The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. ‘Off with his head!’ she said, without even looking round.
Identifying and replacing 6 percent of a school system’s least effective teachers can turn around student performance and have a greater and more positive impact than any other expenditure designed to stimulate economic growth, according to Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek, who gave a speech last week on teacher quality at the University of Kentucky.
Speaking to a rapt audience of faculty and students, Hanushek lamented the years the United States has wasted on resource solutions to improve student outcomes that have not worked. Among the factors not found to impact student achievement were per-pupil expenditures, class size, pupil/teacher ratios, whether or not teachers have master’s degrees, years of experience possessed by teachers and teacher certification. Hanushek concluded the United States is enduring the consequences of “losing focus and failing to direct sufficient attention to teacher quality and teacher effectiveness.”
“What would happen if we simply adopted policies of systematically removing the most ineffective teachers?” Hanushek asks. Here’s my guess: we’d have a brand new bottom 6%, while doing nothing to make the other 94% any better. There’s nothing wrong wanting to improve teacher quality — who wouldn’t want to replace the worst teachers? — but we’d get further, faster if we attended to curriculum and pedagogy, rather than simply looking at bad teachers and shouting “off with their heads!”
Look outside any school and you will not see a line of superstar teachers waiting patiently for the broken bats to be removed to make room for them. Economically, we may never see a large enough raise in teacher salaries sufficient to attract a stable, permanent number of bright, superbly trained professionals to the field. Hanushek, a first-rate scholar, surely knows this. But the dialogue around teacher quality threatens to reduce it to just another ed reform bumper sticker. Consider:
1) We define teacher quality as the ability to raise test scores, which is narrow, insufficent and unsatisfying.
2) We think we can raise teacher quality through incentives like merit pay, which is naïve at best.
3) Talk of teacher quality tends to ignore curriculum, which can improve the quality of teaching by letting struggling teachers focus on delivery, engagement, differentiation, etc. – the “how to teach” rather than the “what to teach.”
It’s faster, easier, cheaper and far more practical to give every teacher a good curriculum than give every kid a good teacher–and again, it’s NOT a question of either/or–plus a solid curriculum may improve the efficacy of mediocre teachers. The bottom line is that improving curriculum can be done today; without it, improving teacher quality will likely remain a distant, ill-defined and therefore unachievable goal.
You can’t uncouple effective instruction from the content of the instruction, a point that is typically overlooked in teacher quality talk (What exactly do you think effective teachers do all day?). Personally, I’d be a lot more excited about the move to improve teacher quality if its advocates showed they understood the crucial role of curriculum and pedagogy in making teachers effective and promoting true student achievement.