Raj Chetty and Tennessee Education Policy

No, Raj Chetty, economics professor at Harvard,  is not specifically making recommendations to Tennessee about how to conduct education policy.  But he did join with other scholars to analyze Tennessee’s STAR program (1985-1989) for early education (K-3) which included students in 79 Tennessee schools and random student assignment.

The results of Chetty’s study suggest that the quality of a kindergarten class matters greatly to a child’s future.  It’s important to note that the study focused on the overall quality of the class — from the teacher to the resources provided to class size to peer group.  So, yes, quality matters.  And certainly, the teacher is a factor in that overall quality picture.

Chetty notes that a top quartile teacher (based on test scores) can make a significant difference in lifetime income for a child.  Yes, I’ve been critical about the “big” differences Chetty notes in terms of lifetime income in other studies. And, I certainly have questions about how important this particular finding is in terms of overall income impact. And then there’s the whole notion about the limitations of the knowledge we can gain about an individual teacher based on test scores alone.

That said, Chetty does note the findings are statistically significant and his study does control for many outside factors in order to isolate classroom inputs.

Moreover, the current Tennessee Department of Education policy framework is geared toward improving results on just these sorts of tests.

So, it becomes interesting, then to see what Chetty’s research says about how to improve results on such tests (which provide at least some predictive value about how a student will do later in life) and how that compares to current Tennessee education policy being pursued by the Haslam-Huffman regime.

1) Class Size Matters: According to the Chetty study, “Small-class students went on to attend college at higher rates and to do better on a variety of measures such as retirement savings, mar- riage rates, and quality of their neighborhood of residence.”  Which makes it difficult to understand why among the first proposals of Commissioner Huffman was to attempt to adopt a policy that would have raised class sizes across Tennessee.

2) Teacher Experience Matters: Contrary to what Commissioner Huffman told the State Board of Education about teacher experience (that a teacher’s years of experience don’t effectively predict student outcomes), the Chetty study noted, “We find that kindergarten teachers with more years of teaching experience are more effective at raising both kindergarten test scores and adult earnings. This may partly be the effect of learning on the job, but it may also reflect the fact that teachers who have taught for a long time are more devoted to the profession or were trained differently.” In spite of this Tennessee-specific data on the importance of years of experience to improved student outcomes, Commissioner Huffman proposed and the State Board of Education adopted a teacher pay plan that discounts years of experience as a factor in compensation.

3) Teacher Merit Pay is Problematic: When discussing the policy implications of the study, Chetty notes, “Merit pay policies could potentially improve teaching quality but may also
lead to teaching to the test without gains on the all- important noncognitive dimensions” (soft skills). Which, as stated above, would point to policies that move away from merit pay for individual teachers, in contrast to the Haslam-Huffman policy.

4) Teacher Support is Critical: Chetty specifically points to improved teacher training, early career mentoring, and reducing class sizes as policies that could work to improve the overall quality of early (K-3) classrooms.  Again, Tennessee has no statewide program for new teacher mentoring and is not systematically working on reducing class size, especially in the early grades.  In fact, as noted above, the initial proposal from this administration would have increased class sizes.

While I may be among the first to look skeptically at the current administration’s education policy goals, it would be nice if their policy solutions actually lined up with the stated goals.  In this case, using Tennessee data, it seems clear the proposed solutions are not matching the stated challenges.

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5 thoughts on “Raj Chetty and Tennessee Education Policy

  1. This is a fantastic and well timed post. Very thought provoking and nuanced, just what we need here in Tennessee. Too often we focus on generalizations at the expense of truly getting into the weeds of education policy. You hit it right on the head with the comment on Merit Pay and the need for teacher investment. There are a number of things in this last piece on investment, but as an early career educator, I’d like to see more mentoring and professional development (it’s non-existent right now).

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  3. STAR was a K-3 study. As such, I don’t think you can extrapolate beyond K-3 to conclude that smaller class sizes is the right policy solution for all of K-12.

    Some points in the post it’s clear you are referring to K-3, but other points seem to be a generalization across K-12.

    Especially with blended learning tools, and hopefully that older students will be more self-learner driven, I don’t think the optimal policy solution is to promote lower class sizes for all K-12.

    Studies seem to indicate that it can help in the earlier grades, but again, I think teacher quality is going to be your more dominant factor.

    One also might want to question (as has been done on this blog), the validity of Kindergarten tests that are providing these policy “proof points.”

    i.e. Kindergarteners take tests that show class sizes and years of experience matter…from those test experiences we are going to generalize across K-12 that class size & experience matters?

    When Huffman was saying experience doesn’t seem to be tied to student performance – he was looking at K-12 data, not K-3.

    I’m not sold on individual merit pay, but there’s some interesting studies on team merit pay.

    I agree, as we’ve spoken before, on quality support for new teachers and continuing education for existing teachers. Most of the PD nowadays is highly ineffective and a waste of money in my opinion.

    • Hunter: To clarify, I was pointing out the data suggests smaller class sizes in K-3, and specifically, Kindergarten, have a strong correlation with later life benefits. That’s not to say that we should go to larger class sizes in K-12 either, though. Huffman’s proposal would have had the net effect of raising class sizes in all grades, including the early ones…which this study indicates is the wrong direction.

      It’s interesting to me that the comment on this post from a teacher and your comment both seem to recognize a real need for quality early career support and meaningful PD but we’re not hearing much about that from the state. If the new evaluation system has merit — and there are certainly some positives — why not use that information to provide the support and assistance teachers need and want?

      RE: merit pay — yes, there is definitely some interesting information out there on team-based merit pay — but again, the direction of the DOE seems to be toward individual rewards. Thus, the policy reality deviating from the stated policy goal. Highly problematic, in my view.

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