“Not all teachers and students deserve prizes but they do deserve self-esteem, opportunity and fulfilment and moreover fair treatment.
A prerequisite of this is a properly funded education system which genuinely seeks to meet need and does not penalise and denigrate students simply for starting the educational process with very little, and denigrating and punishing staff for having to work harder and more effectively in these contexts than in any other.”
A recent UK report, Supporting Outstanding Pupil Progress In Schools In An Area Of Social and Economic Deprivation, looked at a schools in disadvantaged areas to analyse what behaviours make an “outstanding” teacher, contributing to outstanding student progress. The report speaks to questions asked by and of educators worldwide, and is as pertinent to our own situation in New Zealand as it is in England.
The report’s findings will not surprise most teachers, citing social and economic deprivation as a major factors in students’ chances of success. Neither will it surprise many (any?) teachers that they are often expected to act as surrogate parents for those without support and stability in their home lives.
Professor Bridget Cooper, Director of the Centre for Pedagogy at the University of Sunderland, UK, who led the report, says: “It is obvious from this report that schools in socially and economically deprived areas need more generous and more appropriate funding. Those in power need to understand and take into account the effort teachers in those schools have to make to counteract the multiplicity of needs of their students for their entire school lives.”
“It is completely unfair and irrelevant to compare these schools, teachers and children throughout their academic life unfavourably with schools which do not have to meet such great need as the teachers have work even harder.”
The Danger of an Overbearing Review Office
The report also looks at the role of OFSTED, which is the UK equivalent of ERO, and raises concerns that reviews are often barriers to good teaching practice, being so very prescriptive that teachers find it hard to harness their own creativity and create engaging learning for students.
Whilst in Aotearoa differentiation and personalised teaching is still, quite rightly, seen as good pedagogy even by the review office, the report found in England OFSTED insisted on “having objectives at the start of the lesson which does not always work with each student”. It went on to say that “[s]everal staff said that always having the objectives at the start of the lesson goes against ideas of discovery and student-centred learning (both secondary and primary) and can make lessons dull and mechanical.”
Far from allowing teachers to do what they know works or to experiment with new resources and pedagogy in order to engage students and inspire them, “teachers are constrained by the structure of the school day and the push for conformity is hindering progress in “deprived” schools.”
Of course, things are made even worse when you consider that in England teachers are subject to performance pay. This means that there is pressure to jump through whatever hoops OFSTED deems important, as your wages depend on it. It doesn’t mean teaching better or responding to students’ needs more appropriately, though.
And there’s the rub.
I just had to share this wonderful article which speaks to a very important quality of the best teaching that is often overlooked – compassion and care.
Give The Kid A Pencil, by Chad Donohue, published at Teaching Tolerance
I recently taught a university course in Seattle for graduate students seeking master’s degrees in teaching. In one lesson, our focus was on creating a psychologically safe learning environment for students. It was an issue of managing students and supplies. I posed a question:
If a student shows up to class without a pencil, how should the teacher respond?
Small groups collaborated for a few minutes. Ultimately, they came up with plans involving taking something (a shoe?) from the student as collateral to remind the student about the importance of having supplies, notifying parents and even assigning classroom cleanup duty or lunch detention.
“I would give the kid a pencil,” I said.
“You mean the first time?” someone asked.
“Every time,” I said.
This evidently had not occurred to them. There must be some punishment, subtle humiliation or a response that makes the kid pay for the error, right? They were concerned that my action would reinforce and reward poor behavior, possibly even help develop bad habits.
What they failed to see is that the teacher is not the cause of the problem. Likely, the student has been doing this for years. The teacher can respond by criticizing the child in front of the class, reminding him that pencils are required at school, making her give up something as collateral or inflicting some punishment as a power move.
Or the instructor can simply provide the pencil and say, “There will always be a pencil here for you. Don’t ever worry about asking me for a pencil. I have hundreds of them.”
By eliminating the anxiety that comes when students worry about being called out or humiliated in front of their peers, teachers reduce the chance that students will skip class, give up, become defiant or develop mysterious “illnesses” that cause them to stay home….
Read more here: Give The Kid A Pencil
In her now typical teacher-bashing way, she went on to say “In New Zealand we provide 13 years. You’d think it would not be too much to expect that four of those are good quality.”
Ignoring the snarkiness, just think about what she said: Four consecutive years of quality teaching eliminates any trace of socio-economic disadvantage. Override poverty.
That’s a mighty big claim.
Where did it come from and does it stand up to scrutiny?
Where did they find their catchy soundbite?
Neither The Southland Times nor Hekia Parata provide a reference for their claim. You’d think someone making bold statements like that would be more than happy to cite their source, wouldn’t you?
They merely use it to end their article with a flourish. After all, it sounds good, doesn’t it? Very catchy. And they’re not alone – many newspapers and online publications including The Boston Globe used the same quote, also with no reference,
Whatever. I searched on.
A Bit of Digging
A flicker of something I read on Twitter came to mind, and a quick search led me to an article called The economic case for sacking bad teachers. Nice title. I felt sure this would be a clear, research-based, unbiased article…
The article largely ignores the actual report it is supposedly based on and, indeed, misrepresents its conclusions. But wait! They manage to get a nice soundbite out of their expert, Eric Hanushek. I sense he is going to prove interesting.
In the article, Hanushek is quoted as saying:
‘A good teacher can get 1.5 years of learning growth; a bad teacher gets half a year of learning growth.’
The article goes on to say:
Having four consecutive years of high-quality teaching, [Hanushek] says, can eliminate any trace of economic disadvantage. (5)
That issue is not discussed at all in the OECD paper the article is meant to be about. Why throw it in? Did the journalist just find Hanushek’s most famous tidbit and throw it in for good measure? Who knows.
And again, no reference.
Just an acceptance that this bold statement is fact.
And why would the journalist question it? It sounds good doesn’t it? And look at the great headline it gave them.
Still no clearer as to where this assertion had come from, I enlisted the combined research abilities of the experts I know. With their help, I found some very interesting stuff.
Take this quote from Diane Ravitch:
[Eric] Hanushek and Rivkin projected that “having five years of good teachers in a row” (that is, teachers at the 85th percentile) “could overcome the average seventh-grade mathematics achievement gap between lower-income kids (those on the free or reduced-price lunch program) and those from higher-income families. (7)
Ravitch goes on to say that, at the conference where they claims were presented, they were fervently disputed. Richard Rothstein said they were “misleading and dangerous.” (7) Criticism continued after the conference, and the debate of the statement’s validity raged.
New reports came out, suggesting that 3, 4 or 5 years in a row with a good teacher could override the socioeconomic status (SES) of a student.
And despite being incredibly contentious and there being many experts arguing against the claims and plenty of research to say otherwise, it is too good a headline grabber and too utterly irresistible for journalists.
Ravitch tells us that:
Over a short period of time, this assertion became an urban myth among journalists and policy wonks in Washington, something that “everyone knew.”
This is the danger.
The sound bite wins the day.
Do you think the readers of The Southland Times will stop to wonder how rigorous was the research that lead to that soundbite?
Do you think they will ponder whether it has been challenged?
Do you think they will have eight solid hours and a goodly handful of experts to help them look into it, like I did?
No, me neither.
Luckily, I had the time. And even more fortuitously, some anti-GERMers with a larger platform that I did, too.
A Fallacy and a Rebuttal
Renowned education expert, Pasi Sahlberg tackled the “four consecutive years of quality teaching” fallacy:
“This assumption presents a view that education reform alone could overcome the powerful influence of family and social environment mentioned earlier. It insists that schools should get rid of low-performing teachers and then only hire great ones. This fallacy has the most practical difficulties.
The first one is about what it means to be a great teacher. Even if this were clear, it would be difficult to know exactly who is a great teacher at the time of recruitment.
The second one is, that becoming a great teacher normally takes five to ten years of systematic practice. And determining the reliably of ‘effectiveness’ of any teacher would require at least five years of reliable data. This would be practically impossible.
Everybody agrees that the quality of teaching in contributing to learning outcomes is beyond question. It is therefore understandable that teacher quality is often cited as the most important in-school variable influencing student achievement.
But just having better teachers in schools will not automatically improve students’ learning outcomes.” (8)
As Sahlberg says, there are many other factors that lead to students. success, and global reforms tend to ignore those that the most successful countries have implemented, namely
“… freedom to teach without the constraints of standardized curricula and the pressure of standardized testing; strong leadership from principals who know the classroom from years of experience as teachers; a professional culture of collaboration; and support from homes unchallenged by poverty.” (8)
But back to the original statement. Who is Eric Hanushek, that made the claim?
Hanushek is an economist. He is not without controversy, and his research methods have been called into question in the past. (6)
However, disputes with his methods and conclusions have not stopped him from promoting his views widely in professional and public media, nor have they prevented the US administration and now our very own Education Minister, Hekia Parata, using his work and his words to justify further education reforms that education experts argue are not in the best interest of students. (3, page 40-42) and (4)
What does Hanushek say makes a Good Teacher?
His measurement of a good teacher is one whose students get high test scores.
One wonders what this means for a teacher of special needs students of lower cognitive ability, or students with English as a second language, or students who have a low educational ethic. Are those teachers bad because their scores are lower than a teacher with more able students?
It’s a tad disconcerting, isn’t it?
You will have your own ideas on what makes a good teacher. Anecdotal evidence tells me that for many Kiwi parents, it is more than test results. I shall tackle this in detail some other time. Meanwhile, you might want to read this and ponder the issue further.
Back to the sound bite, then.
Quality teaching is, of course, of huge importance. But the best that can be said for the assertion that four consecutive years’ quality teaching eliminates any trace of socio-economic disadvantage is that it is contentious.
Certainly there is evidence out there that supports the view that poverty has an impact on student achievement. And great teachers are likely to do more than just improve test scores.
One thing I know for sure: Whether even the best teachers can completely override the impact of a student’s socioeconomic situation is not something that can or should be tackled by a sound bite.
With sincere thanks to the many experts who were kind enough to help me today.
References and further reading:
(2) The Market for Teacher Quality Eric A. Hanushek, John F. Kain, Daniel M. O’Brien and Steven G. Rivkin* December 2004
(3) School Reform Proposals: The Research Evidence (Research in Educational Productivity) by Alex Molnar (Mar 1, 2002)
(5) The economic case for sacking bad teachers – The Spectator
(6) Does Money Matter? A meta-analysis of studies of the effects of differential school inputs on student outcomes, by Hedges, Laine, and Greenwald (1994)
(8) What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools? by Pasi Sahlberg
Trawling the research to find out what has been ascertained as important in a good teacher was enlightening only insomuch as everything I found was exactly what I would have expected to find. It is baffling, then, that Government is flying in the face of both quality research and common sense.
So, just for you, Hekia Parata, and you, John Key, here is what a good teacher looks like:
“Teacher quality’ has been defined as ‘expertise in relevant subject
content studies coupled with skills in teaching and learning.
Studies of the importance of initial teacher qualifications and
certification have shown that well-prepared beginning teachers
are more effective than under-certified, unqualified, unprepared
recruits. The typical problems of beginning teachers are lessened
with adequate preparation prior to entry into the profession
and sound induction. Full certification, including a major in the
subject taught, positively correlates with student achievement.”
“Effective teachers are enthusiastic, creative, committed and
passionate about their work, and they are good communicators.”
“…quality teachers engaged students in
a range of meta-learning strategies to enhance their active
involvement in learning. Strategies that have been identified
include explicit teaching methods, constructivist teaching,
cooperative learning and student-led questioning (Fouts, 2003).”
And just so it’s clear how your policies impact on teachers and students…
“Increasing teacher accountability for student success or failure
has also been found to have a considerable effect on the work
of teachers and the school experiences of students in both
England and New Zealand (Thrupp, 1998). Micro-management
of ever-tightening regulations and controls can be the antithesis
of teacher professionalism; and negative results of accountability
for teachers can include decrease in their motivation, self-esteem,
performance and health (Kleinhenz & Ingvarson, 2004).”
“It is important to identify not only the data needed by classroom
practitioners and school and system leaders, but also how best
to engage educators and policy makers in collecting, using and
sharing evidence to improve teaching practice and student
Read the whole research summary here.
Today I watched a very interesting (and excellently illustrated) youtube video that compares US mainstream and Montessori schooling.
It talks about the fire a child has for learning and how it can be fanned or dampened, and it provides excellent food for thought about
– why we educate
– how we educate, and
– what motivates people to learn.
Extrinsic motivation – that which is from outside, from others – has limited effect. If you only do something for praise, for reward, to ensure you are not punished, then you are not doing it for yourself because you want to, and you will not do it when those pressures are removed. In other words, you will not choose to learn just because you are interested.
That’s a disaster.
The only way to be a quality learner for life is to be intrinsically motivated – for the motivation to come from within.
– encourage them to think about what the see, hear, smell, do and so on.
– encourage them to question how and why.
– allow them to experiment freely and investigative at their own pace and level, with support.
– model how you learn, how you get it wrong and try again, make your own love of learning shine through. Talk about the joy of improving, of moving forward, of cracking that gritty problem and the excitement of finally getting it right.
That’s the only way to fan the flames.