• Question: From your work, how much impact can a teacher really make on achievement? (I've recently read 1-14% of progress is due to the teacher, the remainder is genetic/upbringing/etc - is that right?)

    Asked by boysong1 to Yana, Mike, Kathryn, Jacob, Iroise, Emma, Alice on 28 Feb 2018.
    • Photo: Mike Hobbiss

      Mike Hobbiss answered on 28 Feb 2018:


      I would imagine that any figure for something like this could only really be an estimate (or even a guess?), given the fact that teacher influence will operate as a huge number of tiny effects on multiple variables rather than any one measurable contribution. I think all teachers (certainly in mainstream education settings) quite quickly realise that they are a very small cog in a very large and complex machine, but that this doesn’t make them unimportant!

      That said, we can measure other contributions to school outcomes more easily, and they sometimes seem to explain results so well that, as you suggest, there isn’t a huge amount left that can be explained by teacher excellence.

      For example, the Education Datalab recently published a report, summarised here https://schoolsweek.co.uk/schools-in-the-north-need-more-resources-but-not-because-theyre-less-effective/amp/?__twitter_impression=true, which investigated the differences in attainment at Progress 8 between disadvantaged pupils in London and the North of England (given the reputation that London schools have developed for being a huge success story over the last decade or so). They found that:

      “school and pupil characteristics account for around 85 per cent of the difference between disadvantaged pupils in London and the north. Much of the remaining 15 per cent is because pupils in London are taking more subjects that count in Attainment 8, but this has been closing over recent years.”

      This is only trying to explain the differences between the settings (not the effectiveness of the school overall), but it does show that, at most, only a tiny amount of this difference is down to teaching quality.

    • Photo: Kathryn Asbury

      Kathryn Asbury answered on 26 Mar 2018:


      Thanks for an interesting question but, I’m afraid, there isn’t a straightforward answer and a lot remains unknown. This is partly because the answer depends on whether we are thinking about individual differences or means. If we are looking at means (average performance) then good teaching can certainly be influential i.e. a high quality teacher can make a difference to how well, on average, his or her class performs (and how much progress pupils make). If we are looking at individual differences and, in particular, narrowing the gap between the highest and lowest achievers though, then we know that genetic factors explain a substantial proportion of the differences between pupils (50-70% depending on age, subject etc). However, an interesting US study (Taylor et al., 2010) found that reading was more heritable when children were in classes taught by high quality teachers. This suggests that if all pupils had equally good teachers then average reading performance would go up but more of the differences between pupils in how well they could read would be explained by genetic factors. A new paper came out just last week showing that pupil characteristics rather than school or teacher quality explain the difference in performance at GCSE between selective/private and non-selective schools (Smith-Woolley et al., 2018). The fact is that genetic and environmental factors interact with each other in ways that are not yet fully understood and in ways that are subject to change over time. The most important message is that finding that genetic factors explain individual differences absolutely does not undermine the need for good teachers and does not suggest that their work does not make a difference.

      Smith-Woolley, E., Pingault, J. B., Selzam, S., Rimfeld, K., Krapohl, E., von Stumm, S., … & Kovas, Y. (2018). Differences in exam performance between pupils attending selective and non-selective schools mirror the genetic differences between them. npj Science of Learning.

      Taylor, J., Roehrig, A. D., Hensler, B. S., Connor, C. M., & Schatschneider, C. (2010). Teacher quality moderates the genetic effects on early reading. Science, 328(5977), 512-514.

    • Photo: Emma Meaburn

      Emma Meaburn answered on 27 Mar 2018:


      Kathryn’s answer is very thorough, and the science here is robust. I’m not sure where the value of 1-14% is from (do you have the paper to hand?), but I would add that to my mind ~14% is a remarkably large influence given all other factors that we also know to be important (genetic factors, SES, home environments, etc).

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