A rich evaluation system would use both test scores and meaningful subjective assessments of a teacher’s performance in order to identify our best and worst teachers.

4.) I know some teachers that have a master’s degree, but I would use the word mediocre to describe them. Can we help these “middle of the road“ teachers ?

Actually, from a policy perspective the situation is even worse. A wide body of research tells us that having a master’s degree is simply unrelated to a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. Some great teachers have master’s degree, and some bad teachers have master’s degrees. Knowing how many advanced degrees a teacher has earned tells us nothing about how effective that teacher is in the classroom. It makes no sense to pay teachers based on their degrees as the current system does.

5.) Along the same lines, I know some teachers that have just turned 60 and are burned out- are they poor teachers, tired teachers, or should they be encouraged to retire?

Yes, once a teacher isn’t effective in the classroom we have a duty to the students to try to replace that teacher. A major issue is that the structure of the current pension system makes it difficult for teachers to leave the profession until they have put in enough years to get the most out of their retirement benefits. There are teachers out there who want to leave the classroom but feel that they must hold on in order to maximize their pension benefits. We should move to a 401k-style defined contribution system that would better allow such teachers to leave the classroom.

6.) Marcus, we have first grade teachers, and physics teachers. How can an administrator differentiate between the two

It is a difficult administration problem to be sure. And test scores can’t always help since many teachers teach untested subjects and grade levels. But a system that treats all teachers as if they are identical is missing an enormous opportunity. The competition in the labor market for a great physics teacher is very different than it is for an effective elementary school teacher. If we are going to keep great teachers in the classroom we need to differentiate between how much these very different teachers are paid.

7.) Some teachers are really good at working with middle of the road kids, and some are good at working with gifted kids.  Should they both be evaluated the same way?

Part of a rich evaluation system would be identifying the teacher’s strengths and weaknesses so that they can be utilized to their fullest potential and find areas for improvement. Simply treating all teachers as if they are equally effective – as the current system does – misses the chance to get the best out of our existing teaching workforce.

8.) There seems to be an explosion of students with special needs- visually impaired, emotionally disturbed, kids with attention deficit disorder, kids with speech, articulation problems, and some with intellectual deficiencies—should teachers be evaluated based on how well these kids do as well as our nice, normal average kids ?

Yes. Students with special needs deserve high quality education as well. Of course, we need to consider the type of student in a teacher’s classroom, and we can do that both in test score analyses of their performance and in subjective assessments. But most kids in special education can learn, and we shouldn’t be abandoning them by saying that they don’t count.

9)  Student absences seem to be another of those perennial problems- should the test scores of these kids be calculated when evaluating teachers?

Absolutely. As with special education, we can take into account the type of student in a teacher’s classroom. But the teacher is responsible for all of their students. Of course, students themselves play a role in their own education. But the adults in charge need to take some responsibility.

10) Some teachers do a remarkable job of remediating kids in their classes. But should teachers be evaluated on their ability to remediate? For example, a student who enters the sixth grade, reading at a third grade level for whatever reason? Is it FAIR to be evaluating teachers on their skills in remediation? Or working with kids with special needs?

What we are interested in is the teacher’s independent contribution to student learning. That’s why we focus on how much growth a teacher’s students make during the year rather than just their overall test score. We don’t expect that all of a teacher’s students will come out with very high proficiency. But what we should expect is that the teacher contributes to the student’s academic growth during the school year.

11)  At what point can a teacher say “I should not have the test results of that child with severe autism or head injury or brain trauma“ entered into my evaluation ?

Yes, there are certainly some students for whom testing is not appropriate. In those cases, as in the cases of those teaching subjects that are not tested or in untested grades, we should lean more on subjective assessments of the teacher’s performance. That said, the vast majority of students in special education have minor disabilities. These students can learn, and can be tested. We need to take their disability into account when evaluating the teacher, but we shouldn’t give in to the idea that they can’t learn.

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