Great teachers or great teaching? Why McKinsey got it wrong

Chris Husbands

It’s a fabulous quotation: “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” It has the sense of an underlying educational law, as compelling as Newton’s laws of motion. It’s routinely attributed to the 2007 McKinsey Report, How the world’s best performing education systems come out on top.

But if you dig into that report, you’ll find a footnote acknowledging that the quotation came from a senior government official in South Korea: yet another illustration of the old adage that a management consultant is someone who steals your watch and then tells you the time. But as an aphorism it has done its job, and is now routinely quoted by government ministers, education reformers and academics  the world over. A Google search yields over 180,000 uses of the  quotation since 2007. It crops up again, in disguised form, in Andrew Adonis’s contribution to last week’s Varkey Gems study on the status of teachers worldwide: “No education system can be better than its teachers”.

It’s a great quote. And it’s wrong. It took me a long while to work out what was wrong with it, until a line from Bob Schwartz, professor of practice in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, triggered my thinking. “What”, asked Schwartz in an OECD essay, “is the most important school-related factor in pupil learning: the answer is teaching”.  And that captures the difference.  It’s just as good a quotation, but it is different in three important letters: it’s teaching, not teachers.

A moment’s thought tells you that Schwartz has to be right and McKinsey have to be wrong. We can all teach well and we can all teach badly.  Even good teachers teach some lessons and some groups less well; even the struggling teacher can teach a successful lesson on occasion. More generally, we can all teach better: teaching changes and develops. Skills improve. Ideas change. Practice alters. It’s teaching, not teachers.

The three letters also have important policy implications. If you pursue the line that the important thing is teachers, you focus on people. You need to sack the weakest teachers and you need to design a system which guarantees that you can replace them quickly with better ones. Of course, performance managing very poor teachers out of the profession is important, and it is important that we recruit the brightest and the best. But these turn out to be very, very slow routes to improving the quality of an education system.

The English figures bear this out. There are 400,000 teachers in schools in England. About 30,000 new ones are trained each year. Assume the weakest 5,000 recruited each year can be replaced with 5000 who are definitely going to be better than the remaining 25,000 (there are some heroic assumptions here), and it will be many years before a visible impact is secured on the profession. It took Finland more than 30 years for recruitment practices to re-shape the profession. Changing teaching by changing teachers is a long, slow slog. And in some of those high performing countries, including South Korea and China, recruitment is – as the Varkey Gems report makes plain – helped by the extraordinary status enjoyed by teaching there. In fact, the status of teaching is a stronger attraction for committed candidates than relative salary levels. The status of teaching determines the extent to which policy can reshape teachers.

If you pursue the line that it is teaching that matters, you get a different set of policies. It’s still important to recruit and train those who can develop as excellent teachers, but you need to work continuously to improve the quality of teaching across schools: every teacher, in every classroom, in every school, getting better at teaching. This involves focusing on what drives really good teaching – committed teachers and high quality instruction, which itself depends on rigorous subject knowledge and knowledge of effective pedagogy, both leavened by imagination.

I’ve called it – with tongue partly in cheek – a formula for quality teaching: Q = C + E [K(s+ t)] + I. That is, quality depends on committed teachers (C),  plus effective pedagogy (E), based on subject knowledge (Ks ) plus knowledge of effective teaching (Kt), supplemented by imagination (I).

Forty years ago, policy assumed that schools made little difference to pupil outcomes:  outcomes were principally determined by social factors. School effectiveness research told us that that was not the case. Schools made a difference. Then we understood that school effects were the sum of classroom effects: teachers make a difference. But the key lesson is that it’s teaching, not teachers, which matters. Every teacher can teach better. That’s an equally great line.

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Posted in Chris Husbands, International comparisons, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
21 comments on “Great teachers or great teaching? Why McKinsey got it wrong
  1. behrfacts says:

    I like your formula and to me it reinforces the fact that quality people are what make quality teaching. The McKinsey quote is illustrative and simplified and in effect is the C in your formula, without which the E and the I would have little value. However, people for me means more than just classroom teachers – it’s about everyone in the education system who makes a positive contribution towards maximising learning outcomes for students – the list could be pretty long!

  2. This post made me wonder about the potential harm that the McKinsey line has done to teachers across the globe. I’m referring to all those policy decisions that have been made since the report came out in 2007 with its catch-phrase “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers”. In my country (Chile), it inspired a set of ‘entrepreneurial’ policies that meant individual rewards for ‘good teachers’ (performance-related bonuses) and little support for ‘bad teachers'(hs teachers were labelled ‘basic’ or ‘inadequate’ and sent to often dodgy training courses with others in similar situation).
    How different it would have been if the report got it right the first time and instead of ‘teachers’ it stated that they key was ‘teaching’! My guess is that some policy decisions (but not all of them, I’m sure of this) would have been different.

    • Chris Husbands says:

      In many ways the report follows rather than leads policy. It’s a question of emphasis and then where that emphasis leads. In some respects McKinsey have been helpful: focusing on teachers is more productive than focusing on extensive structural reform. But it’s what teachers do that matters

      • Sue Burroughs-Lange says:

        This is such an insightful refocus beyond rhetoric. if you had at least one experience of the difference good teaching made to you then you believe in the power of good teaching to effect change in lives and society. All teachers can go on learning if they are suitably resourced, have infrastructure that leads the way while supporting innovation, are valued for what they know and what they do. Leadership and teachers who learn are mutually supportive in good schools where all children learn. An example of this is to be found in primary schools that have Reading Recovery and Every Child a Reader. Outstanding gains in achievement are the new norm. How can this happen? Burroughs-Lange and Ince’s new book (IOE Press 2013) explains and informs.

  3. If we believe that we can grow learners in classrooms and we believe in life long learning, then we have to also believe in developing teachers throughout their careers. being trained at a single point and expecting that to last a forty year career does not make any sense. It is rightly called Initial Teacher Training.
    There needs to be additional investment in continuous professional development, at institutional and personal levels.
    I appreciated the inclusion of Imagination within your equation. a teacher coming up with their own ideas is likely to teach better than one who has picked up a bright idea to deliver. More teaching and less delivery.

  4. 3arn0wl says:

    I agree with most of this distinction, and I too quite like your equation!
    Teaching is only part of a much more complicated equation though – in which the teacher is a separate part: the facilities, the way the day is mapped out, the ethos, even the colour of the walls(!) are all factors too. And your last paragraph alluded to the fact that school is just a minority fraction of a day – all sorts of other things influence young people too. http://wp.me/p1k9HQ-fU
    But where I am a bit wary is the idea that “Teaching” is the thing: that if you just do it this way, you’ll get better results. My experience leads me to suggest that there’s no single way to impart knowledge and skills: that what works for one student, or indeed many in one situation, doesn’t work for all. And in fact, it is the dedication of the Teacher – maybe a D in place of, or as well as your I – that is an important factor too.
    If teaching were an easy or a simple thing, then everyone would be able to do it, and everyone would be extraordinarily good at it. In my opinion, the best teachers continue to refine and improve their practice, and amend it according to the young people they’re working with.

    • Chris Husbands says:

      I think your D is my C (committed teachers)!

      • 3arn0wl says:

        🙂 I was trying to make a distinction between teachers and dedication. All teachers are committed at least contractually, and as a presence they model appropriate behaviour, dress, etc. etc.. Some even become role models! In other circumstances, the teaching staff is the stability in a young person’s life. But as we know, many teachers do much more than they’re contracted to. Hence the D.

  5. neiljones says:

    Great post, Chris. We have policies on Teaching & Learning not on Teachers & Learners! Challenge comes with the mindset of those who become school leaders (heads & governors).

  6. neiljones says:

    Reblogged this on Adventures in School Leadership and commented:
    As school leaders our focus is naturally on people. We lead people and manage things. Chris Husbands helps us to refocus on the development of the art and science of teaching.

  7. Graham Holley says:

    Really enjoyed reading this. The TDA had some spirited debates around the issue some years ago. The conclusion was pretty much that both are needed – good teachers and good teaching, but that the two are not necessarily co-terminous. It led to some programmes focused on the preparation of teachers, and some on methodologies.

  8. Sue Rogers says:

    Yes. Good teaching is dependent on many things, but for me lies mainly in the quality of the exchange between teacher and learner. As Basil Bernstein famously wrote ‘If the culture of the teacher is to become part of the consciousness of the child, then the culture of the child must first be in the consciousness of the teacher’ (Bernstein, 1970). By this he draws attention to the gap which often exists between children’s culture and the dominant culture of school, between the everyday knowledge that children bring to the classroom and the types of school knowledge they are required to learn by the State and society more generally. More attention to how we might bridge this interactive ‘gap’ would help our children to become effective and motivated learners.

  9. Haruko says:

    Thank you Dr. Husband for today’s (Oct. 21) lecture. I am one of the EdD (International) student. As this post will be a great starting point to discuss about teaching and learning among my educator friends who couldn’t join your lecture. :)

  10. Branwen says:

    I agree with what you have written here, but I followed your link to the OECD essay by Schwarz and it says “What is the most important school-related factor in student learning? The answer is teachers.” Not teaching. Has the document been amended? – See more at: http://www.oecdobserver.org/news/archivestory.php/aid/2235/Attracting_and_retaining_teachers.html#sthash.ioP3xzRF.dpuf

  11. FCP says:

    Reblogged this on Educación, redes y más… and commented:
    Grandes reflexiones, en inglés, pero con gran profundidad… En un próximo post lo completaré.

  12. […] Professor Chris Husbands has done that for us here. Here is the crux of what the Professor […]

  13. loctitious says:

    Reblogged this on Journey to headship and commented:
    How apt! I was completing some reading for my NPQH and wanted to find the true source to the quote “The quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of it’s teachers” and came across this article. So now, this has confirmed my thinking also in that we need to acknowledge true source and give credit where due. I always believe that when stealing ideas, the ‘robber’ as it were, will never deliver the message with the same conviction as the source. It just doesn’t happen that way and so we see that it orignated in South Korea and though this may not be Singapore, we see how the philosophy of having an empasis on classroom instruction bears fruit and is validated by what you have now changed to ‘teaching’ and not ‘teacher’ as I agree, we can all teach better. The challenge, is getting everyone to do so and then doing something about those that ‘can’t’ or even ‘won’t’. Thanks for this, I’ll reblog and eventually add my own musings.

  14. […] Through allegiances and alliances the leader’s role is increasingly to build social capital.  Its purpose is simple, to increase the quality of teaching and learning within the class room.  Improving teaching is the leadership necessity.  Chris Husband (2014) builds an important differential between teachers and teaching in a great blog post, Great Teachers or Great Teaching: Why McKinsey Got it Wrong. […]

  15. […] Great Teachers do not make great schools… […]

  16. […] Husband’s article: https://ioelondonblog.wordpress.com/2013/10/10/great-teachers-or-great-teaching-why-mckinsey-got-it-… […]

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