Do teachers matter?

There has been uproar on Twitter following David Didau’s recent blog posts that question the effect that families and schools have on children. I suspect that many teachers go into teaching in order to make a difference. So are they misguided? I don’t think so.

Genetic fatalism

Didau argues that the effect of a person’s genes seems to matter more than their parents or schooling and he cites supporting data. I am not an expert in this area but it is worth pointing out that the studies used to draw such conclusions are correlational and, for obvious ethical reasons, cannot be experimentally replicated. Often these studies rely on twins or adopted children and so the subjects are not always representative of the wider population. For instance, many jurisdictions have quite stringent requirements on who can adopt. Another objection we might raise relates to the Flynn effect; the large rise in population scores on standardised IQ tests that has taken place over time. If it is genes that predominantly affect IQ then have our genes somehow improved?

The fact that variation in outcomes is predicted more by genes than schools can be explained if schools tend to have a relatively uniform effect. Schools could be contributing to outcomes but in a fairly homogeneous way. There might be variation within that, perhaps down to different teachers, but these would average out. We might also expect to see a few outliers where quality teaching is concentrated, or where a particularly effective set of policies are in place. And we do seem to see such outliers. This would imply that through the right kind of professional development, experimentation or by borrowing practices from others, we could potentially improve individual schools in the system. That would be a good thing.

We need to distinguish here between what is and what potentially could be.

It is also worth mentioning that effects that seem small at a population level can be huge for individuals. Lots of positive and negative individual effects would average out to zero but could be quite profound for the individuals concerned. This may be as a result of which teachers are assigned to which students or it could relate to other factors such as encouragement or opportunity.

Economic fatalism

Economic fatalism is the flip side of genetic fatalism and is promoted by a quite different section of the education community. This is the argument that poverty is far more important than teachers or curriculum and so teachers should focus on fixing poverty and inequality through political action.

I have some sympathy with this view and I vote for and support political parties that promise action on poverty and inequality. However, teachers have more direct influence on what happens in schools than they do on government policy. The fact that poverty matters to educational outcomes does not mean that schools don’t matter. Why can’t we work on both?

Interestingly, the argument is very similar to the genetic argument except that the cause is identified as nurture rather than nature. This is both contradictory to, and consistent with, genetic fatalism because correlational research simply cannot determine causes. What we know for sure is that kids from deprived backgrounds who have parents with poor educational outcomes don’t do as well as kids from wealthier backgrounds with more educationally successful parents. Despite what anyone claims, we don’t know exactly why.

Again, the fact that school effects are fairly uniform does not mean that they have to be. If an entire education system adopts balanced literacy then we would expect the effect of that to be fairly uniform. However, this does not mean that adopting the more effective systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) approach would fail to improve matters. SSP has the potential to reduce the number of kids with reading difficulties and so this might be a real and significant improvement for the most vulnerable students. Arguing that we shouldn’t consider SSP until we fix poverty is an abrogation of responsibility.


I am not a fatalist. I choose to be an optimist. I am optimistic about human potential and the possibility of progress. I am politically progressive even as I recognise educational progressivism as misconceived. We each have just a short time to try and make a positive difference and I am not going to spend it worrying about whether I can.



8 Comments on “Do teachers matter?”

  1. “We each have just a short time to try and make a positive difference and I am not going to spend it worrying about whether I can.”

    Yes, I am already making a positive difference in teaching disengaged students on a one on one basis. I have widen the circle by starting my blog 7 years ago. And now, writing articles in LinkedIn which is having a positive difference. Thank you, I too will not waste time worrying whether I can make a difference – just do it. As I have said elsewhere ‘Make it happen and not let it happen.’

  2. Mike says:

    I’m reminded of Richie Benaud’s aphorism about cricket captaincy, which went something like this: “Captaincy is 10% skill and 90% luck, but for heaven’s sake don’t go into it without that 10%.” Even if the effect of good teaching is relatively small in demographic terms, it is still very much worthwhile.

    I noticed that the usual offenceobots descended on David Didau after those two rather abstruse posts. Wonderful how one is instantly accused of supporting/condoning eugenics/racism these days if one gives the slightest hint that nature trumps nurture in some contexts.

  3. David F says:

    Hi Greg…FYI, just saw this on the Twitter thing, re: nurture argument…

  4. Chester Draws says:

    Students sure don’t think that teaching doesn’t matter. At my school, at least, they make it very clear that some teachers help them learn more than others. Even to the extent of picking what subject they do based on teachers.

  5. Jo says:

    How does this work with research such as that undertaken by the London School of Economics in relation to systematic synthetic phonics. This suggests that, while children from higher SES backgrounds will eventually learn to read irrespective of how they are taught, there are long term benefits for those from vulnerable low SES backgrounds of a SSP program – despite the program finishing at age 7 the benefits remain significant at age 11.

    It may be that genetics and SES mean that children from advantaged/privileged backgrounds will thrive irrespective of the quality of teaching, but for children from disadvantaged backgrounds (whether genetic and/or socio economic) the quality of teaching matters enormously.

    • Chester Draws says:

      This suggests that, while children from higher SES backgrounds will eventually learn to read …

      The key word there is “eventually”.

      Kids from advantaged backgrounds may always thrive, but they will do less well than they might if they are taught badly.

      I have seen a strand of teachers who seem to believe that it’s OK if the hard working and clever kids have a shitty time at school, because they are privileged so they will get by anyway. (It’s an argument you see laid out explicitly when discussing streaming — the top kids do well anyway, so they should be discounted when it comes to streaming.) It is no more fair to have the best kids struggle than it is to have the less good kids struggle.

      The quality of teaching matters for all kids.

  6. There is a basic statistical misunderstanding in a lot of the stuff being argued about teacher effects versus school effects versus genetic effects on achievement. Most studies take the variation in student achievement, and try to apportion it to various sources. While this approach makes sense in many ways, it can also be misleading. If every teacher became as bad as the worst teacher, then the teacher effect would be zero (because the teacher you get has no impact on your achievement). But the teacher effect would also be zero if every teacher became as good as the very best teacher (because again the teacher you get has no impact on your achievement). As I show in chapter 5 of “Leadership for teacher learning” the research on expertise shows that most teachers could be a lot more effective than they are now. If they did, the ‘teacher effect’ might get smaller (because the variation in teacher quality would be smaller), but students would have far higher achievement.

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