Teacher quality is not the most important factor determining student success; it is the most important in-school factor, Richard Rothstein clarified in his closing keynote at ASCD’s 2010 Conference on Teaching and Learning.
Decades of social science research have demonstrated that differences in the quality of schools can explain about one-third of the variation in student achievement, he continued. But the other two-thirds is attributable to community factors or what kids bring to the classroom. For example, if we want to improve reading achievement, we must look at and improve literacy in students’ homes. By 3 years old, students from disadvantaged home environments already show gaps in literacy as large as they would be by the time they leave high school, Rothstein noted.
“Efforts to improve schools are undermined by the deteriorating conditions under which kids come to school,” he said. Namely, Rothstein cited the effects of the current economic catastrophe on the home lives of children. Consider, for example, that 15 percent of all black children now have an unemployed parent, compared to 8.5 percent of white children. Widespread economic hardship means students’ lives are more disrupted by stress; poor nutrition and health; and moving around or living in overcrowded, inadequate conditions.
“We’re convinced that the only way schools can influence student achievement is by focusing on what’s going on in the classroom,” Rothstein said. He added that we need to better prepare kids to come to school and improve the effectiveness of education while they’re in school, but also consider how policy can lift up students’ lives outside the classroom.
In addition to teacher quality, Rothstein urged policymakers to consider the full range of in-school factors that affect student achievement: quality of leadership, curriculum, and opportunities for professional collaboration.
Rothstein insisted we have real choices to make at the ballot box and in our schools: establish narrow policies that blame teachers, or consider the full range of supports we can mobilize for our students.