The DeHavilland Blog

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Teachers are NOT the most important thing

These days, every eye in K-12 education is focused on the goal of creating better teachers. Arne Duncan says it’s the single biggest factor in improving student outcomes; the Gates Foundation, and many other charitable groups, are investing millions into figuring out what makes a teacher effective and how we can create more of that going forward.

At the risk of being labeled a blasphemer, I would argue that focusing on teacher effectiveness is not the best use of our efforts.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that good teachers are really, really important. I know it from reviewing macro data; I know it from micro data (seeing how some really great teachers work with my two sons).

But while it’s important, it is not the most important issue in education, and it’s also not the easiest issue to fix. Not by a long shot.

To explain why, let’s use the idea of a soldier as an example. There’s no question that a better soldier – better trained, better physical condition, more experience, etc. – will fare better than one who lacks those features.

But now take that great soldier and, instead of an M-16 rifle, give him a feather duster. And for good measure, let’s send him up the wrong hill.

No matter how good that soldier is, what are his chances of success without the right tools and the right mission?

That’s what we’re facing in K-12 education. No matter how good we make teachers, if we don’t give them the right tools, and if we don’t point them at the right outcomes, they will not produce the results we need as a society.

So let’s have that conversation about desired outcomes; right now, the outcomes we’re focused on aren’t relevant to the lives students are going to be living once they leave our doors, and that needs to change. And once we know what we’re trying to accomplish, let’s focus on the tools that can actually get us there.

Until we do those things, let’s not worry as much about maxing out teacher quality – it’s not the most important thing.


  • Brett -- great post! Before I share it with some teachers, what tools do you believe teachers need today to help students get what they should out of education. Are you talking about raw data, better curriculum, smaller class sizes, better technology? just curious ---

    Thanks --


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:39 PM  

  • Hi Elizabeth,

    That's actually a really hard question to answer - so much of this is out of teachers' hands. If they were to try to singlehandedly reshape their curricula to better serve students' postsecondary transitions, they'd basically get punished for it - a lot of what's needed is not codified into current standards or assessments. For example, if a social studies or math teacher wanted to focus more on financial literacy (a practical and needed skill), they'd do so at the expense of what they're already supposed to teach and be hurt by their poor results.

    It's not just a matter of adding new content; it's culling as well. As it is, we're already trying to stuff five pounds of flour into a three pound bag.

    What this really needs is a change in leadership (so often overlooked in this discussion) and community dialogue - teachers may be able to help get that started, but I wouldn't recommend they make unilateral changes in the classroom without some support.

    By Blogger Brett Pawlowski, at 7:40 AM  

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