Teachers matter!

Yesterday, Sawchuk referred to a research brief published by the National Education Writers Association (EWA) entitled What Studies Say About Teacher Effectiveness. His brief summation was without opinion, so I thought I’d add mine to what is to be my first post to Edukwest.

Sawchuk, who wrote the brief and is an EWA member, states in his blog post that his key points are based on solid research of the evidence (bold added to show emphasis).  This phrase made me want to investigate further into the type of data that were gathered to conduct such as study.  Focusing primarily on the first research question (Are teachers the most important factor affecting student achievement?), the following are some specific points that emerged from the research brief.

  1. Nearly all of the studies cited here rely on the use of student test scores as a proxy for learning…standardized tests measure important aspects of student learning…
  2. The brief draws on a review of over 40 specific research studies or research syntheses, as well as interviews with scholars who have used primarily quantitative research methods to analyze the relationships between teachers, their attributes, and student achievement.
  3. Findings: Research has shown that the variation in student achievement is predominantly a product of individual and family background characteristics. Of the school factors that have been isolated for study, teachers are probably the most important determinants of how students will perform on standardized tests. – Doesn’t this point undermine the use of standardized tests for measuring student learning?
  4. This brief was made possible in part by support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

So, the experts suggest that measuring student learning (to a degree) can occur through administering standardized tests to students and that teachers can be a determinant in how well students perform on such tests, but that the variation of student achievement comes mainly from the learner and family background? Note: this research was funded in part by the Gates foundation which has been criticized in the past for relying solely on standardized tests as a means for evaluating schools, students, teachers, etc.

Why not instead invest in research that looks at learner attributes and family background and what other educational stakeholders (e.g., teachers, other students, family, administrators, and community leaders) can do to contribute to the myriad of factors that directly and indirectly influence higher student achievement.  Research how teachers can create the discourse among all educational stakeholders that fosters a more productive learning ecosystem around each learner.  Teachers matter because they have the opportunity to connect content, ideas, and individuals in ways that research that is based strictly on cause-and-effect relationships cannot measure.  Yes, this type of research is more complex, but researching human behavior – like student achievement – is a complex endeavor that requires not only quantitative inferences but also qualitative data that explicitly describes, explains, and offers deep, interpretive insight into the contextual learning process.

What do you think?  In today’s digital age, are teachers the most important factor affecting student achievement?  Are teachers more or less of a factor if they are teaching a distance course (100% online)?


Benjamin Stewart holds a master’s degree in education, curriculum and instruction: technology and is pursuing a doctoral degree in educational leadership. He is an EFL teacher educator and researcher and is interested in how PLNs impact teaching practices and belief systems. Benjamin is founder of EduQuiki where he contributes to open educational resources, open courseware, and open research. His work in Edukwest is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

  • George

    Empirically speaking, from my own experience, teachers are both the boon and bane of education.  I can point to specific leaps of cognitive and quantitative advances in my knowledge base with one common factor… a teacher, leader, mentor or coach. 

    Unfortunately I can also definitively point to times when I was a dismal failure at acquiring the knowledge that was afforded me.  Truthfully, I have come to hate the term “teacher” it has become a non-descriptive title awarded by some agency or authoritative system which has so diluted or misapplied such an honorable calling that I refuse to let anyone call me by that title.

    I do not wish to digress into the circumstances nor permutations that might qualify for your research.  Living it and contemplating the shortcomings has lead me to a point in my life that I totally eschew the academic branding and evaluation of educational systems.  I know, I tend to throw the baby out with the wash-water, but I am on a mission.  That mission is to positively effect the outcomes of so many frustrated students.  I care not what studies say, I wish to see what works for me and my students.

    Don’t give me a self fulfilling dogmatic like: “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”  How would the rest of the respondents answer… “If you can’t read this, thank a teacher also!”

    • ChinaMike

      Never did like that bumper sticker.

    • Thanks for sharing George.  But regarding assessment, what type of evidence does a teacher, facilitator, mentor, coach, tutor, etc. need in order to make a judgment on whether a student has learned?  You pick the subject (language learning perhaps?). 🙂 

      Again, the context here is assessment in schools and how do we (society) create an assessment framework that prevents students from graduating from high school or college without the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to become a global member of society?

  • ChinaMike

    My guess is that effort is the single best predictor of success. If you could identify the forces that either contributed to or diminished a student’s effort over a range of key tasks you would be able to identify the prime factors for success. My guess is that student effort trumps I.Q., family background, and the quality of teachers.

    • Great points ChinaMike.  Should we define and develop the “key tasks” through standardized tests only?  Or should schools also be involved as well? 

      • ChinaMike

        I doubt “effort” is a singularity. It is probably composed of many things. I think for example that “willpower” is one. Who knows, “curiosity and arousal” might be among the complexity that we simplify with the word effort. Obviously a precise definition is needed. I know it when I see it but I expect it is also something that can’t be seen, even to trained eyes like mine.

        How do we seed effort? How do we support it? How do we strengthen it? How do we stop undermining it?

        Tough research questions all. But more important than what makes a good teacher in my estimation.

  • Chris brannigan

    On the importance of testing as a method of improving learning outcomes, here in the UK we have been running a real life large scale experiment. The schools in Wales dropped out of student testing and schools measurement league tables 10 years ago. The results thus far are not good. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-13911537

    • In your opinion Chris, do you think it’s an all-or-nothing thing?  In other words, is the “answer” either relying only on standardized tests or doing away with them completely?  Or is there some middle ground?