A Significant Error That Policymakers Commit

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the imminent re-opening of schools in the next few months, I re-visit a post I published nearly a decade ago about a significant error that policymakers have committed repeatedly in actions taken about teachers, teaching, students, and learning. The current crisis offers officials and practitioners an opportunity to reconsider past thinking about schooling. 

As a result of inhabiting a different world than teachers, policymakers make a consequential error. They and a cadre of influentials confuse teacher quality with teaching quality, that is, the personal traits of teachers—dedicated, caring, gregarious, intellectually curious—produce student learning rather than the classroom and school settings.

Both are important, of course, but policymakers and their influential camp followers have accentuated personal traits far more than the organizational and social context in which teachers teach daily. So if students score low on tests, then who the teachers are, their personal traits, credentials, and attitudes come under close scrutiny, rather than the age-graded school, the regularities in daily practices that accompany this organization, neighborhood demography, workplace conditions, and resources that support teaching. The person overshadows the place.[i]

In attributing far more weight to individual teacher traits rather than seriously considering the situation in which teachers teach, policymakers (I include civic and business leaders) end up having a cramped view of teaching quality. Quality teaching is complex because an essential distinction is masked: the difference between “good” teaching and “successful” teaching. Both “good” and ” successful” teaching are necessary to reach the threshold of quality instruction and student learning. To lead us through the thicket of complexity, I lean on Gary Fenstermacher and Virginia Richardson’s analysis of quality teaching.[ii]

“Good” teaching is about the how and what of teaching. For example, the task of getting a child to understand the theory of evolution (or the Declaration of Independence or prime numbers) in a considerate and age-appropriate way consistent with best practices in the field is “good” teaching. “Successful” teaching, however, is about what the child learns. For example, getting the same child to write three paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate understanding of the theory of evolution or the Declaration of Independence is “successful” teaching. Ditto for a student able to show that she knows prime numbers by completing Eratosthenes Sieve. “Good” and “successful” teaching, then, are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other.

Does that last sentence mean that “good” teaching may not automatically lead to “successful” teaching? Yes, one does not necessarily produce the other. How can that be?

Fenstermacher and Richardson point out that learning, like teaching, can also be distinguished between “good” and “successful.” The above examples of student proficiency on the theory of evolution, the Declaration of Independence, and prime numbers demonstrate “successful” learning. “Good” learning, however, requires other factors to be in place. “Good” learning occurs when the student is willing to learn and puts forth effort, the student’s family, peers, and community support learning, the student has the place, time, and resources to learn, and, finally, “good” teaching.

In short, “good” teaching is one of four necessary components to “good” learning. In making this mistake, policymakers unintentionally snooker the public by squishing together ”good” teaching and “successful” learning. In doing so, policymakers erase three critical factors that are equally important in getting students to learn: the student’s own effort, support of family and peers, and the opportunity to learn in school. “No excuses” reformers (see above) glide over these other factors critical to learning. Current hoopla over paying teachers for their performance based on student test scores is an expression of this conflation of “good” teaching with “successful” learning and the ultimate deceiving of parents, voters, and students that “good” teaching naturally leads to “successful” learning.

Not only does this policymaker error about quality classroom instruction confuse the personal traits of the teacher with teaching, it also nurtures a heroic view of school improvement where superstars (e.g., Geoffrey Canada in “Waiting for Superman,” Jaime Escalante of “Stand and Deliver”, Erin Gruwell of “Freedom Writers”) labor day in and day out to get their students to ace AP Calculus tests and become accomplished writers and achieve in Harlem schools. Neither doctors, lawyers, soldiers, nor nuclear physicists can depend upon superstars among them to get their important work done every day. Nor should all teachers have to be heroic. Policymakers attributing quality far more to individual traits in teachers than to the context in which they teach leads to squishing “good” teaching with “successful” learning doing even further collateral damage to the profession by setting up the expectation that only heroes need apply.

By stripping away from “good” learning essential factors of students’ motivation, the contexts in which they live, and the opportunities they have to learn in school–federal, state, and district policymakers inadvertently twist the links between teaching and learning into a simpleminded formula thereby mis-educating the public they serve while encouraging a generation of idealistic newcomers to become classroom heroes who end up deserting schools in wholesale numbers within a few years because they come to understand that “good” teaching does not lead automatically to “successful” learning. Fenstermacher and Richardson help us parse “quality teaching” into distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching and learning while revealing clearly the error that policymakers have made and continue to do so.

[i] Mary Kennedy,”Attribution Error and the Quest for Teacher Quality,” Educational Researcher, 2010, 39(8), pp. 591-598.

[ii] Gary Fenstermacher and Virginia Richardson, “On Making Determinations of Quality in Teaching,” Teachers  College Record, 2005, 107, pp. 186-213.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

24 responses to “A Significant Error That Policymakers Commit

  1. Add to the simplification you identify Larry, the reality that “good” teaching is by definition extremely hard to deliver in bad schools where “good learning” is rare, and you have a spectacularly intransigent problem. (And I choose the schools epithet consciously to avoid the less helpful euphemisms.)

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  3. We really face the same problems over and over. Juran and Demings, in the 1950’s, demonstrated that when a good person is operating in a bad system, the system inevitably wins. We have to develop good systems if we want better results, and focusing on the individuals just diverts our efforts from where they will give the best results.

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  5. I am intrigued by your analysis which makes perfect sense in light of my experiences as a teacher, parent, and researcher. I’ve seen so many great teachers, and so many good, hardworking ones driven to frustration by the working conditions that exist in too many high-poverty schools; conditions designed to keep the majority of students or teachers there from ever reaching their full potential. Do you see any examples of schools/systems in our country that get those distinctions right?

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Renee, there have always been instances of such schools that upgrade teacher working conditions within the resources they have, form school-wide learning communities, and develop strong ties with students and parents. Such schools were among the Effective Schools in the 1980s and 1990s; they appeared among magnets and alternative schools in the 1990s; they exist among charters. But they are uncommon and too often do not persevere over time. Changes in principals and superintendents, demography,staff turnover, and other factors take their toll. It is hard work.

      • Not only are there schools that are able to produce relatively amazing results, there are teachers who amaze as well. But these are outliers, produced by a coming-together of multiple just-right factors. They aren’t scaleable, and are subject, as Larry points out, to weakening over time.

        Because poor and affluent schools are fundamentally different environments, the *teaching* needs to be fundamentally different. In a poor school, where student and family capital is low, different levels of resources are going to be required to support student learning. If we approach the problem as teachers would – through assessment and differentiation, issues of scalability and sustainability would be solved.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Eric, for your comment.

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  8. Doris Santoro

    Thank you for weighing in on the distinction between teacher quality and teaching quality. I argue that we also commit a fundamental attribution error when we focus solely teacher burnout (an individual problem) rather than teacher demoralization (a problem with the conditions of the practice). See “Good Teaching in Difficult Times: Demoralization in the Pursuit of Good Work.”

    • larrycuban

      I had read your piece for another project I am working on. Your point about focusing on teacher burnout as an individual problems without examining the working conditions within which teachers work is another instance of mis-attribution. Thanks for the comment.

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  15. Reblogged this on Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher and commented:
    A Larry Cuban blog post from May 2012 that shines a light on those in the ed reform movement who confuse teacher quality with teaching quality, and the mistaken belief that teacher quality, alone, determines whether students learn successfully or not.

    ‘In short, “good” teaching is one of four necessary components to “good” learning. In making this mistake, policymakers unintentionally snooker the public by squishing together ”good” teaching and “successful” learning. In doing so, policymakers erase three critical factors that are equally important in getting students to learn: the student’s own effort, support of family and peers, and the opportunity to learn in school. ‘

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