Withishness or How do you Predict the Quality of a Teacher?

Image by Joost Swarte
Image by Joost Swarte

For most of the years that I worked as a teacher at the Open Schoolgemeenschap Bijlmer I was a part time coach for new teachers. The goal was to try and help them be a better educator in a new school. I always had the feeling that my input had very little effect: some teachers seemed to get it intuitively, others would never learn. Malcom Gladwell, author of the highly enjoyable The Tipping Point and Blink has written an article for the New Yorker titled Most Likely to Succeed, How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?. It partially addresses this question.

He introduces the topic by explaining how difficult it is for scouts to predict which successful college football quarterbacks will be successful in the National Football League (NFL). These scouts have developed different methodologies to select players for the draft, but they haven’t hit on a great predictor yet.

There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they how they’ll do once they are hired. So how do we know how to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching.

The quality of teachers is highly variable. There is a big difference between the best teachers and bad teachers:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effect are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile.

Bob Pianta is doing research by taping teachers as they explain things and interact with a class. They then closely watch these tapes and try to extract the competencies of a great teacher.

Educational-reform efforts typically start with a push for higher standards for teachers – that is, for the academic and cognitive requirements for entering the profession to be as stiff as possible. But after you’ve watched Pianta’s tapes, and seen how complex the elements of effective teaching are, this emphasis on book smarts suddenly seems peculiar. [..]
A group of researchers [..] investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master’s degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom. Test scores, graduate degrees and certifications – as much as they appear related to teaching prowess – turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.

Koumin did research into desist behaviour (stopping some kind of misbehaviour). He found that teachers need to have an ability which he calls “withisness” which he defines as:

“[..] a teacher’s communicating to the children by her actual behavior (rather than by verbally announcing: ‘I know what’s going on’) that she knows what the children are doing, or has the proverbial ‘eyes in the back of her head’.” It stands to reason that to be a great teacher you have to have withishness. But how do you know whether someone has withisness until she stands up in front of a classroom of twenty-five wiggly Janes, Lucys, Johns, and Roberts and tries to impose order?

In the field of financial-advice, companies have the same problem: no one knows in advance who will become a high performing financial adviser. Recruiters in that field typically interview a thousand people (keeping the gates wide open) and pick out about 1 in 20. These recruits will go through an extensive training camp in which they need to obtain a minimum number of clients and have a minimum number of meetings in a certain amount of time. If they manage this, then they are hired.

This example suggest that for the teaching profession:

[..] we shouldn’t be raising the standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with what we care about. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree – and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent of [the financial-advice field’s] training camp. It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated.

Is this research valuable for the Dutch policy makers in trying to solve our looming educational crisis? I have to admit I haven’t followed Dutch educational policy very closely but I can imagine a couple of things that are relevant to this topic:

  • The Dutch currently have a shortage of teachers. This shortage will get bigger in the next couple of years. Schools have trouble finding teachers for certain topics, let alone find great teachers. Lowering the barrier for HBO and WO educated people to be let into the teaching profession might become a necessity. It is good to know that this will not necessarily be a bad thing for the quality of the teaching (my years as a coach confirm this for me).
  • How do you ethically arrange for affordable apprenticeships in schools? When the budding financial advisers fail, they only incur costs to the company that was trying to hire them. When an apprentice teacher fails, a whole group of children will have had a bad educational experience. We need a framework in which we can safely try and find out who is a great teacher and who isn’t.
  • Gladwell’s article refers to teacher salaries. These are currently extremely rigid. I used to say that I could predict what I would earn in 15 years time. If we want to rate teachers based on their actual performance, then we should also try and go to a system which rewards excellent performance in some way. The introduction of “scale 11”  in the Netherlands has not had this effect. Which school in the Netherlands will be the first to pay their teachers according to performance? I would love to see that happen!