Friday, June 12, 2015

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.


Mark said...

Hello Donald

Thanks for the blog post.

I am guessing that you thought I might have something to say on this one. I do not disagree in braod terms with the overall message that Pasi makes in his original article and that you amplify here in your blog, but I do have some comments and observations. In particular I have some issues with the first point.

It is true that Finnish education has been misrepresented and there are myths. I would argue that some of those myths were fueled by Pasi himself in his early presentations and writings. This may have sometimes been because things were ‘lost in translation’ or because, just like the many visitors to Finland who have an agenda and world view, so does he. So, as a simple example of the former, an official tells a visiting delegation that Finland recruits the best candidates for teacher education programs. By best he/she means the most suitable with the best aptitudes, but for the delegation that means the best grades. The myth and misunderstanding is not always malevolent.

If we look at that first point, “Best way to elevate teaching profession is to attract best and brightest to become teachers”. OK, but my question then is, so what is the best way to elevate the teaching profession? To turn it on its head, I would say that the “Best way to denigrate the teaching profession is to attract the worst and dumbest to become teachers” is probably true.

The fact is that for a number of historic, social, economic and political reasons the teaching profession does not need to be elevated in Finland in the same way that it does in the UK and other countries. Pasi provides the evidence for that in his argument. There are 2000 applicants for 120 places to become what would be called Primary School teachers in the UK. Those 2000 DO include the top percentile of grades, even if that is not the main criteria used for selection. What is more, as Pasi tells in several of his presentations with regard to his own niece, those applying often do so multiple times. So if they do not get in first time, they apply again the next year and the next. This is also taken as a sign of their true commitment to become teachers, which is great, although I do wonder about what these graduates have been doing between applications, but that is another story.

So we can agree that just using grades as a way to select teacher candidates is not a great measure, but the reverse is not true, as you say, it is complex, but fast tracking those with poor content knowledge, no knowledge of pedagogy, assessment or how to make appropriate use of educational technology is hardly an answer either.
The argument presented here is not about how we select teacher candidates, it is about how to elevate the profession of teaching. What we need there from Pasi (and I think he would say buy his book) is how Finland elevated the profession so that it has this pool of quality candidates from which to select. The importnat question is how does Finland attract good quality candidates to the pool that want to become teachers and how is it that teaching is viewed as a high status profession in Finland?

The fact is the visitors will always try to twist what they see to fit their own world view, whether it is Finland or some other country. The same is also true for those who represent those countries as everyone has a bias, myself included.

Unknown said...

If you read Pasi Sahlberg's book: Finnish Lessons you will get some of those factors that probably make Finnish education successful and he too said he can't say for certain if those factors are responsible. Some of the factors he mentioned are: 1. Well distribution in Finland 2. The choice of making schools inclusive in Finland and as such cater for SEN pupils in the mainstream classrooms 3. The reading habit of Finns 4. The conscientious efforts by the Finnish govt. to invest in education particularly post WW2 5. The loss of about a fifth of Finnish territory after WW2 6. The relative homogeneity of Finnish society 7. The lack of private schools in Finland 8. The non politicisation of education policies in Finland and as such a change in leadership in the country does not lead to a change in education policy 9. Some elements of the Finnish culture like modesty and high regard for the teaching profession 10. The limited numbers of assessments and the fact that much trust is placed on teachers...

Donald Clark said...

That's right. Which is why taking a couple of simple recommendations from teh Finnish system doesn't work - you need a strategic overhaul. This would be impossible in the Uk due to the power of private schools and other interests.