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Teachers matter

March 10, 2010

It’s hard to overstate the importance of teachers. Strip away the other things that determine how well students do – such as social background and individual capacity – and you’re pretty much left with teaching as the major factor that can be shaped by education policy.

Unfortunately, in the past teachers were often thought of in terms of quantity not quality – it didn’t matter what they were like so long as you had enough of them. That attitude is changing. In part that’s a response to student assessments like the OECD’s PISA . It has shown that differences in how well students do are often greater within schools than between schools. In the U.S., research suggests students with the strongest teachers can be a full year ahead of those learning under the weakest teachers.

But what makes a teacher good? Two recent articles offer some interesting ideas. In The New York Times, Elizabeth Green reports on a couple of interesting approaches, including the Lemov Taxonomy. This emphasises the need for teachers to capture students’ attention and then get them to follow instructions. That may sound like a call for a return to old-style classroom discipline, but in fact it mostly comes down to better classroom management and simple techniques.

An example: When Doug Lemov, creator of the taxonomy, was carrying out his research, “he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise. ‘Stand still when you’re giving directions,’ a teacher at a Boston school told him. In other words, don’t do two things at once. Lemov tried it, and suddenly, he had to ask students to take out their homework only once.”

In The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley reports on Teach for America , a non-profit organisation that hires college graduates for two years to teach in poorer neighbourhoods. With more than 7,000 teachers on its books, the group has a large pool of research to work from. It has come up with a number of findings on what makes teachers effective. Firstly, it found they were ambitious – they set big goals for their students and constantly reexamined their own approaches to try to make them better.

Strong teachers shared four other tendencies, adds Ripley: “They avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully – for the next day or the year ahead – by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.”

Useful links

OECD Insights: Human Capital

OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS)

OECD work on attracting, developing and retaining effective teachers

OECD work on evaluating and rewarding teachers

educationtoday – including the OECD education blog

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