Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Building a Strong Teacher Work Force

Cheryl S. Williams's picture

I recently attended an information-rich meeting sponsored by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), at which Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the University of London, addressed the topic of Teacher Expertise: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How We Can Get More of It.  The results of Dr. Wiliam’s research are fascinating and important as we work collectively towards improving our public education system.  The first thing that came to mind after listening to his talk was the old humorous adage, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice, Practice, Practice.”

What Dr. Wiliam’s work has uncovered is that only investing in existing teachers produces enough improvement to result in the changes we need in our education system and that this is not happening systematically in most schools and districts…but that it could be.  As context for his research findings, he asserts that “What works?” is rarely the right question because everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere; in education, the right question is, “Under what conditions does this work?”

With graphs, charts, and an impressive list of research studies as back up, Dr. Wiliam illustrated the huge impact a talented teacher has on student learning and debunked the use of “value added” approaches to teacher evaluation/improvement.  He identified what distinguishes expert practitioners from others as the commitment to “deliberate practice,” which is defined as effortful activity that can be sustained only for a limited time each day and, while neither motivating nor enjoyable, instrumental in achieving further improvement in performance.

The implications for education systems of this work are huge and include that -

  • Pursuing a strategy of getting the “best and the brightest” into teaching is likely to fail
  • Most teachers are only beginning to scratch the surface of what they are capable of, given expertise research showing that most slow and actually stop improving after two or three years in the classroom
  • We need to persuade those with a real passion for working with young people to become teachers and to continue to improve as long as they stay in the job
  • There is no limit to what we can achieve if we support our teachers in the right way

To achieve this we need a commitment from teachers to the continual improvement of their practice and a focus on those things that make a difference to students.  As important is the commitment from school leaders to engineer effective learning environments for teachers that create expectations for continued improving of practice; keep the focus on the things that make a difference to students; provide the time, space, and support for innovation; and support risk-taking.

Too often the current group of self-proclaimed education “reformers” accuses schools and districts of paying too much attention to the needs of the adults in the system and not the students.  What Dr. Wiliam’s research confirms is that if we don’t pay attention to the continuous learning needs of the adults in the system, the students will suffer.

Photo Credit: LocalFitness.com.au [Attribution, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons