Evidence that teachers make a difference

31st August 2007 at 01:00
Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unimited

Going back to school after the summer holidays no doubt evokes a gamut of emotions from teachers and pupils, from dread to anticipation. A teacher can only guess what pupils think and feel about learning in their classroom, and it's easy to guess wrongly.

My travels during the summer took me to Boston and to a seminar by Ronald Ferguson, a senior research assistant at Harvard University, whom one person described to me as a "national treasure".

Ferguson is an economist-turned-educationist who studies student achievement gaps. In 2002, he set up a project to measure classroom conditions and student engagement by race and gender, through surveying teacher and student beliefs and feelings about school. The findings provide a mass of data that can be used by districts, schools and individual teachers to inform school improvement and raise and narrow achievement gaps.

Ferguson, like Alan McLean in Scotland, surveyed a huge range of literature on motivation and came up with remarkably similar findings. He identifies five challenges that people face whenever they work together to accomplish something.

The first two are relevant to my theme back to school. They are that people need "a successful beginning" in which they feel optimistic about working together and they need "to be able to cope effectively with early power struggles", balancing leadership control and the freedom of participants.

One activity that Ferguson runs is: "How to have a good start to the school year". He runs it with teachers and pupils. When he does this, students tell teachers things that most of them have never heard before for example, "wanting to know a bit more about their teachers as people". Pupils go on to share their thoughts with their teachers about aspects of working together, including behaviour management and classroom methodology and how teachers help them to understand and encourage them to learn.

Most of the work that Ferguson and his team do involves helping students and teachers use detailed confidential questionnaires to investigate patterns related to gaps in performance. The questionnaires are designed for a range of age groups and track changes over a period of time.

One finding was that even the disaffected youngsters, when asked at the start of the year about how optimistic they were about achieving their goals, scored more than 90 per cent; by Christmas, this had plummeted to below 45 per cent.

Ferguson correlates student responses to statements such as: "I like coming to school", "I sometimes get into trouble in school" and "I have done my best quality work at school all year round" to discover how strongly they are predicted by certain "classroom learning conditions", "home learning conditions" and "personal dispositions". He found that teacher support was the strongest predictor, followed closely by a sense of efficacy above home learning conditions.

It seems (surprise, surprise) that teachers in the same school do make a difference. And these can be stunning: from 10 per cent in one class saying they enjoy coming to school to 100 per cent down the corridor.

But support isn't enough. One of Fergu-son's conclusions is that good classrooms are not only high on "help" but high on "perfectionism" or "press". This is what Alan McLean has emphasised in Scotland, but he uses the words support and challenge.

Given these findings, I'd like to end with a message to the inspectorate for the new session: you've got it half right. How about dropping the word "pace" from school reports this year and talking about "support" and "challenge" instead?

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