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Grade Me: The Trouble With Teacher Accountability

When it comes to education and what to do about our schools, everyone has an opinion. Melinda, a high school teacher, turns up the heat on the politicians, the teacher’s union and her teaching colleagues to ask the burning question — how can we improve the practice of teaching?

As a profession, teaching is one of the great political footballs. We teachers are often regarded, if not with actual contempt, then certainly with extreme suspicion. We have it easy, what with all those holidays we take and with the wage we earn, not to mention the accolades and praise we are occasionally given. Worse, we are constantly claiming some sort of special status, as if the work we do is somehow exempt from the performance measurements, standards measurements and efficiency criteria that everyone else has to work with. We’re forever going on strike and when we are at work it’s the taxpayer who’s footing the bill. The cheek!

I am not here to again have that fight, so let me clear up a few things right away. No-one wants students or teachers to fail or do badly. No-one. Not the administrators, not the public, nor any government, and certainly not the teachers themselves, or the students. The continuing decline in educational performance is of real concern for all of us. We should take no option off the table when it comes to addressing the problem. If performance pay for teachers helps, we shouldn’t resist it. If greater accountability gives us better teachers, then make me more accountable. The politics of education is distracting and so far only seems to be scoring us own goals.

This may be tired old territory, but I’m tired of other people trampling through it, speaking on my behalf. I want to tell you what I know about teaching as a teacher, explain some of the biggest obstacles to good practice and what might help clear some of them.

I’m a Government Secondary School teacher in Victoria, Australia, and both my State Government and the Federal Opposition have plans to make me more accountable and to have poor performing teachers exit the profession. Federal Shadow Minister for Education Christopher Pyne informs me that up to 1 in 7 teachers are terrible and need to be removed and replaced with smart, enthusiastic graduates. Everyone from federal ministers to the vast general public feel they have the solution to what is commonly talked about as our failing education standards.

The professional standards that teachers work towards every year bear hardly any practical relevance to teaching.

Less than a decade ago, the focus was on curriculum development and the push was to include things like values, civics and an emphasis on Literacy and Numeracy teaching. The eyes of the nation have now turned to the teachers. Both the Victorian State Liberal government and the Federal Opposition have raised concern over unsuccessful teachers, teacher training and ways to make teachers more accountable — there’s that phrase again, ‘accountable teaching’. There’s a firm belief that better teachers will result in improved educational outcomes. This makes intuitive sense and is presumably true to an extent, once we have decided what ‘better teachers’ means. But it leaves aside that much more challenging problem in education — the inequality of the students that we are teaching.

Success in education, for all levels of government, is measured by international comparisons, most commonly the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) run by the OECD. PISA tests are carried out every three years and assess the performance of 15-year-olds in Maths, Reading and Science. The top performers in all three domains are the OECD partner economies Shanghai and Hong Kong, and countries South Korea and Finland. Much has been made of our falling scores, as Australia dropped from 4th to 9th in Reading, 7th to 10th in Sciences and 8th to 15th in Maths between 2003 and the last PISA test. Previous governments poured money into Literacy and Numeracy coaches and programs to improve teacher and student performances in these areas. They emphasised their roles in the curriculum and implemented curriculum that had very specific benchmarks and progression points to indicate progress. These evidently haven’t been strong enough measures and it is now time for teachers to be held accountable, to raise their own standards — to be measured in a fair and comparable way to the rest of the world and to each other in the hope that we can stop our slipping rankings and the growing divide between high and low achieving schools.

The preoccupation with comparing our education system to others in Asia, and less frequently, Finland, needs to be treated with perspective and caution. Comparisons of the amount of money governments spend per student, or the training that their teachers have, must also be met with a critical analysis of the cultural and other factors that influence their education systems. This is something frequently overlooked by politicians wishing to make swift changes to Australia’s system.

Teaching is respected in Korea and Finland. With teaching courses some of the hardest to get into, the profession has become prestigious, admired by both students and the wider community. What teachers do in the classroom is trusted and acknowledged as vital and important work. Though it requires a Masters degree and is a prized course to get into at college, when the acceptance rate across the board at, for example, Korea University is 6.05% (in 2010) then all courses are prized courses. Theirs is a different higher education system and that filters down to primary and secondary education systems. The increased pressure to get into university creates a different dynamic within secondary classrooms and one that is not especially comparable to Australia’s. It is relatively easy to go to a high-ranked university in Australia, and there are a range of pathways to allow for alternate entry if that is the path you want to take. Domestic students qualify for the HELP (Higher Education Loans Program), where the Australian Government pays for students’ tertiary education and students repay their student contribution only after earning more than $49,095 annually, removing much of the financial burden of attending University. In addition to this, pathways to tertiary courses can be found by completing Diploma courses at TAFE colleges, or by attending university in a regional area where the entry scores are much lower. The fact that the Korean government decided, to much controversy, that it had to step in and impose a law that stated that students could not be tutored past 10pm because many of them were being educated until midnight or later in a quest to gain university entrance, is a clear sign that politicians shouldn’t be making the simplistic comparisons they so often do.

While the equally successful Finland also has a Masters degree minimum for teachers, the country also has a more homogenous social makeup than Australia does. Unlike Australia, where there is a growing gap between the funding for Independent and Public schools, with both the Federal Opposition and current elected government vowing to ensure that no Independent schools lose funding (even stating that Independent schools are underfunded in comparison to public schools), all schools in Finland are government funded and teachers and schools are granted autonomy over the way their schools are run and subjects are taught. Teachers have a lot of power in deciding school curriculum, subject-specific syllabus, textbooks, assessment principles and schools’ internal policies, using the National Curriculum as a guide rather than a rigorous set of items to be taught. This is strikingly different to China or Korea. I’ve had teachers return from study tours of Finland to describe the open classrooms with fires and learning circles in them, a far cry from the large, traditional classrooms of China. Yet they are getting similar results.

The socialised approach to education means that Australia’s neoliberal politicians are far less likely to hold Finland up as a model for Australian success. Much would have to change to emulate that system here — it would require more money and the destruction of the private education system as we know it. Criticism of simplistic international comparisons aside, the Australian system is still broken. If we accept the PISA data, standards are falling and the public, rightly, demand us as teachers to be accountable. Our system does need more rigorous scrutiny, but where do we start? Broadly, politicians propose two types of accountability measures — broad, nationalised testing systems that use student results to measure, judge and sanction teachers and schools, or smaller, school driven reform that lets schools set, judge and meet individual goals.

One of the easiest ways that governments can attempt to ‘measure’ teacher success and student ability is to implement widespread, high stakes, standardised tests. These tests are taken annually, or biannually, and can be used to track student progress, manage school funding, reward successful teachers and intervene with failing schools. Australia has only recently seen the implementation of high stakes testing, with the MySchool website only going live in 2010, but this data is yet to be used to sanction schools or teachers.

In the USA, the development of what is known as ‘high stakes accountability’ is used widely, with students from grades 3–8 assessed annually to not only provide a measure of their success, but also a measure of their teachers’ success. Teaching and administering these tests and the subsequent results have become the backbone for the educational reform known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). NCLB was a Congress Act passed in 2001 by the Bush Administration (and maintained by the Obama Administration) to implement ‘standards based education reform’ with the hope that it would shrink the performance gap between high and low performing students and schools. Student progress, teacher performance and the way schools are funded and run often come down to the results on these annual tests.

NCLB has certainly had an impact on schooling in America. There is no doubt that it has highlighted schools that were underperforming on these tests, and in many cases provided funding and support for schools to improve their performance on these tests. Schools now spend more time developing the numeracy and literacy skills of their students, and the testing has often resulted in an increased performance in taking these tests over time. NCLB also resulted in the US Government now having the ability to impose punitive sanctions on local schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) towards proficiency in tested subjects. Over the course of five years, the repercussions of failing to meet yearly progress targets become amplified, leading eventually to firing staff, submitting to external control or closing the school. A school needs to pass proficiency standards (demonstrating AYP) to avoid receiving public sanctions such as being deemed ‘In Need of Improvement’. One of the reasons that sanctioned threats can result in a quick improvement is an increase in spending in curriculum development, teacher training and instructional technology. Teachers at such stigmatised schools work hard to get off that very public blacklist, providing students with support that may not have been available to them without NCLB.

I keep repeating a phrase — ‘in these tests.’ That’s because the policies and improvements we’re talking about, indeed the entire constellation of actions relating to NCLB, takes place within the reality of these tests and their results.

What are these tests a test of? Not anything to do with a love of learning, and not necessarily even an indication that students comprehend the subject matter. Often, they don’t. The Wire, a television drama that delineates the confusion and social entropy typical of many American cities, captures succinctly the futile frustration of the situation:

Roland ‘Prezbo’ Pryzbylewski: I don’t get it. All this so we score higher on the state tests? If we’re teaching the kids the test questions, what is it assessing in them?

Grace Sampson: Nothing. It assesses us. The test scores go up, they can say the schools are improving. The scores stay down, they can’t.

– The Wire, Season 4: Know your Place (2006)

The tests were implemented. They had a benchmark score. A year or so later, the scores had improved. Simply, kids got better at sitting the tests and answering the test questions. The Wire may be a fictional drama, but the same story appears again and again in the literature. Scores on the tests improved, so schools were seen to have improved — on the tests. But these rising test scores were at the expense of a substantial cut in the variety of subjects and teaching techniques, and increases in the stress and competition between teachers. Study after study reports the crowding out of ‘low stakes’ subjects like Art and History in favour of subjects that are being tested, such as Maths, Literacy Skills and in some states, Science. Teachers describe the reduction in class time spent on projects, discussion and student-centred learning to focus instead on test preparation. In the states where teacher performance is individually ranked and published, teachers became less likely to share resources and ideas with colleagues in fear that they would outperform them and they’d be jobless. These corrupting effects of NCLB on the practice of good education should be taken seriously when considering this approach to greater teacher accountability.

The widespread negative effects of high stakes testing does not mean we need reflexively adopt a blanket opposition to greater accountability measures for teachers, or proposals to remove poor teachers from the classroom. It is simply to point out the dangers and ineffectiveness of using high stakes testing as the preferred instrument of policy.

The worry of teachers, and the Australian Education Union (AEU), is that politicians will overlook this in their haste to implement something — anything. Teachers are hoping to avoid, as Sir Humphrey Appleby might say, a case of politician’s logic — ‘something must be done! Here is something, therefore I must do it.’

This is one concern of the AEU’s that should be supported. Unfortunately for the teaching profession, the AEU gives the impression that all teachers are beyond criticism, beyond being challenged, and beyond answering questions about what we do and how much time we actually spend doing it. Adversarial politics being what it is, the AEU may have good reasons for taking this stance, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it is nonetheless contributing to said adversarial politics rather than addressing the nature of the problem.

Any teacher, or representative of teachers, that steadfastly states that we’re all good, dedicated and above reproach is wrong, and — worse — dangerously and wilfully naive. Certain campaigns by the AEU are of course justifiable. The reduction of short term contracts and the skepticism towards adopting poorly articulated changes to funding and pay conditions are good fights, for example. Others are a bit overblown, such as the fisticuffs over class sizes, but that’s a conversation for another time. Most importantly, the resistance to criticism of teachers is certainly not productive.

It is hard for a graduate teacher to gain good experience in the classroom if they are changing schools every term or less, but the AEU should be fighting this by changing the way that the tenure system works, the ways teacher performance are measured and the ongoing effects our performance has on our employment. Currently in Australia, ongoing employment at a school is granted after 12 months’ continuous employment if a position of 12 months or more is available. Having jumped through these hoops, there is little to challenge a teacher’s employment within the system. There are no Key Performance Targets to work towards, there is no contract to hang on to, just ongoing employment. This is great from the perspective of job security, but it hardly guarantees good practice in that job, which ought to be the point.

teaching is not like most other practises and industries, nor is it clear why it’s so important that it should be.

Performance reviews are carried out annually, but they are little more than a joke. The professional standards that we work towards every year sound good, but they bear hardly any practical relevance to teaching. For instance — ‘demonstrate high-quality classroom teaching skills.’ This is simply begging the question. What are high quality teaching skills? How is that measured? What data will be collected to measure that? Who will collect it? How is it credible? I read my notes on this area of my review from last year and my target for this standard was ‘include more effective teaching practices.’ There was no detail as to what those practices were or how I would recognise my success in them.

This is typical for a performance review. There’s no talk of value adding, and no punishment or reprimand if i don’t meet the target. Not little accountability, no accountability. Some might say this is a good thing — that the ugly vocabulary of managerialism belongs nowhere near the hallowed practice of teaching. That as may be, it still obscures the problem of what can be done to encourage the flourishing of good teaching practice, unless you assume that it will simply and spontaneously burst forth of its own accord. When you peel away the layers of political posturing, there seems to be a genuine fear of scrutiny in this area on the part of the AEU and of many teachers. We can debate the substance, but blind opposition to the proposition of improving teacher performance does nothing but shut down that debate and put the public further offside. The AEU and teachers need to have conversations about the kinds of accountability policies (or whatever they’re to be called) that will be useful and constructive.

That said, the AEU needs to be challenging the government on the measures it plans to implement, which are not particularly useful or constructive. Governments tend to prefer high-stakes accountability measures to inspection or school-based performance reviews as they are all the things governments like — standardised, efficient, ‘unbiased’ and quantifiable. The problem with this is that standardised tests leave out an account of many things that matter and which have a bearing on the difference between individual schools and individual students. Studies state that students themselves and their home lives are the greatest indicators of success at school, not teacher performance. A poor teacher will result in poor progress over a year, and an excellent teacher can do many things to value add to a student, but it’s not a stretch to say that being a Burmese refugee in a school for the first time in your life has a greater impact on your performance than anything I could do in the classroom.

It is this difference between schools and students that teachers most often point out to politicians and critics when they ask why teachers can’t be held accountable and meet standardised targets like many other ‘industries’. They ask why we can’t have performance-based pay like most other jobs and industries, and characterise our reluctance as churlish. But it really is simply that teaching is not like most other practises and industries, nor is it clear why it’s so important that it should be.

Accountability measures must take into account individual differences and doing that reduces their usefulness in the eyes of many politicians who want to see the system as a whole. How do you raise accountability, and standards of teachers, while still taking into account the unique environments in which most schools exist?

One of the Victorian Government initiatives outlined in its directions paper has the potential to be a positive step in this direction, if handled correctly — a big if. They seek to implement mandated classroom observation. I may be an odd teacher here, but I want people to observe my classroom. I want principals, other teachers and my students to give me feedback and help me improve what I’m doing and the ways I do it. At the school where I teach, team teaching is common with teams of 3–5 teachers instructing a group of 40–70 students at the one time in purpose-built spaces. As well as larger classes, my school has adopted an Inquiry and Integrated Based Learning curriculum for students in Years 7–9 (12–15yr olds).

To give an idea what this looks like, once a day, students attend Investigate, where they learn in thematic units with a focus on individual interests within the theme and classes which emphasise skill acquisition as much as content. The Year 8 cohort is currently in the midst of Mediaeval History, where they have built trebuchets and are investigating the roles of gravitational potential and kinetic energy in moving a projectile. They will create displays of work to present to our sister campus about another element of Medieval History that they enjoyed. Last year we had students create elaborate and historically accurate castles in Google SketchUp and Minecraft. The Year 9s are completing a unit on Consuming. They can pick from topics such as mining, product development, water and carbon to investigate everything from development or extraction to marketing and the commercial and financial side of something like carbon.

It’s amazing and challenging for my teaching practice. It’s like having someone in my class observing me every lesson. To some that sounds terrifying and judgmental — other staff scrutinising your every failed lesson, your every bad day. But what it also means is that you can sit down at the end of a period and ask each other what went well and what didn’t, what techniques worked for one group of kids but not others, and how can we diversify our teaching to develop techniques that catch everyone. You plan lessons with the group, you have more eyes on kids and more people to consult with over a hard assessment decision.

Collaborative teaching is great when it’s done like that — collaboratively. Perhaps this could be used to drive teacher accountability, with an increased focus on team or collaborative teaching approaches, matched with feedback from students throughout the year. This would fit together with teacher reflections and evidence for adjusting their teaching because of this feedback. This could all be handled within the school, all taking into account the individual dynamics of a classroom or a school. The performance expectations and individual teacher goals would be tailored to their school, but evidence of performance and areas for improvement could be published to the wider community if it so requested.

Getting governments and the AEU onside to this approach would be tough on both fronts. The AEU would likely oppose it on a practical level as more work for teachers and on principle because of a resistance to scrutiny within the classroom. Governments might oppose it for not being rigorous enough or too easily manipulated by schools. But the external assessors the Government proposes would almost certainly dissociate the dynamic of the class and the school from their assessment, and would suggest an authoritarian stigma.

Similarly, pay for performance isn’t necessarily a bad idea, provided there are good answers to the question of how performance is to be assessed. Increasing the accountability of teachers, or removing teachers who are not engaged in the profession and not willing to improve what they are doing, are also not necessarily bad ideas, though it scarcely needs to be said that such matters need to be handled carefully. Several years ago the Victorian Government offered remuneration to older teachers looking to leave the profession, with money to go towards retraining and other expenses, and this is an example of one possible way for teachers to leave the profession without feeling victimised.

Much of the debate from all sides on these matters is preoccupied with wrong-headed assumptions. Which brings us back to the role of the teacher. Focussing on teachers and teaching is good, but neither occurs in a vacuum. Any proposal needs to reflect the environment that students are coming from and the effects this has on their education. It seems odd to say that the biggest factor in student progress after home life, socioeconomic status and parental employment is the teacher, then take into account only the teacher when it comes to evaluating both schools and teachers.

That’s why I’m suggesting that the best site for change to be implemented is within the school. Performance reviews are likely to be more rigorous and more relevant if undertaken with the school context firmly in mind. Teachers are likely to be more open to being held accountable for the teaching and learning of their students if the collaboration and feedback takes place among other teachers and students at their school. It is the school level that is best placed to set specific goals with staff and put sanctions in place if improvements don’t happen. It follows then that principals should have the right to hire and fire the best staff for their schools and critically evaluate the tenure system in place in state schools.

Many teachers resist any criticism of their teaching and the ways their students are learning, and governments face tough union opposition to these measures, without even knowing what they are, or how they will be measured. Governments will in turn insist on using high-stakes testing to support the accountability of teachers, even though it manifestly does not measure accurately students’ true learning and capabilities. These are easy political moves on both sides, easy to say they have done something when in fact nothing is being done.

A Year Seven boy once said to me ‘Miss, why do I have to learn this when I can just look it up on the internet?’ While many might despair at the lack of general knowledge that students have, I see it as a challenge for the way I teach. I need to find something that makes these kids curious enough to go out there and find out more about something, be it programming in Python, the effects of mining on the environment or why we stay pinned to the Earth instead of floating around like on the moon.

Teaching students to answer test questions seems the easiest, laziest form of teaching, and is a step backwards in the progress of education. It is rote learning content or procedures without thinking critically about why they happen, or what process is occurring to get that answer. With students carrying the answers to all that around in their pockets, why should we expect them to care? Why should regurgitating that knowledge be a measure of student success?

Critical thinking, research skills, the ability to synthesise and process information are the core elements to what is known as ‘21st century Education’. Exposing students to things that are valued, that are critical for their understanding of the wider world — this should be the basis for the curriculum, not arbitrary facts and questions. The effects of NCLB have stymied this approach to teaching in many American schools and implementing this approach here will restrict the great project-based learning that is already happening in Australian schools.

We need practices that are good for teaching, that get disengaged teachers out of the system and fresh graduates in. The simple act of being assessed and more rigorously reviewing our practices has the potential to raise the performance of teachers currently in the system. There is much detail to be worked out, but we can only work it out by working it out. We can’t afford to simply keep shouting at each other, or be forever fearful of change. Otherwise, our kids will pay the price. ◾

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