Sunday, April 24, 2011

Do schools need more performance evaluation?

You may have noticed an editorial  in The Australian this week by Ben Jensen from the Grattan Institute advocating better performance evaluation for teachers. The editorial is a summary of the institute’s recent report “Better Teacher Appraisal and Feedback: Improving Performance” which is supposed to be an evidence-based approach to teacher appraisal.

Some bits of the report are good. Some I have problems with. Basically, I think the Grattan Institute are advocating some good ideas but I hope no one pays too much attention to them because those ideas are almost certain to get perverted into things they never meant. I’ve got three criticisms and two attaboys for Ben Jensen. Read on to see what they are.

First  and I’m going to try to not foam at the mouth here — the report starts with the obligatory ‘crisis in education’ overview. The body of the report opens with:

“Australia is lagging in vital areas of school education. On the latest figures, student performance has stagnated in mathematics and fallen sharply in reading. Nearly a third of Year Nine students have only basic writing skills”. (pg 3)

This kind of stuff makes me bang my head against the whiteboard. Probably it is worthy of a post of its own. But let me just point out these facts:
There is no great crisis in Australian education. ‘Nuff said.

Don’t get me wrong; we can do better. There are kids leaving my classes not knowing stuff I’d like them to know. But you don’t have to bash the whole country. OK I’m moving on now.

Second, Jensen says he is looking at the evidence but not to the extent of actually admitting some things don't work.  In his editorial he suggests that schools choose for themselves “four of eight methods to assess teachers and provide feedback”. But if you read his report it is clear that two of the eight are no good: parent surveys and self assessment. If they don't work, I say don't do them. The report fails to clearly advise against any method of teacher appraisal. My reading of the report is that the most useful forms of appraisal are student feedback and peer observation or team teaching. The report authors also like 360° feedback which includes these more or less by definition. Jensen should say so in his editorial.

Third, the report may impose another massive bureaucracy on an already bureaucratic industry. To their credit they talk a good line around this issue. They point out that current teacher appraisal systems are widely regarded to be useless; 61% of teachers regard them as having no impact on the classroom. But my antenna went up when they were describing Ringwood Secondary College as a model school. See if this seems like a burdensome administrative requirement to you:

“Teachers set two individual goals, with at least one reflecting the school’s agreed model of highly effective teaching. Teachers must also set team and leadership goals, professional learning goals and identify other contributions they intend to make to the school during the year. They must link their individual and team goals to the school goals and priorities, ensuring that everyone is working towards the same outcomes. Further, teachers set targets for each goal and list up to three strategies to achieve them. Teachers also select data sources that will help them determine their success”

I could continue, but I already feel oppressed.  I tend to sympathise with Robert Sutton’s view that performance appraisals are a terrible waste of time anyway.

That all said, I quite like a lot of the report. It seems eminently obvious to me that teachers need to spend more time watching other people teach. Observation and a good chat about it afterwards (let's avoid the phrase 'professional dialogue') is the absolute best way to improve your teaching. Teachers should also pay more attention to student feedback on their teaching. The kids do know if they are learning anything.

I think feedback loops are important. Teachers should get a constant stream of information about how they are doing so that we can constantly work to improve. I don’t like it when you call it performance appraisal though – that makes me think you’re going to fire me or pay the person in the next room a bonus for making sure they are better than me. Next week I’ll write about some practical things anyone can do in a school to improve those feedback loops consistent with what the Grattan Institute says about the evidence.


  1. Well, well, well! I like your blog. I want to point out, however, you are operating as a self-critical, motivated, committed teacher. Appraisal may seem a waste of time to you, but wait till your guppies have the world's worst teacher - I bet you'll want a system of appraisal then! We need to be accountable. While I agree a bureaucratic approach sucks, we should be given more release time to institute a meaningful approach to teacher improvement. I quite like Ringwood's model if we get two hours a week to work on it - that would enhance quality teaching. HS from Tassie

  2. I totally support the notion of teacher self-appraisal and using the others in their immediate teaching cohort to help them. I would like to find out how to reach a particularly recalcitrant class and reading this has given me the impetus to get up and go speak with the other teachers of this particular group. I want to look inside and see what works for them - whatever it is, "it" is currently not happening in period 4 on a Thursday!!!
    Criticial and reflective thought MUST be a requirement of the job that demands precisely these qualities from the teens in our classes - if they are meant to be able to do this surely we should put ourselves out there too?