Monday, March 22, 2010
Allan Peachey: Teacher quality key to student achievement
For a long time now the answer to these questions has focused on students and their backgrounds. It is time to shift the focus away from students and put it on to the quality of teaching. That is the only way forward if New Zealand schooling is to take a step change into the future. Without that step change in schooling we will not get the step change in our economy which is essential if more New Zealanders are to enjoy the fruits of prosperity.
There is now widespread agreement across the education sector that of all the factors that contribute to whether a child learns or not, the quality of the teacher is pre-eminent. The teacher unions will use this wisdom to justify pay increases for all teachers, despite something we already know – teacher quality varies between schools and, where the Principal is not doing the job properly, within schools. There is a harsh reality to all of those and the most vulnerable to teaching of a variable standard are those two groups of midrange students that I identified earlier. One or two years of bad teaching is all it takes to put these children behind to an extent that they never catch up. And that remains the experience of too many youngsters in the schooling system.
When are we going to start measuring teacher performance against how well students learn? And when will pay rates follow teacher performance rather than length in the job? Some of the best teaching in New Zealand schools is coming from young and relatively inexperienced (in terms of years in the job) teachers. And they are the least well paid teachers in the system. Judging the performance of teachers against how well students learn would require a quantum leap forward in understanding what constitutes the type of teaching that makes youngsters learn. I sometimes despair that this country will never be ready to take that step. Of course the teacher unions have not wanted to have this discussion because to do so would be to draw attention to something we already instinctively know – that some teachers are more successful at making students learn than others.
It is easy to determine whether a teacher is making students learn. Regular assessment does that. National Standards will assist that judgement in the primary school system, if they are implemented effectively. The challenge for principals is to be able to identify the qualities to be looked for in a person which would suggest the ability to make students learn. The same challenge exists for those charged with the responsibility of selecting applicants for teacher training in the first place. Principals I respect frequently tell me that they are not satisfied with many of those seeking employment out of teacher training programmes. I worry that the qualities needed to successfully complete a teacher training course are not necessarily the qualities that are indicative of being able to make students learn.
Experienced principals, if they so choose, can easily identify in a teacher the qualities that will make students learn. First and foremost is the ability to manage the learning of all students in a classroom regardless of each youngster’s prior learning, socio-economic background and ethnicity. Such teachers frequently and consistently check all youngsters’ understanding and do not leave it for individual students to indicate whether they understand or not. This is easily observable in the classroom by an expert eye. Teachers who make students learn have very high expectations of themselves and have the same expectations of each of the youngsters in their classroom, regardless of each youngster’s prior learning, socio-economic background and ethnicity. And again this is an easily observable quality to the expert eye. Another of those qualities, also easily recognisable, is a determination and a relentless energy not to let anything get in the way of students’ learning, be it a perceived shortage of resources, the background of students or the craziness of regulatory bureaucracy. Teachers who make students learn are “no excuses” people. I recently saw this referred to as “grit”, an invaluable personal quality in many walks of life. And I could go on.
My point is, with or without National Standards an experienced eye can by observation and by study of students’ assessment data easily identify those teachers who are successful at making students learn and those who cannot. Those teachers who can make students learn will take National Standards in their stride. Those teachers who have spent years not making students learn and who have made a science out of hiding behind now discredited socio-economic explanations for why students don’t learn will struggle and be exposed. They need not be. All they need do is take on the qualities that I have outlined above. The challenge may take some effort, but it is not insurmountable for most currently in teaching.
at 10:55 PM