Good Teaching Matters ... a Lot
By Malkin Dare
Eric Hanushek is an economist at the University of Rochester who
used to be famous for disparaging all the usual approaches to raising student achievement
- smaller class sizes, more spending, teacher testing - none of these measures did much
good. In fact, Professor Hanushek couldn't seem to find anything that helped students much
These days, though, he has changed his tune. Recent research from Tennessee, Texas,
Massachusetts and Alabama has revealed that quality of instruction makes a big difference
to how much students learn. Teacher A's class may learn more than Teacher B's class in a
year, even though the children start off roughly the same. And, in some cases, the size of
the difference is astonishing. "The difference between a good and a bad teacher can
be a full level of achievement in a single school year," says Hanushek.
Furthermore, the effects of a good (or a poor) teacher are long-lasting, affecting
student achievement for at least two more years. And the cumulative effect of being
assigned to three good teachers in a row - as opposed to three bad teachers in a row - can
result in differences of up to 50 percentile points. Divergences of this magnitude are
highly significant and will usually result in students being placed in different high
school streams, with obvious implications for their future careers.
A fuller description of this research can be found at "Good Teaching Matters ... a
Lot" at www.edtrust.org/pubs-online.html.
The research is especially exciting because of the fact
that teachers can readily alter their teaching methods. Of course, it is undeniable that
factors such as the students' socio-economic status and IQ are too influential to be
completely overcome by good teaching. It is unreasonable to expect schools that have
children for only 15 per cent of their waking hours to defeat deeply-rooted poverty and
social pathologies. Nevertheless, by improving the quality of their instruction, teachers
can partially compensate for their disadvantaged students' handicaps.
In 1992, leading El Paso educators were involved in the formation of the
El Paso Collaborative for Community and Economic Development. Over the next five years,
they concentrated their efforts on improving instruction by means of intensive assistance
to teachers and major changes to the program offered at the local faculty of education.
Not only did the number of students passing the state math tests roughly double during the
period, but also the 30 per cent chasm between the white students and the much
lower-achieving Hispanic and African-American students closed to less than 10 per cent.
There are positive examples of raising teacher effectiveness in other countries as
One approach to improving teaching, used by Japanese teachers, is described in a new
book entitled The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World's Teachers for Improving
Education in the Classroom, by James W. Stigler and James Hiebert, published by the
Using videotaped evidence from Grade 8 classrooms in the U.S., Japan and Germany, the
authors describe the inspirational teaching found in virtually every classroom in Japan
today. Thirty years ago, however, most Japanese teachers were using severely traditional
methods. Stigler and Hiebert provide a detailed description of the Japanese system of
continuous improvement that led to gradual, incremental improvements in teaching over
In Japan, it is the teachers themselves who have been given the primary
responsibility for improving classroom practice. The authors outline an exciting plan
whereby teachers engage in career-long learning and classrooms become laboratories for
developing new teaching-centred ideas. If provided with the time and tools they need
during the school day for collaborative lesson study and plan building, teachers can and
will improve the way teaching is delivered.
A powerful video, The Polished Stones, shows the teaching approaches of
several typical mathematics teachers in the U.S., China and Japan. The video is available
from the Centre for Human growth and Development at the University of Michigan.
The Japanese teachers use a finely-crafted mix of different teaching strategies. Almost
all their lessons begin with a rich problem that the students are challenged to solve
during the course of the lesson. The Japanese students, sometimes in teams, sometimes with
partners, sometimes working alone, are encouraged to explain to the class how they tackled
Naturally, many of the solutions are wrong and the teacher matter-of-factly works
through with the class why they are wrong. And, of course, there are often several correct
approaches too, and so the teacher solicits many possible strategies for attacking the
problem, thus catering to a wide range of different learning styles and permitting even
the slowest students to learn.
The Japanese don't stream their students until the end of Grade 9, preferring to have
the students advance as a group. While some students need much more polishing than others,
all end up "polished stones."
There are lessons to be learned from other countries as
well, such as Switzerland where consultants and principals are virtually unknown and where
classroom teachers share the responsibility for instruction and school administration
among themselves. As in Japan and China, it is the teachers themselves who have the prime
responsibility for the improvement of classroom practice. A discussion of Swiss practices
is available in "Schooling as Preparation for Life and Work in Switzerland and
Britain," by Helvia Bierhoff and S.J. Prais, published by the National Institute of
Economic and Social Research.
Interestingly, the Swiss - whose students do very well on international testing -
appear have the same "polished stone" philosophy as the Japanese.
"To English teachers familiar with the long tail of under-achieving pupils in
their mathematics classes who have trouble in understanding what they are expected to do,
the degree of evenness amongst Swiss Realschule pupils in their attainments comes
as a considerable revelation as to what lies within the realm of possibility," the
Key to any teacher improvement campaign is a focus on the objective measurement of
results. Just as runners time themselves to ensure that they're getting faster, so too
must educators rigorously measure their students' progress in order to evaluate whether or
not new teaching practices are beneficial.
According to OISE's Keith Stanovich, "Nothing has retarded the cumulative growth
of knowledge in the psychology of reading more than the failure to deal with problems in a
scientific manner.... An adherence to a subjective, personalized view of knowledge is what
continually leads to educational fads that could easily be avoided by grounding teachers
and other practitioners in the importance of scientific thinking for solving educational
Malkin Dare is the author of How to Get the Right
Education for Your Child and the newsletter editor of the Organization for Quality
Education www.oqe.org. She can be contacted at