3 fallacies about exaggerated teacher impact in education (Pasi Sahlberg)
Pasi Sahlberg, who knows a thing or two about Finnish education, has repeatedly warned us about the misrepresentation of Finnish education, used for political and policy statements Sadly, in the world of educational theory and policy, the keystone myths have been taken up with a fervour by both politicians and professionals. He’s exasperated by countries who flog the following dead ponies:
1. Best way to elevate teaching profession is to attract best and brightest to become teachers
Taken up enthusiastically by Gove in the UK and Duncan in the US, the idea was to inject the brightest and best young graduates into teaching and focus on the quality of teachers as the primary driver in school improvement. The oft-quoted stimuli for this policy were Finland and Singapore. Yet, In Finland, of the 120 teachers,selected from 2000 applicants, only 1 in 4 were selected from the top 20% by exam results. In fact, 1 in 4 came from the bottom half of the available pool of applicants. They recruit on a much wider set of criteria. A similar story emerges in Singapore.
There can be a problem with the academic ability of teachers, especially in maths in primary schools. When simple maths tests are given to primary school teachers some deeply worrying results emerge. Across the entire range of secondary school subjects, this can also be a problem. But, this is only one variable in many. Teaching is a complex and subject-matter-expertise is only one dimension in a wide range of required attitudes and skills.
2. Quality of education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers
Popularised by McKinsey, this myth equates the performance of a school by the quality of its teachers. This defines schooling as teaching, which is far from the truth. A school has a context, culture, leadership, localized issues, funding differentials, very different student profiles, non-teaching staff and dozens of others facets, that all play a part in delivery. Sahlberg argues that this is a simplistic, almost Thatcherite ‘there’s no such thing as society’ approach to schools, seeing them as the sum of the teachers, not the many other dimensions of real schools.
3. Most important single factor in improving quality of education is teachers
Teacher input accounts for between 1%-14% of performance, the rest is a complex mixture of student backgrounds and other factors. The idea that teachers alone will automatically improve output is a long-standing fallacy. This could well be called the Jo Klein fallacy but it is not supported by research. Student family background, peer groups and many other factors also come into play.
This is an old tale – the search for a silver bullet in education swings towards single, simplistic causes, that are not supported by research but popularized by cherry picked ideas from countries and reports that suit your political ideology or professional pride. When it comes to education we can’t let either ideological politicians or teacher lobbying define the future. We must objectify, as much as we can, through research, then focus on change.