Children’s literacy: different teachers don’t make big differences

Published 22 July 2009

readingThe results of an international test of “teacher effects” on children’s literacy learning indicate that they aren’t as great as claimed by some administrators of education.

An international team of researchers has found that quality of teaching accounts for a maximum of only 8 per cent of the variation in children’s learning in their first three years at school, whereas some have claimed that it accounts for up to 40 per cent of the difference.

Over the past 10 years the research team, led by Professor Brian Byrne from the University of New England in Australia and funded by the Australian Research Council, has followed about 500 pairs of identical twins – some of them in Australia and some in the United States – through their first three years of schooling.

As identical twins share the same genetically-determined native ability, live in the same household and attend the same school, they should – if teachers have the large effect sometimes claimed for them – progress, on average, at rather different rates when one twin is in a different classroom from the other.

For around half of the pairs of twins in the study, both children had the same teacher, and for the other half, each of the two children had a different teacher.

The researchers found that the difference in literacy levels between twins who had different teachers was only 8 per cent greater than that between twins who had the same teacher.

“This result is certainly in the direction you would expect if teachers do ‘make a difference’,” Professor Byrne said, “but it is not very large. It is not the kind of difference you would expect if 40 per cent of the variance in children’s reading and spelling could be attributed to teachers.”

“While this ‘teacher effect’ might be seen as the major component of an all-inclusive ‘classroom effect’,” he explained, “other classroom factors (such as the overall attitude of the students in a class to the value of learning) can also influence learning performance. Our study shows, therefore, that the ‘teacher effect’ on differences in children’s acquisition of literacy skills in the early years of schooling is no more – and sometimes less – than 8 per cent.”

“This result indicates that teachers are more similar than different in the quality of literacy instruction they deliver,” Professor Byrne concluded. “And, because Australia does pretty well in international comparisons of literacy, that quality appears to be of a good standard overall.”

“Results from another aspect of the same study (which includes fraternal twins as well as identical twins) have found, too, that different schools have negligible effects on children’s literacy levels,” he added. “This finding is at odds with the current emphasis on ranking schools in terms of ‘quality’.”