kitchen table math, the sequel: Miss A and Moneyball

Monday, February 25, 2008

Miss A and Moneyball

from palisadesk, an elementary school teacher in Washington D.C.:
Harvard Study on teacher effects

A brilliant piece of research and analysis appeared in the 1978 Harvard Educational Review. Authored by McGill University sociologist and administrator, Prof. Eigil Pedersen and colleagues, "A new perspective on the effects of first-grade teachers on children's subsequent adult status" is masterfully written and caps more than a decade of extremely sophisticated data collection and analysis. It attracted little mainstream media attention at the time.

Pedersen and his team were sociologists, looking for factors that made children from impoverished backgrounds successful in later life. Following in the wake of Coleman and Jencks, who both detailed the powerfully negative predictive value of low SES on academic achievement, Pedersen's insights and meticulous research were probably not given the attention they deserved, and their most powerful implications were missed.

Pedersen selected for his study a low-income, chronically low-performing school in an urban industrial area situated in the article "in a large city in the Northeast." It was, in fact, Royal Arthur School in the former Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal -- a mammoth brick edifice with windows barred like a jail, situated across the street from a brothel, and sandwiched between toxic industrial factories.

This school had by far the lowest levels of academic achievement of the 80 elementary schools in the school district at the time, and a high rate of discipline problems. Fewer than ten percent of pupils went on to graduate from high school; more than half dropped out before completing Grade 10.

Pedersen had access to pupil records covering a 25-year period, from about 1935 to 1960. Along with detailed achievement, attendance, and discipline records, the school also had scores of standardized IQ measures on every pupil, given in Grades 3 and 6. While tabulating other data (from which he gathered many useful and interesting conclusions, adverted to in the article), he noted a strange, and unexpected, phenomenon. There were a number of cases in which individual students' IQ scores changed dramatically, either up or down, in some cases by more than 2 standard deviations -- the difference between being "low average" and "gifted." This is a huge differential, and something that is not supposed to occur except under extraordinary circumstances. Pedersen's curiosity was tweaked. In addition to analyzing his other data about student performance, he decided to take a large set of pupils in 3 categories: IQ's that had risen substantially, IQ's that fell substantially, and IQ's that remained more or less constant, and examine these three cohorts in more detail.

Noting that the first measure of IQ was taken early in Grade 3, he wondered if students' achievement in Grade 1 was a predictor of their Grade 3 IQ. So that led him to examine and tabulate student data by Grade 1 class. There were three Grade 1 teachers who were on staff throughout the period when the pupil records were sampled. Pedersen called them Miss A, Miss B, and Miss C; others who came and went after varying short terms, he presented in aggregate form as "Others." Studying his matrix of data, Pedersen was astonished to observe consistent and striking differences between the three long-term teachers, compared to random variation apparent in the aggregate "Others."

Miss A had taught most of the students who showed a large IQ increase between Grades 3 and 6, and it didn't matter whether they were male or female. Miss C taught most of the students who showed a large decrease in IQ, and again, it didn't matter whether they were boys or girls. Miss B taught many female students who showed an increase in IQ, and males who showed a decrease. When they investigated further, the researchers found that Miss B had always evidenced a preference for girls, seating them in the front rows, holding them to a higher standard, and engaging them more frequently, while boys were banished to the back of the room.

This was all interesting, but not what Pedersen's study was about. He and his fellow-researchers went on to a more ambitious project, locating a large number of adults in their late 30's who were graduates of the school, and interviewing them and getting data about their current lives. He developed a complex dependent variable he entitled "adult status" which involved level of education, income, type and cost of home, employment status, etc. He got independent analysts to develop a classification system from 1 to 9 to represent "adult status." An example of 1 would be "on welfare, has never worked" and 9 would be "professional" (dentist, university professor, etc.). The bottom 3 were grouped as "low status," the middle 3 as "medium" and the top 3 as "high status." This team collaboratively assigned each participant an adult status ranking from 1 to 9.

So, Pedersen et al were looking at a number of variables, and studying data from a number of sources. However, when they had tabulated their findings, one things stood out so stunningly they had to stop what they were doing and change direction entirely. It was what they saw when they looked at "adult status" vs. "first grade teacher."

The mean adult status for the aggregate "Others" was 4.6 -- smack in the middle between 1 and 9, and exactly what , with random variation (and a large sample) would be predicted.For Miss C, it was 4.3. For Miss B., 4.8. All within the range expected. For Miss A it was a stunning 7.0 ! Even more remarkable was the percentage of pupils in the various groups. The other teachers averaged 29% "high status" adults and 40% "low status." For Miss A, an amazing 64% were in the "high status" category......and the percent in the "low status" category was --- ZERO.

The researchers went back to their data collection to rule out alternate hypotheses. They found that classes were not stacked in Miss A's favour, there were no significant differences between her assigned pupils and other class groups in terms of parents' occupations, families on welfare, behavior problems or other identifiable issues. All classes were heterogeneous. Miss A. had retired by the time Pedersen had reached this point in his study but he was able to interview former colleagues and pupils to identify factors in her success. She loved her work, she expected every student to learn and succeed, she gave extra help to kids who needed it, she was a low-key but firm disciplinarian, she showed affection to the children and had an amazing memory for their names and biographies -- remembering them in department-store chance encounters 25 years later.

But a major reason for her results is probably summed up by a former colleague who went on to be an administrator with the PSBGM: "It did not matter what background or abilities the beginning pupil had; there was no way that the pupil was not going to read by the end of Grade One."


If all, or even just 99.9% of, students learned to read in their year with Miss A, they were a long step ahead along the road to success.....and their IQ increase between Grs. 3 and 6 is likely due to the increased language aptitude engendered by their reading skill (kids who can't read consistently show an IQ decrease over the elementary years).

In her 34 years at this one high-poverty school, "Miss A" taught about 1200 students. While the researchers were unable to follow up all of these students, the cohorts they studied showed such consistent patterns that we can be sure she had an immeasurable effect on countless lives which could easily have gone nowhere, due to such unfavourable beginnings. The difference between the achievements of her students and the "average" of the other teachers' students is HUGE.

When I read and studied all of this, all I could think was, WOW.

Of course, it is an inspiring story. But also a cautionary, and disturbing, one. Why?

Because it was only because of Pedersen's work that anybody NOTICED what an extraordinarily effective teacher this person was, and how her effectiveness changed lives for decades to come (there's more about that in the article). In the "real world" of urban school systems, effectiveness is not only not recognized, it is rarely even noticed. But for Professor Pedersen's serendipitous research and meticulous data analysis, Miss A's. astounding effect on generations of low-income students would have gone unremarked, except by those students and their families. The "Miss As" among us today -- and they are out there, perhaps not in every school, but certainly not isolated phenomena -- fly similarly under the radar screen while initiatives to "improve schools" come and go with predictable regularity and minimal overall effect.

Not all education professionals would like Miss A. Not all share the view that it is the teacher's responsibility to TEACH every student, never mind what the student brings to the table. Successful learning does not depend upon intrinsic factors in the students (motivation, self-esteem, nourishing home environment, et al) OR in the teacher. It can be MADE TO HAPPEN. Michael Pressley's work on motivational behaviors of effective primary teachers clearly demonstrate this.

Miss A proved it, and her successors among us today continue to do likewise. Alas, I doubt the message her accomplishment sends -- that teachers can be far more effective than anyone dreamed -- will be taken to heart any more now than it was 28 years ago. If we collectively had a commitment to ALL students learning, what we do in schools would look a great deal different than it does.

A belated thank you, Miss A -- you put the lie to the persistently proffered argument that students' background, SES, IQ or previous experience is an insurmountable barrier to success in school and adult life. Perhaps some day we adults will be "developmentally ready" to learn from you. I hope so.

For the whole article, check interlibrary loan and look for Pedersen, E., Faucher, T. A., & Eaton, W. W. (1978). A new perspective on the effects of first-grade teachers on children's subsequent adult status. Harvard Educational Review, 48(1), 1-31.

* "Miss A" was in fact named Iole Appugliese (YO-lay AP-poo-lee-YAY-zee), and she was born in Montreal to Greek immigrant parents. Her pupils, who could not pronounce her name, called her "Miss Apple Daisy.") She retired only when she discovered she had terminal cancer. An interesting finding of Pedersen's was that more ex-pupils remembered being in her class than actually were. While many could not remember who their other early grade teachers were, every one remembered "Miss Apple Daisy" 's name and had memories and stories to share. Judith Harris hypothesized that part of the reason for her consistent student results was due to her creating a community culture of learning and achievement that carried her pupils through elementary school. By Grade 7, the largest predictor of student achievement (outweighing IQ, SES, family status, etc.) was which first grade teacher a pupil had had. Amazing stuff.

One alumnus Pedersen interviewed remarked that he had a five-year-old about to enter first grade. Sadly he sighed, "I only wish there was a Miss Apple Daisy for him."

I mention Moneyball because of a rondelay amongst Kevin Carey, Matthew Tabor, and Leo Casey over the question of whether teachers can or cannot be an undervalued "commodity" in the sense that hitters with high on-base percentage were before Bill James and the Oakland As demonstrated their true worth.

What value-added research is showing us – and no one seems to have absorbed this yet – is that a good teacher is vastly more valuable than anyone recognizes:
"The biggest factor affecting student achievement is teacher effectiveness," said Sanders, who emphasizes that class size effects and differences in ethnicity, family income, and urban-suburban location fade into insignificance when compared to teacher effects.
Excuses, Expectations, and Learning Gaps
All of us have known or heard of teachers like Miss A: teachers who change young people's lives.

But has any of us suspected that the Miss A's of this world were changing IQs? That the Miss A's in our schools were altering forever the future education, income, and life prospects of the children they taught?

Or that they were doing so for hundreds upon hundreds of children year in and year out?

The answer is no. None of us imagined or knew.


Anonymous said...

It's something of a straw man to say that people miss the point that great teachers have a big impact on kids. Everyone acknowledges that.

The larger point being debated is what to do about normal teachers who are good but not great. I mean, it's nice to know that great teachers are important, everyone agrees with that. But simply knowing that doesn't help you increase the number of great teachers out there.

David said...

Thank you palisadesk. That is an amazing and inspiring story.

concernedCTparent said...

WOW! This is amazing. Truly amazing.

ElizabethB said...

Based on this graph:
Literacy and Earnings

and this case:

Wrights Law Case

I'd go with her teaching all her students to read as a big factor...and I'm 99.99% sure she must have used phonics.

The only school I ever read about with a money back guarantee if you child wasn't reading taught with phonics:


Catherine Johnson said...

It's something of a straw man to say that people miss the point that great teachers have a big impact on kids. Everyone acknowledges that.

People universally acknowledge that "great teachers have a big impact."

People do not universally acknowledge that great teachers raise IQ, or that the effects of a great first grade teacher can be seen in her students' lives 30 years later.

I'm willing to bet the ranch on that.

This is why schools think it's OK to rely on parents as back-up teachers -- or why the state of CA officially tells parents they will need to be "involved" in their children's math education through the 12th grade.

CA assumes that middle class parents are capable of "being involved" in their high school kids' math education.

LynnG said...

The Miss A effect seems to indicate that it only takes ONE truly great teacher out there to positively impact kids for the rest of their lives. I find that amazing.

No matter what happened to a kid in 2nd or 7th grade, having Miss A in 1st made all the difference.

But then, I want to ask a whole host of additional questions. Does it have to be a great teacher in 1st grade? Could a great teacher in 3rd grade have the same effect? How about in high school? Is it too late by then or can a phenomenal teacher still positively impact all students?

If it must be 1st grade, then shouldn't we as a community put everything we've got into top-notch first grade teachers?

Could a mediocre teacher that focused on literacy have the same effect?

It is a great story.

Allison said...

-- in 1st grade? Could a great teacher in 3rd grade have the same effect? How about in high school? Is it too late by then or can a phenomenal teacher still positively impact all students?

I think we live in a society where the message is: it's over by 4th grade. That's the line, at the very latest, and after that, it doesn't matter.

I don't believe that message is true, but I think it stems from the basic truth that a great 4th grade teacher needs to have remediated 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade in order to make sure everyone succeeds in 4th to the same degree. With every passing year, the distances increase between those ahead and those behind. Remediation gets harder and harder.

It is still possible. But the first grade teacher had the closest thing to a chance to get all on the same footing.

SteveH said...

"It is still possible. But the first grade teacher had the closest thing to a chance to get all on the same footing."

That's how I read it, but I am surprised by how much difference was made.

Then again, the principal at my son's school said (referring to developmentally-appropriate issues) that most kids end up at the same place by fourth grade. This was connected to a discussion about how some kids are so far ahead (or behind) in Kindergarten. In effect, some kids are delayed readers or learners, but they will catch up when they are ready. She said that the school just feeds the kids with so much stuff in the early grades, but they don't expect anything back out from the kids until fourth grade.

Catherine Johnson said...

Niki Hayes told me it's well known you have to put your best teachers in first grade. (She was an elementary school principal for years.)

Anonymous said...

I teach kindergarten in a low SES area. I can only hope to have such a positive future impact on student adult success. Certainly something to motivate me when I become overwhelmed with all the non-student aspects of teaching.

Catherine Johnson said...

anonymous - It sure is!