Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.
How many teachers does it take to teach a class?
Only one, but the kids have to pay attention and really want to learn.
Freddie deBoer expands on the point:
Put more simply and sadly, nothing in education works.
The brute reality is that most kids slot themselves into academic ability bands early in life and stay there throughout schooling. We have a certain natural level of performance, gravitate towards it early on, and are likely to remain in that band relative to peers until our education ends. There is some room for wiggle, and in large populations there are always outliers. But in thousands of years of education humanity has discovered no replicable and reliable means of taking kids from one educational percentile and raising them up into another. Mobility of individual students in quantitative academic metrics relative to their peers over time is far lower than popularly believed. The children identified as the smart kids early in elementary school will, with surprising regularity, maintain that position throughout schooling. Do some kids transcend (or fall from) their early positions? Sure. But the system as a whole is quite static. Most everybody stays in about the same place relative to peers over academic careers. The consequences of this are immense, as it is this relative position, not learning itself, which is rewarded economically and socially in our society.
Wow. Does this sound outrageous? Not to competent teachers. If you’re still outraged, reread the paragraph and pay close attention to what deBoer is saying. DeBoer continues:
This phenomenon is relevant to the question of genetic influence on intelligence, but this post is not about that. The evidence of such influence appears strong to me, and opposition to it seems to rely on a kind of Cartesian dualism. However, one need not believe in genetic influence on academic outcomes to recognize the phenomenon I’m describing today. Entirely separate from the debate about genetic influences on academic performance, we cannot dismiss the summative reality of limited educational plasticity and its potentially immense social repercussions. What I’m here to argue today is not about a genetic influence on academic outcomes. I’m here to argue that regardless of the reasons why, most students stay in the same relative academic performance band throughout life, defying all manner of life changes and schooling and policy interventions. We need to work to provide an accounting of this fact, and we need to do so without falling into endorsing a naïve environmentalism that is demonstrably false. And people in education and politics, particularly those who insist education will save us, need to start acknowledging this simple reality. Without communal acceptance that there is such a thing as an individual’s natural level of ability, we cannot have sensible educational policy.
As I’ve often written, IQ matters as well. As much as D/S/Cs scream for “equity,” rather than an equal opportunity to learn, some people are just smarter than others. Most are average, some below average, some above average, and some small number far above average. People with below average IQs, no matter how motivated they are, no matter how hard they try, are never going to achieve on the level of people with high IQs. To be sure, they’ll benefit—some greatly—from serious effort over time, but they’ll never be on the same level as those truly above average in intelligence.
But what about people who are really smart but just don’t care or do anything. They might fail in school, but still have a high IQ. True, but recognizing such outliers tells us little about how to educate everyone. Such slackers may well test well in various IQ tests, bit because they are intellectual slackers, will never fully develop their potential, and might well lost IQ points over time.
If we didn’t know most people can learn most things most of the time—if they want to learn—we’d never chance driving. Most kids, even if they don’t learn much of anything else, will learn how to drive sufficiently well to pass the necessary performance tests. They do that because they’re highly motivated to get that license.
Unfortunately, much of the educational discourse in our media fails to reflect this distinction. More unfortunately, while we can reliably prompt absolute learning gains in our students, we cannot reliably change their relative placement in the distribution, as I will demonstrate at length. Individual students appear to have some level of intrinsic ability that follows them throughout their academic lives, from kindergarten to college. I will rush to point out that this argument does not assert that the racial achievement gap is inherent. As I have argued repeatedly, it is perfectly consistent and in fact quite sensible to believe that the observed academic differences between individuals are partly because of intrinsic differences, whether genetic or not, while the differences between certain groups such as genders or races are purely environmental. See the jumping contest analogy here for a simple explanation. That is in fact what I believe – that within-group variation (differences between any individual kids, including within the same race) has an intrinsic component while the between-group variation between races is environmental.
By “environmental,” deBoer is not talking about the environment as greenies would see it, but the cultural factors surrounding children from birth. Kids growing up in a stable two-parent family, surrounded by books, and having to live up to high expectations for behavior and scholarly performance will surely do better than kids in dysfunctional, single parent families with no books, and few, if any expectations.
DeBoer’s thinking parallels my experience in dealing with high stakes tests. I could, by teaching to the test, raise the overall test scores of my students, though there was certainly variability from class to class. Classes with a higher percentage of kids who cared about learning did better than those who didn’t, and there were always kids who cared so little they drug the overall class average down.
This is the finding of all such research. At essentially any point along a given student’s educational journey you can take their outcomes relative to peers and enjoy strong predictive ability about their performance at later stages. (Past performance predicts future performance so well that it seems most education researchers don’t seem to think of it as a predictor at all.) If you’d like to go short-term, student performance in third grade predicts student performance in fifth grade very well, as you would imagine. If you prefer long-term, academic skills assessed the summer after kindergarten offer useful predictive information about academic outcomes throughout K-12 schooling and even into college. Similarly, third-grade reading group, a very coarsely gradated predictor, provides useful information about how well a student will be doing at the end of high school. The kids in the top reading group at age 8 are probably going to college. The kids in the bottom reading group probably aren’t. This offends people’s sense of freedom and justice, but it is the reality in which we live.
Here’s my ultimate point:
We’re swimming in examples of supposedly transformative educational ventures, most prominently in the realm of educational technology. (No coincidentally the site of a lot of profiteering.) Why have vast expenditures devoted to classroom technology so often had disappointing results? Why does randomly distributing computers for children to use at home make so little educational difference? There are many, many other cases where interventions that seem intuitively powerful turn out to have no or little effect in the real world. If you believe the standard liberal story of children as undifferentiated academic masses whose outcomes could be easily improved with a little want-to and ingenuity, this is perplexing. If you listen to research, experience, and common sense, you’d recognize that it’s precisely what you’d expect in a world where everyone is not equal in academic potential.
Why oh why do all the brilliant “new” educational fads fail so miserably? To be sure, school administrators who have spent tens, even hundreds, of thousands of taxpayer bucks on some idiotic fad that promises to produce heretofore impossible learning and performance leaps will actually lie about the results. In a few years, they’ll go to an administrator’s conference and be sold on another fad that promises, this time, to be the real thing, and the previous brilliant fad will be quietly forgotten and never again mentioned as the new fad is implemented, and the reality, as de Boer explains, never changes: some people are smarter and better at academics than others, and that tends not to change through schooling and life.
All of this confirms anecdotal experiences. Did kids you know go from failures to whiz kids when they moved to a different state, a drastic change in environment? Does sending a kid to private school solve all of that kid’s educational problems? Do Montessori principles ensure that even severely struggling children can succeed? No, of course not. Because they’re the same kids. Why doesn’t this simple wisdom penetrate policy and politics?
Teacher quality perhaps exists but likely exerts far less influence than generally believed. There is no such entity as ‘school quality.’ The concept is an illusion. There is the underlying ability of the students in a school that produces metrics that we then pretend say something of meaning about the school itself. That’s it.
Here I disagree with deBoer. There are indeed good and bad schools. I make that distinction based on old-fashioned measures. In a good school, principals do their best to hire the best possible teachers, fully support them, and let them do their jobs. Student discipline is strict but fair, and equally applied. The adults are in charge, and there is no question about that, ever. Principals avoid any interruption in the school schedule, because nothing it more important than class time, and teachers are expected to use it well. One easy way to identify a good school is when teachers zealously guard every minute of class time.
Compare this idealized school with one where students are in charge, discipline is lax or non-existent, there are constant interruptions of class time, and the quality of teachers is a secondary consideration, if that. What we’re talking about is the quality of the educational opportunity provided for kids. In a high-quality educational environment, they’ll have the best opportunity to learn and to even rise above previous achievement levels. DeBoer is right: regardless, huge numbers of kids don’t change, but the opportunity is there, and even average kids will surely learn more. Let’s skip to the end of deBoer’s argument:
Education is a good in and of itself, but the impact of education on the economy will always be most salient in political debates. By some metrics, the fastest-growing occupation in America is not programmer or microbiologist but home health aid. The job doesn’t require a college education. The median wage is $27,000 a year. Our system’s message to all of those people who will spend their days helping keep our elderly alive for poverty wages is, well, hey. Should have done better in school. Maybe the first step in doing better for them is recognizing that most of them never had a choice. But if you’re really dead set on education as the key to improving the economic fortunes of the disadvantaged, and you don’t think we can or should redistribute our way to a more just and equal society, and you’re fixated on moving kids from the bottom of the academic performance spectrum to the top, what can we do? What works?
Rather a harsh pronouncement, isn’t it, gentle readers? By all means, take the link and read deBoer’s entire article. Experience tells me good, dedicated teachers tend to get the best from engaged, motivated students, but the best teacher in the world can’t squeeze blood from a stone. That’s why I’m always annoyed by fads, because they proclaim teachers really don’t matter, only “the method” matters. If every teacher slavishly follows “the method,” students will have no choice but to learn and to improve dramatically. As deBoer says, none of that works.
What does work? Professional, smart, dedicated, hard working teachers and kids willing to pay attention, do the work, and try hard, over time, to do their best. A “C” student will likely always be a “C” student, particularly if their relative lack of achievement is due to a lower IQ, but some “C” students can, through hard work, and the encouragement of insightful teachers, do better.
Merely consistently focusing on paying attention will make a real difference. Among the first things I told my kids was learning to pay attention is difficult, and takes real effort for a lifetime, but something seemingly so elementary can pay enormous dividends.
Some things do work, but on a more or less individual level. Replace a competent curriculum with fads, CRT and other woke lunacy, and everything falls apart.