How effective can teachers be in affecting the achievement of the students they teach? This is a vital question as we confront educational inequality, and is especially vital for those children who, on the basis of the stats, are predicted to achieve lower in school. Specifically, in Aotearoa, this often describes kids from low-income backgrounds, those who are Māori or Pasifika, and kids with special education needs.
It is perhaps obvious, but definitely worth stating, that this inequality is a description of an average correlation between ‘groups’, and doesn’t describe all people from those groups. There are many people who, in the face of the predictions, are very successful – not in spite of, but because of, who they are. And, of course, it depends on how you define ‘success’ anyway, since one person’s aspiration may not be another’s.
Perhaps the saddest part of our society is when we stereotype children because of where they come from, the colour of their skin, how much their parents earn, or the label they have been given. We use these simplistic descriptions, which likely tell us nothing about that child, to define their worth, and set their direction for them. It also disguises the fact that it is not for us to define others and tell them who they are or how they should succeed in any case.
There is little doubt, and there is a wealth of evidence to support, that the biggest determinant of a child’s achievement in school is their background – including, their parents’ income, where they grow up, the family circumstance in which they are born etc. It is what children bring to school with them that predominantly determines their trajectory through school.
On this basis, it is safe to say that inequality in education has not been caused by teachers, or by schools. In fact, in Aotearoa New Zealand we are blessed with thousands of outstanding and dedicated teachers, working in a range of settings, and transforming the lives of thousands of children. Many of our schools, kura, early childhood centres and other education settings provide an excellent education for the children in their care.
We might go as far as to say that as long as we have inequality in society, we will always have inequality in education, regardless of how good our teachers or schools are. There are multiple and complex reasons for this, but at a basic level, to the extent that families have different amounts of resources, then the education that children will have will differ, disadvantaging some and advantaging others. There are many, much more complex reasons too, bound up with our moral norms as a society, what we expect from children, what we think education is for, and the implicit prejudices and biases that are embedded in the fabric of our society.
Notwithstanding all of this though, there is also evidence to show that schools can significantly affect a child’s achievement, and that the greatest in-school factor affecting a child’s achievement is their teachers. Although in education we spend a lot of time discussing other factors at play around schools, it is the effective teaching practice and relationships with teachers that has the greatest impact.
Like the complex reasons that cause inequality, the ways to solve these causes are very complex too. In fact, unless we recognise that the way to address the causes is complex, we are likely to radically over-simplify how we can address them – such as, as some do, by arguing that schools and teaching simply don’t matter so long as there is inequality beyond schools. There is a desperately sad determinism in that view, which condemns generations of young people, and deeply undervalues and disrespects the work of the past, existing, and future teaching profession.
Many reading this will agree with me that every teacher joins the profession committed to the best for their students. Through my career in education, as a teacher, in school leadership roles, and working with new and experienced teachers, I have seen many examples of individual and teams of teachers who are able to significantly and positively affect the lives of the children they work with.
This affect is not, and cannot sustainably be, ascribed to just individual ‘hero’ teachers either. No doubt there are exceptional individuals teaching, often in surprising and isolated places, across the system.
But to make a real difference, it is children having the benefit of consistently effective teachers every day, term after term, year after year, which will help maximise the potential of schools to address educational inequality.
Will that be enough to address the inequality that exists beyond the school gates? No – and teachers can’t be held responsible for that, as that is a responsibility we all hold. But we can make a meaningful difference by committing to support the teaching profession to make the biggest difference possible in school. We can also help new teachers to understand how these broader social issues affect what happens in their classroom, so that they can be responsive to their students in every aspect of their teaching practice.
Like the complexity of the causes of inequality, the answer to how we can help the teaching profession make the biggest possible difference in school is not simple. One way is to ensure that we continue to attract more and more great people into our profession; another is to retain great people in the profession; yet another is to help teachers to grow as teachers. Most importantly, we have to focus on what is going to ensure that children have an excellent teacher, every lesson, throughout their school career.
Committing to that doesn’t mean blaming teachers for what is beyond their control, but believing in the potential of what teaching can achieve, rather than what it can’t.