Teacher building not teacher bashing: an entreaty to the profession, system and society

Tim Lambert

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International test results suggest that our schools are stagnating, even struggling. Are teachers to blame? In this post Learning First Manager Tim Lambert writes that while teachers have a moral imperative to understand their huge impact on student achievement, improving teacher and student performance needs a system-wide response.

In a recent article in Fairfax media, economist and columnist Ross Gittins calculated the economic and social gains that could be made by improving the performance of our schools at a massive $17 billion since 2003 – or about 1 per cent of GDP.

But instead of improvement, Gittins wrote of the sustained decline in academic performance (as measured by PISA results) since that time. He blamed, in part, ill-informed taxpayers, misguided government policies, and denial among teachers. Then he wrote:

“This is why teaching is a problem too important to be left to teachers. The more so because some teachers – a minority, I trust – have become hyper-defensive, refusing to acknowledge there's a problem, telling themselves that, if there is a problem, it's everybody's fault bar their profession's, and branding any non-teacher who dares to offer an opinion a "teacher-basher".”

Is Gittins right? Do teachers need to improve, and can they be entrusted to do so?

Let’s hear from the British teacher-turned-researcher-and-writer, Dylan Wiliam. Acknowledging that educational outcomes depend on a range of factors, many of which are beyond the control of schools and teachers, Wiliam nevertheless identifies teaching quality as the crucial variable, adding that what teachers do control “is whether they improve or not”. Research shows that the most effective teachers are at least five times as effective as the least, but teachers typically slow -- and many stop -- improving after the first two or three years in the job.

Yet Wiliam also points out that both predicting and measuring teacher quality is extraordinarily difficult, which is why policy levers such as improving the quality of entrants into the profession, and in-service performance-management, have limited effect.

The solution, he argues, lies in teachers' sustained pursuit of expertise. What’s needed are “recruits who are passionate about helping all students achieve at high levels (and) will be willing to invest the energy needed” for “at least ten years of deliberate practice” that focuses on improving performance.

“When all teachers embrace the idea that they can improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better, this creates a natural collegiality that supports all teachers in embracing the need for continuous improvement...... This is not the hackneyed idea of “keeping up with new developments”—it is, rather an acceptance that the impact of education on the lives of young people creates a moral imperative for even the best teachers to continue to improve.”

In other words, schools will only improve if teaching improves. But that fact in isolation does not make Gittins right. Charging teachers with improving their own practice is unrealistic – and unfair. As Gittins effectively acknowledges, teaching quality is a system problem, and it needs system leadership to address it.

Strong or poor teaching arises from many sources: the content and quality of initial teacher education; access to good instructional leaders and leadership training; the demands and constraints on non-teaching time, to name a few. These are system-wide challenges. School improvement is indeed about teachers reforming their practice, but with the vital instigation and support of the system.  

Departments need to take the lead in making effective professional learning a system-wide priority. As Learning First’s work with high-performing systems reveals, high quality professional learning from Ontario to Singapore is something that teachers do together, over an extended time. It is guided by external experts but is rooted in teachers’ actual classroom work.

Departments need to create incentives for schools and teachers to do a number of things: form professional networks; deeply examine evidence of students’ learning needs and identify how their teaching practice could target them; and monitor and evaluate what happens when they try new approaches. Teachers must encourage and challenge each other to improve, but the Department or district must create the conditions for this huge culture change. 

The system must train educators to lead effective professional learning and give feedback. It must ensure that schools can access, understand and use timely performance data. It must employ curriculum experts who can guide teacher research, and system leaders who work closely with schools to make sure improvement work comes first in school timetabling, budgets and internal accountability.

So, blaming teachers doesn’t help. What can they be charged with? In an era of unprecedented levels of school funding, the profession can show leadership by pushing for sustained, effective professional development. Ditch the one-shot, feel-good PD that has fleeting impact on what a teacher thinks and does.  Instead, use funding to make time for collaborative, practice-focused professional learning. And commit to the energetic pursuit of expertise -- when the system genuinely puts its energy there first.

Tim Lambert is Manager at Learning First.