Why teachers can’t call themselves a profession

Lee Elliot Major on the need for an evidence-based approach in the classroom

I have often thought that commentators who want to criticise teachers should first pass the ‘teacher test’ to earn the right to do so. Having spent time in front of an inner-city classroom (with a teacher beside me) I can tell you it is one of the most challenging (and rewarding) experiences I have ever had. And that was just for one hour!

We don’t value our teachers anywhere near enough. Few of us really understand (or could cope with) the demands of their job. Just ask Sir Peter Lampl, a hard-nosed business leader, who once thought teachers had it easy. After 15 years at the helm of the Sutton Trust he now talks only of admiration for the inspirational educators of our children.

But teachers remain vulnerable to one well-founded attack. Can they call themselves a true modern-day profession? I’m afraid not. And one of the main reasons is this. Teachers have yet to embrace an evidence-based approach to their work: there is no accepted body of knowledge, based on robust research, to inform what they do (or don’t do); nor is there a culture of investigation to evaluate what works best in their particular school or classroom. The contrast with the modus operandi of medics could not be starker.

Below I have adapted a famous graph in education policy circles, first produced during New Labour’s early education reforms of the late 1990’s.

Knowledge poor

The graph describes the different phases of teaching during the last half century. It contrasts them in terms of the knowledge used to underpin the work of teachers, and the levels of autonomy they have enjoyed.

Before 1988 teachers were essentially practitioners free to pursue their own ways of working, with little reference to the body of research on what worked best. Then came the Big Bang of Baker’s Government reforms – the league tables, inspections and the national curriculum – that prescribed exactly what was expected in the classroom. A decade later under New Labour, another wave of top-down programmes emerged – the national numeracy and literacy strategies. These initiatives were based at least in part on the evidence of their impact.

The last phase of the graph highlights what has yet to be realised: the promised land of teachers as informed autonomous professionals, and no longer in need of Government direction.

The good news is that an accessible summary of education research on what works to raise attainment is now available. Last week saw the re-launch of the Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit. This is latest generation of the guide updating the evidence first released two years ago. It challenges many of the assumptions among teachers – revealing the limited impact from reducing class sizes and the current deployment of teaching assistants. This is one important step in the journey towards a teaching profession that embraces evidence. But as Ben Levin stresses, it is really only the start: everyone knows that exercise is good for them, but that doesn’t mean we all do it, does it?

I see at least three major challenges for the deep cultural reforms needed for teaching to evolve into the respected profession it should be.

The first is the glacial timescale for change. The improved education systems across the world required concerted leadership and efforts over several years. This is the “grind not the glamour” that the EEF’s chief executive, Kevan Collins, talks about.

The second is the danger of Whitehall’s heavy hand that can stifle rather than stimulate change. The long hard road to reform extends well beyond Whitehall fads (evidence based policy is currently back in vogue) and Parliamentary cycles.

No, this change will have to come from teachers themselves. It is striking that in all the reviews of the nations at the top of the global education rankings, the common watchwords are professionalism, professional development, evidence, and research.

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.”