The 'Great Teachers' fallacy is where 'Great Teachers' are held to be those teachers whose pupils get 'great outcomes', and where 'great outcomes' are held to indicate children have been taught by 'Great Teachers'.
Where is the evidence that people believe this and that it has affected education policy and classroom practice?
In ‘Do teachers matter? Measuring the variation in teacher effectiveness in England’ (2009), the University of Bristol’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation wrote that:
“It seems common sense that teachers matter, and that pupils will achieve more with an inspirational teacher than with an average or poor teacher. Anecdotes abound of the transformational effect of excellent teaching.”
This is supported by influential think tanks such as the Sutton Trust, which said in ‘Improving the impact of teachers on pupil achievement in the UK – interim findings’ (2011):
“The difference between a very effective teacher and a poorly performing teacher is large.
For example during one year with a very effective maths teacher, pupils gain 40% more in their learning than they would with a poorly performing maths teacher.
• The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds: over a school year, these pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. In other words, for poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is a whole year’s learning.
• Bringing the lowest-performing 10% of teachers in the UK up to the average would greatly boost attainment and lead to a sharp improvement in the UK’s international ranking. All other things equal, in 5 years the UK’s rank amongst OECD countries would improve from 21st in Reading to as high as 7th, and from 22nd in Maths to as high as 12th (0.22 Standard Deviations); over 10 years (the period a child is in the UK school system before the PISA examinations) the UK would improve its position to as high as 3rd in Reading, and as high as 5th in Maths (0.41 Standard Deviations).”
A report written for the then DfEE, Research into Teacher Effectiveness (2000), claimed:
“Our research confirms much that is already known about the attributes of effective teaching. It also adds some new dimensions that demonstrate the extent to which effective teachers make a difference for their pupils. We found three main factors within teachers' control that significantly influence pupil progress:
• teaching skills
• professional characteristics
• classroom climate.
“Each provides distinctive and complementary ways that teachers can understand the contribution they make. None can be relied on alone to deliver value-added teaching.”
“So we show that teachers really do make a difference. Within their classrooms, effective teachers create learning environments which foster pupil progress by deploying their teaching skills as well as a wide range of professional characteristics. Outstanding teachers create an excellent classroom climate and achieve superior pupil progress largely by displaying more professional characteristics at higher levels of sophistication within a very structured learning environment.”
Once again, Ofsted, the branch of the government tasked with reporting on the quality of educational provision in England, is one of the main drivers of theory and practice within English schools.
Ofsted sets out what it expects of teachers in its School Inspection Handbook. Following the Teacher Input = Pupil Output fallacy as detailed in Chapter 1, teaching is described in terms of pupil outputs: “Teaching over time in all key stages and most subjects is outstanding and never less than consistently good. As a result, almost all pupils currently on roll in the school, including disabled pupils, those who have special educational needs, disadvantaged pupils and the most able, are making sustained progress that leads to outstanding achievement.”
‘Great teaching’ is, once again, defined by pupil outputs.
Ofsted (2014) published a guide to ‘Teaching, learning and assessment in further education and skills– what works why’ which once again reiterates the government’s understanding of what ‘works and why’ when it comes to teaching, saying that Ofsted evaluates “the quality of teaching and training by measuring its impact on learning over the length of learners’ course of study.”
Much influential research in education can be termed Halo Effect research, whereby those working in schools deemed to be successful are asked to explain their success. This naturally casts a halo around the actions of those schools which are deemed to be successful. Two reports from 2009 indicate the extent of this Halo Effect thinking.
“Outstanding schools generally have a very good sense of what it takes for lessons to be outstanding. All the schools are familiar with Ofsted’s inspection criteria as well as the national criteria for excellent and advanced skills teachers, published by the Training and Development Agency for Schools.5 In World’s End School, the headteacher has led discussions with all staff on the question: ‘What is high-quality teaching?’” Twenty outstanding primary schools; Excelling against the odds
“These schools have a very strong team culture, so powerful that new staff are quickly assimilated into it. Every school has its version of this: ‘being Lamptonised’ or fitting into ‘the Robert Clack way’, for example. It is typically a positive and highly supportive culture, but also one that sets high expectations for any new teacher. In one of the schools, a teacher described it as a mixture of ‘encouragement, high expectations and a respect for the professionalism of the teacher’.” Twelve outstanding secondary schools; Excelling against the odds
Governments in England and elsewhere have been heavily influenced by the world of management consultancy, with organisations such as McKinsey and Company producing reports such as 'How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top’ (2007)written by Michael Barber, who, not coincidentally, had been chief education adviser for New Labour before joining McKinsey.
Barber concluded that, ‘three things matter most in education’:
1) Getting the right people to become teachers
2) Developing them into effective instructors
3) Ensuring that the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child
This report introduced the key soundbite of the ‘Great Teachers’ fallacy: ‘The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers’, claiming that, ‘The available evidence suggests that the main driver of the variation in student learning at school is the quality of the teachers’ and that ‘all the evidence suggests that even in good systems, students that do not progress quickly during their first years at school, because they are not exposed to teachers of sufficient calibre, stand very little chance of recovering the lost years’ (p15).
The introduction to the Barber report was written by Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, whose organisation has long championed the ‘Great Teachers’ fallacy. In ‘Teachers Matter’ (2006), the OECD said:
“The broad consensus is that “teacher quality” is the single most important school variable influencing student achievement.” (p3)
By 2009, the OECD was saying that:
“Educators and parents have long argued that effective teachers are key to improving student achievement and a number of research studies conducted since 1990 have backed up this belief. Hanushek (1992) found that students whose teachers are at the top of effectiveness range achieve as much as an additional year of growth in student learning over those with teachers near the bottom of the range – a gain of 1.5 years of academic growth as opposed to 0.5 years of growth in a single year.” (p13)
Why is it a fallacy?
This fallacy underpins and is reinforced by a field of study into Education which is known as School Effectiveness Research (SER). SER is around 35 years old, and came about largely as a reaction to the findings of the Coleman report in 1966. Writing in 2000, Harvey Goldstein and Geoffrey Woodhouse of the University of Bristol traced SER’s roots back to Michael Rutter’s work in 1979 (as discussed in Chapter 1) which:
“Attempted to show that, even when social and other factors were taken into account, there remained differences among schools which could be ascribed to the quality of schooling itself. Despite the methodological weakness of some of this early work (Goldstein, 1997), school effectiveness research flourished during the 1980s and 1990s, becoming more sophisticated both in the kinds of data used and the statistical modelling techniques applied. It also appealed to the Conservative government from the late 1980s and the subsequent Labour government, at least partly because it implied that changing schools could affect performance and hence that educational policy was relevant to educational ‘standards’. Thus, in 1997, the new Labour administration set up a powerful ‘Standards and Effectiveness Unit’ within the department for Education and Employment, headed by someone who had been involved prominently in school effectiveness research.” School effectiveness research and Educational Policy, (2000) p1
Goldstein and Woodhouse reviewed critiques which:
“Emerged largely from UK academic institutions, reflecting no doubt the high profile that SE has enjoyed within the research community and within Government. The issues, however, are general and apply to SE research carried out in other educational systems.
The critiques can be grouped under the following broad headings:
1. Abuse by Government
2. Oversimplification of the complex 'causalities' associated with schooling and sidetracking into focussing on ‘league tables’.
3. That ‘theory’ in SE work is little more than reification of empirical relationships
4. Too much SE research is simply poor quality”
Reification is a technical term which describes ’bringing something into being’. In simple terms, SER is a circular argument. Great pupil outcomes are defined as being the result of great teacher input, and great teacher input is defined as that which causes great pupil outcomes. This clear tautology means that any research which looks at student outcomes and teaching will always find ‘great teachers’ because some students will always produce ‘great outcomes’.
Because the ‘Great Teachers’ fallacy builds on the ‘Teacher Input = Pupil Output’ fallacy, the ‘Great Teachers’ fallacy is taken as axiomatic by SER researchers. A perfect example of this is in ‘Teacher Quality and Student Achievement: A Review of State Policy Evidence’ (2000):
“It stands to reason that student learning should be enhanced by the efforts of teachers who are more knowledgeable in their field and are skillful at teaching it to others.” (p34).
Of course this ‘stands to reason’ to those who assume the ‘Great Teachers’ fallacy is true.
This review leads back to work by Erik Hanushek, about whom I have written elsewhere. Hanushek’s work is also cited as justification by the OECD in the report quoted above, and, naturally, appears in Michael Barber’s ‘How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top' quoted above.
It is worth noting that the majority of reviews of SER, and of teaching, nearly always qualify their promotion of the ‘Great Teachers’ fallacy before going on to promote the fallacy. Robert Coe, for example, clearly states, “Even the claims of school effectiveness research – that we can identify good schools and teachers, and the practices that make them good – seem not to stand up to critical scrutiny, ” before going on to say:
“If we are to capitalise on the benefits of professional development, then we need both to be able to target that development at areas of need and to be able to evaluate its impact. Unless we have sophisticated systems in place for evaluating teaching quality, both are hard to do. I have already argued that existing approaches to identifying effective schools are problematic; the same arguments apply to attempts to identify effective teachers. Despite that, there has been a growth of interest recently in trying to do this, mostly from the US, mostly based on students’ annual gains (on tests of variable quality) using econometric analyses, much of it driven by the desire to create reward structures for effective teachers or ‘deselect’ the ineffective (eg Hanushek, 2011). Underlying this work is an emerging consensus that it is not largely schools that make a difference to learning, but teachers – a finding which has been evident from the early days of CEM monitoring systems (Coe and Fitz-Gibbon, 1998),” quoting the ever-reliable fallacy-source, Erik Hanushek.
The ‘Great Teachers’ narrative is propagated by many organisations such as Mckinsey which suggest that recruiting a ‘higher calibre’ of teacher will lead to higher performance in school. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that any measurable attribute of individuals recruited into teaching leads to any measurable impact on pupil output which can be attributed to individual teachers. Furthermore, there is no evidence that any measurable attribute of individuals working as teachers leads to any measurable impact on pupil output which can be attributed to individual teachers.
In study after study, no link can be found between teacher attributes and pupil outcomes which cannot be explained by the Teacher input = Pupil outcome fallacy. Hugely expensive research projects, such as the Gates Foundations’ Measures of Effective Teaching project, have found – much to the researchers’ frustration, shock and annoyance – that there are no teacher attributes whatsoever which can explain the variation in pupil outcomes. This kind of research always falls down because it is based on the SER tautology whereby ‘bad teachers’ get ‘bad outcomes’.
There is, on the other hand, a great deal of evidence that those training or working as teachers can learn to become effective teachers. This suggests that teaching is – contrary to the ‘Great teachers’ fallacy – a craft which can be learned via study, practice and effort by people with a huge variety of backgrounds, educational achievement and personality types. Teachers are clearly made, not born.
Unfortunately, the commonly held view of ‘what a teacher is’ is often a conglomeration of Halo Effects, very few of which are based on any replicable evidence. As Nuthall (2001) reports on his research almost 40 years ago,
"To our surprise, however, there were no discernable differences between the experienced teachers and the beginning teachers in what they did or what their students learned. Being an experienced teacher apparently made no difference. Again, we did not understand and the significance of it at the time, we had stumbled across evidence that the basic patterns of teaching are carried out in much the same way, with much the same effects, by novices and experts alike. The underlying patterns of teaching appeared to be independent of training and experience."
This unquestioning acceptance and promotion of the 'underlying patterns of teaching' has led, over the past fifty years of mission creep, to extremely onerous expectations of teachers, which often reflect a ‘folk wisdom’ view of what a teacher should do rather than being based on evidence-informed best practice.
The ‘Great teachers’ fallacy has therefore extended to folly such as Triple Marking (whereby teachers are expected to spend almost as much time providing written feedback as they do in the classroom), ‘Show Lessons’ (whereby teachers perform in class in a way in which it is assumed – often correctly – that outside observers expect them to) and the de-professionalisation of teachers (whereby teachers aim to become ‘Great Teachers’ rather than autonomous professionals helping individuals to learn). We are fortunate that recent work by practising teachers such as Tom Bennett and others has questioned evidence-free mission creep involving non-existent learning styles and psuedo-scientific Brain Gym.
Most damaging of all, the ‘Great Teachers’ narrative – by building on the Teacher Input = Pupil Outcome fallacy – creates a story of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teachers. If all teachers were held to be ‘Great Teachers’, this might be fairly innocuous. But this is not the case, as the narrative holds ‘bad’ teachers accountable for factors which are clearly beyond their control, as ‘bad outcomes’ are held to be as the result of ‘bad teachers’ which is clearly – using current measures of pupil output - a fallacy.
But we want ‘Great Teachers’, don’t we?
It would seem that, a priori, we want hard working, committed teachers working in our schools. We might even want to describe them as ‘Great Teachers’. But the fallacy that a teacher can be identified as being successful using the outcomes of the pupils they teach is a damaging nonsense which simply adds yet more pressure on teachers and the schools in which they work. And the fallacy that 'Great Teachers' have either prior attributes or current methods of working which will always lead to successful pupil outcomes is also quite simply untrue.
I will go on to argue that we need teachers who know that, despite their best efforts, sometimes the children they teach will not succeed in producing the outcomes which have come to be expected. We need teachers who base their practice on evidence, not hearsay, and understand the fallacies which underpin far too much conventional wisdom about teaching. But in the meantime, the ‘Great Teachers’ fallacy needs to be identified, named and shamed.
In the next chapter, I will look at how the third great fallacy of teaching has developed: The ‘Education as Medicine’ fallacy, with its language of ’interventions’, which are required to cure the ‘ill’ patients, regardless of the supposed patient’s view of the matter.