Thursday, April 7, 2011

Education Roundtable: Causes of Teaching Quality

Corey: Last time, we discussed the effects of under-performing principals versus under-performing teachers in schools, including some ways in which the former can result in the latter. Which brings me to something that’s been rattling around in my head lately: the causes of teaching quality. The dialogue on teacher/teaching quality often seems to treat it as something that’s both quantifiable and immutable. We talk about the need for principals to hire "good teachers" and fire "bad teachers" as though people are "good" or "bad" teachers much like they’re short or tall. While some certainly have more natural talent for teaching, my guess is that the actual teaching quality to which students are exposed to in a classroom has more to do with the context of the classroom and the school than it does with the natural abilities of the instructor.

I’ve included a rough list of some of these factors below, including teacher characteristics (observable traits), classroom context (which may influenced by differing degrees by teachers and principals in different schools), and school characteristics (which are typically more heavily influenced by principals than teachers). Most notable, to me, is that all of the items I listed under “teacher characteristics” are malleable and can be influenced by principals (and, of course, teacher training programs). Hence, my belief that principals have as much do to with teaching quality as do teachers -- and their ability to hire and fire teachers is only a small part of that. My intent isn’t to shift the discussion from blaming teachers to blaming principals but, rather, to better think through how to expose more students to high-quality teaching.

Teacher Characteristics:
Interpersonal Skills/Charisma

Classroom Context:
Other Materials
Subject Matter
Student Characteristics

School Characteristics:
School Climate
School Discipline System
Teacher Colleagues
Professional Development
Student Demographics
Planning Time

ClassroomView: I don’t think I have anything to add to your factors, Corey. However, I would certainly reverse the order of importance. I would place school characteristics first, teacher characteristics second, and classroom context third. As someone who has taught for a while, I cannot emphasize enough the role that overall school culture plays in effective instruction. Yes, quality teaching is important, but the whole building needs to reflect a high level of both caring and competence for all students.

CEP: I would add teacher autonomy in there, whether at the classroom context level or school characteristic level or both, I’m not sure. When I was in the classroom, on the one hand, it was my characteristics and the classroom context (including a fairly high level of autonomy, at least as far as no one paid attention to what I was doing as long as I had good test scores) that made me an effective teacher, it was ultimately the school characteristics that drove me out of the classroom as they were not working together to make me a more effective instructor.

Corey: I'm not sure I have much more to add other than to remark on my surprise at the lack of objections to my postulation among those in this group.  I suspect that others may take more issue with the idea that teaching quality is influenced more by contextual factors than a teacher's underlying abilities.


Attorney DC said...

Corey: I have been making a similar argument on the eduwonk blog this week (on the LIFO and Still Going posts): That teacher quality is not an immutable characteristic. Instead, observable teacher effectiveness is influenced heavily by other factors, including the students and school policies. Many non-educators seem to believe that teachers are simply 'good' or 'bad' -- as if their amount of planning time, course assignments, students and/or school discipline policies have no effect on a classroom.

Great post.

Parry Graham said...

I'll try to spice things up a bit.

I think I disagree with much of the premise that I read here: that teacher effectiveness is less about the individual teacher and more about classroom and school context.

First of all, there's plenty of research showing that teacher effectiveness varies tremendously within schools. I am not sure how you can explain that variation in terms of school context, given that these studies look at teachers working in the same schools.

Anecdotally, I have seen tremendous differences in my own school (a 1000+ student middle school) in terms of teacher effectiveness. I have had a teacher who was really ineffective and left then be replaced by a different teacher who ended up being really effective, and the only difference was the person (i.e., same principal -- me -- and the same resources, curriculum, etc.).

I do believe that teacher effectiveness is highly contextual and depends on a lot of environmental factors (I have had teachers who were not particularly successful in one grade working with one team of people, switch to another grade and improve), and I think principals and context have an impact on how effective teachers are, but I think that the majority of "teacher effectiveness" is driven by the individual and individual characteristics. A given teacher could be somewhat more effective or somewhat less effective in different environments, but I think the primary range of effectiveness depends on the person, not the context.


Corey Bunje Bower said...


There's clearly wide variation in success and performance among teachers in the same school. That lends some support to the notion that some individuals are simply better teachers than others.

But I think if we dug deeper and examined *why* some teachers were more successful than others, a lot of those reasons would not be immutable personal characteristics.

Certainly, some people are more charismatic, more intelligent, more enthusiastic, etc. than are other people. So I want to make it clear that I'm not arguing that all teachers have equal natural abilities and their success depends wholly on the context in which they teach.

But, I know in my school that the teachers who were more successful also tended to have worked in the school longer, were more likely to be assigned a subject/class that they wanted to teach, had a better relationship with the principal and AP's, and generally had personalities that better fit the context of that particular school. I can think of more than a few teachers that were quite adept at doing what our principal wanted in our school who wouldn't have had nearly the same success in another school. And I can think of more than a few teachers who were smart and enthusiastic, but in over their heads -- but who I would gladly let teach my own children in a different, less hostile, environment. So, in that sense, the fact that some teachers in a given school are more or less successful than other teachers in that school might prove that some people are simply better teachers than others, but I think it could also be that some teachers are simply a better fit for that school.

Beyond school fit, I think it's quite possible that a teacher's success could vary quite a bit across years within a given school (which would be supported by the fairly large year-to-year fluctuations we see in value-added scores). The obvious example would simply be that most teachers tend to improve with experience (at least in their first 3-5 years) -- so a fifth year teacher who has more success than a first year teacher may, in fact, be the worse teacher. Beyond that, quite a bit of a teacher's success relies on the match between the teacher and the subject/grade they teach, the make-up of the class(es) they teach, and their relationship with their superior(s). Think of how many teachers might be really good at teaching kindergarten and not so good at teaching 4th grade (or vice versa) or good at teaching US History but not Algebra. And then think of how many teachers who teach multiple classes seem to really click with one or two of the classes and really struggle with one or two of the other classes. And then think of how much of an influence the support, encouragement, training, evaluations, etc. of supervisors impact (or, in some cases, *don't* impact) a lot of teachers.

So, yes, teacher success varies widely within schools. Part of that is simply because some teachers are more talented than others. But I'd argue that more of that depends on fit and context.

Parry Graham said...


I don't disagree with anything you say, and I have seen examples myself of the different situations you describe.

I'm still left thinking that teaching effectiveness is at least 50%+ about the person, and no more than 49% about the context.

Although, the more I think about it, the more I think it could be even more complicated than that. At the margins, I think some people are going to be bad teachers even under the best of circumstances, and some people are going to be great teachers even under the worst of circumstances (i.e., the "talent" factor). For most of the teachers in between, however, I think context becomes increasingly important. So maybe the more "average" you start out, the more the context matters. A great principal, supportive colleagues, a good assignment, high-quality resources, targeted professional development, etc. can boost the average teacher up to above average, whereas the opposite can drag an average teacher down to sub-par.

It's actually an incredibly interesting research question, although I'm not sure how you would go about answering it because of its complexity. The question also has really big implications for policy: do you focus on getting the right people on the bus, or do you focus on making sure the bus is running well and has a competent driver? "Both" is the easy answer, but it's too easy an answer. For school boards, superintendents, and policy makers, it would be nice to know which gets you more mileage.


Attorney DC said...

Parry & Corey: You both point out very important factors in your comments. I particularly agree with one of Parry's final comments, " At the margins, I think some people are going to be bad teachers even under the best of circumstances, and some people are going to be great teachers even under the worst of circumstances (i.e., the "talent" factor). For most of the teachers in between, however, I think context becomes increasingly important."

But I also think that Corey's ideas about 'fit' are very important. I can think of some great teachers in gifted programs who would have been eaten alive in a low-income, gang-ridden school... But I can also think of teachers who did well in a high-poverty, low-performing school who would perhaps have struggled in a preppy suburban school.

Interesting question; I'd love to see policy makers attempt to address the nuances of this issue, rather than simply uttering platitudes like "It's all for the kids" or "teacher quality matters."

Graham said...

this is a really scientific way of going about the debate and i like the fresh perspective it provides... maybe the issue isn't whether we are hiring/firing good/bad teachers but whether we are developing them properly and giving them everything they need to succeed

sforrest said...

I am greatly bothered by the concept of rating teachers based on student performance especially when considering demographics.

Example: Two teachers graduate from the same school with the same grades and the same philosophies but one goes to the inner city ghetto to teach while the other goes to an affluent neighborhood. The teacher in the ghetto faces a social and demographic challenge in the reality that the students are unruly, undisciplined and largely disinterested in scholastics. They face a group of people who will most likely, as a tested average, perform poorly when compared to the students in the affluent areas. In the latter case, the students are far more disciplined, much more interested in scholastics and are on average, more aptitude oriented. Genetics and home security are major contributors to these different demographic conditions.

Later on, both teachers are judged and compensated based on the performance of their students. The teacher in the affluent area gets a raise while the one in the poor gets fired or receives less compensation.

This sets up a system where teachers want to be in the affluent or demographically above average area and not in the areas that have real challenges. This system is setting up failure. In the areas where good teachers are most needed (the ghetto scenario), they will receive the less qualified ones.

The policy sets up an educational system that caters to a continued class divide where the poor stay poor and equal access to education is eliminated simply for the reality that the result of having teachers who are essentially left overs from the testing system or even the graduates at the bottom of the class, will have very low chances of college preparation an by proxy, college entry.

Student performance as an indicator of teacher quality is a flawed approach that will only further class division and the destruction of a major tenet of our country's Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The current approach by our government to deprive We the People quality education or at least, equal education, with these incessant initiatives to defund our schools system, rate our teachers, destroy their Unions and then tell us it is for the betterment of our country when it is a blatant ploy to further our social divide, calls into play the second half of this quote:

"That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

The People will not be still for much longer. These policies are a direct affront to our Democracy and the time is quickly approaching where We the People will move to "alter or abolish" those responsible.

Attorney DC said...

sforrest: Just saw your post. You make very good points. I thought your story of substantially equal teachers placed in very different schools (with unequal results) is very realistic, based on my experience as a former teacher. I taught in several different types of schools/classes and saw how much the students and other factors affected my teaching effectiveness.

Well said.