Teachers, know thine impact

The great divide in education reform today, in my view, exists between those who believe that teachers have the greatest influence on student achievement and those who believe that outside influences drive academic achievement. I believe both. I realize that my impact in the classroom as a teacher should be my first and foremost focus, but to simply say that “teachers matter” is to trivialize the role that teachers play in education. My purpose is to narrow the impact of teachers down to a more exacting statement: “The mindset of teachers matter.”

Rarely are teachers asked to question and interrogate their belief systems. Professional development offerings for teachers focus on specific strategies and approaches to the profession, but they seldom, if ever, focus on the underlying values and beliefs that are needed to implement those strategies and approaches with fidelity. One way to do this is to have teachers envision what type of school they want to teach in.

In his presentations on professional learning communities, Educator Rick Dufour presents a scenario that challenges teachers to question what type of school they believe in:

  • The Darwin School of Natural Selection: We believe all students can learn–based on their ability. Student aptitude is fixed and not subject to influence by the teacher. Therefore we track students because this gives them the best chance to master skills and content.
  • The Pontius Pilate School: We believe that students can learn as long as they take advantage of the opportunity we give them to learn. We instruct and then wash our hands of the students.
  • Chicago Cubs School: We believe that all students can learn . . . something, and we will help students by providing a warm and fuzzy environment. Since we have minimal impact on a student’s effort and innate ability, we will create an environment that focuses on their sense of well-being and self-esteem.
  • Henry Higgins School: We believe that all students can and must learn at relatively high levels of achievement, and our responsibility is to work with each student until high standards have been achieved.

Each of the scenarios presents a mindset and set of values. Do students have a fixed ability? Is a teacher’s job to identify or develop talent? Can teachers be successful if students do not come into the class motivated to learn?  Are the students the variable or is the teacher?

Research is clear that what teachers do matters. But to what extent? Educational researcher John Hattie, who has done extensive meta analysis research with what works in the classroom, looked at 900 meta-analyses, which involved locating a specific outcome, student achievement, and identifying an influence on that outcome. This work involved more than 52,637 studies and 240 million students, all of which looked at the influence of some program, policy, or innovation on academic achievement in school. The higher the effect size the greater the impact on student achievement. For example an effect size of .73 relates to a 27% increase in student achievement. A list of 150 influences on student achievement included some of the following effect sizes. Notice the rankings of what a teacher can affect as opposed to outside influences.

Rank                                                                                       Effect Size

1. Self-reported grades/Student expectations                1.44

4. Providing formative evaluation                                        0.90

9. Teacher clarity                                                                      0.75

12. Student teacher relationships                                        0.72

17. Vocabulary programs                                                       0.67

25. Not labeling students                                                       0.61

The top 38 influences are all influences that educators control. Below is a partial list of those influences that, for the most part, are not in the control of the teacher.

39. Pre-term birth weight                                                       0.53

45. Socio-economic status                                                    0.52

51. Parent involvement                                                           0.49

56. Motivation                                                                            0.48

88. Ethnicity                                                                              0.32

131. Ability grouping                                                               0.12

I want to be clear and state effects outside of a teacher’s control do matter, and we need to be aware of these. But what about those factors at the top of the list that teachers can control?

It is clear to me that a teacher’s beliefs have a tremendous effect on what they believe they can and cannot do. If teachers believe in the Darwin School, then they will continue to see selection of academic achievement based on income levels. If teachers are Pontius Pilot advocates, then they can sleep at night with a clear conscience. If a teacher’s classroom is analogous to the “friendly confines of Wrigley Field,” then teachers will rarely, if ever, see academic success.

Research alone doesn’t change a teacher’s core value system or beliefs. Time and time again I have presented these findings to my colleagues only to have them question the methodology or simply dismiss it, as it doesn’t match their reality. It is true that all educators, from administrators to district personnel, have to take responsibility and implement those top 38 influences that Hattie’s research highlights. But if we truly want to impact student achievement in a positive way, we have to first challenge teachers’ beliefs about their impact on education and students. Professional development that focuses on the most recent innovations and policies won’t take hold unless teachers know their influence in the classroom. And this will only happen when
teachers and schools challenge some of their core values.