Moneyball in the classroom

What educationalists in New Zealand can learn from newspapers in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Times has produced a detailed set of estimates about how much value each teacher in Los Angeles adds to their classroom. That is hugely valuable information. New Zealand’s education establishment should be doing something similar.

The Times used official information about students and about neighbourhoods to generate information about how much value a teacher adds. The basic idea is to figure out how well the kids should be doing in English and maths given their own previous achievement, background, and surroundings. Then they see whether the kids in a particular teacher’s classrooms tend to outperform this expectation, perform as expected, or underperform. That average difference is what we are interested in. If the kids perform about as expected in most classes, but do really well in one teacher’s classes, then that probably tells us something about the individual teacher. If the kids are outperforming expectations across all classes in a school, then that likely tells us something about the school’s atmosphere and/or leadership.

Richard Buddin, an economist at the RAND Corporation and Professor at UCLA, adapted the specific statistical techniques for this purpose. I am no RAND economist, but I do some statistical work in my own research, and to my semi-trained eye it looks to be nicely done.

It is not overwhelmingly hard to adapt this approach for New Zealand. We don't even need National Standards to do it. We have all kinds of other achievement testing in primary and secondary school already, from the PAT tests through to NCEA. We can use those as our benchmarks, as we have done for decades. And we have screeds of data on where our schoolchildren come from, how they did last year, and so on.

Why should we follow the Times’ lead? Because it helps us to reward great teachers and provide remedial support for teachers in difficulty. And because it allows us to diagnose, early, easily, and with reasonable precision, what is going wrong when a school is performing badly. Is it one or two bad teachers? A bad english department? Poor school-wide leadership? Or is the issue in the community itself, a problem at home rather than in the classroom? The data can answer that crucial question better than a big round of finger-pointing in front of an inspector from ERO.

We can do all kinds of helpful things with this information. If one school has a dysfunctional maths department and there is a great maths teacher at another school, the government can fund the Board of Trustees to pay generous incentives to convince the great teacher to take on the troubled department as HoD. Same thing for giving great teachers powerful incentives to teach at generally underperforming schools. Same thing for new principles.

If a teacher is performing poorly, we can provide additional training and mentoring to that teacher, making sure it is great teachers who we ask to be the mentors.

If a school is performing badly, but no worse than average given the students’ demographics, the government can target the area for out of school programs designed to complement and extend in-school learning.

Many good things flow from having better information.

It is true that there are already multiple ways to assess teachers in New Zealand. There is teacher registration. There are periodic assessments against professional standards. In some situations, there are Teacher’s Council investigations. There is ERO. Those are all good things to have, and this data-driven assessment should be used to extend those assessment regimes, not to replace them. The data based assessment does add real value, however, both as a nationwide diagnostic tool for educators and administrators and as an individual assessment tool for rewarding great teachers and helping others improve.

Who should find out the results? Well, the teachers for a start. They need to know how they are doing. And their local Board of Trustees. And the government folk should know, too. They are collectively charged with improving the educational outcomes for New Zealand’s tragically long “education tail.” Once they know how their teaching resources are distributed, they can better shuffle them around to make the system more effective.

Parents should probably get some information about how their kid’s school does compared to other schools with similar student demographics. That is a valuable accountability mechanism for Principals, who get paid good money to be accountable to their local communities. But unfiltered league tables of area schools do more harm than good, presenting an apples to oranges comparison as if it were apples to apples.

Parents should also not get access to individual teacher rankings. Here I disagree with the Times. Why? Because it is little more than a recipe for school administrators to be drowned in a tide of the pushiest, over-caffeinated parents demanding that Little Johnny should move over to that excellent Mrs Paki’s home room. Now! We don’t get to see the latest performance review of the cop that pulled us over, or the nurse in the hospital ward, or the customs agent at the border. And rightly so. Teachers are no different.

(Note to over-caffeinated parents: It is not always your kid’s turn to have the best teacher at school. Do you know what the best teachers spend a lot of time trying to teach? Sharing.)

This kind of scheme will not make lucky teachers rich. Those teachers blessed with upwardly mobile classes of bright young things at places like Parnell District School or Wellington Girls College probably won’t make massive performance bonuses, because we expect those kids to learn well regardless of the teacher. The teachers that stand to gain from this kind of tool are those turning C or D students into B students in challenging school environments. Those are the people we need to encourage and reward, because their achievements in the classroom brighten the future for the whole country. Let’s find out who they are, judging them by their results, and give them the rewards they deserve.