The Scapegoating of Teachers


In his book, Why Knowledge Matters, ED Hirsch Jr. writes that:

Teacher effectiveness is contextual

At first sight this seems completely commonsensical and, indeed it is in theory. It is just in practice where too many involved in education undermine this simple adage. Hirsch goes on to say:

We are blaming teachers because of our disappointments with the results of our reforms.

How many times do we hear that we have the best generation of teachers ever as yet another round of top down management or governmentally driven accountability measures undermine that very concept?

Hirsch sees that the disappointing result of reforms is more likely to be structural in nature rather than down to the characteristics and proclivities of teachers. He puts this in the following way:

Educational success is defined by what students learn – the received curriculum.

Hirsch sees that the fundamental problem with the curriculum is the replacement of content with the notion of skills that can be developed by any suitable content. Instead of blaming teachers, apart from those who are obviously incompetent, Hirsch thinks one should ‘blame the ideas’ if you have an incoherent curriculum it is extremely hard for a teacher to be effective. As he puts it, most succinctly:

A more coherent system makes teachers better individually and hugely better collectively.

A coherent curriculum also ensures that teachers can master the content they are teaching. If you know what you are doing sometime in advance of course you can ensure you know it better rather than being a slave to whatever is in the stock cupboard or on a resources webpage.

Which brings me to tech. Hirsch is not convinced that technology will transform teaching, especially in the primary school where:

Young students rely on an empathetic personal connection that not even our most advanced computer-adaptive programs can deliver.

He sees computers as supplemental and, sensibly, not transformative.

It is the scapegoating of teachers through an obsession with their quality that most exercises Hirsch. He points to the idea that teacher quality affects the quality of learning more than anything else as being problematic. He cites research by Dr. Russ Whitehurst as  evidence that:

A better curriculum can range from being slightly to dramatically more effective than a better teacher.

The whole ‘value added’ teacher effectiveness programmes instituted through evaluations, incentives, and a few sticks to beat teachers with, might be better off looking at quality of curriculum than obsessing about targeting a teacher’s performance.

In the light of my previous post about Hirsch’s book it is heartening to see that he writes here:

My plea to teachers – for the sake of their students, and themselves, – is to rebel against the skills delusion; to insist on coherent and cumulative multiyear content; then cooperate and consult.

Collaborative curriculum planning is essential and this planning should take the long view. This is not to say that skills should not be taught just that they should not be in dominion over knowledge. A mainly skills focus would see, say, ‘collaboration’ being the central thing to be taught and any old content thrown at pupils sitting in groups harbouring under the illusion that they are learning about collaboration or, indeed, anything else.

I agree with Hirsch that great teaching relies on the coherence of the school system which supports it. Even the most gifted teacher struggles to teach if children have received no coherent grounding in subjects, aren’t supported by a safe environment in which to work and are constantly distracted by gimmicks which teachers are drawn to to try to enthuse children who are tired by having to struggle through months and years of incoherence desperate to find nuggets of wisdom by which to justify their investment of time.

In the UK we have been obsessed with outstanding lessons, outstanding schools, outstanding headteachers and have used various measures to try to put all this in play. As a result we often see layers of middle management tracking and targeting pupils and teachers, working them to the bone, observing them, judging them, tracking data, and adding layers of bureaucracy including performance management goals that are linked to potential pay as though these obsessions with personnel will change the system radically. There is evidence that not much has changed qualitatively in the last thirty years, and this is despite externally imposed National Curricula from 1988 onwards. Does this prove Hirsch wrong? Maybe, but I would argue there is an important difference, it is not just curriculum, it is how that curriculum is arrived at that makes the biggest difference. England has had a National curriculum, yes, but this has not been created through teachers’ professional collaboration. Arguably it has added to the problem by divorcing teachers from their central concern of curriculum design and how best to teach it. Instead teachers ignore or struggle to fathom any curriculum logic, are expected to follow it uncritically, and are left bereft expected instead to muck around with pedagogy as though how to teach can be divorced from what to teach.

Teachers understand what is working or not with a curriculum design if they get to work on creating and reviewing it. By putting curriculum design into the hands of the State or even in the hands of a pupils pursuing project work too early on in their education, we will forever see teachers struggling to do their jobs properly. When I work with schools I often point out that a coherent curriculum, one that is broad, academic and interesting will do much to ensure the teaching and the learning will be successful. I also emphasise that teaching is a team pursuit and each part of that team has a role to play in ensuring that the pupils can do their very best.

Instead of layers of management telling teachers what to do staff should have time to collaborate and the responsibility to  come up with great curricula, this might be school based, MAT based or through other networks; collaboration is key but with a shared sense of purpose in the first instance to discipline and shape the approach to be taken, for me this is provided by the trivium.

Forget about outstanding teachers, it is the wrong obsession, obsess about an outstanding curriculum instead, one that is designed and reviewed by teachers who aren’t forever obsessing about their own performance but instead are thinking critically about what is being taught, when, and how they and their colleagues should go about teaching it.

9 thoughts on “The Scapegoating of Teachers

  1. I thought this long ago. Long, long ago – when I first experienced English education. But I disagree about technology. It should be transformative – not so much as it is now, but I think I can see how – in some ways (but not exactly) how books were transformative. The curriculum has been the issue for a while. Good text books would help.


  2. Martin…I have great respect for your ideas and I read the your Trivium book but I believe you are simply creating an enormous strawman.

    You seem to see “curriculum” as synonymous with “knowledge content” whereas very few (if any) teachers I have ever met define the term this way and any brief search of google will show more complex understandings than this.

    Hirsch’s and therefore your views on blaming teachers I would wholeheartedly agree with. The idea that the quality of curriculum is a major factor in learning effectiveness is clearly one that has been accepted, discussed, researched and pawed over by teachers and academic for a considerable time. However as described above, most occurences of “curriculum” talk about the entirety of the student’s education expeience. Maybe this is where you and they part company.

    “Teachers understand what is working or not with a curriculum design if they get to work on creating and reviewing it. By putting curriculum design into the hands of the State or even in the hands of a pupils pursuing project work too early on in their education, we will forever see teachers struggling to do their jobs properly. When I work with schools I often point out that a coherent curriculum, one that is broad, academic and interesting will do much to ensure the teaching and the learning will be successful”

    The previous paragraph, quoted from the bloglpost, would be considered blindingly obvious to all but the most fanatical and Hirsch himself. As a common core sort of a guy he surely sees the state (in the US sense) as the custodiam of currliculum subject content. I currently teach (and have previously taught) in a system that is governed by US common core standards. Just as is the case in the UK in my experience, I teach in my classroom the precise knowledge, understanding and skills that learners need to understand by subject while giving them the best possible grade in their public exams.

    You seem to see the “curriculum” as “knowledge” which in my experience is a very convergent perspective. Along with other “knowledge only” advocates you appear to believe that if you teach knowledge, all else will follow. I know that the Trivium does not necessarily suggest this, not to me anyhow, but you seem to wish to push core content on teachers while at the same time quoting “skills delusion” and suggesting that power to design is given to teachers as they know what works.

    I tend to agree with you, but not just for teachers who agree with a narrow definition of teaching/curriculum. I really do think teacher know what works and the vast majority put this into practice up and down the land every day. This often requires teachers to ignore the advice of their employer (while not being observed) and to make decisions to move on from a school they are not comfortable with.

    I am happy to leave such matters to teachers. Those who think skills and knowledge are intrinsically intertwined such as myself teach with this in mind, and often very successfully.

    The issue that drives my practice more than any otheras I approach retirement in the “students can just look it up” issue which is tightly bound to knowledge clearly. I am firmly in the “people can just look it up” camp, however I am not in the “it is always best for people to look it up” camp, nor am I in the “people should never resort to looking it up” camp.

    Learning/teaching is simply a process like any other which has been continually re-engineerd over the centuries and 2016 is no exception. Every middle/upperclass household has for some time contained books e.g. Brittanica which allowed them to look things up. The richer the individual, the more extensive their library and therefore their ability to “look it up”. A previous comment raises the issue of books being transformative and indeed they were. They enabled the learning/teaching process to be transformed, allowing poorer people to learn more effectively as they were able to “look it up”. As books became more widely available so did both the “knowledge inventory” of poorer people. However it should not be underestimated the extent to which poorer people were able to look it up for themselves and become autodidacts while others relied upon others to aid them in their learning.

    Technology for me is simply a much more sophisticated book which allows me to “look it up” with more depth, precision and breadth that I ever could using books printed on paper. There are a wide range of technologies which facilitate learning and people should have access to them all and benefit from those they find most effective and efficient.

    I pass on knowledge and skills to people I teach, that is how I define teaching. I impart the key pieces of knowledge that studying my subject for 40 years tell me are most important. I see myself as a michelin chef of the education realm, rather than a mcdonalds.

    For me, I see my job as imparting knowledge/understanding firstly, and then the skills necessary for my learners to become independent learners/ autodidacts so that they can do in 10 years what it has taken me 40 years to do. I will give them a firm grounding and then give them the skills to think about things and develop new knowledge for themselves as well as the ability to leverage this “looking it up” based upon their existing knowledge/understanding and their proficiency in looking it up. This for me is the route to wisdom for me learners.

    In my view simply imparting knowledge, even in large and complex bundles, will never do for learners what the development of the printed word did for the poor and disadvantaged. A classical/academic education was always more than imparting a body of knowledge to the rich although this was part of the thing.

    In focusing narrowly on content on the basis that this will free the disadvantaged is for me the opposite of the truth. For me, the process is being re-engineerd poorly at the moment, largely in my view due the the interests of the more influential stakeholders who are neither learners nor teachers. I can re-engineer the process locally and I believe that within the next 5-10 years the process will be completely overhauled to the point where most teachers will become redundant, along with a range of other professionals. I just hope that ownership and control are transferred to learners rather than to Hirsch with his grand scheme. We will see

    Happy new year and continuing good luck with the Trivium. I have found it both valuable and stimulating and use many of the ideas often. Thanks.


  3. You wrote, quite correctly that: “England has had a National Curriculum, yes, but this has not been created through teachers’ professional collaboration. Arguably it has added to the problem by divorcing teachers from their central concern of curriculum design and how best to teach it.” In some schools, one would find that the teachers themselves are not capable of even understanding the need to create a meaningful and coherent curriculum, never mind the intellectual capacity to write it. There are Headteachers around who have just a single GCSE pass to their credit. Can a profession that has been gutted in this way really call itself a profession any longer? I recall the dread phrase in the 1990s that a teacher’s job was to “Deliver the curriculum”.


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