Our short-termist school culture can be fixed by changing appraisals so that evidence-based practice and improvement in teaching, not pupils’ performance, become the measures of progression, says Phil Naylor.
In the past couple of years, the rise of evidence-based practice in schools has been a welcome check on educational ideologies and pedagogical fads. The move away from short-termist approaches to school improvement is surely recognition of the importance of continuing professional development for teachers. But such progress towards the greater use of evidence does not seem to have spread to teacher appraisal.
Teacher-appraisal targets are statutory. The Department for Education updated its guidance, Implementing your school’s approach to pay, in September 2018, and again in March 2019, and it is essential reading for all school leaders and teachers. But I would argue that it could be viewed differently through the prism of evidence and research-informed teaching.
The traditional appraisal, as set out according to the helpful DfE guidelines (in bold, below), is often applied in the following ways in schools:
Are school leaders clear about the type and levels of performance that might lead to pay progression?
Invariably, leaders want to see improvement in pupil outcomes measured by progress scores in exams and assessments.
Are school leaders clear on how to reflect this by setting individual objectives?
No, but leaders decide on an arbitrary data target for the school based on pupil performance on entry and previous school performance. They distil that down to departments, faculties and subjects, and then reflect this in a challenging performance target for individual teachers (usually exams).
Do objectives clearly identify success criteria?
Usually this amounts to data on performance in exams with some compliance to policy and, hopefully, a CPD target.
Are the targets or objectives achievable?
No, they are inherently unfair, as all teachers build on the work of current or previous teachers so it is impossible to attribute positive performance or otherwise solely to the performance of the teacher.
How will you measure performance?
Data from assessments or exams backed by lesson observation.
How will you know if teachers have met their objectives?
Some targets will be set around policy compliance, which are invariably met; the determining target against which teachers’ pay increases are decided is usually the data on student performance.
Now, we should believe, as a profession, that “every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better," as educationalist Dylan Wiliam said. But by continuing to focus our teachers on the shallow learning that can be evidenced in data targets in appraisals, we switch attentions to the short term instead of professional development. This can damage a school’s culture: in times of funding challenges, pay progression can only happen for some at the expense of others, so teachers may be more inclined to focus on their own classroom, thereby undermining support for newer entrants to the profession. Schools then become inward-looking places, lacking openness and collaboration.
Time for change
It is time to look at teacher-appraisal guidance differently. Let’s put professional development at the heart of it because it influences recruitment, retention, wellbeing and school improvement. A relationship between appraisal and professional learning is essential for the improvement of teacher practice; according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, “without a clear link to professional-development opportunities, the impact of teacher appraisal and performance review will be relatively limited”.
It is clear, and worth pointing out here, that most – if not all – schools will have a CPD target as part of the appraisal process. But this target is often additional and not directly related to the data target on student performance. The target may be about gaining a leadership qualification or attending a course or conference, the completion of which merely amounts to a tick in the appraisal. But what if we made professional growth and development the target instead?
The evidence is clear that the most important action schools can take to improve outcomes for students is supporting their teachers to be more effective, and the most reliable way to achieve this is to develop a professional culture in which teachers are continually adapting and refining their skills and methods.
So how should we do this?
I think that disciplined inquiry is the answer. In disciplined inquiry, teachers are asked to consider an aspect of their practice they would like to evaluate. Teachers are asked to design an inquiry question pertinent to their students, school and context, carry out a small-scale inquiry and report back on the outcomes. The process could look like this:
What is my inquiry question? For example, how does intervention affect outcome for the cohort?
- Which student cohort have I identified for the intervention and why?
- Which pre- and post-test questions or tasks would give me the most useful results?
- Which control factors would best ensure that my inquiry is ‘disciplined’?
- What are the limitations and obstacles that might affect my inquiry?
- What are the results of my inquiry and how generalisable are they?
According to this process, the completion of the inquiry is the objective, rather than whether or not the intervention is successful. This allows us to look at appraisal differently.
School leaders would then be very clear that the only performance needed to evidence progression was their involvement in the process of disciplined inquiry. This would be evidenced through regular CPD sessions on the design of the question, citing the sources of high-quality evidence-based practice and how to implement the inquiry.
Such a disciplined-inquiry process would help our teachers to continue to improve. It would also help schools to develop a culture that encouraged teachers to progress and pupils to achieve.
Importantly, the evidence for appraisal would no longer be weighted towards student data, backed up by lesson observation. And staff would not be hamstrung by data-driven targets for which they could not be held solely accountable.
Teachers would then be free to ask better questions about teaching and learning, to collaborate and focus on specific improvements to their practice.
The ultimate test of this would be any identifying improvement in pupil outcomes, especially among our most disadvantaged pupils. Is it worth a try in your school?
Phil Naylor is assistant director of the Blackpool Research School and expert adviser, Blackpool CPD Hub, for the Teacher Development Trust
This article originally appeared on Tes.com.
Read more about teacher CPD in our Workforce Handbook.