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Posted at 11:25 AM ET, 10/18/2010

Willingham: Should teachers be so important?

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

By Daniel Willingham
Teacher quality is the most important in-school factor that influences kids’ schooling. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.

Let’s be clear about what we’re talking about. There are characteristics of a child (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity), characteristics of a family (e.g., income, education level), characteristics of a school (e.g., leadership quality, funding, teacher quality), and characteristics of a neighborhood (e.g., average income, crime rate) and any of these characteristics might be associated with how much a child learns.

Within the group of school characteristics, the teacher is the most important, at least among the characteristics that we’ve thought to measure.

That’s important because it’s pretty hard to change characteristics of the child, the family or the neighborhood, whereas educators and politicians can more readily change characteristics of schools.

One response to the apparent primacy of teachers is to seek better and better teachers. Many school reform models work on this principle: fire the unsatisfactory teachers and try to hire better ones.

I’m no economist, but this approach sounds expensive.

Another approach is to try to change the fact that teachers are so important. If teaching were more consistent, characteristics of individual teachers wouldn’t matter so much.

For example, we might try to make teaching more consistent by improving teacher preparation. Right now, teacher preparation just doesn’t matter very much. Most teachers say that it didn’t help them, and there is scant evidence that the type of training teachers receive has much impact on their teaching.

Naturally, if teacher training has little impact, and teachers are left to their own devices, characteristics of the teacher will end up mattering a lot to teacher quality.

Another way to make teacher quality more consistent is to use a curriculum, so that lesson content is more consistent across teachers. The down side of this tactic is that it hampers the creativity of terrific teachers.

I once raised that objection with a principal whose district had a fairly set curriculum. Her response: “With my really good teachers, if they bend the curriculum, I kind of look the other way. But I don’t look the other way with my struggling teachers. For them, it’s a safety net.”

It could be that both or neither of these ideas, if pursued in any detail would prove workable.

But alternatives should at least be considered.

Teachers are the most important in-school factor; we should not automatically assume that’s a desirable state of affairs.

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By Valerie Strauss  | October 18, 2010; 11:25 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  daniel willingham, education, school reform, schools, student achievement, teachers  
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efavorite -- take note. This mapping of factors provides the key and the "meeting ground" for a compromise in approach.

Gray will act on this basis very soon.

Teachers who would deny their in-school importance in role and responsibility are on thin ice.

Posted by: axolotl | October 18, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Teachers are important, but I am glad to see that curriculum is brought up here. Good teachers, a good curriculum and supportive, competent leadership in schools can make all the difference.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 18, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

There is a huge basket of reports that repute to show that advanced degrees and experience do not enhance teacher effectiveness. I sometimes wonder what planet these folks are from. Naturally, they do not enhance effectiveness that is measured as specific data points. In my view someday all that sort of stuff will be taught by computer or android anyway. What "effective" human teachers do, mostly by example, is teach other humans how to approach life and specific problems of life in a human way, and the probability of ever developing a computer or android that can accomplish this task is essentially zero. With this in mind then, I would say knowledge of subject, years of experience, advanced degrees, foreign travel, tragedy, joy, failure, success, love, humor, etc are typical imperative experiences of any great teacher. The fact that we have some huge group of supposedly educated people attempting to determine how many math and reading data points will fit on the head of a pin, and at the same time proposing that human education and experience are not important for effective teaching is almost beyond belief.

Posted by: bpeterson1931 | October 18, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse


You say:

"The fact that we have some huge group of supposedly educated people attempting to determine how many math and reading data points will fit on the head of a pin, and at the same time proposing that human education and experience are not important for effective teaching is almost beyond belief."

It is really strange and utterly irresponsible. I am glad that you noticed and commented. To me, this is the most bizarre case that the supposed reformers make, that the better educated and more experienced teachers are the least competent.

It is a lot like the "Emperor's New Clothes" story and I find it hard to believe so many are falling for this. Maybe it has to do with our over estimation of youthfulness as a culture.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 18, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

I agree that the question of how much importance teachers should have in the lives of students is important to consider and discuss. Unfortunately, I don't think people need to worry that teachers may have as much influence as they once had - in terms of values, particularly.

How many students are being raised by the values and interpretations of society by awful music and television? Just clicking through the hundreds of channels will show a huge percentage of shows dedicated to "Real Housewives of......"(and they are all dressed in highly sexualized outfits), Murders a la carte, Reality 'Out there' shows, the horror genre - usually horrors perpetrated on females or teenagers - Shopping Ad Nauseum, Extreme Makeovers, questionable News presentations and the Wisdom(?) of various celebrities......

Then there's the Internet, the fashionista influence, the limited music on radio (another mafia?)......

It's difficult to see how teachers' importance - and influence - can be worried about now, especially with all of the negative ADULT factions criticizing the profession - and Golly Gee, teaching is actually a profession that has more integrity than most.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | October 18, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

bpeterson and celestun -- I agree with both of you. With me it's common-sense based, not research-based. Even if there is not a direct correlation between rising test scores and advanced education, the idea of discounting advanced education among educators still seems laughable.

I suspect it's all about money -- for the edu-consultants who develop the materials and present the seminars that really DO help teachers (according to the consultants).

If the reformers are so convinced that advanced degrees don't help teachers teach, then they better stop offering TFA teachers a big tuition - break on the master's degrees they get during their two-year teaching stint.

It's also common sense to me that teachers are the most important in-school factor in education, because teachers are the human beings who are closest to the children. And until/unless evolution changes to the point that children don't require human contact in order to thrive, close human relationships will have a strong impact on everything they do.

Of course teachers need support too and can be stymied by other in-school factors such as supplies, equipment, etc.

Posted by: efavorite | October 18, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Posted by celestun100: "To me, this is the most bizarre case that the supposed reformers make, that the better educated and more experienced teachers are the least competent."

The problem is that "better educated" doesn't always actually mean "better!" I worked in a school in Louisiana that served a very low-income population, and many of the teachers there were from the same community. In many ways I think that is great since they could relate to the students, but at the same time, it was really scary because you had teachers who had gone through that crappy system and were now leading it and doing an equally crappy job as their predecessors before them. As the saying goes, "You cannot give what you do not have."

Plus, even though many of them held Masters and PhDs, they were from sketchy online programs (not that all online programs are sketchy, but these definitely were) and in my opinion offered little value to their performance in the classroom. For example, I was on a team with an English teacher who had been teaching for almost 20 years, liked to brag about her two degrees, and yet there were at least 5 words on her word-wall that were misspelled, I overheard her teaching her students that irony was "something that don't make sense in a story and you know that it don't make sense," and she had never had a majority of her students pass the state test. Everyone knew she was a bad teacher, but a) she was the principal's cousin, and b) she had tenure, so the likelihood of ever getting rid of her was zero.

I wish she was the exception to the rule, but unfortunately I met many teachers just like her--and not just down in Louisiana, but all across the country! Both of my parents are educators and have been for the last 35 years, and they both bemoan the incompetence that plagues education.

Teaching is a noble profession. It's possibly the toughest job in the world, and you will constantly be fighting against issues like poverty, bad parenting, and negative societal influences. However, that can't be an excuse.

I think we should make entry into the teaching profession much more difficult. Just like entry into medical school or law school, entry into ed programs should be rigorous and based on academic and cognitive ability! Then, we would be pulling teachers from our top percentiles and not the bottom 25% like we currently do. That of course won't solve everything that's wrong with education, but it certainly wouldn't hurt!

Posted by: reformisnotabadword | October 18, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

efavorite: Just a clarification. As I understand it, TFA teachers don't necessarily receive tuition breaks. They receive money (about $9,000 if they complete at least two years in the program) from the government that they can put towards existing student loans. To be deemed "highly qualified" by the state, they (and all teachers) have to be working towards their certification/higher education degree in education. I doubt many of them would even enroll in those Masters programs otherwise.

Don't get me wrong. I have my issues with TFA, but let's be fair in our accusations. No need to spread un-truths.

Posted by: reformisnotabadword | October 18, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Enjoyed this train of thought along with the comments. But can't say I am entirely on board(I am a teacher after all). I always feel self serving when I suggest my ideas about teaching to people which is really kind of sad. It took me awhile to hone my craft and no doubt curriculum is one way to help guide and build minimal competency in teachers and students. I hope I am still improving and have never been able to complete a more advanced indeed better educated does not always mean better. Better for me was through experience.

I "know" I am a good teacher than when I was younger and I do indeed feel confined by all the standards, benchmarks, and requirements. I hate watching teachable moments slip by knowing I can't afford to slow down too much. I understand the public's desire and need for these standards. But I know how to teach and when I work with student teachers(or am asked for that matter) I am reminded that is a very difficult thing to articulate. If Mr. Willingham is looking for a common sense answer to his question about should teachers be so important ...I'll keep it simple. "yes."

I think celestun100 hit it on the head and with a lot fewer words.

Posted by: fishncville | October 18, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

I agree that some courses are not worth taking for educators or for anyone else. I also cringe as I remember a few teachers who didn't know anything other than educational jargon that they misused to pretend they were caught up on the latest trends.

When I said "better educated" I really meant that there are a majority of experienced teachers who constantly try to improve. Many of these teachers have Master's Degrees and beyond. I am not suggesting that every course they have taken are good ones. But, I do think it is important for teachers to keep learning, if for no other reason than to remember what it is like to learn something new, so that they can be more effective.

I think you are actually arguing for more education, not less. If we get students from the top percentiles into teaching preparation programs wouldn't they continue to take courses? Or are they just smart enough already? What will happen to them when new reforms come out? Will they have the opportunity to learn?

Also, why would anyone from the top percentiles go into a profession that discourages its workers from getting higher degrees?

Usually, if you are smart you enjoy taking courses or at least learning more in informal ways about your profession and about other things as well. Why would the most intelligent people want to be associated with a profession that suggests that it is useless to continue to educate oneself? (As the manifesto published last week suggested)

Posted by: celestun100 | October 18, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse


Who thinks reform is a bad word, those who don't support Michelle Rhee?

Is the "reformisnotabadword" meant to criticize those who don't go with Michelle Rhee's brand of reform?

I'm just curious, since it seems so many people have attacked those who don't agree with Rhee as being against reform. I'm wondering if you are of that opinion, or if your moniker exists for another reason.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 18, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse


I agree with you. I think all the negative stuff on the internet and in the media are influencing kids more than teachers are.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 18, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

More claptrap from/about academia. Look at results teachers produce. You won't find any correlation with degrees, according to the weight of research. I also like the reference in one comment to online degree mills producing fodder for teachers to get an MA or PhD. Wonder how many lite degrees we are paying for.

Posted by: axolotl | October 18, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

to reformisnotabadword -

Here are two referenced sources regarding TFA providing tuition breaks. One is a recent article about TFA and the other is directly from the TFA website:

“In St. Louis, as in many districts, TFA has a relationship with area universities so that corps members can get an education master’s during their TFA stint. The tuition is paid in part by the $4,725 annual educational award that members get through TFA’s affiliation with AmeriCorps, the federally funded national community service program.”

“Teach For America established reduced tuition partnerships with these universities [in NY city] to make sure the program costs are financially feasible for corps members. Currently, most corps members use their annual AmeriCorps education award ($4,725 per year) to cover some or all of the certification program costs. These awards are distributed after corps members’ first and second years of teaching. Due to their higher tuition costs, Fordham University and Bank Street College are optional programs for corps members.”

Posted by: efavorite | October 18, 2010 6:49 PM | Report abuse

Here's another reference:

■Tuition and Fees

Tuition for the TFA 2010-2012 cohort at Johns Hopkins will be $506/per credit for the 2010-2012 course sequence. Once off the cohort sequence, tuition increases may apply. The application fee and semester registration fees are waived for TFA participants. A comprehensive chart of tuition costs will be available during the University Partnership Presentation during Induction or you can e-mail to request it now.

You can find many more by googling - Teach for America Tuition reimbursement -

Posted by: efavorite | October 18, 2010 7:00 PM | Report abuse


There are bad seeds in every profession. I'm sure we have all heard of the lawyer or the doctor who screwed up somewhere. I recently read about a doctor in my own neighborhood who erroneously misdiagnosed a patient. Sadly the patient began chemotherapy before the misdiagnosis could be fixed. I'm sure this doctor passed his rigorous tests, though. And I personally have several anecdotes with doctors and lawyers that are very similar to your own experience with teachers in Louisiana.

In addition, making teacher preparatory entrance exams more rigorous or picking only the brightest will not work either. Some teachers are simply great because they are and it has nothing to do with their academic intelligence. A perfect example of this could be Einstein. There is no doubt that he had a revolutionary mind. However, judging from his peers and the students taking his classes, he was a terrible teacher (read Issacson's or Pais's biography).

What makes a good teacher is a complex assortment of various ingredients. I personally wish I knew the perfect mixture, but I don't. I know some of the ingredients but not all. One of those ingredients that I do know about, for instance, is a life-long love for education or professional improvement.

I have to say that I enjoyed bpeterson1931 and celestun100 posts about teachers, advanced degrees, and continued education. Anytime I hear someone use the anti-professional education argument, like axolotl does here,it gives me pause. I do not know if the research supports it as axolotl suggests, but I would never go to doctors or lawyers who fail to continue their education in their field of study. And I would never want my child to have an academic teacher who did not value--live and breathe--life-long education.

Posted by: DHume1 | October 18, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

I read one study that said that evidence regarding advanced degrees/ courses having an impact on student achievement was inconclusive at best. The reason is that it depends entirely on the courses taken. I can honestly say that I've taken courses as part of a degree program that had no impact on my teaching. On the other hand, 5 years ago I went through a 30 credit graduate program in a very specific methodology related to my content area. It literally changed my life in terms of my teaching. The difference in what my students have been able to learn is evident. It was an intense program and simply the best thing I've ever done professionally. And yes--it moved me up a pay lane too. That wasn't the reason for enrolling in the program however. Teachers take classes for a multitude of reasons--though typically because they see a specific need.

Posted by: musiclady | October 18, 2010 8:23 PM | Report abuse

Imagine trying to attract the best and the brightest to a field which discourages them from continuing their education.

Imagine inquisitive students asking their teachers why they only have a bachelor's degree and the teachers responding that because advanced education hasn't been proven to lift student achievement, school districts don't support increased education for teachers -- that if students value being highly educated, they should go into a field other than education.


Posted by: efavorite | October 18, 2010 10:50 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Willingham, the 128 page paper titled "Educating school teachers" linked in your post does not start very well. Let me quote a paragraph from somewhere at p. 12:

"Industrial societies focus on achieving common processes and information societies seek common outcomes. Reflecting this change, the focus of schooling has shifted from teaching to learning—to the skills and knowledge students must master, rather than the skills and knowledge teachers must teach. This is not a rhetorical difference."

I'm reluctant to read the rest of the paper, for fear of what other dodgy things I may find further down.

Posted by: iubica2 | October 19, 2010 5:38 PM | Report abuse

I'm reading on from the same report, "Educating school teachers", authored by a former dean of a nationally famous education school, and I am shaking my head. Here are two paragraphs at p. 12:

"The emphasis on learning outcomes mirrors this change. The states now
set minimum acceptable achievement levels, the highest in history, that students must attain, and mandate testing regimens to assess whether students are actually meeting state standards. Teachers must ensure that their students meet those standards and demonstrate mastery on the appropriate exams.

"The fact that all students are expected to achieve these outcomes means that drop-outs, once viewed as the cost of doing business in schools, can no longer be tolerated. The lowskilled jobs once available to them have moved abroad. So teachers must now be able to educate every child in the class to achieve the same learning outcomes at a time in which the student body has changed economically, racially, geographically, linguistically, and academically. "

Here is a breakdown of two paragraphs at p. 12:

"The emphasis on learning outcomes mirrors this change."

This is referring to the 'information societies' that allegedly seek 'common outcomes'.

"The states now set minimum acceptable achievement levels, the highest in history, that students must attain, and mandate testing regimens to assess whether students are actually meeting state standards. Teachers must ensure that their students meet those standards and demonstrate mastery on the appropriate exams."

All correct here; note however that the schools, the parents and the students themselves also are part of the equation.

"The fact that all students are expected to achieve these outcomes means that drop-outs, once viewed as the cost of doing business in schools, can no longer be tolerated."

This is rhetorical. Drop-outs were not tolerated in the past either.

"The lowskilled jobs once available to them have moved abroad."

This is demonstrably false.

"So teachers must now be able to educate every child in the class..."

Teachers were doing that in the past, and will do it in the future as well.

" achieve the same learning outcomes at a time in which the student body has changed economically, racially, geographically, linguistically, and academically."

This is such a complete misrepresentation. Even with standards, or with a specific curriculum or textbook shared by multiple students, the goal is not, and has never been for 'the same learning outcomes'. No matter what schools do, students end up with a different learning experience, if anything because learning itself is a creative process on the part of the student.

Posted by: iubica2 | October 19, 2010 6:02 PM | Report abuse

I work in online education. Teacher-proofing is what I do - and I'm the teacher! The point of a canned curriculum is to get past the teacher - who becomes a person to explain the curriculum on an as needed basis.

Posted by: OrangeMath | October 20, 2010 12:12 AM | Report abuse

@JLP19: No, no. Though I respect Michelle Rhee's sense of urgency, I certainly do not think that she is the definition of reform, nor do I agree with all of her policies. My user ID simply refers to the fact that reform has taken on this strange dichotomy that I don't think is productive. Either you're "for" reform or you're "against" it in many circles. Well, how does one even define "reform?" To me, reform is just the opposite of the status quo (which we know is not working), so it's amazing to me that when I speak with some people and I bring up "reform" it causes such an uproar! Reform is not a bad word. To me, it just means, "Hey, our education system is not working all that well. Let's talk about how we can try and change that." And yet, it seems like that is somehow heresy!

@CELESTUN100: I completely agree. I am all for furthering one's education! That's why I am currently back in graduate school. I just want it to be done in a meaningful way. As you said, unfortunately, not all programs/degrees/courses/professional development are actually useful. My argument is not that higher education is bad, just that it can't be taken as an automatic indicator of quality teaching. Nothing can really. You actually have to observe the person teaching and observe that teacher's outcomes (sure, partially scores, but I think we should be looking at much more than that).

@EFAVORITE: Sorry, I think we misunderstood each other. I was simply pointing out that not all TFAers are receiving tuition breaks on their certification programs. And of those that don't, they are probably using that $9000 towards their existing loans from their pricey undergrad programs (I know in Louisiana that the TFA corps members received very little assistance in paying for their cert program, and the amount was deducted from their paychecks). However, you have obviously found several TFA regions that are providing assistance which I think is great. I think the government should subsidize all education for teachers, nurses, and social workers. One more way that we could get more really bright people into those fields!

Posted by: reformisnotabadword | October 20, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

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