No system can exceed the quality of its teachers
No system can exceed the quality of its teachers is a familiar mantra-and who could disagree with it? “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and principals, since student learning is ultimately the product of what goes on in classrooms” PISA 2009: What Makes a School Successful?
The available evidence suggests that the main driver of the variation in student learning at school is indeed the quality of the teachers. The 2007 McKinsey report ‘ How the world’s best-performing Schools systems come out on top’, found that ‘ All the different schools systems that have improved significantly have done so primarily because they have produced a system that is more effective in doing three things:
getting more talented people to become teachers;
developing these teachers into better instructors,;
and ensuring that these instructors deliver consistently for every child in the system.
Andrew Hargreaves and Michael Fullan argue in their book Professional Capital that if teachers work together, and collaborate effectively, and there is sustained investment in ‘social capital’ the sum can, in fact, be greater than the individual parts. So, the system can exceed the quality of the individual teachers within that system. Creative, committed, skilled, capable people working collaboratively, providing mutual support within a team structure underpinned by a team philosophy, can lead to real coherence and improved outcomes from the synergy that will result. If you focus on the development of individual teachers, in isolation, you will get poor returns. If you ensure that teachers work together, benefiting from each other’s experience and skills you will generate better returns . This certainly makes sense and is a no brainer. A good sporting team will frequently perform better than the sum of the individuals involved, if well coached, well led, and well managed.
Hargreaves and Fullan wrote ‘Social capital can raise individual human capital—a good team, school, or system lifts everyone. But, as we often see in sports, higher individual human capital—a few brilliant stars—does not necessarily improve the overall team’.
But here is the other side of the coin. Arguably, given the quality of people going into the teaching profession ,which we are often reminded (Wilshaw/Gove et al) is better now than it has ever been, the current school system doesn’t actually add up to the sum of the parts. Otherwise, surely, our system would not be stagnating (See Pisa 2009 and 2012) So, the quality of the individual teachers in it is , perhaps, actually better than the system is, overall. If this is the case, then using the Hargreaves/Fullan argument, the social capital element needs a lot more work and investment and we need to focus much more on identifying and spreading high qualify collaborative practice within schools and between schools.