A Response: How Should We Focus Our Education Conversations
Nevada Succeeds reached out to multiple educators and policymakers in Nevada for their reaction to our August 10 column, “How Should We Focus Our Education Conversations.” Below, UNLV College of Education Dean Kim Metcalf shares his thoughts. We’ll be responding with our thoughts in the coming days and look forward to a continued conversation.
From Dean Metcalf, 8/15/2017
First, I think we need to be honest about what education, no matter how "good," can be expected to do. It's true that the single most important SCHOOL RELATED factor associated with student academic achievement gain is the quality of the teacher. Further, research since the 1960s has indicated that this relationship is causal -- when teachers are directly trained to use practices (mostly discrete rather than method or program embedded) associated with higher student achievement, the academic performance of their students improves significantly (experimental studies over the years have been pretty consistent in this finding). However, and also since the 1960's an even more consistent and powerful finding has been that school-related factors (including but not limited to the quality of the teacher, e.g., school leadership, school safety, etc.) explain only between 10-and-20 percent of differences in students' academic achievement/performance.
The vast majority (80 to 90 percent) of student achievement is a result of demographic and socioeconomic factors that lie well outside the control of the school. These factors include the quality of the language environment in a child's home; parent (or, in more recent research, primary caregivers') income, education level, and verbal ability; and similar community/family related factors. There are a couple of key implications of this (at least in my mind):
Number 1: Until we (as a state and as a community) acknowledge and deal with severe differences among families in the non-school factors that influence children's academic performance, we'll never make much progress in improving the "equality and quality of education for all students." In a state where educational completion levels are among the lowest in the country, where the proportion of families living in poverty is high, and where the proportion of children who grow up in homes where English is not the primary language (and may not be spoken at all), ignoring these or expecting schools and good teachers to make up for them is at best naive and at worst, simply inhumane. Number 2: In this environment, it is imperative that we do everything we can to optimize the extent to which our schools positively affect student learning (i.e., that their influence is nearer the 20 percent than the 10 percent levels). Our acute shortage of licensed teachers has made it difficult to have a conversation about this and, instead, has tended to lead us to adopt looser and looser standards for professional licensing of educators.
There is great "face validity" in the argument that "it's better to have a minimally licensed teacher in a classroom than a long-term substitute or no teacher at all." But there is little data to support this. Licensing students in ARL programs to assume complete control over a classroom with only a few hours of professional training or making reciprocity across states easier may provide a slightly larger pool of warm bodies to plug into classrooms, but doing this may actually be worse for children than using a long-term substitute under the watchful eye of a qualified teacher or instructional leader. Kim Kim K. Metcalf, Ph.D. Professor and Dean College of Education University of Nevada Las Vegas