Teasing out ‘teacher quality’

This post is the first in a series exploring the popular notion of improving teacher quality in order to improve student learning and achievement.

You can also read Part 2 ‘What do quality teachers do?‘ and Part 3 ‘Mapping teacher quality‘.

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For some time, scholarly literatures have generally agreed that, within the school sphere of influence, the quality of teachers’ teaching is the most influential school-based variable in terms of improving student learning and achievement. (We need to remember, however, that student learning and achievement are influenced primarily by many factors that are hardest for policy makers and schools to influence, such as students’ attitudes and abilities, socioeconomic context, parents’ education and peers.) Now, everywhere we look in education there are institutes and government policies and school websites all hailing the catch cry: ‘teacher quality!’

The term ‘teacher quality’ is in danger of being subsumed in what I call the ‘hashtagification’ of education terminology, in which words like ‘mindset’ and ‘grit’ become ubiquitous platitudes shared in sound bites or 140 character tweets. When we use words in education, we need to read the literature and research about them, tease them out, and come to a shared understanding about what are often dense concepts around the complexity of teaching.

During my PhD I spent time (ok, years) reading up on, among other things, ‘teacher quality’. Its definitions, its features, studies that aimed to measure its impacts. While I can’t distil those years of reading into a blog post, this post is a starting point (for comments, conversations, future posts) as well as a call to others to spend time cogitating over and teasing out the terms we use in edu-spheres.

‘Teacher quality’ is used to denote the quality of teachers’ teaching, in terms of its effectiveness in adding value to student learning. While it is sometimes used in terms of the individual teacher, many scholars argue that teacher quality should be considered in terms of collaborative expertise, rather than the solo hero teacher (so wonderfully written about here by Corinne Campbell). That is, while an individual teacher can have an influence on student learning, a move to improve the quality of teaching (and thereby, student learning) needs to focus on teachers as a collective.

One of my favourite images of collaborative expertise comes from Susan Rosenholtz in her book Teachers’ workplace: The social organisation of schools. She writes that in learning-enriched settings “an abundant spirit of continuous improvement” seems to “hover school-wide, because no one ever stopped learning to teach,” describing educators in effective schools as “clumped together in a critical mass, like uranium fuel rods in a reactor” (1991, p. 208). That image is a powerful reminder of what we in schools and education might aim for: a critical mass of huddled-together teachers feeding off each other’s energies, knowledge and practices. It’s also why competitive or punitive measures, like performance pay for teachers, are damaging to the profession. Collaboratively improving teacher quality is based on a notion with which most teachers would agree: that no matter how good our teaching is, no matter how well-planned and well-intentioned, we can always improve.

Two definitions of ‘teacher quality’ resonated with me in my reading. Firstly, the Educational Testing Service, in their 2004 publication Where we stand on teacher quality, defines it as: knowing what to teach and knowing how to teach. This definition hones in on the planning, classroom instruction, and assessment aspects of teacher quality, on the professional knowledge and skills upon which teachers can build in their pursuit of improving the quality of their teaching. Secondly, in their best evidence synthesis of international research on ‘teaching for quality,’ Zammit et al. (2007) define teacher quality as consisting of three intersecting factors: sociocultural context; professional knowledge, skills and practices used to meet student needs; and personal, relational and professional attributes. This second definition reminds us that teachers’ experiences are always situated within their professional contexts and entangled with personal and relational experiences. Teaching is not just about knowledge and skills, but about identities, contexts and emotions, too.

Some of those who write about teacher quality focus on the impact of teaching on student achievement and the others consider how we might break down or compartmentalise teaching in order to distil and define what quality teaching is; how it looks, sounds, and feels, and how it might be mapped, measured, or developed. Many grapple with the tensions between the desire to define and measure teaching, and its immeasurable complexity. In my Australian school, we investigated a number of tools that attempted to map what good teaching might look like. We chose to use the Danielson Framework for Teaching as our frame for professional reflection and conversation. Its rubrics help our teachers to drill down into their own practice, and into the AITSL Professional Standards for Teachers, giving them a sense of what those standards can look like at various levels of practice.

Teaching is such a complex phenomenon, it shouldn’t be reduced down to clichéd catch cries devoid of meaning. Despite the problematic nature of defining what teacher quality actually means, much available research shows that what a teacher does in the classroom is a crucial determinant in improving student achievement, and something we should spend some time teasing out in order to understand it in more detail. When we use terms in education—‘teacher quality’, ‘growth mindset’, ‘coaching’, ‘grit’, ‘vision’—let’s ensure that we work hard at figuring out what those mean and where our understandings might be shared, incomplete or requiring further discussion.

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6 thoughts on “Teasing out ‘teacher quality’

  1. With complex interactive qualities, it may sometimes be useful to look at what we could consider the opposite and work from there. That is, what constitutes ‘poor’ in terms of quality and why.

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    • I agree, Juliet. Part of the reason the Danielson Framework is useful in practice is that it has rubrics of what different aspects of teaching can look like from ‘Unsatisfactory’ through to ‘Distinguished’. It’s a useful tool for professional reflection and conversation about practice.

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  2. I’m writing about this now (thesis) so would welcome feedback on my direction and thoughts, particularly in relation to Australia.
    There exists too much focus on teachers and not enough on teaching (Hiebert, 2012).
    Teaching (not teachers) lacks an agreed framework. Instead we have a shopping list eg. Visible Learning. I will read more about the Danielson Framework.
    I have only read your linked blog post so far (thanks) but think that teacher-student relationships should be a crucial underlying part of instruction in the classroom. I liked some aspects of Martin & Dowson (2009) regarding connective instruction.
    If you can recommend any reading specific to Australia I would be grateful.

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    • Daniel, for an Australian perspective you might want to look at the ‘Australian Educational Researcher’ journal, or the work of Nicole Mockler. I’ll publish another blog post tomorrow that mentions a few international sources to add to your list.
      Deb

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  3. Pingback: What do ‘quality teachers’ do? | the édu flâneuse

  4. Pingback: Mapping quality teaching | the édu flâneuse

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