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What Makes an Effective Teacher?

The debate about traditional versus progressive education largely concerns the proper role of teachers in the classroom. With the rise of child-centred teaching methods, teachers have often taken a back seat in the classroom, allowing children to work more by themselves or in groups. The first issue of CMRE monthly research digest reported findings from an evaluation of an ambitious universal school reform in Quebec, which revised teaching practices in the province from traditional approaches in favour of individualised approaches. The evaluators found that the reform had strong negative effects on pupil outcomes in domestic and international assessments among all pupils in the ability distribution. In a recently published study, Professor Victor Lavy provides new evidence of importance for the debate regarding teaching methods. Exploiting surveys of teaching practices in Israeli primary and middle schools – with practices separated into categories developed in the educational-psychology literature, dating back to Benjamin Bloom – the author analyses longitudinal data at the pupil level. This allows him to (1) hold constant all unobserved characteristics of pupils and schools that do not vary over time and affect both outcomes and pupil allocation, and (2) control for the possibility that teachers adapt their practices to pupils’ ability levels. Overall, these features allow for a quasi-experimental analysis of the impact of different teacher practices on outcomes in mathematics, science, Hebrew, and English. The findings provide important nuances regarding the value of different teaching practices. Overall, traditional teaching with a focus on instilment of knowledge and enhancement of comprehension, via memorisation and homework etc., has the strongest positive effect of four different techniques in terms of absolute effect size. The results imply that an increase in the share of teachers utilising such methods from 0% to 100% improves pupil average outcomes in the four subjects by the equivalent of 79-88 PISA points. This contrasts starkly with the impact of instilling in pupils a capacity for individual study, which has a negative impact or no effect at best. One estimate indicates that increasing the share of teachers using this method from 0% to 100% decreases average outcomes by the equivalent of 41 PISA points. At the same time, however, the effect of teachers’ instilment of analytical and critical skills is positive for pupil attainment. The results imply that increasing the share of teachers using this method from 0% to 100% would raise scores by 52-54 PISA points. However, teaching styles characterising transparency, fairness, and feedback have no effect at all on outcomes. Overall, therefore, while the evidence does not support methods that aim to individualise learning, instilling a capacity for analysis and critical thinking appears to be a modern pedagogical feature that does work. Intriguingly, when the author analyses heterogeneous effects, the picture becomes even more nuanced. The results indicate that girls especially benefit from traditional teaching, while boys benefit more from the instilment of analytical and critical skills. Encouraging boys to work more independently is also especially damaging: a 100% increase in the share of teachers employing such methods decreases results by the equivalent of 89 PISA points among boys, while the impact is not statistically significant among girls. Similarly, pupils from low socio-economic backgrounds appear to benefit especially from traditional teaching, while being especially hurt by individualised practices, whereas pupils from high socio-economic background benefit more from the instilment of analytical and critical skills, while not being affected at all by individualised practices.* While these differences are measured quite imprecisely and therefore should be interpreted with some caution, they certainly indicate that different teaching practices benefit/harm different pupils to different degrees. Overall, therefore, the paper provides further evidence that teaching-driven methods are good for producing high average cognitive achievement, while more child-centred, individualised practices are harmful. This is troubling since policymakers and teachers worldwide increasingly embrace such methods. For example, Nordic countries have been at the forefront of this development and have simultaneously seen declining results in international assessments, as outlined in a recent monograph (by the author of this review) about the rise and decline of Finland’s educational performance. However, the paper also provides new evidence indicating that the instilling critical thinking and skills has positive effects on cognitive achievement, which also deserves attention by policymakers; it is certainly possible to combine this emphasis with knowledge-focused approaches. The fact that different types of pupils benefit from different methods also carries policy implications: it indicates that some sorting of pupils into classrooms/schools may be beneficial on both efficiency and equity grounds – at least if such sorting is accompanied by a simultaneous differentiation of teaching practices. Note *The impact of transparency, fairness, and feedback is never statistically significant, but the point estimates indicate that these features may benefit boys and pupils from high socio-economic backgrounds more than girls and pupils from low socio-economic backgrounds. Gabriel H. Sahlgren This comment piece is also the Editor's Pick in the CMRE Monthly Research Digest_04_15. The piece reviews a paper by Victor Lavy, ‘What Makes an Effective Teacher? Quasi-Experimental Evidence', CESifo Economic Studies (forthcoming), which may be downloaded here. A free copy of the working paper may be downloaded here. You can download free copies of back issues of the CMRE Monthly Research Digest here. to subscribe.

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