The Benefits of Good Teaching: Fact-Checking the President's State of the Union Address

So President Obama referenced that new teacher study in recent news in his State of the Union address last night.  The education study with 2.5 million school kids tracked over 20 years, the very one I posted on a few weeks ago so it was very fresh in my mind.  Yours too?  The Prez spoke about education, including higher education, for several more minutes including his recommendation kids should have to stay in school until age 18 instead of 16.  Bravo, Barry. 

My favorite part wasn't the speech itself or even the ridiculous elected officials in the audience pouting like spoiled preschoolers but the commentary afterwards.  Really, the fact-checking. In that spirit, let's see what Barry said about those teachers and children:
At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced States to lay off thousands of teachers. We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance. Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives. Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies – just to make a difference. The State of the Union Address, January 24, 2012 from the Guardian transcript
The part about a good teacher boosting the lifetime class earnings by over 250,000 bucks?

Kinda sorta right.

Replacing a bad teacher with an average teacher boosted the lifetime earnings of a single class by $266,000.  

But let's break that down.  It's the total income earned by all the students over their adult lives.  So it breaks down to $4,600 over a lifetime per student .  Sounds impressive en masse but per capita it's not so exciting.  That's not even $5,000 stretched over a lifetime of working, maybe 40 years per person.  So a whopping difference of $115 per year (based on 40 years income).  Of course with each better teacher there's likely an appreciable increase.  So let's say we throw out the bad teachers from K-12.  That's 12 x $115 = $1380 more each year. 

Here's where Barack starts to stand on slightly shaky ground.  Merit pay.  The benefits of merit pay.  Obviously Barry didn't read the study's fine print.  Here's what he said last night:   

"Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones."

The economists running the study weren't exactly jumping up and down for merit pay. Why not? As I wrote before, it's because giving good teachers more money doesn't necessarily make them more productive (i.e. lead to better test results). 

The researcers report that rewarding highly effective teachers may not be the best or most cost-effective plan. I know, sit down, those of you cheering for merit pay. In part this seemingly contrary conclusion comes becauses in their model it appears cheaper to replace the worst teachers and because the best teachers might not be motivated by more pay. They do what they do because they care, those sappy, sappy people. 

Should teachers be paid more? Absolutely.  Does this recommendation sound good in a speech. Absolutely.  Does it lead to happy classrooms, perhaps.  Does it lead to better earning outcomes for students? Not according to these authors or their calculations. 

We all like kids and value education, right?

Funny how no one questioned what the Prez said about education.  Oh we have major media (e.g., Washington Post, USA Today, NPR, Fox) doing fact-checking.  We have checking.  We even have HuffPo fact-checking Politifact, the fact-checkers.  Yes, a fact-checking kerfuffle. Obviously we have plenty of media who've had time to dissect Barry's statements last evening on a variety of topics:

the auto industry
the employment rate
health care
the housing market/mortgages
Iran's nuclear weapons
military success in Afghanistan/The Taliban
the tax code
the energy industry (oil, gas)
relations with Israel

No one, however, has bothered asking about the kids and the teachers.  So it appears people with a national podium can say whatever they want about children and education without facing any further scrutiny in the media. 

Is it because we all agree on teacher pay, merit pay, student testing and all other educational reform?

Is it because we think the educational system is just fine? 

Is it because although we can argue about so many other issues we simply don't have the time or patience to bother with educational policy?

Is it because we trust everything we hear about education and teaching?

Is it because voters don't vote based on educational policy?

I simply don't understand why we have so much media checking up on so many claims but not the ones involving kids.  I'm not surprised though. The whole autism-vaccine debacle could have been avoided if the media paid any attention to accuracy and context. 

Sure, these presidential political addresses are vetted to the nth degree for accuracy. As the Washington Post article reminded us "context (or the perspective of opponents) is often missing."  Oh, yes, context. The difference between $250,000 dollars and $115.00 a year in your son's or daughter's bank account.

Frankly regardless whether Barack's educational statements were true, they should have received the same high-level scrutiny as the rest of the lot. 

I have nothing against Barry or his educational policies.  I just want some equity in the media.  Equitable serious scrutiny.  


Becca said...

Weirdly, we might not care what motivates those sappy sappy teachers. We care what would motivate them in an environment where the worst 6% of teachers were fired.
Would they want merit pay then to compensate for the increased job insecurity? Could we give them enough respect and autonomy in their jobs (because the worst ones are gone) that they would be motivated more easily (maybe even for less pay, as long as we are all being cold-hearted economist minded)?
I don't know. I think it's time somebody asked the teachers. And did a small scale experiment with it, because sometimes people (not just teachers) are terrible at predicting their own behavior given particular incentives.

In fairness to Obama, when you're talking about a country, it makes sense to use the $250k figure. And when you're trying not to alienate teacher's unions, it may make sense to refer to any but the 6% worst teachers as "good teachers" (even if they don't meet the study criteria for 'good').

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Great post-fact-checking fact checking, Becca! Would you like to sit on my next State of the Union analysis team?

There are small scale studies of merit pay. I think the results as no one is surprised is a very mixed bag.

True, the $250K makes sense in a political speech as does not alienating the unions, the teachers, the good ones...

But what would I do all day if I didn't nit-pick the President and anyone else who makes claims about kids? FYI: I might be one of those really crappy teachers.

Anonymous said...

While I appreciate your comments, I'm a little confused on your math. + 266,000 for a classroom. Divided by @20 per class = 13,300/student. Divided by 40 years = @330/year. Times 12 teachers = @4000/year. Which is a significant amount if you're surviving on 30K a year.

(I could be wrong on how you were calculating, just wanted to point that out.)

I'd also say that the point isn't for an individual student, though I'm sure that peaked some parents' interest. The point is in raising up entire poverty-stricken populations to give children an actual chance at survival.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey Anony, thanks. Here's where the 260,000 figure comes from (in the words of the NY Times)"Having a good fourth-grade teacher makes a student 1.25 percent more likely to go to college, the research suggests, and 1.25 percent less likely to get pregnant as a teenager. Each of the students will go on as an adult to earn, on average, $25,000 more over a lifetime — or about $700,000 in gains for an average size class — all attributable to that ace teacher back in the fourth grade. That’s right: A great teacher is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to each year’s students, just in the extra income they will earn." Now I'm going to have to check the paper and get back to you. The 4,600 figure is the difference between a bad and average one. Thanks for pointing it out - I will check it out.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Actually, Anony - it gets more complicated. The paper reports that figure of 4,600 as the lifetime income change from replacing a bad (bottom 5% teacher) w an average one - for each student.

But it also looks like the 250,000 comes from replacing a bad teacher (low 5%) w an average one. So I'm not sure how the economists got from one to the other. It's a 90+ page report - so I skimmed it but it might be in there if you want to check.

Here's the part about the 250,000 from the paper:

"The earnings gains from replacing a low value-added (bottom 5%) teacher with one of average quality grow as more data are used to estimate value-added. Discounting future earnings gains to present value, the gains are $190,000 with 3 years of data and eventually surpass $250,000 per class. If future earnings are not discounted, cumulative earnings gains surpass $1.4 million per class."

You an economist by any chance? If so you might like reading this:

"To interpret the magnitude of the e¤ect of teacher VA on earnings at age 28, we calculate
the lifetime earnings impact of having a 1 SD higher VA teacher in a single grade. We assume
that the percentage gain in earnings remains constant at 0.9% over the life-cycle and that earnings
are discounted at a 3% real rate (i.e., a 5% discount rate with 2% wage growth) back to age
12, the mean age in our sample. Under these assumptions, the mean present value of lifetime
earnings at age 12 in the U.S. population is approximately $522,000.56 Hence, the …nancial value
of having a 1 SD higher VA teacher (i.e., a teacher at the 84th percentile instead of the median) is
0:9% $522; 000 ' $4;600 per grade."

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

So Anony I based my calculations on the 4,600 boost in lifetime earnings for each student (having one good teacher for 1 year)and not the 250,000 per class.

Will check into it more tomorrow.

Bob Klahn said...

Reread the report. It doesn't say $250K/student, but at first glance it certainly looks like that's what it is saying. The NBER screwed that one up, and others interpreted it as they could reasonably do.

Not all journalists have PHDs in education, economics, or even BAs in accounting. Most are good writers, but not that much on the subjects.

True, I would like it to be better, but that does not equate to a failure on the president's part. Though why this is being done by a private firm, likely under contract to the govt, I would like to know.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Yes, I know the 250K is for the whole class, very confusing indeed! You know that statistic is going to be used over and over and thus misinterpreted over and over.

Oh I don't blame Obama but I'd love to have some of the journos question his or any other politician's education stats and such more often, not just the more economic/foreign relations ones. But you're right in so far as the fact-checking is conducted by universities (and thus some gov grants) but also a few media organizations like the Washington Post.

BTW, I enjoyed reading the fact-checking on Rick Santorum's education claims (i.e. college makes young adults more liberal).