Can teacher effectiveness ever be taught?

In the latest episode of the Tes Podagogy podcast, Professor Simon Burgess explains some surprising findings on teacher effectiveness - and makes a radical proposal for the future of the profession

Shocked-looking teacher, writing in notebook

The stereotype of the naturally brilliant teacher - the charmer who leans on the edge of the desk, maybe in a leather jacket, while the students gaze up in awe - is an old one, and an annoying one. 

But, according to a new paper on teacher effectiveness, there could be some truth to the idea of innate ability in educators. 

Simon Burgess is a professor of economics at the University of Bristol, and author of Understanding teacher effectiveness to raise pupil attainment, in which he explores the findings of studies from around the world on the subject. 

And they make for potentially surprising reading. Whether you’ve been a teacher for three years, 13 years or 33 years, Burgess says, your effectiveness is unlikely to have changed much.  

Speaking on the latest edition of the Tes Podagogy podcast, he says: “It's really strange. In any other profession - if you're a pilot or a plumber or a barrister or whatever - you would surely imagine you will get better. So it's kind of surprising that that's not true for teachers.”

He is quick to acknowledge that the concept of measuring effectiveness is a fraught one, resulting in the somewhat blunt approach taken by researchers.

“We are taking a very narrow view of what teachers do, but we aim to measure that very precisely,” he explains. “Clearly teachers do lots of things - they provide pastoral care, they take sports, all sorts of things - but presumably the main thing we want teachers to do is to raise pupil achievement. So we're focusing on that. 

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“We have some sense of how well the pupils are doing when they arrive in the class of a teacher, and we have a test score when they leave the class. We measure the progress that they make between those two test scores, and average that for all of the pupils so the teacher takes, and that's our measure of how effective a teacher is. 

“Lots of studies have worked through this now...the consensus is that it is reliable. It's not particularly biassed. It's noisy for sure, but it's stable enough to be meaningful.”

So experience is not the predictor of effectiveness that we might expect - and the same is true of the qualifications a teacher has, Burgess explains. 

“Maybe even more surprisingly, the general background qualifications of a teacher - whether they have a degree, which university did they go to, how well did they do in their A-levels - is not correlated with whether they're an effective teacher or not. Whether you have a master's degree in teaching is also not related to whether you're a good teacher (which raises all kinds of questions about what's going on in those courses). 

“Again, this is not one isolated result, this is a result that's been replicated in different countries, many times.”

Recruiting at random

All of which makes it extremely hard for schools to recruit the most effective teachers, he explains, as you’re “more or less taking a random draw from the pool of potential teachers”. It’s only once a member of staff has been in place for a while that you “find out what you’ve got”. 

In light of this knowledge, he continues, it could be argued that we have our approach to training and recruitment “upside down”.

A more effective approach, he muses, would be to offer long probationary periods of a year or two or even three, after which point, successful teachers would be offered something like a tenured job.  

“If we were to do something like that, teaching would suddenly become quite a risky profession, in the sense that you would stand quite a high chance of not making it,” he says.

“We're going to still want lots of teachers, and we have a teacher shortage at the moment. The implication of that is we’d need to do something to offset that to make it attractive - and the obvious thing is much higher pay for the teachers who make it. 

“It would look very different to what we have now, but the evidence suggests that what we have now is counterproductive in different ways.” 

Listen for more…

On the podcast, Burgess also explores what the research has to say about CPD, the power of pressure-free observations and why teaching would benefit from becoming an open-door profession

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Zofia Niemtus
Zofia Niemtus
Zofia Niemtus is deputy commissioning editor for Tes (Maternity cover)
Find me on Twitter @Zofcha

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