Unpacking Education and Teacher Impact

Among media, political, and public claims driving calls for education reform, two beliefs are dominant: (i) education is the single most important lever for lifting anyone above the circumstances of her/his birth, and (ii) teacher quality is the single greatest factor in whether that educational experience accomplishes the first belief.

As I have increased my contribution to public debates about education reform, I have witnessed that media, political, and public comments are often knee-jerk and simplistic either/or responses to complex research.

For example, when I note that 40 years of research reject grade retention, responses tend to discount that research with “So you want us just to pass them on?”—suggesting that social promotion is the only alternative to grade retention (which, of course, it isn’t). Similarly, when I share that 60 years of research on corporal punishment also refute spanking—that, in fact, there is no debate on its use—responses immediately include, “So we are just supposed to let children do whatever they want?”

But I have also discovered that in my education courses, students challenge many research-based conclusions, although the students are more thoughtful—particularly when I share the evidence on the impact of education and teachers [1].

Consider the follow body of evidence below; and then, in the context of this evidence, I want to unpack what education and teacher impact actually entails.

Is teacher quality actually the single greatest factor in student achievement? Di Carlo details what research shows:

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

Also consider Donald Hirsch’s research on the UK for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: “Just 14 per cent of variation in individuals’ performance is accounted for by school quality [emphasis added]. Most variation is explained by other factors, underlining the need to look at the range of children’s experiences, inside and outside school, when seeking to raise achievement.”

We see here two important points: (i) out-of-school factors dwarf measurable influences of teacher quality, and (ii) teacher quality is a subset of school quality. Thus, school and teacher quality is not even close to the most important measurable factor in student achievement.

Now, what is the evidence on social mobility in the U.S., notably in terms of how educational attainment influences the relationship between social class or race and that mobility?

Social mobility appears fairly sticky in the bottom and top quintiles:


From Pew’s Economic Mobility Project data; analysis by Bruenig, 2013, June 13: “As far as income mobility goes, you are 10x more likely to wind up in the richest fifth as an adult if you were born there than if you were born in the poorest fifth.”

Fig 11

From Pew’s Economic Mobility Project data; analysis by Bruenig, 2013, June 13: “As far as wealth mobility goes, you are more than 5x more likely to wind up in the wealthiest fifth as an adult if you were born there than if you were born in the least wealthiest fifth.”

Next, Bruenig (2013, June 13) concludes:

One convenient way to describe what’s going on is that rich kids are more likely to get a better education, which translates into being richer and wealthier as adults. It is certainly the case that richer kids are more likely to get a college degree, and it is certainly the case that getting a college degree leaves you much better off on average than not getting one. But this does not explain the full picture of social immobility [emphasis added].

And thus, social mobility appears more strongly connected to the social class of a person’s family than to education (a function of combined school and teacher quality):


From Pew’s Economic Mobility Project data; analysis by Bruenig, 2013, June 13: “[Y]ou are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated.”

The consequences of the dynamic between social class and education are, as Matt O’Brien explains, as follows:


Data from Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill. O’Brien concludes: “Even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong.”

Now, consider the relationship between educational attainment and race. First, in Closing the Race Gap, O’Sullivan, Mugglestone, and Allison (2014) detail that blacks with some college earn about the same as whites with no high school diploma:

Table 2 copy

O’Sullivan, Mugglestone, and Allison (2014)

From this report as well, Susan Adams explains: “African-American college students are about as likely to get hired as whites who have dropped out of high school.”

Significant income disparities exist along racial lines despite educational attainment, as Bruenig (2014, October 24) shows:


Bruenig (2014, October 24): “First, understand that blacks and Hispanics have lower incomes than whites up and down the educational spectrum. On average, black families at a given level of educational attainment receive incomes that are just 66% of what white families at the same level of educational attainment receive. For Hispanic families, that figure is 79%. Naturally, when education-controlled income disparities like this exist, education-controlled wealth disparities will exist.”

The impact of education (school and teacher quality), then, when placed in the context of both social class and race refutes the opening claims: (i) education is the single most important lever for lifting anyone above the circumstances of her/his birth, and (ii) teacher quality is the single greatest factor in whether that educational experience accomplishes the first belief.

When I offer these measurable facts to either the public or my students, often I hear: “So you are saying that education and teachers do not matter?”

Here is the hard part.

First, making claims that measurable education and teacher impact exists is problematic. Thus, I absolutely support that both education and teachers matter, but I also caution that this impact is not singular, direct, or easily quantified.

Part of that problem is that the impact of any person’s education or the influence of any teacher or teachers tends to occur over long periods of time, and we are hard pressed to tease out and measure specific teachers or practices since that impact is cumulative, interrelated, and multi-faceted (consider that a student can learn a valuable lesson from a flawed lesson or a weak teacher).

Our first conclusion, then, is that making claims about education being the single or sole factor in success or that the teacher is the single most important factor in achievement is misleading, overly simplistic.

But, there are fair and accurate claims we can make about the importance of education, leading to our second conclusion.

Our second conclusion is that within social class and race, educational attainment has significant influence, but that education alone appears less effective in overcoming large social inequities such as classism and racism.

From this, I think we have several important lessons:

  • Media, public, and political hyperbole about education and teacher impact does a disservice to public education, teachers, students, and the public. Overstating the impact of education and teachers assures that we will continue to fail our students and the promise of universal public education.
  • In our endless quest for education reform, we would be better served if we moved away from mostly measurable data points for making claims about and policies in education. Education is messy and complicated; quantified data are in fact simplistic and misleading.
  • Until we confront the corrosive influence of class and race in the U.S. and until we admit that education alone is not enough to overcome classism and racism, we are perpetuating social inequity.

Let’s be clear: Education and teachers matter. But, regretfully, they simply do not matter in the ways most people claim or believe, and certainly not in ways that are easy to identify.

The good news, however, is that there is much we can do to change this, if we have the resolve to confront the evidence, accept the ugly truths, and then to do something different.

See Related: If social mobility is the problem, grammar schools are not the solution, Gaby Hinsliff


[1] This post is in debt to my current, fall 2014 EDU 111 course at Furman University, a group of students fully committed to engaging with the topics, challenging claims, and seeking to understand the complexity of education. They are proof that teaching is an act of learning, if the teacher is there to listen as well as talk.

“Education as Great Equalizer” Deforming Myth, Not Reality

In the Seinfeld episode “The Hamptons,” viewers watch yet another clash between the essentially soulless main characters as they interact with the very white and privileged “real world” surrounding them in the sitcom. The crux of this episode revolves around one couple having a baby, and then what occurs when reality clashes with civility:

Jerry: Is it me or was that the ugliest baby you have ever seen?

Elaine: Uh, I couldn’t look. It was like the Pekinese.

Jerry: Boy, a little too much chlorine in that gene pool. (They sit) And, you know, the thing is, they’re never gonna know, no one’s ever gonna tell them. (See transcript here.)

Setting aside what this scene (again) reveals about Jerry and Elaine, an important message we can draw from this tension is that most people genuinely do not want to face the harsh truth, especially when that harsh truth contradicts their beliefs.

As I have examined before, the U.S. is overwhelmingly a belief culture, committed to our cultural myths even and especially when those myths have no basis in evidence.

When I have approached the overwhelming evidence that poverty is destiny, I receive angry challenges from people all along the spectrum of ideologies Right and Left, but I also have people who align themselves with me send pleas that I stop such nonsense: Rejecting hard truths has no ideological boundary.

However, in the U.S. both poverty and affluence are destiny, and those who shudder at that reality are confusing verbs: Yes, poverty should not be destiny, but false claims will never allow us to achieve that ideal.

So this leads me to a parallel harsh truth: Education is not the great equalizer (and, again, education should be the great equalizer, but making that claim when it isn’t a reality is inexcusable.)

As I have highlighted numerous times, Matt Bruenig, using “data from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project about social mobility (I,II),” presents a stark reality and draws a disturbing conclusion:

One convenient way to describe what’s going on is that rich kids are more likely to get a better education, which translates into being richer and wealthier as adults. It is certainly the case that richer kids are more likely to get a college degree, and it is certainly the case that getting a college degree leaves you much better off on average than not getting one. But this does not explain the full picture of social immobility. Take a look at this super-complicated chart, which I will describe below….

So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!

Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.

In the U.S., powerful mythologies drive a faith in social mobility (connected to working hard, being well educated, and achievement coming to those who merit that success), but also foster counter-narratives that are essentially ugly and unwarranted: those who are poor or fail are lazy, underserving (read Scarcity for a powerful and evidence-based look at how poverty overwhelms people instead of poverty results from flawed individuals).

The evidence is overwhelming and growing, however, that education is not the great equalizer and that poverty/affluence remain essentially destiny, as reported by Juana Summers at NPR:

Education is historically considered to be the thing that levels the playing field, capable of lifting up the less advantaged and improving their chances for success.

“Play by the rules, work hard, apply yourself and do well in school, and that will open doors for you,” is how Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist, puts it.

But a study published in June suggests that the things that really make the difference — between prison and college, success and failure, sometimes even life and death — are money and family.

In The Long Shadow, Alexander, Entwistle, and Olson “followed nearly 800 Baltimore schoolchildren for a quarter of a century, and discovered that their fates were substantially determined by the family they were born into,” Rosen explains, discovering:

  • Almost none of the children from low-income families made it through college. Of the children from low-income families, only 4 percent had a college degree at age 28, compared to 45 percent of the children from higher-income backgrounds. “That’s a shocking tenfold difference across social lines,” Alexander said.
  • Among those who did not attend college, white men from low-income backgrounds found the best-paying jobs. Although they had the lowest rate of college attendance and completion, white men from low-income backgrounds found high-paying jobs in what remained of Baltimore’s industrial economy. At age 28, 45 percent of them were working in construction trades and industrial crafts, compared with 15 percent of black men from similar backgrounds and virtually no women. In those trades, whites earned, on average, more than twice what blacks made. Those well-paying blue collar jobs are not as abundant as during the years after World War II, but they still exist, and a large issue today is who gets them: Among high school dropouts, at age 22, 89 percent of white dropouts were working compared with 40 percent of black dropouts.
  • White women from low-income backgrounds benefit financially from marriage and stable live-in partnerships. Though both white and black women who grew up in lower-income households earned less than white men, when you consider household income, white women reached parity with white men—because they were married to them. Black women not only had low earnings, they were less likely than whites to be in stable family unions and so were less likely to benefit from a spouse’s earnings. White and black women from low-income households also had similar teen birth rates, but white women more often had a spouse or partner, a relationship that helped mitigate the challenges. “It is access to good paying work that perpetuates the privilege of working class white men over working class black men,” Alexander said. “By partnering with these men, white working class women share in that privilege.”
  • Better-off white men were most likely to abuse drugs. Better-off white men had the highest self-reported rates of drug use, binge drinking, and chronic smoking, followed in each instance by white men of disadvantaged families; in addition, all these men reported high levels of arrest. At age 28, 41 percent of white men—and 49 percent of black men—from low-income backgrounds had a criminal conviction, but the white employment rate was much higher. The reason, Alexander says, is that blacks don’t have the social networks whites do to help them find jobs despite these roadblocks.

The realities of class and race in the U.S. are far removed from simplistic slogans.

In the U.S., African Americans with some college have the same economic power as white high school drop-outs.

And the relationship between education and opportunity proves to be again and again, misleading. The SAT remains a powerful gatekeeper for college, despite SAT scores being less effective than GPA (actual merit) for determining who attends college.

More disturbing, however, is that access to education provides cover for the what truly matters in the U.S.: as The Long Shadow and Bruenig document, the coincidences of birth—money and family (and not merit).

While I maintain that hollow slogans (“education is the great equalizer”) prove to be “myths that deform,” [1] and thus work against our ideals, I am not calling for some sort of callous fatalism.

The first step toward “poverty is not destiny” and “education is the great equalizer” is naming the current failures in order to establish actions and policies that would shift the existing, and ugly, realities: poverty and affluence are destiny and wealth/family trump merit (such as education)—all of which are magnified by lingering racism.

Next, we must confront our assumptions about who is wealthy and who is impoverished, coupled with ending cultural demands that the impoverished work twice as hard and that the disadvantaged conform to higher moral and ethical standards. As Oscar Wilde eloquently argued:

The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this….[I]t is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease….

And in this recognition, Wilde rejects those “remedies”:

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor….

It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair….

Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal.

It is, then, ours to reject both “exaggerated altruism” and base fatalism; instead, we must commit to the following:

  • Name and recognize inequity without stooping to demonizing people. In our current commitments to meritocracy myths, we demonize the poor; but it does no one any good to simply shift who we demonize. Our enemy is inequity, and solutions to inequity rest in changing powerful social dynamics and not with “fixing” flawed (or promoting idealized and false portraits of “successful”) individuals.
  • Stop promoting false myths to children because as they grow up, they come to see the myth as a lie, and thus, the entire promise of the American Dream is tarnished.
  • Commit to social and education policy grounded in equity, and not in competition or market forces.

We need a new way to speak to our children. And we must begin here: “We have not yet created the country we want, and we must admit life continues to be too often unfair. But things can be better, and we are here to help because you can live in a world more fair than the one we have given you.”

Success in the U.S. is not the result of “grit,” not the consequence of some people being more determined (“better”) than others. Many people worker harder than others, but remain impoverished, have less access to opportunities. None of this should be true, but it is.

Ultimately, however, we must put our money and actions where our words take us. Otherwise, as John Gardner warned, equity, fairness, and justice become “cheap streamers in the rain.”

[1] “[A]s we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology.” (Freire, 2005, p. 75)

Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach (D. Macedo, D. Koike, & A. Oliveira, Trans.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.