Can the Quality of the System Exceed the Quality of Its Teachers?

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: February 22nd 2015

Teacher with kidsI have great respect for all who devote their lives and experiences to the quality of our education system. Whether we agree or not with perspectives, each viewpoint deserves respect especially if they are considered carefully and with all the best intentions. Just because I agree or disagree with someone does not mean I do not have respect for their work and thoughts.

At the recent BC Education Forum, Andreas Schleicher stated “the quality of the system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” Andreas is Director at the OECD, which is one of the world’s leading authorities on education and analyzing the quality of educational systems, however, it is with his point that I wish to disagree.

First, to suggest that one can analyze the “quality” of our teachers as a whole is a difficult task. I can only speak to my lived experiences and they are this:

  • Teachers care deeply about the success of their students
  • Teachers are well trained and devote their professional development to the betterment of practice
  • Teachers take every possible opportunity they can to connect with others and to talk about their practice – to share, to learn, and to improve
  • Teachers are passionate about teaching and are consummate advocates for learning conditions and for learners
  • Teachers work hard – very hard

Despite those strengths, I actually believe that the system can become more powerful than the sum of its parts. Why? Here are the other things I have observed:

  • While individual teachers do great work, that work is amplified when teachers are provided time to collaborate with each other
  • I have seen many instances when one teacher’s expertise has become much stronger by the sharing with others
  • I have seen, outside of teaching, many examples where a collaborative, powerful team has overcome and bested a group of powerful individuals. The notion that we are indeed more than the sum of our parts is at the heart of our beliefs about learning and collaboration.
  • Isolation of individuals within their practice, not matter how skilled they are, does not reveal all that they can be – teachers thrive in collaboration and I personally believe that they suffer when they are isolated.

I do not profess to know everything about teaching and learning. Teachers are more than capable of speaking for themselves. In my work however, I watch, I learn, and I listen. Recently, I asked over 5000 teachers to invite me to their classrooms to see innovation in action. I have received an overwhelming number of invitations and what I know from my simple observations is that teachers do great work, every Workshopsingle day. They work hard, they care and you could not find more ardent advocates for public education than those who work with our students every day.

It should come as no surprise that in the analysis of education globally, BC is routinely at or near the top of the list. We have a system that is, while open to debate, second to none. To say that our system cannot exceed the quality of our teachers must suggest that our teachers are among the best in the world. To this, I agree.

However, I disagree that the system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. I believe that a system that is supported and permits the purposeful collaboration of teachers can indeed exceed the capabilities of the individuals within. No matter what the qualities of individuals, when the capabilities of those individuals are connected through networks of support or learning, then the power of the individuals is multiplied. This we have seen in practice many times.

This week I have spent time in several different settings with groups of teachers talking about practice. I have heard about guided reading, about explorations taking risks with Minecraft in the classroom, about maker spaces and about new ways to explore how digital portfolios are changing practice and bringing parents closer to the classroom in meaningful and supportive ways. In each case, teachers share practice with colleagues, and they leave the room knowing more about the practice of their colleagues and they reflect on their own work. I have little doubt that the time for collaboration makes the system better as a whole.

There  is a whole separate thread embedded in Andreas’ quote which implies that we can measure (or quantify?) the quality of a teacher as an isolated entity. We cannot forget that this in itself is a very debatable assertion. I have seen outstanding teachers with complex class composition do amazing work but I remain unconvinced as to how one would quantify that work as a direct correlation to teacher quality. I have seen teachers get remarkable student achievement results on standardized tests simply by not having all kids write or by not having all kids accepted into these classes. I absolutely believe that there is a place for analysis of the performance of a system overall, but we should be extremely guarded to extrapolate that analysis down to individual performance and we should challenge any attempt to do so as fundamentally flawed.

school busI once wrote an article challenging Jim Collins’ assertion from Good to Great about getting the right people on the bus. My point was that when I got on this bus, it already was full and I didn’t get to pick those who got on and got off. Our work isn’t about getting the right people on the bus, it’s about getting the most of the people already on the bus. This is exactly my point about teacher quality. Teachers don’t generally get to say who gets on and who gets off, we entrust them to get the most out of each student in the class and they don’t just eject a troubled few. Public education takes all comers. That is our work and we embrace it.  We celebrate our diversity. We are champions for equity and for equality.

What structures have I seen for improving the quality of our system beyond the already world class capabilities of our teachers? Three simple things: time, time, time. The top answer whenever I ask teachers what they need is “time.” Time to collaborate, time to work with peer mentors and partners, time to evaluate new tools and resources and time for the million other things that need to be done in a complex and dynamic world that is the classroom. Focused, purposeful, collaborative time with the goal of raising the bar on practice.

I do believe we have an outstanding system and as I am intrigued by Andreas’ assertion I do believe that the quality of our system is indeed a reflection of the quality of our teachers. Since we are among the best in the world Hands and puzzle on gray background. Teamwork solving a puzzleby OECD measures then I assume that Andreas would suggest we have among the best teachers in the world. To this I agree. However I believe that we are better than the sum of our parts. I believe that the time provided for teachers to collaborate on powerful strategies and structures designed to meet the needs of all learners does make us better than our individual strengths. I think that if we look closely at the work in British Columbia, we will see an extensive array of networks of collaboration that continually support and refine practice.

This week I spent time in one particular table of teachers discussing promising practices in digital portfolios. The conversation at the table was simply gobsmacking. The ways in which teachers are Measuring passing timeusing new tools to support and extend their practice is amazing. I also watched a choral performance where an adjudicator stood and gave the most riveting example of specific, descriptive feedback to a group of students and their teacher. The only technology that seemed to be at hand was the deeply embedded expertise of musical theory in practice. To watch the dialogue between the adjudicator and the teacher was one of the most powerful formative assessment conversations I have ever heard. That conversation alone caused three teachers right in front of me to talk about the power of formative assessment and what an example this was. Again, as I watch practice and look to support, the power of networks of teachers seems like the natural scaffold that gets us closer to where we want to be.

I will continue to think about Andreas’ idea and I will continue to muse about what it means. While I do so, I remain absolutely confident that the very gift we could give to teachers to raise the quality of their practice is the one thing that, in my experience, they ask for more than any other and that is – time.


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