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Is Poverty, Not Teacher Quality or Charters, Key to Student Outcomes?

Michael Marder, the co-director of the University of Texas' UTeach program, which trains secondary school math and science teachers, looks at public education data and explains the significance of poverty, why he thinks charter schools are not necessarily the answer and how public education is like a Boeing airplane.

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Michael Marder prefers pictures to words. A sentence can be constructed to support any position, but data cannot be so easily dismissed. Lately he's been looking at data about public education in Texas, and his findings have suprised him.

Marder, it should be noted, has a vested interest. In addition to being a professor in the University of Texas' department of physics and a member of their highly regarded Center for Nonlinear Dynamics, he is also the co-director of the university's UTeach program, which focuses on preparing and encouraging university graduates to become secondary math and science teachers — a boost of which the state desperately needs.

The UTeach program, which began in 1997, and is now being replicated around the country at universities in Tennessee, Colorado, California, and Texas. As more of his graduates head into the world of secondary education, Marder has become increasingly interested in the classroom environment. He wanted to find out how much did teacher quality matter and how promising the charter school movement and others actually were. He's compiled many of his findings on a website with movies, charts, and more on issues ranging from teachers' unions to school accountability systems.

In the popular 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee said, "But even in the toughest of neighborhoods and circumstances, children excel when the right adults are doing the right things for them."

After looking at the data, Marder has yet to be convinced that any teaching solution has been found that can overcome the detrimental effects of poverty on a large scale — and that we may be looking for solutions in the wrong place.

He sat down with the Tribune to talk about the role of poverty in educational outcomes, why he thinks charter schools are not necessarily the answer, and why he likes to think of the public education system as a Boeing airplane.


(You download a pdf presentation to follow along with the videos).

Does teacher quality play the largest role in student learning? Marder says, "No, it’s poverty."


Will charter schools provide urgently needed opportunities for students to reach high levels of achievement. Marder says, "No, secondary charter schools in Texas lead to much lower levels of student performance than comparable public schools, and across the nation secondary charter schools at best keep up with comparable public schools."


(Follow along with the PDF)

Marder analyzes more data sets on his website, which can be found by following this link.

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