An Objective Perspective (1)

Teacher appraisal has been on my mind a lot recently. This is because in my school we have had a series of discussions about it at senior leadership level, which have led to a decision to move away from objectives based on pupil attainment/progress data. I am well aware that this is far from original and that many schools did so a long time ago, if they ever used pupil data objectives at all. Others will no doubt be reconsidering them in the light of the Teacher Workload Advisory Group’s welcome warnings against their thoughtless use (2018). Even so, it is a big and bold move for a highly successful school with plenty of reasons to be risk-averse, and I am very proud that we have agreed to make the change. Before going any further, I should make it clear that my experience has been in secondary schools and my points apply to that setting. I am not sure whether or not they are relevant to teacher appraisal in primary schools, because I know next to nothing about it.

Appraising Appraisal

I have been uncomfortable with pupil data objectives ever since I first came across them early in my career, mainly because, to use a rather childish phrase, they don’t seem fair. The arguments against them on ethical grounds are well-rehearsed by union reps up and down the country: students’ results are outside of a teacher’s control, they are based on questionable data, they contribute to teacher stress levels and may drive them out of the profession. These arguments are important and valid. I used to make them once when I was a union rep and I still adhere to them now. But they are not the focus of this post. My attention here is not on whether pupil data objectives are ethical, but on whether they are effective.

This question cannot be answered without considering another one: what purpose should teacher appraisal serve? Paradoxically, I do not think that it is to judge the quality of a teacher’s work. At least, I do not think we have any reliable means of doing this accurately, so there is little point in pretending otherwise. It is easy to find flaws in lesson observations, work scrutiny, student voice and all other methods used by schools to assess how well their teachers teach.

So if we cannot judge how well our teachers are doing their job and are attempting to appraise the unappraisable, is there any point in conducting appraisal at all? I would argue that there is, but I would accept that it is poorly named. Chris Moyse (2019) refers to ‘professional growth’ instead, and I think this is much more apt, as well as more pleasant to the ear. If we understand the purpose not as the assessment of teachers, but as a tool to promote improvement in their practice, it becomes much more meaningful.

A Question of Objectives

With this reconsidered purpose in mind, we can judge the effectiveness of the process by the extent to which it enables teachers to build their capacity to educate students. Does the pupil data objective help us to achieve this end? I see it as a hindrance rather than a help, for the following reasons:

  • The pupil progress objective is almost always focused on year groups taking public exams (11 and 13). It assumes that this is when the teacher makes the most difference to student outcomes, but the evidence I have considered does not support this view. For example, new knowledge is built upon existing knowledge, so it stands to reason that the Key Stage 3 teachers are as important as those in Key Stage 4 or 5. Moreover, success in exams generally requires fluent reading skills and a broad vocabulary, so perhaps we should go even further back and give the credit to those who taught our students phonics in the early years. Of course, it would not be practical to set up an appraisal system to reflect these contributions when it comes to pay progression, but that does not make it right to pretend that all the important teaching is done in the final year or two. If we want teachers to work hard at improving provision in the earlier stages of school, we need to give them equal status.
  • One of the functions of appraisal objectives is to focus a teacher’s attention on specific aspects of her job, thus increasing her capacity to do it effectively. I think that the best objectives will bring benefits to many students over a sustained period of time as a result of this improvement. Pupil data objectives tend to do the opposite; they create a perverse incentive for a teacher to invest lots of effort into improving the outcomes in the short-term for a particular class or group, without considering the things which would support all students in the long-run (TWAG 2018). I am not suggesting that teachers would do this cynically, but that prioritisation of one class may lead them inadvertently to pay less attention to the rest.
  • Anxiety over achievement of pupil data objectives makes it all too tempting for teachers to direct their efforts towards last minute interventions like revision sessions. To the best of my understanding, the evidence for the effectiveness of these strategies is thin, whereas the opportunity cost to the teacher is considerable. We would be better served by an appraisal system which promotes patient, long-term development of knowledgeable, conscientious students, who will not reach March of Year 11 and require excessive hand-holding as they prepare for the final showdown.
  • Exam results are worthy of attention and teachers can learn a good deal from analysing the outcomes of their students. Unfortunately, pupil data objectives do not lead to intelligent and candid reflection on grades, but a defensive and nervous reaction. In my experience, instead of considering what their students’ results reveal, teachers tend to line up their explanations in advance of a review meeting (‘But have you considered Molly’s level of absence?’ ‘Here is a copy of the letter I sent home about Oscar.’ etc). It would be dishonest to pretend that anyone gains anything from a conversation like this, so we need to think about how to lower the stakes when it comes to teachers’ accountability.
  • Appraisal is an opportunity for teachers to reflect intelligently and open-mindedly on the things which will make them better at their job and how to achieve them. In my experience, the pupil data objective is not an effective method of eliciting this type of thought. On the contrary, the action planning section of the documentation tends to be completed in a rush, often with copied and pasted material from previous years, promising to monitor data regularly, ring parents of ‘underachieving’ students, liaise with pastoral leaders etc. I am not saying that these things are bad in themselves (although I feel a little sorry for all the hapless heads of year who are on the receiving end of all that ‘liaison’), but they hardly represent deep thought about professional development and pedagogical craft.

An Optimistic Outlook

Whether we call it appraisal, performance management, professional growth or anything else, I believe there is great value in having a framework within which the needs and aspirations of the individual staff member are examined alongside the needs and aspirations of the organisation, with the aim of setting goals which will enable both to flourish. This sort of planning is a precious and important thing, which deserves safeguarding in the time-poor environment of school life, and we should take it seriously enough to try to manage it well.

I do not think that objectives based on pupil attainment or progress are a helpful ingredient of the recipe. They have distorting effects and do not direct teacher effort towards the most beneficial endeavours. There are so many things which teachers can do to develop their own practice and thus improve their students’ understanding; endlessly worrying about the latest data drop is not one of them.

So in the light of our bold decision, I look forward to future appraisal cycles with great confidence. Do I think that moving away from pupil data objectives will lead to better exam results next year? I have no idea and I will have no way of proving causation even if the results do improve. But I genuinely believe that our new approach (described in Part 2) will give our teachers a more secure stepping stone towards becoming more effective at their jobs, rather than merely providing paperwork to justify their pay increases, and I am sure that such improvements will have a knock-on effect on the quality of our students’ education.

If we are right about this at my school, it will be a resounding case of ‘objective fully achieved.’

References

Department for Education (2018) Government response to the Workload Advisory Group report ‘Making Data Work’. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/753496/Workload_Advisory_Group_response_table_final.pdf (accessed 040619)

Moyse C (2019) https://chrismoyse.wordpress.com/2019/01/30/growing-great-teachers-improve-not-prove/ (accessed 040619)

Teacher Workload Advisory Group (2018) Making Data Work. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/754349/Workload_Advisory_Group-report.pdf (accessed 040619)

3 thoughts on “An Objective Perspective (1)

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