Teacher Quality, Wiggins and Hattie: More Doing the Wrong Things the Right Ways

In a blog titled “To my critics” as a follow up to his critique of Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Errors, Grant Wiggins seeks to clarify his central arguments:

My point was merely to ask those who speak only of forces outside of our immediate control as educators to attend to what is not only in our control but can make a big difference….

Teachers and schools make a difference, a significant one. And we are better off improving teaching, learning, and schooling than anything else as educators because that’s what is in our control. Am I denying or tolerating poverty? Of course not. I decry the increased poverty and wealth inequality in this country. I vote democratic and give to liberal causes such as MoveOn and SPLC. I agree with Diane that there are nasty people and groups trying to subvert public education for their own ideologies and gain.

In this blog post, Wiggins returns to citing and praising the work of New Zealand scholar John Hattie. Wiggins has endorsed Hattie’s work in earlier blogs, such as:

I have been a fan of John Hattie’s work ever since I encountered Visible Learning. Hattie has done the most exhaustive meta-analysis in education. Thanks to him, we can gauge not only the relative effectiveness of almost every educational intervention under the sun but we can compare these interventions on an absolute scale of effect size.

I came to this debate and the connection between Wiggins and Hattie during a Twitter exchange with Wiggins. And as Twitter discussions go, I think we started off contentious, but eventually reached a genuine exchange; however, I could not fully or adequately explore what needs to be explored on Twitter so I began to research Hattie, and I want to place this recent exchange with Wiggins in a much larger context, one that includes the apparently growing interest in Hattie’s work.

My short and opening point is this: If in-school factors, notably teacher quality, are in fact the most pressing issues in education reform, and if in-school factors are the only things within our control, and if we are committed to accountability based on standards and high-stake testing as the only reform paradigm, then Wiggins (and maybe Hattie) would be credible.

Ultimately, however, Wiggins and Hattie represent even more doing the wrong things the right ways.

While I share the frustration expressed by Jersey Jazzman about the implied and direct claims Wiggins makes about teachers—in our Twitter exchange Wiggins was comfortable stating that many or most teachers use poverty as an excuse because he “hears it all the time”—and I also have grown tired of education reform punditry that seems imbalanced toward teacher bashing and marginalizing further the teaching profession, I want to focus on the limitations of in-school only reform and measuring teacher quality, and then highlight that the teacher quality debate fails for the same reason the push for Common Core fails (the real-world implementation has always failed, and it will fail this time also).

Now, let me go back to my first encounter with Wiggins, which was his co-authored Understanding by Design. As part of the process for my adding gifted and talented to my teaching credentials, I took a seminar that used Understanding.

Like many educators, I found the backward design model compelling at first. The best aspects of Wiggins and McTighe’s work, I think, are their criticisms of traditional practices:

  • Traditional approaches to teaching focused on objectives and teachers often were careless about matching their assessments to those objectives. In short, Wiggins and McTighe made a valid case that teaching was too often disjointed among objectives, classroom practices, and assessment.
  • The best point about traditional practices offered by Wiggins and McTighe was confronting that testing in many classes was essentially a “gotcha” experience for students. Students were left, they argued, either partially or completely blind to what was being asked of them.

I shared then and do now hold serious concerns about traditional pedagogy and assessment. In fact, I have been my entire career a strong advocate for systemic educational reform. I think we have failed and continue to fail the promise of universal public education as a foundational institution among a free people.

And there is the problem.

Wiggins and McTighe’s solutions—backward design, sharing detailed rubrics with students, etc.—are certainly the right way to do teacher-centered, standards-driven education based on measurable outcomes.

But teacher-centered, standards-driven education based on measurable outcomes is the wrong paradigm for democratic and liberatory education; thus, embracing understanding by design is simply doing the wrong things the right ways.

When schools have failed and when they do fail, they are teacher- and content-centered. The entire accountability era has intensified the very worst of education, and while the best way to do accountability education based on standards and testing is something like what Wiggins and McTighe offer, this commitment fails to step back even further and recognize what Ravitch and Wiggins’s critics are acknowledging: U.S. society and schools are plagued with inequity, and in order to overcome the negative consequences of inequity (one of which is low achievement by some students), social and school reform must address directly that inequity.

To put it in simple and direct terms: A powerful and identifiable problem in schools is inequitable access to certified and experienced teachers; instead of focusing on measuring, ranking, and rewarding teachers based on test scores (all shown in research to cause more harm than good), we should first address that students with the most need (high-poverty students, English language learners, special needs students, minority students) have equitable access to experienced and certified teachers as affluent and white students do.

Wiggins has positioned himself on some tenuous ground with claims that many or most teachers use poverty as an excuse, that outlier data somehow show what should be normal, and that Hattie’s research is justification for his positions. But the larger problem here is that Wiggins and the entire education reform movement over the past thirty years are trapped in a flawed solution model for a discounted set of problems.

Next, even if we conceded that we want to do the wrong things the right ways, Wiggins and Hattie represent the exact problem with Common Core: Once these grand ideas are implemented—and that implementation is guaranteed to be a failure—the good intentions do not matter.

For example understanding by design has become an industry for ASCD:

Thousands of educators across the country use the Understanding by Design framework, created by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, to get a handle on standards, align programs to assessments, and guide teachers in implementing a standards-based curriculum that leads to student understanding and achievement.

Harvey Daniels’s experience with the commodification of literature circles and best practice is a representative cautionary tale about the negative consequences of reducing pedagogy and educational research to programs, consultation workshops, and how-to guides. Daniels, speaking at a state English teachers’ convention, explained that the terms “literature circles” and “best practices” can be found splattered across books and on web sites to such an extent that the original intent of both has been lost.

And here is the crux of the problem with Hattie as well as Wiggins endorsing Hattie.

Wiggins and Hattie share the charge that in-school reform is the only thing in the control of teachers, but they also share central roles of influence —direct and indirect—in the education reform bureaucracy and industry.

Hattie’s influence in New Zealand, in fact, prompted this:

The political and media stir caused by professor John Hattie’s research on student achievement has prompted a group of academics to look closely at his work.

The authors were particularly concerned that politicians might use Hattie’s work to justify ill-informed policy decisions.

Hattie’s work [1] is poised to support in NZ and the U.S. increasing class size and implementing merit pay, for example—both of which are not supported by large bodies of research.

Wiggins and Hattie are trapped, then, in the measurable and the visible—paralyzed by a world in which we focus on control.

As Neil Gaiman has stated, however, “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

Ultimately, Wiggins and Hattie are offering the right ways to do the wrong things, again. Just as Common Core and new high-stakes testing are digging a failed accountability hole that much deeper.

We can do better.

Part of better, then, is yet more moratoriums.

We need moratoriums on educational research, educational consultation, and educational materials—as well as an end to our fetish with testing and measurement.

If these moratoriums seem extreme, let me point out a couple things:

  1. In 1947, Lou LaBrant wrote: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”
  2. The exact same fact exists today: Every major element of the education reform movement is either not supported by research or is directly refuted by research.

We currently have ample evidence about the problems in education (and society) and we have ample evidence of how to address those problems.

Spending millions and even billions of dollars on more measures of teacher quality and student achievement is an inexcusable waste of time and money.


Poverty as one of the most profound aspects of scarcity cripples human capacities. As Mullainathan and Shafir detail, scarcity drains anyone’s bandwidth (mental capacty): “Scarcity captures the mind”:

Scarcity is more than just the displeasure of having very little. It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds….

Being poor, for example, reduces a person’s cognitive capacity more than going one full night without sleep. It is not that the poor have less bandwidth as individuals. Rather, it is that the experience of poverty reduces anyone’s bandwidth…

One cannot take a vacation from poverty. Simply deciding not to be poor—even for a bit—is never an option….

Our data suggest causality runs at least as strongly in the other direction: that poverty—the scarcity mindset—causes failure. (pp. 7, 13, 148, 155)

To place this research on scarcity/poverty in the context of in-school only reform:

Children cannot take a vacation from poverty during the school day. Simply deciding poverty is beyond our control during the school day is a myopic option for failure.

Claiming poverty lies beyond our control is simply false. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has evidence that ending money scarcity will eliminate poverty and by doing so academic improvement follows:

The impact of increases in income on cognitive development appears roughly comparable with that of spending similar amounts on school [emphasis added] or early education programmes. Increasing household income could substantially reduce differences in schooling outcomes, while also improving wider aspects of children’s well-being.

If we want better teachers and higher student achievement, let’s, then, stop wasting money on the unsupported array of in-school only, teacher-centered, standards-and-testing driven reforms, and directly address poverty in children’s lives and inequity in their schools.

Continuing down the path Wiggins and Hattie advocate, we remain mired in doing the wrong things the right ways. Let’s take a better path.

[1] See the following reviews and critiques of Hattie’s work:


18 thoughts on “Teacher Quality, Wiggins and Hattie: More Doing the Wrong Things the Right Ways”

  1. Thank you for the complexity of your argument. Sometimes I don’t always understand or know your references, but I do understand what you are trying to convey to teachers and all of us.

  2. I see why you would say much research has resulted in the commodification of education, yet I am not sure Hattie can be lumped in with Pearson Publishing and Bill Gates. This may go to the crux of a lot of what happens in education. You have those individuals and universities focused on research and theories and other more on practice. I hazard to say Hattie would agree that practice and conditions vary so much, that his research should not be simplified. That has been my understanding of his writings, yet people can change. I will say that in either case, his research is pretty spot on in practice for those that work in the classroom. Or maybe most classrooms in most countries.

    1. What a well-thought out and interesting response to Wiggins’ UbD empire. I work in a school that has dived into UbD (as the ultimate learning experience) K-12. It is a private, homogenous school, so UbD is one more tool. Poverty is not something we think about, at all.
      However, my first grade daughter goes to a Title I school where the demographics single us out as part of the 70% Hispanic population, yet our diversity makes us “appear” as part of the 12% white minority (we are a tri-cultural family). Hence, my daughter as a result of her first and last name is in a class that highlights her as the only fair-skinned and fair-haired girl in the room. The rest are Mexican children.
      I’ve had first hand insight into the learning dynamics of a classroom that by our government and societal definition is labeled as “underprivileged”. I also have the added insight of being born and raised in Mexico; hence, my observational standpoint is deeper and wider.
      Consequently, I want to add that Culture is just as important as Poverty in defining student success.
      I still cringe when I remember the principal of my daughter’s school on “Back to School night” stating that his goal for the year was to become “the highest performing school in Georgia” (!!) Mind you he was speaking to a small crowd of only white people who work very hard to insure their children do not get caught in a classroom with “Hispanic” children; and when it was time to visit the classrooms I was the only parent who showed up to visit my daughter’s classroom. Many of these children can barely speak Spanish correctly. Now they are faced with the task of learning in English and asking to perform for ideals their parents do not subscribe to. Wouldn’t it make more sense to teach them in both languages and teach them about the ties between Mexico and the US? At least they would find themselves within the already highly complex life they navigate.
      All of this while schools talk about “cultural competencies” and being able to “navigate successfully” in another country. Keynote speeches about teaching multicultural Ed (and here’s the irony) so that we may be the globally competitive. Hence, we want to be “multicultural” in order to achieve the iconic American cultural value of competition (ha! it’s kind of a joke). Meanwhile we completely ignore the needs of the culturally different in our country. The PTA is entirely run by white women who ask for money in their heavily English accent Spanish, claiming it is for the benefit of the children. Really?!?
      My daughter is bilingual and therefore is forced into the awareness that from a very young age, Hispanic students in schools have an extensive vocabulary (none of which is positive) to define “white people”. While I have an evolved understanding of the why’s and how’s of this process, my daughter, who is 6 cannot comprehend it is not personal. For her it is a daily battle to go to school. Thus, I have been forced to bring it to the principal’s attention.
      Yet, the principal’s response is to have the counselor “assign them a homework assignment” that defines what it means to be a good friend. Most children failed to bring it and those that did were culturally inclined. The counselor never returned to talk about their responses. The bullying continues. Teaching a 6 year-old about empathy and oppression is not the answer. I’ve found she has to suffer through the experience and she is teaching me about it. I listen though. Who will listen to the other children without wanting to correct or direct their thought towards “whiteness”?
      While I am concerned for my daughters well-being (and it is being quite a year of crying and self-esteem building) I am aware that these are my duties as a parent, and I am taking measures to insure that my children (I have four and they all have similar experiences at different levels) will be in a safer learning environment.
      However, the 70% of Hispanic population will continue to be in an unsafe environment that does not consider their well-being as Hispanic people. They will continue to learn how to swim backwards and upstream all the while thinking they are unworthy of their “educational path”. They will continually fight and resent who their culture views as “the oppressor” (the white system) while continuously striving to become like them.

      In the end what I really wanted to say, was that I agree with your analyses. It is very accurate. We are only finding ways to improve results in the wrong structure. If we want to become the “highest performing anything” we need to find out who the performers are. Check out this amazing article:
      Thanks for providing me with an outlet space. Clearly I needed it!

      1. Lisa,
        Wow, your experience highlights so many problems. Thanks for the link to the Wired story about Sergio Juarez Correa. That story is one I want to share with many, many people. But I wonder what you and Paul and others think about its implications? It could be read as one of those heroic teacher stories which would reinforce Wiggins and other school reformers’ insistence that it’s the teacher that counts, more than the outside circumstances. It could also be read as supporting a highly technological approach to education: put kids in front of computers and they’ll learn. I do think Correa is a teacher with superb instincts and great love for children and their possibilities, and those are important qualities. But notice that he also had some “professional development”–he had to find it on his own, of course. Notice also that the administrators of his school and school system seem not to have learned much from what he did. I like Correa’s own concern about the way standardized test scores were the measure of his students’ learning and the way they got recognized. Also, there’s no denying the poverty his students deal with, their lack of access to resources (including computers and the web), and the challenges that lie in their paths no matter how well they learn. What happens to them when they leave Correa’s classroom?
        I agree that poverty should not be an “excuse” for teachers and schools to give up. Good things can happen in poor schools and in poor students’ lives. But achievements against the odds should not be an “excuse” for the powerful and for social systems to maintain the status quo. It’s true that status quo, traditional education prevents innovation like that Correa has practiced. But a system driven by standardized tests, corporate curricula, and teacher “accountability” does not foster such innovation either.
        Understanding by Design makes some sense. The problem is, do we ever stop to think what the true goals of education are? Is that part of the public policy discussion? Too often, such discussions assume that the goal of education is success in the educational system, a circular argument. Or in the U.S., the goal is an increase in the GNP and the lifetime earnings of graduates. Another goal is having students go to college. But none of these goals include what matters to many people: creating a just and sustainable society; fostering creativity; finding individual fulfillment and meaning across one’s lifetime; peaceful and loving relationships among people; finding and creating beauty; learning respect for all life. None of these goals can be measured by standardized test data; none can be achieved by holding teachers and schools “accountable.” Hey, I want children to learn to read and write and think and compute. All children need these abilities in a high degree. But I also care about what and how they read, write, think, analyze, create, and do. Correa would be an excellent teacher in any classroom, perhaps; but the best way to view his work is within his situation. In the place where he teaches, with the students he has, with the constraints and limitations on him and those students, he is figuring out how to create conditions for learning that matters.

  3. “Reformers” always focus on the wrong things. Kids are the same everywhere you go–it is the world *around them* that changes. Kids living in poverty have different priorities than children of affluence, and those educational paradigms that don’t take this into account will always be less than successful. Blaming teachers for not being able to educate children born into poverty is akin to blaming teachers *for* that poverty.

    Yes, teachers can–and do–affect change within the system, but they must always do so within the existing power structure. And with regard to theory vs. practice, I am reminded of the old axiom: “In *theory*, theory and practice are the same thing. In *practice* they are not.”

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