The Quest for Teacher Quality

There has been an increasing tendency in schools in England to hold teachers to account for the outcomes achieved by their classes. This has become the predominant means by which schools attempt to improve examination results. The thinking seems to be “We want to improve results. Results are dependent on the quality of teaching. We need to hold teachers to account for improving their teaching (i.e. results)”.

There are many flaws in this logic, including making ‘results’ the goal rather than ‘quality education’, and confusing ‘better teaching’ with ‘better exam results’.

There is also an incorrect assumption, which is that exam results are largely a consequence of the quality of teaching provided by an individual teacher. This assumption ignores the situational factors which can affect performance.

In a paper by Mary M. Kennedy titled ‘Attribution Error and the Quest for Teacher Quality’, the tendency to underestimate situational factors is given a name:

“Social psychologists are persuaded that we are all guilty of overestimating the influence of personal characteristics on behaviour and underestimating the influence of the situation itself. In fact, this tendency is so widespread that it has been called the fundamental attribution error (Glibert & Malone, 1995; Humphrey, 1985; Ross, 1977)”

In education, Kennedy argues that:

“we have veered too far toward the attribution of teaching quality to the characteristics of teachers themselves, and are overlooking situational factors that may have a strong bearing on the quality of the teaching practice we see.”

If we accept this contention, we would need to change our assumptions about the factors which lead students to succeed or fail from this:


Teacher characteristics (leads to) Teaching practices (leads to) Student learning

to this:

Teacher characteristics

                                                  (both lead to) Teaching practices (leads to) Student learning

Situation characteristics


Another way of conceptualising the influence on outcomes is this:

situational factors


Drawing on Kennedy’s paper and adding my own thoughts, the situational factors which may affect outcomes include:

Layer Factors
External Assessment reliability

Qualifications available

The defined curriculum

Student home backgrounds

Reform clutter

School Availability/maintenance of equipment

Work distractions

Behavioural norms

Quality of supporting systems

Requirements made of teachers (e.g. assessment, marking, homework)

Attendance levels

Allocated curriculum time

Requiring teachers to teach out-of-subject

Department Availability and quality of text books


Peer support


Class Room

Group mix

Quality of teaching received previously

General attainment levels of students in the class


It is common for schools to benchmark a class’s outcomes against:

  • National ‘expectations’ (e.g. FFT or P8)
  • The school’s outcomes (e.g. P8 score)
  • Other departments
  • Classes within the same subject
  • What those students achieved in their other subjects

Through benchmarking, it is possible to assert that a class’s results were good/bad/okay. It is also possible, through confidence testing and monitoring results over time, to get a sense of whether these outcomes were ‘normal’ or whether they fall outside of what might reasonably be expected.

What is much more difficult is to be able to conclude whether the results, good or bad, were as a result of teaching quality or situational factors. Even if we can see that the same students did better in other subjects, or that another class doing the same qualification achieved better, it is hard to say with certainty that this is because of variances in the quality of teaching.

There is some statistical evidence to suggest that the exam results a teacher achieves with their classes are more dependent on the department and school they work in than their effectiveness as a teacher. Good outcomes tend to be clustered in certain departments and poor outcomes in others. It is unlikely that the one department happens to contain lots of ‘better teachers’ than the other, and more likely that there are situational factors which affect the impact of the teacher’s teaching.

Equally, teachers in good schools tend to get better outcomes for their students than those in weaker schools. We may assume that the weaker school is full of less effective teachers, but what if the teachers are less effective because of the situation they are in?

In summary, I would sound two cautionary notes:

  1. When we look at exam results we need to be careful we don’t make the fundamental attribution error and ascribe all of the success/failure to the quality of the teacher/teaching. We should actively consider the effect of situational factors and come to a qualitative judgement on what caused the outcomes, and to what extent these causes were within or outside of the teacher’s control.

A considered approach will ensure we don’t make simplistic links between exam results and teacher competence.

  1. When we set about improving outcomes we should not fixate on teacher quality. Although the quality of teaching is a very important factor in improving outcomes, there are many other factors which will create an environment in which teachers have more impact. For example:
    1. Reducing tasks that distract teachers from teaching
    2. Improving standards of pupil behaviour
    3. Workforce planning to maximise the number of lessons taught by subject specialists
    4. Improving attendance levels
    5. Grouping/setting students
    6. Investing in resources and text books
    7. Maintaining equipment
    8. Improving the quality of leadership

We need to make sure that it is as easy as possible for teachers to teach.


Before we ‘step up’ our efforts to hold teachers to account where outcomes are not acceptable, we must consider carefully what the evidence actually is for whether teaching quality is the issue.


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