More resources doesn’t equal better results

Its the focus on teacher quality that matters


The Sutton Trust was helped in its recent research by Professor Eric Hanushek, a  Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution,  looking at  the importance of the quality of teaching in raising pupil attainment and school performance. He has done much research in this area , particularly on  the effects of good and bad teachers of pupil performance.

Although many factors help determine cognitive skills, most government efforts for improvement focus on schools—the place where they have the most policy leverage.  Politicians constantly interfere in State schools trying one thing, and if that doesn’t work, then another, sometimes informed by solid evidence, sometimes not. The one constant is that they believe they are making a difference and that their centrally driven interventions will improve performance. They rarely do, at least on a sustained basis.

Reforming school policies and improving performance are, as Hanushek points out, not just a matter of will, or of providing extra resources to schools.

He writes ‘If the effectiveness of different resources—or combinations thereof—were known, it would be straightforward to define an optimal reform strategy. The problem is that we do not currently have enough credible knowledge about how best to use new resources’.

Our own Professor Michael Barber may not agree but productivity in education actually fell during the period of greatest investment in education and centrally driven interventions during the Blair years,  particularly over 2001-05 when Barber headed the Delivery Unit.(Barber said in his book  ‘Instruction to Deliver’ (2007) that raising productivity in public services was the Governments main challenge).If you look at OECD countries its not just about money. As the Economist recently (Sept 17 2011) pointed out ‘Many of the 20 leading economic performers in the OECD doubled or tripled their education spending in real terms between 1970-1994 yet outcomes in many countries stagnated or went backwards’.

Of course, credible research findings indicate that the absence of the most basic school resources—such as adequate facilities or textbooks—noticeably impacts performance. Nonetheless, as Hanushek says,  ‘the evidence does not indicate that simply spending more, even in poor countries, can be expected to have a generally significant effect on student outcomes without closer attention to the uses of resources’.

One explanation for failure is, according to Hanushek, ‘simply that insufficient attention has been paid to teacher quality. Estimated differences in annual achievement growth between an average and a good teacher are large. Within one academic year, a good teacher can move a typical student up at least four percentiles in the overall distribution (equal to a change of 0.12 standard deviations of student achievement). In fact, a string of good teachers can erase the deficits associated with poor preparation for school.’

But the problem is that hiring good teachers is not easily achieved. Teaching ability is not closely related to for example to training or experience . Moreover, most teacher salary systems do not reward high-quality teachers.

Hanushek believes that policymakers should focus on improving the overall quality of the teaching force.  But if one were simply to redistribute existing teachers, the overall policy goals would not be achieved.

Instead, most existing evidence indicates that quality improvements are more likely to come from selecting and retaining better teachers rather than from retraining existing teachers. Hanushek concedes that ‘some in-service training and development programmes have had success, they have generally disappointed. Moreover, existing evidence on in-service programmes does not provide us with sufficient insight for selecting a programme that is likely to yield significant gains in teaching performance’ Professor Dylan Wiliam here, while agreeing about the importance of the quality of teaching, would probably disagree with Hanushek as he believes that the key to improving the quality teaching   lies in  improving  teachers  continuing professional development.(we struggle here, as they do in the States  in getting rid of poor teachers from the system who undermine successive governments  school improvement agendas)


Hanushek believes we need to get a better handle on what works and what doesn’t. He concludes ‘The most feasible approach, given currently available information, is to experiment with alternative incentive schemes. These might involve new contracts and approaches to teacher compensation, introduction of parental choice across schools, merit awards for schools, and the like. The unifying theme is that each new policy should be designed to improve student achievement directly. For example, merit awards to teachers could be directly linked to objective information about student performance ‘.

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