The first step on a journey to excellence?

The dilemma “Would you sacrifice occasionally excellent for consistently good?”  has stimulated a fascinating variety of responses.

The motivation for creating this dilemma was a conversation I’d had with someone who had said that they would tolerate weak teaching as long as it was counter-balanced by excellent teaching in the same school.

I think it’s fair to say that when you present this dilemma to teachers they invariably believe that weak teachers can be improved by getting them to learn from, and work with excellent teachers – through a form of osmosis between one teacher to another. However, when you speak to parents the answer is almost always the reverse – “I don’t want my child taught by that teacher”.

Everything in Scottish Education is geared up to promote excellence; Journey to Excellence; A Curriculum for Excellence; Building Excellence; Centres of Excellence; Teachers for Excellence; Targeting Excellence and just Excellence

The Scottish Government summarise this as follows:

Scottish education is well-regarded and respected all over the world. But there is no room for complacency – every school should be excellent.

I am personally committed to this goal but I’d like to dig a little deeper into what we mean by excellence and complacency.

Richard Elmore, in his book School Reform from Inside Out: Policy, Practice and Performance suggests that most reform strategies are based on what he describes as the “true believers” who are already motivated and whose commitment is galvanised by concentrating them into small groups who reinforce each other – the bad news, as Elmore points out, is that these small groups of self-selected reformers apparently seldom influence their peers.

From his analysis of research Elmore suggest that the proportion of teachers who are committted to ambitious and challenging practice is roughly 25% of the population and that this % can decline considerably if the climate for reform is weak. There are two issues which jump out for me from Elmore’s work – relying upon self-selecting groups of teachers is not conducive to success; and the critical mass of a school will not be affected if you only rely on the already committed.

Elmore goes on to assert that:

“Every school can point to its energetic, engaged, and effective teachers; many students can recall at least one teacher who inspired them in engagement in learning and love of knowledge. We regularly honor and deify these pedagigical geniuses. But these exceptions prove the rule”.

For me this can sometimes be the source of complacency, i.e. we do have exceptional and excellent teachers in all our schools but they are perhaps there by default as opposed to any consequence of the training or development which can successfully influence other less exceptional teachers.

There exists significant research to demonstrate the impact that good teaching makes on children’s achievement.  To summarise some of the findings of such research it is generally accepted that if a child has a weak teacher for one year it can take up to 18 months for them to make up the deficit. If a child has a weak teacher for two years in a row it can take up to three years to recover and if the child has a weak teacher for three years in a row the child might never fully recover the ground that has been lost.

Primary school or Elementary school  Head Teachers around the world, regardless of whether they are aware if this research,  often try to ensure that children are not exposed to weak teachers for more than one year at any one time. They will therefore place a weak teacher between two stronger teachers to ensure that their negative impact is lessened -see Sanders and Rivers, Using student progress to evaluate teachers and Does teacher quality matter? for more information.

In the secondary school environment Head Teachers and other managers will often place weak teachers with lower ability groups in the knowledge that parents of such children are less likely to complain about the teacher. 

My point here is that all too often in education – worldwide – we conspire to “protect” children from the impact of a weak teacher. Perhaps the first step we need to take on our “Journey to Excellence” is to work together to ensure that no teacher could ever be descibed as being weak.

I believe that such a goal would have a much more transformational effect on children’s education than the ambitious, yet probably unrealistic goal, that everyone should be excellent. Speaking as a parent I would comfortably describe any school as being “excellent” if there were to be no teacher in the school who I did not want to teach my child.

2 thoughts on “The first step on a journey to excellence?

  1. Don
    In response to the parent’s view of “I don’t want my child to be taught by that teacher” I did not think this as a parent. Instead I wondered, as the year progressed, what monitoring and ongoing evaluation of the teaching process was in place within the school, what steps might be going on behind the scenes to strenghten this individual’s understanding of teaching and learning. I slowly realised that the solution from the school was, as you describe happens in many cases, to follow the teacher in question with a much stronger experience the following year . I also began to realise that this had been the case for many years. My question would be why?

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