The Gazette looks at why the quality of an educational institution’s teaching is so important
TEACHING AT THE TOP Excel English in London’s leafy Muswell Hill has a strength in teaching (Courtesy Excel English)
What is the best predictor of student achievement? Not class size, not resource materials, not even (to an extent) family background. What really makes the difference, to no one’s surprise, is the quality of teaching.
The difference between an effective teacher and a poor-performing teacher could mean up to half a year’s worth of learning, or one year for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This emerged from the study ‘Improving the impact of teachers on pupil achievement in the UK’, commissioned by the Sutton Trust, a think tank founded in 1997 with the aim of improving social mobility through education. The study reviews the large body of research that demonstrates teachers’ impact on the academic outcomes of their pupils. Teachers are by far the biggest resource in schools, and two studies (Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain 2005, Rockoff 2004) reveal that ‘teachers are the most important factor that policy makers can directly affect to improve student achievement’. The first study demonstrates that the quality of teaching should come as a priority for education managers as it can outweigh other auxiliary factors that are commonly perceived as conducive to good academic achievement, such as class size. According to the study, the effect of having a very effective teacher as opposed to an average teacher is the same as reducing class size by 10–13 students.
This applies to any education level. ‘EPPE (Effective Pre-school and Primary Education)’, a 2008 longitudinal study following children from birth to the age of sixteen based at the Institute of Education, University of London, shows that teaching quality is a significant predictor of cognitive progress for primary school children for both reading and mathematics. Progressing to secondary school, four studies (Aaronson, Barrow and Sanders 2007, Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain 2005, Rockoff 2004, Slater, Davies and Burgess 2009) show that a very effective teacher can raise each pupil’s attainment by a third of a GCSE (UK year 11 exams). And with an eye to the future, Hanushek calculated that a teacher who is one standard deviation better than the average can generate over £460,000 in present value in terms of future student earnings.
The British Council awards a strength in teaching to language centres that ‘meet and exceed’ more than half of the requirements of ‘classroom observation’, a sub-section of ‘teaching and learning’. This sub-section tests teachers’ knowledge of the subject matter and teaching techniques, their planning and delivery of the lesson, and their ability to effectively manage a positive learning environment. Only 20 per cent of all British-Council-accredited schools obtain a strength in teaching.
As nerve-racking as it is for the teacher, classroom observation is vital to assess the effectiveness of a teacher. According to a review of teaching evaluation techniques commissioned by the Sutton Trust, ‘it is very difficult to predict how good a teacher will be without observing them in a classroom’, no matter how good they are on paper.
The British Council’s inspections combine an assessment of teachers’ qualifications with classroom observation. However, the study also adds that an effective teacher evaluation system must incorporate a range of measures including, besides classroom observation, assessment of students’ achievements and student feedback. The British Council inspection framework considers the outcomes of the single lesson observed. A more comprehensive method could perhaps track student achievement over time.
As for student feedback, the literature shows that it is reliable, cost-effective and valuable for teacher feedback. Student ratings seem to outshine even the principal’s own judgement, as student outcomes are much more strongly correlated to student feedback than to the principal’s evaluation.