The counterattack led by Diane Ravitch on the movement to improve teacher quality has gained considerable steam, yet it is based on a totally false premise that because the overall efficacy of education is dependent on many factors, including the students’ family life and environment, teacher quality alone isn’t worth all the fuss reformers have been making.

But proof that teacher quality alone does make a very considerable difference comes from a recent study that tracked 2.5 million students over twenty years. Even while taking full account of environmental factors, the study concludes that good teachers, in the words of New York Times reporter Annie Lowrey, “have a wide-ranging, lasting positive effect on those students’ lives beyond academics, including lower teenage-pregnancy rates and greater college matriculation and adult earnings.”

This is not to say that factors other than teaching don’t have an influence on the lives of the students. That’s why I applaud an effort by the American Federation of Teachers to take on all these factors in McDowell County, West Virginia. Even though the AFT may be motivated by a desire to score a point against Michelle Rhee, most of us reformers feel it is right to go after the environmental factors. The unions are only wrong in trying to downplay the importance of teacher quality. In West Virginia, it is a major problem. The state was recently awarded a D+ by the National Council on Teacher Quality. The council found that West Virginia not only awarded tenure “virtually automatically” and that its teachers were “almost impossible to fire,” but that it had no way to determine if a teacher has “mastered the subject.”

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.