Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

12.17.14Teaching Quality: That’s the Word For It

I’m really glad that Teacher Quality has become the focus of so much of our discussion about making schools better, pretty much across all sectors and types of schools (and even across nations).  That’s pretty much as it should be: It’s pretty clear that quality of teaching is the thing that matters and the way to make an educational institution great is to fill it with great people who are constantly seeking to be even better and who feel honored and valued.  As far as I can tell, that’s how great schools get great results.

But I want to propose a tweak to the language we use to describe the goal of building our schools around great teaching.  Teaching Quality is a much better phrase than Teacher Quality.  Teacher Quality suggests that what we seek is a fixed quantity, inherent in the people we hire.  Certainly there’s no small amount of talent and skill and knowledge that people bring to the job.  It’s a huge part of the equation. But so is a focus on craft.  On the things that talented people choose to do or not do when they get up in front of a room or plan to do as they plan their lessons.  No matter how good someone is, their goal should always be to refine their craft a little more and the test of an organization lies in its ability to honor people by making them better.  Quality people who are allowed to struggle—because they don’t have the support of their leaders or they don’t know how to solve predictable problems like off task behavior or disengaged students, or who ask all of their brilliant questions orally and forget to ask students to write—are as much a part of the struggle as bringing quality people into the field.

Don’t get me wrong. I am with NCTQ and others: teaching is challenging work and training to be a teacher should be challenging too.  Not everyone should be able to become a teacher. But what really matters, what our end goal should be, is to improve the quality of what great people do in their classrooms.  That means studying top performers to learn from them and building a culture of always a little better.  Maybe that’s implicit in the phrase Teacher Quality… but to me it’s more explicit in Teaching Quality, so I vote to use that term. (And by the way to continue focusing on it, whatever we call it, for more than a year or so before some other new idea becomes chic.)


2 Responses to “Teaching Quality: That’s the Word For It”

  1. Dylan Wiliam
    December 19, 2014 at 5:44 am

    The quality of instruction that students experience obviously depends on a number of variables, such as the quality of the curriculum, the amount of time teachers have to prepare instruction, the kinds of resources (both human and material) available, the number of students in a class, and so on. However it is clear from the available research evidence that the skills of the individual teacher also matter a great deal. Teacher quality matters.

    It is also important to realize that it doesn’t make sense to define teacher quality as fixed because almost all teachers improve rapidly in their first few years of practice, so teacher quality is obviously not a fixed quantity. The question is what we can do to accelerate, and maintain that improvement.

    However, the real reason not to bury the term “teacher quality” just yet is that, in terms of how much students learn, right now, teacher quality matters more than teaching quality. By this I mean that students in a classroom with a good teacher learn more than students in a classroom where, by observation, we judge the quality of teaching as good. To make this concrete, an increase of one standard deviation in teaching quality increases the rate at which students learn by around 10 to 15% while an increase of one standard deviation in teacher quality increases the rate of student learning by 50%. This could be due to the fact that our ability to measure good teaching right now is less developed than our ability to identify good teachers, but so what? I want to distinguish between teacher quality and teaching quality to draw attention to the fact that teachers need time and support to prepare high quality instruction. And I want to continue to use the term teacher quality to describe the current skills and capabilities of a teacher. Most teachers improve during their first two or three years, and then slow, or even stop, improving after that. The research on expertise indicates that ten years of deliberate practice is required to attain expertise in most areas, which suggests that there is no limit to what our teachers can achieve if we just support them in the right way.

    • Doug Lemov
      December 19, 2014 at 9:57 pm

      Thanks, Dylan. Happy and honored to count you as a reader of the blog I propose to respond merely by agreeing with you- That teacher quality is what matters but that teacher quality is a malleable resource not a fixed one. In other words, Teaching Quality to me just reminds us that teachers aren’t only what they are when we bring them into our organizations or into the profession but what we make of them. It’s not so much whether we get good people but what we make of them–whether we give them great curriculum, as you allude to, and help them plan to teach it well. Perhaps this is all parsing words but some of the conversations about improving schools suggest that “attracting better people” is, by itself, a solution, which I think isn’t quite enough.

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