President Biden recently announced plans to fund efforts to address the shortage of teachers, a situation that has worsened during the pandemic. There is no question that the nation needs more, better trained and more diverse teachers, but most discussion of this question ignores what the science and the research tell us about student outcomes.
The diagram below illustrates how far apart the research and current practice actually are.
Cognitive skills are the foundation for learning. These are the skills that determine whether information ever gets into our brains, whether it sticks, whether we understand it and whether we can do anything useful with it later. What the science says very clearly is that 50% of the variability in student achievement is explained by cognitive skills. That is, if you take two students who have gone to the same school for 13 years and one gets As and the other gets Ds, half of that difference, more than any other factor, is explained by those students’ cognitive skills. Research funded by the National Science Foundation presented this week validated earlier research, specifically related to math.
Not as important but a critical factor is students’ social and emotional competence, considering things like whether they were motivated and engaged, whether they sought out help when they had a problem, and whether they were even self-aware enough to know that they were having a problem. 20 to 25% of the variability in student outcomes is driven by SEL.
Now, we can look at how we are spending money on education as a system and a society. We spend 75% of our effort on factors that account for only 25-30% of student outcomes, and less than 5% on the factor – cognitive skills – that accounts for half of outcomes.
In one report of the President’s plans, an education policy expert was quoted as saying, “If you think about it, what is education? It’s teaching. You have to have a teacher to do the teaching. You can’t get anything else done without a teacher in the classroom.”
In our view, education is not about teaching, it is about learning. Much of this discussion is missing the most important factor that explains our miserable academic outcomes. Yes, teachers are needed, but having teachers in classrooms does not guarantee that learning will be taking place, because that leaves out 50% of the equation.
Unfortunately, these types of reports and discussions are never about learning; they treat learning as if it were only a function of teaching. For too many educators, every issue is a nail and every solution is a hammer. The nail is called instruction and the hammer is the teacher. With this system, we have almost 70% of our students performing below grade level.
The formula for learning involves many components working together effectively and efficiently. Would a baseball manager send a ballplayer to the plate without a bat, with pitches flying at them 100 miles an hour, and expect them to hit home runs? Of course not, not if the bat represents 50% of their ability to hit the ball.
For these students, who learn differently, because they have different cognitive strengths and weaknesses than the top 30% of students, going to school feels like standing at the plate with teaching and curriculum coming at them at the rate of 100 miles an hour, and not having a bat.
It is time to pivot. The pivot does not mean ignoring the teacher shortage, but it can’t stop there. Until each teacher understands how each of their students learns and can facilitate learning experiences designed to optimize learning, and until students get the appropriate comprehensive integrated cognitive training to build their learning capacity, learning outcomes are unlikely to improve in any meaningful way.
The research tells us which levers to pull to get the greatest improvement in student outcomes; we might even call it a force multiplier. The military uses the concept of a force multiplier to describe something that allows the same number of personnel or weapons to accomplish greater feats. Building cognitive capacity is a force multiplier.
So by all means, we need to expand the teaching force. And we need to empower both teachers and students with the force multiplier of cognitive assessment and training.
For more information on the research on the predictive value of cognitive skills for student outcomes: