The American Revolution in Teacher Evaluation

Lee Elliott Major on the American revolution in teacher evaluation, and the lessons for the UK

From Colorado to Tennessee, from Florida to New Jersey, all across the United States, a revolution in education is taking place. And it is likely to hit British schools anytime soon. Teachers are for the first time being evaluated on how effective they are in the classroom. Gone are the age old assumptions that teachers should be left to get on with their important work and tenured for life. This is a brave new world of pupil progress measures, classroom observations and student feedback.

The talisman for these bold reforms is one Jeb Bush, former Florida Governor and chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which this week hosted a major summit in Washington. Bush delivered a powerful oration on the demise of the American dream and the US’s slide down the international rankings of education performance. It was stirring stuff. One can see why Democrats both respect and fear Bush, who is already being touted as the next Republican presidential candidate.

His belief is that education, and in particular teachers, hold the best hope for the nation to recapture its founding principle of upward social mobility. “We need to have a teacher evaluation system that is based on teachers being professionals, not part of some collective trade union bargaining process,” he said. “There are incredibly fine teachers that get paid less even though they’re doing the Lord’s work consistently over time, and there are teachers that are mediocre that get paid more because they’ve been there longer.”

Improving teacher effectiveness has become the priority of education policy makers across the world. A recent Sutton Trust report demonstrated why. Over a school year, poorer pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. Teacher impact dwarfs all other influences on learning within school.

The fledgling teacher evaluation systems, partly stimulated by President Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT) Fund, are now being developed in 30 states – and increasingly supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. US education secretary, Arne Duncan, also spoke at the summit, praising States for their new assessment regimes.

Most systems combine teacher observations with data on pupil progress to assess teachers. But this has been a bitter battle with the teacher unions. One education commissioner likened it to a ‘knife fight in a dark room’.

Even those who have implemented reforms are struggling to translate them into genuine change. Tennessee has gone to great pains to train all its school principals as evaluators. But when it came to the crunch, few principals were willing to assess their teachers as less than average, rendering the assessments fairly meaningless.

Despite these difficulties the reforms will continue and many states are waiting for the results of the $45million Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project due to be released by the Gates Foundation early next year.

What are the lessons for this side of the Pond? Here the opening salvoes of the battle have already been fired. Education Secretary Michael Gove has introduced more freedoms for schools to adopt their own appraisal systems, and abolished the limits on teacher observations. School inspectors meanwhile have more powers to scrutinise the pay and performance of teachers. These add to earlier attempts by the Labour Government to introduce performance related pay.

There is no perfect evaluation model in education – or elsewhere for that matter. But the hope still must be that we can create evaluation systems for the teachers by the teachers. The Sutton Trust plans to review the evidence on teacher evaluation from the US and around the world and work alongside schools to develop best practise. John Podesta, a former aide to Bill Clinton, warned this week’s conference in Washington: “If you go to war on your workforce, sooner or later you’re going to lose.”

The Sutton Trust at 15

By Sir Peter Lampl

It is fifteen years since I set up the Sutton Trust to improve social mobility in this country. I wanted to ensure that bright children from low or middle income homes had a fair chance of going to a top university and into a leading profession or occupation.

There has been progress in the last fifteen years, but our elites remain largely closed to those without the right school tie and networks, as our research report based on the birthday lists of national newspapers highlighted again this week.

Perhaps most importantly there is now a political consensus that improving social mobility is the major social issue of our time. The 120 research projects and over 200 programmes that we have funded have helped put it there.

At our anniversary lunch on Tuesday, which was attended by 200 supporters and allies of the Trust, it was great to be joined both by David Blunkett – the secretary of state with whom I first worked as chair of the Trust – and Michael Gove, who gave a characteristically eloquent and generous speech about our work.

We have had strong support from all the leaders of all three main political parties over the years, and I was delighted with the generous comments made by David Cameron and Ed Miliband for our anniversary video.

The Trust’s first major programme – university summer schools at leading universities – have helped to narrow the participation gap at our elite universities. In 1997, 49 per cent of entrants to Oxbridge were from state schools; now it is 59 per cent, though it is still below the two-thirds from state schools when I was there.

Recent research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that there has also been some narrowing of the gap in higher education participation more widely: at age 18 or 19 the gap between state school students from the most and least deprived fifths of the population fell from 40 percentage points in 2004-05 to 37 percentage points in 2009-10.

At the same time, some professions, notably law, are now reaching out more to young people of all backgrounds with the help of programmes like Pathways to Law which we developed in partnership with the College of Law and major law firms. More generally, the quality of teaching and leadership is better in urban schools, especially in London.

But we still have a long way to go to open up opportunities. This week’s report showed again how our independent schools educate 7 per cent of the population, but 44 per cent of leading people were privately educated. More than 12 per cent of our elites went to just ten independent schools, with one in 25 at Eton alone.

Our schools are still the most socially segregated among advanced nations. Our independent day schools remain closed to 90 per cent of families who can’t afford the fees, unlike the situation when I was growing up, when 70% of them were principally state funded.  That is why we continue to argue for a state-funded Open Access scheme which half the independent day schools have said they would adopt if funding were available. This would transform mobility at the top.

So what about the future? Improving social mobility is like the war on cancer. It will never be won. Yet with the right research, the right programmes and working closely with government, we can improve mobility and make a real difference to many more lives.

So I’m determined that the Sutton Trust will continue to provide the vehicle for that work, long into the future.

We’re expanding our work, so we can do the research and undertake the programmes that will make a difference from early childhood right through to access to the professions. We’re keen to build on existing partnerships and develop new ones.

Working together, we have made a big difference. I hope that we will continue to make an even bigger difference.

A Thousand Flowers Wilt?

James Turner suggests that more coherence in social mobility programmes would benefit everyone

One of the privileges of working at the Sutton Trust is the chance to meet people who have been inspired to dedicate their working lives to improving educational opportunity. Many have given up more conventional (and high paying) careers and taken the risk of setting up new programmes to make their ideas a reality.

Over its fifteen year history the Trust has funded many of these. In the last year, we are proud to have supported the start up of The Brilliant Club, which uses PhD students to tutor non-privileged pupils, and to provide seed corn funding to Spire Hubs, which harnesses the expertise of retired teachers for the cause of social mobility.

Many of the small projects we helped to support in the past have now blossomed into significant programmes, reaching thousands of young people.

But things have changed a lot in those fifteen years – and in my eight year tenure at the Trust. As the term ‘social mobility’ has gained political currency, so the landscape has become more crowded, with more and more organisations springing up.

This has been accompanied by a dismantling – sometimes for good reason, sometimes not – of the structures which provided a framework for this activity, whether that is the demise of Connexions and Aimhigher, or the diminished role of local government.  The worlds of university access and information, advice and guidance seem busier, but more fragmented, than ever.

But does this matter?

My view is that it does for three main reasons. Firstly, it’s inefficient for a sector already starved of resources to duplicate efforts. We should be much better at linking complementary initiatives rather than sowing the seeds of new projects which substantially overlap with existing ones.

Secondly – and perhaps most importantly – fragmentation makes the area harder to navigate for teachers, parents and pupils.   Where should a headteacher go for, say, university access work – to their local HE provider, a national charity, a local not-for-profit provider, a commercial outfit or one of the many consultants working in this space?

And finally, how does the teacher know which will make the most difference to young people?   It makes evaluation of what works – already shamefully lacking – even harder.

Others are also concerned by the lack of coordination.  Accessprofessions.com makes it easier for students to benefit from the multiplicity of aspiration-raising activities out there. And PRIME is bringing coherence to work experience schemes, initially in the legal sector, with the aim of boosting quality and equity.

In the schools sphere, the Education Endowment Foundation, which the Sutton Trust set up with support from Impetus, is providing a valuable framework for activities to raise the achievement of the poorest students. It focusses on evaluating what works and funding disciplined innovation – work which is grounded in evidence, rather than a flight of fancy.

In the Trust’s own work, we are developing our existing proven programmes, linking them with other initiatives, and building in evaluation. Our summer schools, for instance, are expanding and we are developing wrap-around activities, such as mentoring and teacher events.

Of course, the Trust will continue to fund new programmes where they are needed and to take justified risks.  We are not afraid of being bold – as our ambitious US summer school programme has showed.

None of this should discourage social entrepreneurs who have a vision and who spot an opportunity to improve education for the better.

But shiny and new isn’t always the answer.   As in life, the most heroic thing to do might, in fact, be the most mundane.

Valuing the vocational

Conor Ryan asks can we ever get vocational education right in England

This week, the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee called for apprenticeships to be seen as equal to study at university.

As the Committee noted in a hard-hitting report, the problem under successive governments has been a focus on the quantity of qualifications rather than their quality. Many of the old Train to Gain qualifications were effortlessly rebranded as apprenticeships. This has fed an attitude in England that sees the vocational as inferior.

In their report, the MPs argue: “There remains an underlying assumption that vocational training is only for those unable to take an academic route. This is wrong and must be changed.”

They make a host of practical suggestions, including giving the academic and the vocational route equal prominence in careers advice, as well as useful reforms to the apprenticeship system.

But the problem is surely rather more fundamental in Britain. Vocational education is too often seen not only as something for those with few GCSEs, but also treated in a narrow sense that owes more to the world of 50 years ago than Britain today.

Yet a true vocational system should be about preparing people not only for crafts and trades, but for careers in business and the professions. Martin Doel, the chief executive of the Association of Colleges, argued in an Institute for Public Policy Research pamphlet last year that we should create a master craftsmen role – akin to the German meister – in the UK apprenticeship programme, something that would certainly help to change perceptions.

Indeed, in Germany, apprenticeships are not simply seen as being as good as a university education; in many careers they are seen as superior.

There are two important aspects to the German system that set it apart. The first is that it has a long tradition of very high standards policed by business and the professions in a way that the Sector Skills Councils have never really been able to emulate here.

The second – more troubling aspect for some – is that they depend very heavily on a system of licensing that appears anathema in our more open economy. As Bagehot in the Economist has put it: “The bedrock of Germany’s apprenticeship system is corporatism and restricted practice.”

In his speech to the Sutton Trust social mobility summit last May, the opposition leader Ed Miliband first introduced his ideas of the ‘forgotten 50%’ – those young people who don’t go to university, but for whom learning a trade or a craft used to be a strong vehicle for social mobility. He said:

“I also want to challenge some of the assumptions about social mobility. A few months ago I met a group of apprentices working at Jaguar Land Rover. They told me how lucky they felt to be working on racing car prototypes. They had found a path into a really exciting job. One where they would be trained, stretched and expected to make use of their talent.

“They were at the beginning of a career.  One which will lead to better wages, better prospects and a better life than perhaps their parents had. But they told me they felt they were the lucky few…In Germany, middle-class parents boast about their kids doing great apprenticeships. But in Britain, too often people think that if they don’t go to university, they are written off by society.”

Ed Miliband was right to say that social mobility must be about more than a good university education for those who should be able to benefit from it. It should also be about ambitious apprenticeships, top-class technical education and pre-eminent professional training.

That is why the Sutton Trust will be working with the Boston Consulting Group in the months ahead to investigate whether there are lessons we can learn from abroad that have an application here.

Of course, we will look at Germany. But, while the strengths in quality of German vocational education may well outweigh its corporatism, we accept that many aspects of a German system with a tradition that stretches back to Bismarck may not be so easy to import.

So we will also look at Singapore, a country with a similar exam system to Britain that has revamped its poorly regarded vocational system since 1992 through the creation of the Institute for Technical Education (ITE).

According to the OECD, the ITE has transformed the content, quality and image of vocational education. Enrolment has doubled and ITE students now constitute about 25% of the post-secondary cohort. Pay levels and job prospects for ITE graduates are also strong.

We’ll keep you posted on what we learn.

The year of the socially mobile popstar

Lee Elliot Major asks could number ones reflect generational trends in social mobility

“We don’t need no education,” proclaimed Pink Floyd’s Number One single Another Brick in the Wall in December 1979. Ironically, they were one of the few privately schooled bands among the best selling musical acts that year. Most musicians had come from humble beginnings to reach the heady heights of prime spot in the official charts. 1979 was the year of the upwardly mobile pop star.

Sting, Gary Numan, Trevor Horn (of the Buggles), and Ian Dury were all working class lads attending state schools. Between them, they amassed six chart topping songs. Like many from 79, they remain enduring classics. The melodic post punk tunes, Message in A Bottle and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick; that pop masterpiece, Video Killed The Radio Star; and the song that heralded the emerging era of British electronica, Are Friend’s Electric: all are favourites on modern-day i-tunes playlists.

And this was not just a British phenomenon. Blondie, fronted by an adored female singer, once an adopted child, charted two Number Ones. Deborah Harry had lived the American dream. So too, the Bee Gees – whose dance floor classic Tragedy, was one of several disco delights in 79, including the Village People’s unforgettable Y.M.C.A and Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.

Quite simply, 1979 was the finest year for Number Ones in Britain. But why?

Here’s my theory: in 1979, the raw creative talents born during the golden generation of upward mobility peaked to produce great music during modern Britain’s darkest depression.

The problem of low social mobility was catapulted into British public debate by a Sutton Trust study in 2005. It concluded that the chances of climbing the social ladder, particularly from the lowly rungs, had declined over recent generations. The home you were born into (rather than individual talent) mattered more for future success for those born in 1970 than it did for those born in 1958. We were becoming a less fluid society. Ever since the study, politicians have been climbing over themselves to find ways of making Britain more mobile again.

Could the fortunes for musicians have echoed these broader generational trends? Most of those born in 1958 and the preceding years who topped the charts in 1979 had climbed the social ladder. At the same time, their musical expression culminated during one of the worst periods of modern British history: there was high inflation and employment, and economic failure. In bad times, they say, the best of art shines its light.

The gap between the rich and poor in Britain widened from 1979 onwards, sowing the seeds for lower social mobility for future generations. The tragic outcome of low mobility is a smaller pool of emerging talent from poorer backgrounds who get fewer chances to fulfil their potential.

How did this downward spiral of opportunity hit the generation born around 1970 in terms of musical success? Looking at the Number Ones 21 years later, in 1991 reveals one of the worst years by any measure. Chesney Hawkes, Jason Donovan, and Hale and Pace (‘The Stonk’) topped the charts that year. There were sad re-releases by Queen and the Clash. It was such a poor period that Bryan Adam’s ballad Everything I Do stayed Number One for 16 weeks (still a record).

In fact there were few British artists featuring at all, let alone those who had risen from lowly upbringings. In just over a decade the sublime highs of 1979 had turned into the embarrassing lows of 1991.

Which leaves just one question: will we ever see another 1979? The Sutton Trust has produced a mountain of statistics showing that low mobility remains a problem for children growing up now. But today’s charts reveal a mixed story. Women with working class credentials such as Adele and the late Amy Winehouse have been hugely successful – and are among a host of musicians from just one state school, the BRIT performing arts school. And yet a recent survey by the Word magazine suggested that the majority of pop musicians are now privately educated, citing the likes of Coldplay, Mumford and Sons, and Lily Allen.

So perhaps Immobility hasn’t killed the working class star. But the upwardly mobile popstar will never dominate the nation’s soundtrack as they did a generation ago. We will probably never hear the likes of 79 again.