Thursday, November 01, 2012
The most interesting thing about the recent box-office bomb of Won’t Back Down wasn't just how big-money ideologues backed such a dog of a movie, but that audiences handed a resounding “two thumbs down” to this attempt to alter the time-tested teacher-as-hero formula that has been so profitable to Hollywood over the years.
In the 1980s and 90s, movies about troubled schools had a common theme: get tough on students. Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me and Dangerous Minds, for instance, reflected the common wisdom that charismatic educators could force those unruly urban (and usually minority) kids to shape up, allowing the US to compete with Japan in the global economy.
But the heroic teacher myth has recently been flipped to the teacher-as-villain, as indicated by a new crop of films that pounce on teachers for not improving the inner cities. Recent Hollywood movies such as Won’t Back Down and Bad Teacher are buttressed by documentaries like Waiting for Superman, The Lottery and The Cartel in promoting the notion that education failure is due primarily to bad schools and, more specifically, to those who teach in them. In this narrative, without finding ways of identifying, sanctioning, and firing ineffective teachers (who all happen to work at schools with lots of disadvantaged kids), the US will be unable to compete with India and China in the new global economy.
This embrace of teacher effectiveness and rejection of student disadvantage as the primary factor influencing student outcomes has become something of a theme with the self-described “reform” crowd, as when Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels made the amazing claim that “Teacher quality has been found to be twenty times more important than any other factor, including poverty, in determining which kids succeed.” The “Rhee-formers” believe that good teaching trumps the “demographic determinism” of bad background factors.
Improving teacher quality is, of course, a laudable goal. But what does the evidence actually tell us?
Going back at least to the Coleman Report of the mid-1960s, researchers have consistently found that non-school factors are the primary — if not overwhelming — consideration in predicting student outcomes (see, e.g. here, here, here, here, here). Decades of research suggest that school-factors may explain perhaps one-third of the variance in student achievement, while teaching itself may influence one-fifth, at best. And it’s not at all clear that exceptional teaching has the sustained impact over time that we might wish. Great teaching can make a difference, and it does for many students. But for many more, the environment soon re-asserts itself.
Certainly, it’s much easier for policymakers to mandate better teaching than it is to mandate better parenting. We can’t legislate that all parents care about their child’s education, take prenatal vitamins, or limit exposure to lead… and that wouldn’t make for a very good movie.
But what we see in Won’t Back Down is a willful disregard of evidence in favor of Rhee-formist idealism — the appeal of simplistic solutions to complex problems. This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to improve the educational experiences of poor kids. But idealism and ideological desire cannot counter data. Without a foundation in facts, any reforms are likely to go the way of the many other efforts that are based on good intentions and ideological assumptions, but which ignore evidence. (Recall the Gates Foundation’s expensive and ineffective foray into smaller schools.) There will be little overall impact on academic outcomes from reforms that neglect the primary problems… outside of schools.
Divorced from evidence, idealism may make for a good movie, but it is not the best strategy for improving educational outcomes.