Should teacher quality be so important?

Let’s make teacher quality less important, writes Dan Willingham on The Answer Sheet. “Teacher quality is the most important in-school factor that influences kids’ schooling,” he writes.”That’s important because it’s pretty hard to change characteristics of the child, the family or the neighborhood, whereas educators and politicians can more readily change characteristics of schools.”

We could try to hire better and better teachers to replace those who are unsatisfactory. That’s expensive.

Willingham prefers to make teaching more consistent so the “characteristics of individual teachers wouldn’t matter so much.”

For example, we might try to make teaching more consistent by improving teacher preparation. Right now, teacher preparation just doesn’t matter very much. Most teachers say that it didn’t help them, and there is scant evidence that the type of training teachers receive has much impact on their teaching.

Naturally, if teacher training has little impact, and teachers are left to their own devices, characteristics of the teacher will end up mattering a lot to teacher quality.

Another way to make teacher quality more consistent is to use a curriculum, so that lesson content is more consistent across teachers.

Some would call this “teacherproofing” the classroom, which can help inexperienced and subpar teachers, but restrict good teachers. Is it possible to make teacher quality a less significant factor without dumbing down the most talented teachers?

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  1. It’s absolultely possible, and that’s one lesson we could learn from high performing countries. Part of what goes on with respect to this issue is that excellent teachers are operating off of excellent curriculum paradigms, whether prescribed or not, because they have the ability to create one if it’s not provided. Weaker teachers (whether they’re weak because they’re new or for other reasons) don’t have as developed an ability to create a coherent learning experience unless a template is provided.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    It depends on whether you think that teachers are to children as factory workers are to widgets.

    A manufactory model of curriculum (and not just school organization like we have now) will produce children who know a given set of facts better. That seems almost certain.

    But I despair of it ever producing better human beings, better citizens. If you think you get annoyed when you realize that someone is talking to you using some model that they pulled out of a self-help magazine, imagine the rage and resentment that children will feel when they realize that their entire educations were like that.

  3. EB is right. A lot of the learning centers work on this model. They develop a good curriculum focusing on building essential core skills and then gradually layering on new ones. Then they hand the curriculum to all their instructors who are often straight out of college with no experience. Yet it still works. Of course tiny class sizes and regular skills testing to identify deficits also don’t hurt.

    I have to disagree with the underlying thesis though. Unless my understanding of education research is out of date, the leading indicator for how well a student will do is their parents not their teachers.

  4. It depends on whether you think that teachers are to children as factory workers are to widgets.

    Actually, it depends on whether you think teachers are any different than chicken-sexers.

    A manufactory model of curriculum (and not just school organization like we have now) will produce children who know a given set of facts better. That seems almost certain.

    There’s another group of people that know facts better — experts. Knowing facts better isn’t necessarily a problem.

    But I despair of it ever producing better human beings, better citizen

    Based on what? The stellar performance of our inconsistently trained teachers using poorly selected curriculum?

  5. Paul Muench says:

    We are very close to the fime where teachers should not be lecturing in class and shouldn’t be spending time on prompting students for answers to simple questions. Instead students should be watching recorded presentations of the best lecturers and have the ability to control playback of those lectures. And it would be very simple to prompt students with simple questions during the playback, which has the benefit that every student would get a chance to answer questions and do it largely without the notice of peers. This is about as good as it gets for ensuring that all students get consistent high quality lecturing. Teachers would still track students progress and work with students in small groups on activities that require human creativity. This would leave plenty of room for effective teachers to have fulfilling careers, but it would have the added benefit of reducing and maybe even eliminating the impact of ineffective teachers. Eric Hanusheck’s work seems to indicate that eliminating the impact of the least effective teachers can result in significant improvement in the education of American children.

    The quote does clarify that Teachers are the most important “in-school” factor. And I assume “in-school” does not include students.

  6. EBP: “…that’s one lesson we could learn from high performing countries.”

    We could learn the same lesson from other industries and professions as well.

    But of course this would destroy the artisan mystique, the idea that teaching is an art that no outsider can ever hope to understand or replicate, let alone improve or make more efficient.

  7. Michael Lopez –
    If the manufactory model can produce elementary school teachers who can actually teach addition, subtraction, and grammar, then I’m all for it.
    The anti-set curriculum crowd is acting as if set curricula stifle the creative imaginings of 10 and 12 year olds… when this age group has enough trouble thinking of creative ways to pick their noses.

  8. cranberry says:

    Paul Muench, recent studies seem to indicate that babies do not pick up vocabulary from videos:

    At what age does that effect end, I wonder? Does it ever? Certainly, tv never took off as an instructional method, although it had plenty of time to do so. Do humans learn well from videos, or do we pay more attention to a real, live person?

  9. Cranberry –
    My guess is that the 2D nature of videos hampers any vocabulary acquisition from videos. The brain is just not innately designed to interpret 2D images, so toddlers will miss a lot of detail on facial movements. Also, toddlers might not correctly pair the video image with the audio from the speakers.

  10. cranberry says:

    SuperSub, your explanations sound logical. Alternatively, toddlers and young children don’t pay attention to 2D images, whereas they do pay attention to people.

    I know people who’ve become fluent speakers of foreign languages in a short period of time by moving to a foreign country, living with a family, and only speaking the goal language. I don’t know anyone who managed to become fluent in such a short time through videos alone.

  11. Past attempts at teacher-proofing classrooms have led to poor scripted curricula that made good teachers leave and kept inept teachers in the classroom because they didn’t have to do anything other than read the script and grade the papers. I don’t have the link for the most recent study on that right now, but I’m sure you could find it.

    The key is to have really, really good curricula and allow teachers to deviate based on the needs of the students right in front of them. The problem with the scripted curricula mentioned above is that administrators often don’t allow deviation because it’s harder to measure how everyone it doing. But if the script has students analyzing a story yet half of them can’t read at that grade level yet, it’s wasted time in the classroom for those students.

    One thing I learned from learning and cognition studies is that children and adults learn things better with hands-on activities in the mix, and the effectiveness of those can’t be scripted well at the moment. Someone needs to ask the right questions at the right moments during hands-on time, and that’s hard to program in. All learning can’t happen from videos, as anyone who’s ever tried to really learn something from a video can attest.

    I do agree that some aspects of teaching can be altered to minimize the impact of bad teaching, but I also think teachers need better training. There are still plenty of places where people don’t need to student teach in order to get a license. There are some things that are easier to learn on the job (classroom management, for example), and having an active, involved mentor helps to minimize the mayhem for new teachers and their students. There are also plenty of places where bad student teachers are still given licenses even though they really aren’t cut out to teach children. That has to stop.

  12. Patti, what you are describing is simply a bad curriculum. The script is irrelevant. With or without the script, the curriculum would still be bad.

    There are good curricula with scripts. And, the scripts are part of the reason why those curricula are god.

  13. What about, instead of thinking in terms of _mandated_ curricula, we think of the marketplace of high-quality curricula, scripted or not, of sufficient variety that just about any teacher can select one that suits his or her style?

    Why must every new teacher re-invent the wheel? Why not start off from a baseline that is known to work, and go from there.

  14. RE: learning through video:

    I’ve had fantastic classes that could have been the model for how to teach that subject in most any classroom. Unfortunately, the teachers delivering those lessons have since retired. Where does their expertise go? (It just vanishes into the ether.)

    If they were recorded, and a video-based, guided/independent study course where developed, think of how useful that would be for students. Schools that had only a few students interested in, say, AP physics could offer those students a way to learn that did not require a large investment.

  15. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Recorded lectures are the future of education. Why learn Greek History from Mr. Thomas at your local high school when you can watch Prof. Broadhead of MIT here?

    Prof. William Broadhead

    It’s not like Greek History is going to change *that* much. This lecture is probably good for at least twenty years.

  16. FuzzyRider says:

    When I taught, I would have to teach the same lesson 5 or 6 times in one day- often the last lesson would be quite differently presented than the first, because I would adapt as I learned fro each class what approach worked best. A video can’t adapt, a centralized teacher teaching over an internet link can’t interact with pupils or customize the approach to expand what works best and remove what is failing.

    If I had ever been handed a ‘script’ or even an overly restrictive curriculum, I would have quit on the spot. The only bright spot in my education career was the unlimited opportunity to be creative and to think on my feet (everything else about the job sucked!)

  17. I’m afraid that pre-recorded lectures are a failure for the vast majority of students. They just don’t put the effort into learning. The idea has been tried time and time again since the 1960’s, and pretty much has a failure rate of 100%. (100% failure to successfully teach the typical broad range of students, not a failure to reach any students.)

    My hypothesis is that unless you have someone putting obvious effort into teaching, most students cannot put the effort into learning.

    As we all know, *anyone* can get a good education from open access to a good library. Almost no people do. Another hint that that teaching has to be active to reach the majority of students.

  18. Roger Sweeny says:


    I agree with much of what you say, but if half the students in a class are reading below grade level, that’s educational malpractice. The fact that we now celebrate that as “inclusion” says very bad things about us.

    FWIW, the only useful ed course I had was a one-week whole-day workshop on classroom management, full of hands-on activity.