Questioning the Teacher Quality Orthodoxy

by Robert Pondiscio
October 19th, 2010

Teachers might be the most important in-school factor in student achievement, but is that necessarily a good thing?  Dan Willingham’s latest at the Washington Post Answer Sheet blog notes that when teachers are viewed as the essential ingredient in reform models, the impetus is to fire unsatisfactory teachers and hire better ones.  “I’m no economist, but this approach sounds expensive,” Dan writes. ”If teaching were more consistent,” he notes, “characteristics of individual teachers wouldn’t matter so much.”

For example, we might try to make teaching more consistent by improving teacher preparation. Right now, teacher preparation just doesn’t matter very much. Most teachers say that it didn’t help them, and there is scant evidence that the type of training teachers receive has much impact on their teaching.  Naturally, if teacher training has little impact, and teachers are left to their own devices, characteristics of the teacher will end up mattering a lot to teacher quality.

Willingham also points out that a consistent curriculum might also make teacher quality a less volatile variable by making lesson content more consistent across teachers.  A set curriculum might hamper the creativity of individual teachers, but Willingham cites the words of one principal who told him: “With my really good teachers, if they bend the curriculum, I kind of look the other way. But I don’t look the other way with my struggling teachers. For them, it’s a safety net.”

“It could be that both or neither of these ideas, if pursued in any detail would prove workable. But alternatives should at least be considered,” Dan concludes.  “Teachers are the most important in-school factor; we should not automatically assume that’s a desirable state of affairs.”


  1. Relying on administrators to “look the other way if [good teachers] bend the curriculum” probably isn’t going to happen in many places. I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories about heavy-handed central administrators doing surprise inspections to make sure teachers are on the “proper” page in the centrally-mandated curriculum. Those found to be out of compliance get harshly penalized.

    A “consistent” (aka mandated) curriculum is like a chain restaurant menu. It avoids the worst but it also prevents the best. The chef (or teacher) is not empowered to use his/her professional judgment as to what is best but rather has to robotically carry out the dictates of some centralized decisionmaker.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — October 19, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

  2. Any idea why the CK early reading program strand 1 & 2 information isn’t available online anymore?

    Comment by SJ — October 19, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

  3. We allow other professionals the latitude to use their professional judgment as to what’s best- why is there such reluctance to empower teachers to do the same?

    For a number of reasons (relocations, insurance changes, and sadly the untimely loss to brain cancer of one), my family has had 6 pediatricians in 8 years. Each doctor has had his/her own unique way of doing things. Some like to schedule well-baby visits every 2 months, and others every 3. They all give the same shots but sequence them differently. Some are more aggressive in ordering tests & prescribing medications, while others take a more “let’s wait & see” approach.

    Despite all the variation, there’s no big push to “doctor-proof” the delivery of medicine the way there are calls to “teacher proof” the curriculum. Maybe there will be if Obamacare does wind up morphing into a socialized medicine like the NHS in Britain. But as of right now, we as a society seem fine with allowing medical professionals to decide for themselves what is best for their patients. Why the difference in attitude towards teachers?

    Comment by Crimson Wife — October 19, 2010 @ 10:57 pm

  4. Crimson Wife,

    Doctors police themselves so the public view of medicine seems to be “let professionals do what they do” but the reality of the medical community is quite different. There are consensus agreements and best practices that every clinician is quite aware of. Doctors are all quite aware of what is considered “best practices” and what techniques/practices have some leeway. Failure to comply with best practices can often result in lawsuits or repudiation of board certification.

    Unlike medical professions, other professions do rely upon the government/regulators for quality control. And sometimes this reliance upon the regulators fails us miserably (e.g. Bernie Madoff, or the 2008-2009 financial meltdown).

    Teachers do not regulate themselves. There are no professional (external) constraints on teaching.

    If there was as rigorous a review of teaching practice as is seen in the medical community (using scientific principals for evidence such as clinical trials), then yes, perhaps we should allow teacher to be “professionals”. But without those checks and balances, why are you willing to let the Bernie Madoffs of teachers still teach in our schools? Who is supposed to determine if those teachers are really being as professional as we would all like them to be?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 20, 2010 @ 2:12 am

  5. But what are we talking about here?

    Which scholars? Which research?

    And best practices to what end?

    From what I have seen, very little education research deals explicitly with the substance of the lesson or subject (especially complex topics in the humanities). Where’s the research about ways of teaching Plato’s Republic? You won’t find it. Yet the teaching of Plato’s Republic is quite different from the teaching of “main idea” and “inference making.” Because of implicit assumptions about what is taught (or what isn’t taught), the research conclusions are more limited than they may seem. And if they are translated into mandates, they can end up limiting the curriculum itself.

    And, sadly, while education researchers may know more than teachers about education research methodology, they are not necessarily better versed in the subjects themselves. They are often more concerned with results of various kinds than with the material being taught.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — October 20, 2010 @ 9:17 am

  6. Thank you for your explanation–I agree with you about the importance of the research you bring up.

    I believe some of the strategy craze came out of the “metacognition” movement. There was a great deal of research in the 1970s onward about the role of metacognition in learning–and some evidence that students did perform better when aware of some of their thought processes. But one can make students aware of their thought processes (for instance, their logical reasoning or their distinction between what they do or do not understand) in the context of studying philosophy, history, or literature. There is no need to make strategies the focus of the lesson–and such focus oversimplifies both the subject and the strategy.

    But part of the problem is that strategy proponents want, first and foremost, to “motivate” students to read. What they read is less important than the fact that they read. So their goals and yours (or mine) are quite different. And they will say that students are doing a wonderful job applying the strategies and thinking about what they read. But because the emphasis is not on the works themselves, they are often wrong in this perception. I have often seen students misapply strategies without being challenged or corrected.

    So, the problem is not only inattention to research, but also deep disagreement or confusion about what students should be learning in the first place. If it were assumed that students should read certain works of literature, much of the strategy stuff would fizzle. The very practice of teaching a challenging work would preclude such emphasis on strategies.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — October 20, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

  7. Anthony,

    If I may, you’re presuming a solidarity between teachers and administrators that really doesn’t exist. More and more administrators now come exclusively from ed-school backgrounds (read: learning-styles, constructivism, social justice, etc.), while fewer and fewer have either substantive academic achievement or long-term teaching experience to their credit. Yet it is these same people who dictate “best practice” in my profession. What I wouldn’t give to be evaluated by literary and linguistic scholars in my duties as English teacher. Instead, I answer to pedagogues who know next to nothing about what I teach but who claim transcendent expertise on teaching in general.

    There is no such thing as “best practice” in American education, only preferred practice–that which falls in line with prevailing orthodoxy and belief as dictated by the ruling intelligentsia. I suggest that if more of us peasant-teachers revolted, our collective practice might actually change for the better.

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — October 20, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

  8. “teachers aren’t scholars. They should defer to scholars when it comes to content and they should defer to research when it comes to best practice.”

    I’d say the average teacher I know has WAY better judgment about what and how to teach than the so-called “experts” in their field.

    Who were/are the ones pushing Whole Language? “Fuzzy” math? “Multicultural” works rather than literary classics? Watered-down, politically correct “social studies” rather than history & geography? An emphasis on schools as a tool for “social justice” rather than helping the individual child reach his/her intellectual potential?

    Oh, yeah, that’s right- educational “scholars”.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — October 21, 2010 @ 9:03 am

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