A 10 on the Richter Scale

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, January 19, 2004

A magnitude-10 earthquake buckled the landscape beneath Nevada’s public education establishment two months ago. But to judge from the public silence, virtually no one in the Silver State noticed.

The epicenter of this huge seismic shift was all the way across the country—in Richmond, Virginia. That’s where, on November 12, a representative of the Carnegie Corporation of New York addressed the steering committee of the Education Commission of the States.

For four decades, noted Dr. Daniel Fallon, the academic consensus underlying most American public education policy has itself largely rested on the prestige of a massive report funded by the Lyndon Johnson administration and published in two large volumes in 1966.

The study—led by Johns Hopkins University mathematical sociologist James Coleman—relied primarily on mass data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Looking at American youth largely through those collective categories, the study concluded: “only a small part of [student achievement] is the result of school factors, in contrast to family background differences between communities.”

As Coleman interpreted the data, according to Fallon, “pupil achievement could not be significantly elevated until conditions governed by race, class, and income inequality were rearranged to strengthen the positive role of healthy families.”

A broad consensus rapidly formed around this idea. And six years later another distinguished sociologist, Christopher Jencks, “confirmed” Coleman’s basic findings in a highly influential book published at Harvard.

“The character of a school’s output depends largely on a single input, namely the characteristics of the entering children,” confidently proclaimed Jencks.

A logical implication of the Coleman-Jencks analysis, notes Fallon, was the conclusion: “When it comes to student achievement, teaching doesn’t matter very much.”

This new consensus among America’s anointed educational experts had—and still has—a disastrous effect on teaching. Teacher colleges began turning out graduates trained to see themselves as coaches or facilitators, rather than instructors.

In pedagogic circles, says Fallon, the discussion no longer turned “on the relative value, for example, of didactic instruction by lecture versus guided individualized instruction in small groups, but rather the idea of instruction itself receded toward the periphery or disappeared altogether (emphasis added).”

Ominously, at the same time as the Coleman-Jencks paradigm began dominating academia, National Education Association leaders were abandoning the organization’s historical vision of teaching as a profession. Increasingly defining membership in terms of angry organized labor clichés—e.g., pugnacious union strikers chanting in unison at management—the NEA, like the American Federation of Teachers, was becoming a major force for systemic educational mediocrity. Just last year the president of an Ohio NEA affiliate acknowledged the actual union credo: “We expect parents to work in the best interest of the kids. We’re working in the best interest of the teachers.”

Injected into this increasingly corrosive context, the Coleman-Jencks paradigm had a tragic effect. “[M]any teachers came to believe that it was not their responsibility if the children did not learn the curriculum,” observed Fallon. “Surely, they reasoned, performance deficiencies were caused not by weak instruction but rather by poor nutrition, or weak family structures, or no community support for academic endeavors.”

What the latest research shows, however, is that Coleman and Jencks were, in essence, wrong.

“Recent research, beginning about a decade ago, has brought about a radical reorientation of thinking among scholars about the relative role of the teacher in bringing about student achievement gain,” Dr. Fallon told the commission. Data from years of testing, stored in comprehensive databases, turns out to permit the test performance of individual students to be linked with the specific teachers who had taught them.

Researchers found that “students matched in performance on assessments at the beginning of the third grade were separated by more than 50 percentile points in comparable assessments by the end of the fifth grade, as a direct result of the quality of the teaching they received in the intervening years…. [S]ome teachers consistently produced large gains in student achievement, irrespective of the kinds of students assigned to them, while other teachers did not.”

These findings have been widely replicated in a variety of different studies of different experimental designs and techniques. Moreover, the impact on student achievement turns out to be 20 times that of other factors, such as class size or socioeconomic status.

Like a tsunami triggered by some avalanche on the far side of the globe, the consequences of the new research are hurtling forward in a wide and powerful arc.

Directly in the path: Nevada’s mediocrity-justifying teacher union and its enabling state education establishment.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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