Fixing the problems of teaching by leaving the teachers behind
Quality teaching matters
Poor teaching quality undermines the very raison d’être of sending children to school in the first place.
October 26, 2015 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center|

October 5 was World Teachers Day. On that day, the world typically turns its attention to teachers. We place the UNESCO World Teachers Day poster on our Facebook pages. We hold symposia on the importance of teachers and teaching. We #ThankATeacher.

All good. But then the calendar flips to October 6… (more on that in a moment).

We ask a lot of teachers—particularly in some of the world’s poorest and most fragile places. We ask them to teach literacy and numeracy. We ask them to teach children of different ages —in the same classroom. We ask them to integrate social emotional learning, design activities that are conflict sensitive, provide protective environments, foster resilience, help children heal from trauma, create child-friendly learning spaces, be gender sensitive, and teach all learners regardless of disability, or emotional and behavioral issues. In many cases and many places, we ask teachers to do all of these things.

In short, we ask teachers to advance an enormous part of the education development agenda of donors, of ministries of education and of implementing agencies.

You would think that given the enormity of this responsibility and the stakes involved, that as an education community, we would do everything in our power to recruit and prepare the very best people to advance this agenda, that we would establish structures and supports to ensure that these teachers succeed in advancing this agenda.

You would be wrong.

The days after World Teachers Day

In fact, in many countries, and in many donor-funded projects, the same teachers we praise on October 5 often receive no initial training, no professional development, no monitoring or assessment, and little or no public policy attention. 

Not surprisingly, in some of the poorest places where education quality matters most, many teachers are not helping children to learn to read or do basic arithmetic.  They are not helping students heal from trauma. They are not teaching well; they are teaching badly—because they don’t know how to do otherwise.  

Poor teaching quality undermines the very raison d’être of sending children to school in the first place.

We have more children than ever completing primary school (92%, according to the World Bank, 2015), yet in places where we trumpet most the increases in enrollment, many or even most children leave primary school essentially illiterate and innumerate (Spaull & Taylor, 2015). That is not success. That is failure.

Fixing the problem of teaching by leaving teachers behind

Henry Ford once said, “We shall fix the problem of (failing) cities by leaving the cities behind.” It sometimes appears that we in the international education community have applied that maxim to the pervasive problem of poor teaching.

Many have given up on teachers, instead preferring enthusiastic, uncredentialed and untrained young people, volunteers or contract teachers (inconvenient truth alert—they need training and support, too). There’s a lot of fatigue (understandably) with (often poor) teacher professional development.

Additionally, as we often do with vexing issues, we’ve turned to technology—tablets for kids, computer-aided instruction, online instruction—as a way to compensate for poor teaching (and in some cases an absence of teachers). While such interventions have some value, there’s no app for good teaching.

As studies consistently show, technology is no match for a well-trained, caring teacher—and that doesn’t happen without investments of time and resources.

The U.N’s Sustainable Development Goal 4—focused on educational quality—represents an opportunity to get quality education right—to ensure that all children, especially in the world’s poorest places, have access to a “qualified” teacher—not just an adult who happens to know how to read and write.  

But the reforms promoted by the ambitious SDGs are only likely to be successful if we as a community collectively get serious about improving teaching quality and support those who are on the ground working in tough conditions trying to make this happen. They are only likely to be successful if key stakeholders—ministries of education, donors, teachers, implementing partners, among them—realize that together we must actively focus on the importance of teachers and teaching for 365 days a year—not just on October 5—and commit to the long term work and investment this involves. The work is complex and far more involved than can be discussed here, but I’d propose that we can at least begin by coming to three realizations.

1.Good teachers matter

First, we have to really, really understand that if we want educational quality good teachers matter. They matter for kids in higher income countries—in the United States, measures of teacher preparation and certification are by far the strongest correlates of student achievement in reading and mathematics.

But good teachers really matter for poor kids. At-risk children—poor children, children at risk of school failure because of behavioral, emotional or academic issues—benefit more from effective teachers and effective teaching than children who are not at risk (Hanushek et al. 2005).

There simply are no other interventions that show the impact in student learning as do "expert, inspired and passionate teachers” (Hattie, 2015: 2).

 But it’s not simply enough to have one or two good teachers in a school. Research points to a teacher quality “tipping point” in which student achievement can only improve when the proportion of quality teachers rises to 80% or above of all teachers in a school (Shields et al. 1999).

2. If we don’t know where we’re going, we might not get there

Next, we need to develop a shared vision of the kind of quality teaching we hope to see in poor or emergency or fragile contexts. This vision has to be developed in consultation with teachers, school directors and students, not just bureaucrats.

This vision could drive creation of thoughtful standards for quality teaching. In addition to codifying what “quality teaching” looks like in practice, such standards could create the foundation for several subsequent actions. They could:

  1. guide how future teachers are prepared at the pre-service level
  2. determine how existing teachers (especially untrained and/or poorly-performing ones) can be helped to reach some acceptable level of instruction (or be moved out of the classroom)
  3. define how both pre- and in-service teacher education programs should be structured
  4. govern the selection and qualifications of  those teaching teachers both at the pre- and in-service levels.

3.Focus on teachers by focusing on the system as a whole

While improving teaching quality can’t happen without teachers; it won’t work if we focus exclusively on teachers. Teachers often occupy the lowest stratum of complex organizational systems and the absence of or variation in teaching quality is often the result of issues that have little to do with teachers themselves.

Poor teaching is often a symptom, not a cause of a failed education system and failed policies.

We need to move beyond the current practice of blaming teachers to a system of shared accountability so that donors, ministries of education, local education agencies, implementing agencies, directors and teachers are all responsible for producing measurable improvements in teaching quality.

And if we truly want to improve teaching, we have to improve schools and the larger educational system.

Quality teaching matters

Enrollment is not enough. Attainment is not enough. Technology alone won’t do it. If we want all children really reading, all children truly learning, and all children developing the knowledge, skills and dispositions that will lead to more education and meaningful employment, we need to develop quality teachers and quality teaching—one school at a time, one teacher at a time, not one day a year, but every day of the year.


  • Hanushek, E.A., Kain, J.F., O’Brien, D.M., Rivkin, S.G. (2005). The market for teacher quality. Working Paper 11154. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.
  • Hattie, J. (2015, June). What works best in education: The politics of collaborative expertise. Retrieved from
  • Shields, P. M., Esch, C.E., Humphrey, D.C., Young, V.M., Gaston, M. & Hunt, H. (1999). The status of the teaching profession: Research findings and policy recommendations. Santa Cruz, CA: The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning
  • Spaull, N. & Taylor, S. (2015, February) Access to what? Creating a composite measure of educational quantity and educational quality for 11 African countries. Comparative Education Review, 59 (1): 133-165.
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Thank you for this inspiring analysis of the challenges involved in 'fixing teachers'. It is important to see the big picture and to tackle the more complex challenge of ensuring there is a quality teacher in every classroom in the world. Having worked in developing teacher training curriculum and policy within the Department of Education in Papua New Guinea for the last three years I would like to stress the importance of the one day at a time approach and truly engaging with and listening to the teachers. The challenges are many and varied and progress is slow but from the big picture a start has to be made somewhere. In my experience the key is to identify a starting place, make that start, stick with it, see it through and make sure that others are with you.

Hi Kate, Thank you so much for reading and for taking the time to write. I'm wondering, as someone who has spent so much time on the ground, what has worked in PNG (quite the challenging environment) that you could share. I'd love to--I'm sure others reading this would as well--love to hear what you found in PNG. Thank you again, Mary

Thank you for this thoughtful, evidence-based argument. Blaming teachers for inadequate public policy will not get us where we want to go, truly. Involving teachers in finding solutions should go without saying but instead many policy initiatives are designed specifically with the aims of marginalizing teachers from decision-making and/or control of them when they are in classrooms. One surprising fact is that the international community does not monitor aid specifically directed at teachers and the teaching profession, whether budget support, incentives or training, for example. So, simply put, evidence of what works is fragmented and anecdotal in terms of international cooperation to improve the quality of intake to the profession, reduce turnover and improve motivation and performance of practicing teachers.

Hi Alexandra, Thank you for reading and writing. Very cool to see your name here. I've read a number of things you've worked on (I HOPE I have the right person!! :) ) I assume you are referring to the fact that so much teacher PD is project-based. Have you seen examples of bilateral or multilateral donors who are monitoring inputs and activities focused on teachers? Cheers, Mary

With a colleague I carried out a review a few years ago for UNESCO of all major donors' activities related to teachers in multi-year projects with over $1 million funding and the biggest takeaway was that most funding that one can identify as earmarked for teachers goes to short-term in-service courses and that there is very little evidence about impact. And yes, it is often project-based and in consequence linked to an agenda that is not 360 degrees (e.g. gender sensitization, HIV/AIDS). Thanks for asking.

And sorry, I didn't answer your main question. The answer is no, we didn't find any evidence of donors monitoring in any way that could help in policy analysis or decision-making.

A good article which clearly calls out the necessity for a system's approach to education and the need for all education players to be held to account for learning outcomes. I want to point out that this is relevant for both 'developed' and 'developing' contexts around the globe. In reference to a previous comment, I am also amazed at how education interventions with so little focus on teachers, and I mean a real, built-in, sustainable focus on teachers are still getting funded by various donors. I have seen however, a first-hand positive example of monitoring aid specifically directed at teachers and the teaching profession. Having worked on GPE- funded professional development of teachers in Somalia I can say that the monitoring of teacher learning was clearly built into the project. A number of female teachers already on the teacher incentive payroll took part in an in-service professional development package facilitated by UNICEF and the local teacher training college. Not only were these training activities monitored but so was the on-going support given to teachers upon their return to the classroom. This included observations on how such training had influenced ways in which teachers taught in the classroom. However some more measurable project indicators around this would have been good. If you have any recommended resources on a system's approach to education I would be very interested to read. I have noticed over the years that there are an abundance of resources on a system's approach to child protection but not so much on education. Thanks, Katherine

Hi Katherine, Thank you for your comment. Kudos to GPE for supporting such an extensive teacher education program. I'd love to hear more. Regarding your question, I have 2 suggestions, but both from very high-performing wealthy countries (Editorial comment: I know this is a bit controversial in education development and education in emergencies circles but in the absence of research on those contexts, I think we start SOMEWHERE. And in my experience in all sorts of contexts, good practice is often good practice and often fungible...Ok, enough). Michael Fullan (formerly U Toronto, now independent consultant) was part of a team that led education reform in Ontario, Canada, which now has Canada's most rigorous provincial education system and highest school completion rates in Canada. Similarly, Singapore is a country that deliberately focused on promoting education as an economic development lever and put its money where its mouth is.They've centralized all of this (through NIE) which is a great way of controlling for shortages and mitigating leakages in terms of teacher supply. I've spent some time in Singaporean public and private schools and what you see, the quality of teaching, etc. is just unparalleled anywhere. Japan to me is an example of a country that really invests in teaching and teachers. There are multiple levels of PD, teacher recruitment and development is quite rigorous (as in Singapore). Teachers with more than 10 years experience still get about 20 days of PD per year. The whole system of teacher learning in Japan is highly collaborative and focused laser-like on studying how children learn and adapting teaching to that learning Finally, 10 years ago, I was in Namibia looking at their ICT efforts. At that point it, too, was a place really focused on education reform in a system wide way. I don't know what became of such efforts. Jordan, too, used JEI as a lever for reform. I was there in 2007 as part of evaluation team and results weren't so great...but that was 8 years ago and there may be more to show.

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