Teacher Quality and Quality Teaching

I spoke this morning in Sydney at the ANZSOG schools conference*, alongside Bill Louden (Edith Cowan Uni) and Ken Rowe (ACER). By the end, we were in furious agreement about the importance of teacher quality in improving educational outcomes. Except it had become clear that we meant different things by the term. Both of them place primary emphasis on pedagogy – in other words, quality teaching. My emphasis in on getting better teachers in the classroom. Near the end, I argued that this was more important, on the basis that the variance between teachers is bigger than the variance within the same teacher from year to year.

Of course, my approach is also a bit more depressing than theirs. If the solution to teacher quality lies in improving teaching techniques, then we can retrain the existing workforce. If instead the solution lies in changing who goes into the classroom, reforms start looking rather more radical. But the whole discussion did make me realise that almost every government report on teacher quality in Australia is really about quality teaching.

* Incidentally, I spoke to a few people about Brendan Nelson’s no-show yesterday, and there seemed to be a reasonable consensus (including from people who weren’t very partial to him) that he wasn’t merely being a chicken, as the anti-VSU protesters had completely taken over the Merewether building

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6 Responses to Teacher Quality and Quality Teaching

  1. Sinclair Davidson says:

    You’re right, it’s very depressing. Quality is defined as a process and not as an outcome. Consequently teachers are blanketed in bureaucratic nonsense.

  2. michael box says:

    Michael Barber, at this conference, warned about false dichotomies in education, using whole language and phonics as his illustration. He concluded you have to have both. In terms of teacher improvement this is a false dichotomy, we have to have both: teacher improvement and more effective rerecruitment. We do have to get better teachers into schools but we also must get existing teachers to be teach better. Even a radical change to teacher recruitment will not change many of the teachers already in classrooms and this is where the Teacher Effectiveness movement can help, so long as the improvements are clear, well described, able to be enacted. Rowe argued that it is the obligation of the education sector to improve teachers but the critical question is what do we do to ensure this change happens.

  3. Don says:

    Andrew – I’d love to lock you in a room with a bunch of teachers who share your attributional style. You’d tell them that they were underperforming because they didn’t have enough aptitude for teaching and they’d tell you that they’d perform better if they had students with more aptitude for learning.

    What evidence do we need to settle your dispute with Rowe and Louden?

  4. michael box says:

    I think much of the teacher improvement debate needs to be focused on what schools think they have some explicit influence over. As a teacher I have no real control over the personality of my students, their SES or their intelligence. If John Hattie is right, that’s about 50% of what is significant to their improvement. But I do have control over what I do and the procedures that I can implement that will help them to improve. Hattie argues this represents about 30% of the total influence. That has the potential to be significant to the learning of kids.

  5. Andrew Leigh says:

    Don, part of the evidence is to look at teacher aptitude over the past quarter-century. I’m hoping to do that later this year.

    The other thing I’ll be looking at is test score gains by students (using very rich data from Queensland), and the degree to which teachers with better qualifications get higher test score gains. In the US, studies by Rockoff and Hanushek find no evidence that teachers with a Masters degree get higher student gains. It will be interesting to ask the same question here.

    Will keep you posted.

  6. Don says:

    Andrew – I’ve glanced through the Texas and the New Jersey studies and it seems as if ‘teacher quality’ is still a black box. Whatever teacher variables are responsible, nobody seems to be measuring them.

    I’m not as familiar with the literature as you are but it seems to me that there are a number of possible explanations:

    1. Highly stable teacher attributes such as IQ, subject aptitude, or personality.
    2. Teacher attributes which can be modified through training – eg, teaching methods, subject knowledge.
    3. Teacher behaviours such as the amount of effort they put into lesson preparation.

    It would be useful for policy makers to know which explanation to accept.

    If 1 was right (stable attributes) policies which enabled schools to hire, retain, and fire teachers based on their performance might look like a good bet. You wouldn’t need to identify the particular characteristics responsible. But this might not be enough if schools ended up competing fiercly for a limited supply of high quality teachers. Higher pay or better conditions might attract better quality applicants for teacher training but that would probably make state-wide improvements dependent on extra funding.

    If 2 was right then you’d need to understand what the difference between good and bad teaching was. Teacher quality couldn’t remain a black box.

    If 3 was right then you’d probably look at things like a pay-for-performance scheme or changes in the way teachers are managed.

    The fact that researchers like Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain find that having a masters isn’t associated with better outcomes doesn’t establish that 1 is the right explanation. Current training may be relatively ineffective at improving the relevant attributes without it being the case that training of any kind is ineffective.

    I’d be surprised if education produced benefits for school students but stopped working entirely after they graduated and entered teaching college.

    It’ll be interesting to see what you find with your Queensland data.

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