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Holding Teachers To Account Fairly

December 13, 2015

This is a follow up to my recent post asking Should Managers Tell Teachers What To Do?

A lot of the discussion about teaching focusses on problems related to teacher accountability. In particular:

  • lesson observations;
  • work scrutinies;
  • assigning responsibility for exam results.

It’s difficult to unpick whether the problems with these things are fundamental, i.e. that teachers simply should not be held to account in any of these ways, or whether the problems are with the way these are done. However, I would suggest that watching a teacher at work and looking at their classes’ books and results are not inherently outrageous things for a manager to do, but the way these things are done at the moment are often outrageously and obviously harmful.

A lot of the problems here are about aims. The same systems are being used for several different aims at once:

  1. To identify teachers failing to do their job;
  2. To help teachers improve and develop;
  3. To enforce policies and initiatives;
  4. For appraisal/performance management;
  5. To ensure particular outcomes (e.g. better results or a pass from Ofsted) are achieved.

It is not actually possible to achieve all five of these aims at once. So for instance, lesson observations for purpose 1 need to be carried out by the most senior managers; be unexpected, be based on the simplest and clearest criteria and should reach definitive conclusions. Lesson observations for purpose 2 should be carried out between people with similar specialities and responsibilities and allow for discussion, detail and disagreement. Lesson observation might not even be a good idea at all for purposes 3 and 4, given that this will encourage one set of behaviours when being observed and different behaviour the rest of the time. Similar issues arise for other types of accountability. Does the feedback from work scrutinies actually help teachers improve? Does blaming teachers for poor exam results improve the results next time?

But even if we disentangled the aims in particular cases (e.g. observations for development, work scrutinies for enforcement) we don’t solve the problems of having different aims. There will be cases where aims contradict. Cases where following a policy makes a teacher less effective; for instance if more marking leaves them with less time for effective planning. Cases where the act of appraising a teacher undermines their confidence in their ability to do their job. Cases where enforcing a style of teaching that OFSTED is thought to want will prevent the results that teachers are required to get from their students.

The aims need to be prioritised. What is it that managers most want from their teachers? And this may vary depending on the situation. In some schools, where discipline has collapsed, compliance with the whole school discipline policy may turn out to be a more urgent priority than anything else, even competent teaching. In some schools there are so many experienced teachers willing to share their expertise that formal structures for improving teaching are unnecessary. But beyond certain minimum standards that all schools should require of all staff, most of what schools want is a trade-off between priorities and if the systems used to hold staff to account don’t have clear priorities, how are staff meant to know what is important? It is particularly important for accountability that no professional is held accountable for both methods and outcomes at the same time. As soon as you dictate their methods, then their outcomes are out of their control.

And even if the priorities are clear, that does not always mean that bureaucratic enforcement is the best way of achieving them. It’s a cliché to say teachers aren’t trusted, but how often do schools set in place formal systems to achieve things that could be achieved informally? Is there any reason you couldn’t just ask a teacher if they are up to date with their marking? If you have a great new way of teaching, is there any reason why you can’t persuade teachers it works rather than forcing them to use it? Do you always have to watch what a teacher does instead of just asking what they are going to do? Perhaps it’s a response to OFSTED, but how often do schools seem to care about having paperwork that proves they are trying to achieve something rather than caring about whether they are actually achieving it? And that’s without the cost of all the enforcement and systems. Comprehensives in England seems spectacularly over-managed. The number of people employed as managers is astounding, and even more astounding when so many of them see their job as to manage their colleagues. Nobody should be paid to line-manage fewer than 5 people, probably not fewer than 10. Nobody should be filling spreadsheets or databases with appraisal data. Nobody should be being repeatedly observed by senior managers unless they are actually thought to be failing. And most of all, nobody should be employed to create work for other people.

Finally, there’s the question of whether the systems actually work. Do they make judgements which are unreliable? One off lesson observations don’t. Do they actually measure the wrong things, or nothing at all? And watch out for Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” There’s no point getting particular outcomes that you wanted if they lose their desirability in the process. If the behaviour an accountability system encourages is not what you want, then it is a bad system. If accountability for results has managers moving under-achieving kids out of their classes, then it is counter-productive even if those managers suddenly get better results. If work scrutinies/marking policies discourage teachers from marking as often as they would, then it is a waste of time. If lesson observations make teachers spend less time preparing all their other lessons, then nobody gains.

So to sum up, here is my checklist for accountability and scrutiny systems. If you are a head check whether your school’s accountability systems avoid each of the following:

  1. Trying to achieve multiple aims simultaneously and without a clear indication of priority;
  2. Holding teachers accountable for methods and outcomes simultaneously;
  3. Enforcing, and creating paperwork for, things that would happen anyway;
  4. Creating work that does not have to be done;
  5. Measuring and judging things that don’t matter;
  6. Measuring and judging things unreliably;
  7. Encouraging behaviour that is actually counter-productive;
  8. Wasting money, particularly on management salaries.

3 comments

  1. […] This is a follow up to my recent post asking Should Managers Tell Teachers What To Do? A lot of the discussion about teaching focusses on problems related to teacher accountability. In particular: lesson observations; work scrutinies; assigning responsibility for exam results. It's difficult to unpick whether the problems with these things are fundamental, i.e. that…  […]


  2. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  3. At a secondary school I used to teach at, they have now introduced a new sanctions ladder…………….for staff, get too far up the ladder………….?



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