A familiar refrain I hear among educators is this: “When it comes to learning, we can all agree that the most important factor is the teacher.” Teaching is widely considered the most important when it comes to the education of children. Parents often believe it. Politicians say it. Ed Reformers buy it. Badass Teachers agree -- as illustrated below.
But it’s not factual.
Richard Rothstein from the Economic Policy Institute points out what research tells us:
"It has become conventional in educational policy discussion to assert that “research shows” that “teachers are the most important influence on student achievement.” There is, in fact, no serious research that shows any such thing. The assertion results from a careless glide from “teachers being the most important influence,” to teachers being the most important influence overall. But because school effects on average levels of achievement are smaller than the effects of families and communities, even if teachers were the largest school effect, they would not be a very big portion of the overall effect.
A child with an average teacher who comes from a literate, economically secure, and stable family environment will, on average, have better achievement than a child with a superior teacher but with none of these contextual advantages. Of course, some children from improverished backgrounds will outperform typical children from literate and secure backgrounds, but on average, the extent to which children come to school prepared to take advantage of what school has to offer is a more important predictor than what even the best school can.
The reality is that when it comes to learning the teacher is not the most important factor...we don’t “all agree.” It doesn’t matter how many presentations, decisions, and discussions are based on that premise.
The student is.
If the answer to any of the below questions is “no,” even a great teacher will find their job difficult.
- Does the student care about the topic?
- Does the student want to learn the topic?
- Is the teacher’s style compatible with how the student learns best?
- Is the student developmentally ready to learn the topic?
- Is the student fluent in the language of the topic that is being taught?
- Does the student live with his or her parents?
- Does the student live above the poverty line?
- Is the student healthy?
When we fail to value the answers to those questions, we fail our students.
If we were honest about the reality -- that the student is the most important factor when it comes to learning -- we could actually improve student learning. Here’s how.
We would stop...
We would start...
telling students what to care about.
asking students what they care about.
We would learn students passions, talents, and interests and provide opportunities to meet them.
telling students what to learn.
creating classes they want to take.
Classes would have to be so high quality and appealing that students chose to take them.
empowering students to select teachers.
Student and parent voice would matter and teacher reputation would play a large factor.
teaching based on age.
teaching based on developmental readiness.
Students would be pre-assessed and provided with scaffolding, remediation, or advancement based on readiness.
teaching in a language students don’t understand.
providing resources in a language the student can access while they learned the new language.
Language barriers will cease to be confused with learning barriers. Materials would need to be accessible in multiple languages.
treating all children as though they were equally supported at home.
making accommodations as necessitated by the situation.
Support the whole child and understand and support primary needs.
pretending poverty doesn’t matter.
acknowledging the poverty crises in our country.
Understand that student achievement is often a poverty issue and work to alleviate poverty as they do in high-performing countries.
accepting sick children in classroom settings.
ensure children receive adequate medical care.
Other children would be at less risk for catching illness. Services are provided for sick children on site.
We neither need nor want to remove or diminish the role of the teacher in the "in-school" success of students. We do however need to amplify the role and the voice of students and their families. Learning doesn’t take place unless it is consensual; a willingness on the part of the teacher and family: to listen, to respond, and to understand the significance of how all these factors influence students in the process.