Teaching reforms fail because they fail to address the quality of teaching
If you want to liven up a conference ,with much counterintuitive provocations call on Professor Dylan Wiliam of the Institute of Education. He set the ball rolling at a recent Reform think tank education conference by claiming that central interventions are basically a waste of time and money because they don’t address the dominant variable in the education system. Teacher Quality. The previous Government spent £1billion on the National Strategies which he claims have resulted in approximately just one extra child per primary schools reaching level 4 in KS 2 tests. Worse a similar amount is being spent each year on classroom assistants-who actually manage to lower the performance of pupils they are trying to help. Specialist schools may get better results he says than other schools (ie the 10% rump which are not Specialist) but this is down to the fact that they get more money, not because of the quality of their teaching or alleged Specialism. (Professor Smithers would agree) And Academies perform no better than similarly low performing schools that have not converted to Academy status, he claims. Dylan is also sceptical about the effects on pupil performance of free schools. He thinks that part of the solution is in getting better entrants into the profession but this will take a long time to reveal its effects. And it is very hard to identify good teachers until they actually start to teach. It is worth noting in this respect that there are some academics and researchers who believe that the selection procedures for teachers should be tightened up as it is possible using tests currently available to identify individuals most likely to succeed in the profession and to teach effectively. Given the number of teachers who complete training but either never take up teaching or leave within a year or so, this must be worth further investigation.
Dylan however is a robust advocate for improving the performance of teachers already working in schools. High quality continuing professional development is the key, he believes but it must be throughout a teachers professional life. And this in turn will improve outcomes much more than heavy handed expensive government interventions. Good teachers also tend to improve the performance of the less good ones. Dylan has also noted that poor teaching has a significant depressive effect on outcomes too. But it is clear that little attention is paid to ridding the system of incompetent teachers, although Dylan worries about focusing too much on incompetent teachers, as this distracts us from the main task of raising the performance of all teachers, and designing strategies to achieve this. Maybe, just maybe, the lack of focus on the quality of teaching goes some way to explaining why it has been so hard to improve outcomes across the system. And why indeed the most disadvantaged have such a raw deal, as evidence suggests they get the worst teachers.
Dylans rather weak response on getting rid of poor teachers is that they might be replaced by even worse ones-somewhat at odds with claims made by just about everyone that new entrants into the profession are better now than they have ever been.