A Significant Error in Policy Thinking

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

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, become accomplished writers, and achieve academically 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 together “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 leadership, school reform policies

3 responses to “A Significant Error in Policy Thinking

  1. Appreciate this post Larry — at the risk of sounding dense, I wonder whether you see this call for the “good” teachers to return to schools this fall tacitly fails to neglect the wider learning environments which too predicates success? I thought too of Ted Sizer’s work with Horace’s Compromise in which students generally agree to behave in exchange for their schools agreeing not to push them too much…. the difficulty though now is that no (or very few) persons are really academically challenging these home-bound students, and remote learning is widely making children more isolated (and their parents exasperated). Certainly doubling-down on more robust remote learning seems to be the immediate answer, but I am also unsure whether U.S. teachers, in general, are any more up for robust remote Fall instruction than actually returning to their physical classrooms and simply hoping for the best?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the questions and comments, Quinn. To your first question, the answer is yes. Few policymakers in their eagerness to resume schooling after remote learning will look at the distinctions that I and others have made. The jerry-built compromise of distance learning hastily conceived and put into practice varies tremendously across a school, across a district, and across the nation. As for “robust remote” learning, it is a hope but without in-place help for teachers who want to get better at it, I think it will be a long time coming. And getting back to face-to-face teaching in the fall, well, we will all hope for the best.

  2. Pingback: This Week’s “Round-Up” Of Useful Posts & Articles On Ed Policy Issues - NWS100

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