MIGHT A FOCUS ON IMPROVING TEACHER QUALITY HARM THE QUALITY OF PUPILS EDUCATION?
Any lessons from America?
As reported last week Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard University and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University studied the school records and income tax records of 2.5 million students in a major urban district (probably New York City) over a 20-year period. They concluded that good teachers cause students to get higher test scores, which lead in turn to higher lifetime earnings, fewer teenage pregnancies, and higher University enrolment. The report has caused a stir in the States where education reforms are focused on improving the quality of teaching through rating teachers on value added measures. In value added measurement student test scores become a vital means of measuring teacher performance. The report concluded that “ The most important lesson of this study is that finding policies to raise the quality of teaching–whether via the use of value-added measures, changes in salary structure, or teacher training—is likely to have substantial economic and social benefits in the long run.”
So, in short, teachers jobs will largely depend on the rise or fall of their students’ test scores.
No bad thing, say reformers. This would flush out poor teachers and incentivise good teachers. Given that teachers effectiveness is a vital driver in raising pupil performance and improving educational outcomes this is precisely what is required to deliver transformational change throughout the schools system . It’s a compelling argument. But there is a fly in the ointment. Quite a big one, as it happens. Setting aside the problems associated with measuring added value (and there are quite a few) there is one issue that stands out here. If tests are made so important to teachers’ careers they will do everything they can to ensure that their pupils do well in tests. So they will teach for the test. And prioritise their work and resources around these tests. They would then spend extra time preparing students to take them, even more so probably than they do now. And, of course ,the temptation for teachers to cheat, because so much hangs on the results of these tests, will be increased (several cheating scandals have already been exposed ).
Education is not all about passing tests, or at least it shouldn’t be. You cant, and so don’t, test quite a lot of what happens in a good school. Driven by the imperatives of a testing culture and the incentives that go with it there would be less school time allocated to giving pupils a rounded education to encourage the development of good, responsible citizens with well –developed cognitive and (of increasing importance) non-cognitive skills. The Arts would probably suffer too and as for extra -curricular activities, well they would drop off the agenda.
What matters most will be getting the right answer to the test .Sir Ken Robinsons divergent, creative thinking would be discouraged because divergent thinking might produce the wrong answers for the test. Independent, lateral and unorthodox thinking, and indeed teaching, will not be admired or recognised in a system that encourages the pursuit of the right formulaic answer. Outcomes in the form of improved test scores might well improve and teachers who raise test scores will doubtless be rewarded, but at what cost?
In pursuit of the noblest of ends- raising the quality of teaching in the classroom which in turn will drive up pupil performance- there is surely a danger of failing to properly educate students and to prepare them for life.
The focus on the importance of high quality teaching is crucial but how you achieve this with fairness, transparency, clear lines of accountability and without creating perverse incentives ,which skew the system in the wrong direction, seems to me the biggest and most pressing challenge that reformers now face.