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The Math Babe Gets it Right: Teachers are Wrongfully Demonized

September 8, 2015

In “The Continuing War on Teachers” a post written a week ago, Columbia professor Cathy O’Neill (aka the Math Babe) calls out the politicians everywhere for blaming teachers on the widening performance gap between children raised in poverty and those raised in affluence. A statistician by trade, the Math Babe offers this insight:

It’s a correlation versus causation problem, actually. We know poor kids do badly on tests compared to rich kids, and we look for something we can control that would change that story. Originally we focused on more tests, thinking that shining a light on the problem would automatically solve it. That didn’t work, so we turned our focus to teachers, again mostly as an easily available knob to turn. It’s taking a few years for the data to come out that this new method also isn’t addressing the problem.

She describes some of the other failed ideas— merit pay, state takeovers, privatization— before concluding with this:

So what should we be doing? I have two suggestions, and neither of them is politically easy.

First, if we really wanted to see progress, we should stop persecuting teachers and immediately normalize the funding of school systems so poor kids have equal or more resources than rich kids. That would have some effects – at least poor districts could afford the latest books, for example.

Second, even that kind of progress would take us only so far. As long as a deep inequality of opportunities exists, and mobility is low, we can expect a lack of investment in poor people. We need to address these issues on the societal level.

Neither of these solutions are politically easy… but both would address the root cause of the achievement gap and move us to a fairer and more just system.

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