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.