How good is a teacher? Check the exam results

Conor Ryan on why improved test scores are a far better measure of success than student surveys

Good teaching is at the heart of good schools. We have done a lot to improve the quality of new teachers, but there has been much less focus on the quality of the existing workforce. Yet, while 35,000 new teachers enter the profession each year, the teacher workforce is 440,000-strong.

Schools need to make the most of teachers’ talents if young people are to get a decent education. For a disadvantaged pupil, an excellent teacher can deliver the equivalent of 1.5 years learning in a year, whereas a poor teacher contributes just half a year: the difference is a whole year of a child’s education.

That’s why it is important we evaluate the contribution that teachers are making and can make with the right support. A new Sutton Trust study, Testing Teachers, published today, shows that the contribution that teachers make to improving exam and test results is the most reliable way to predict a teacher’s long-term success.

The study, by Richard Murphy of the London School of Economics, drawing on the latest international research, shows that improved test scores are nearly twice as effective as student surveys and nearly three times more effective as classroom observations.

But schools can’t simply look at a single year’s test scores to assess performance. A reliable and fair approach requires a sensible combination of these and other measures taken over several years, and might also include teachers’ contributions to sports and school trips.

When Labour introduced performance related pay in 1999, it did so within a very bureaucratic framework that didn’t work as intended in most schools. By contrast, the education secretary Michael Gove is hoping that leaving schools to develop their own systems will improve results and see the best teachers more effectively rewarded.

But without the right systems in place, schools may be no readier to do so now than they were in the past. So what are the characteristics of an effective system of teacher appraisal?

Most importantly, it should involve clear standards, fairly and consistently applied. External advice can be helpful in getting this right, and could assure staff of its fairness and governors of its robustness.

Teachers or school leaders involved in evaluation should be properly trained, and should discuss their evaluation fully with the teachers concerned.

When using exam or test results, it is important to focus on value added rather than absolute results, as they are the most objective and comparable assessment of a teacher’s contribution. It is also important that the baseline for such comparisons is sufficiently robust.

With classroom observations – where teachers or school leaders witness teaching in practice – the report suggests that those designed to help a teacher improve should be carried out separately from those used for appraisal, as this is more likely to promote honest feedback.

Pupil surveys can also be used – particularly with older pupils – as they are the ones in most day-to-day contact with teachers, but when they are they should be clearly structured, be age appropriate, and should complement other measures.

Getting all this right can have real benefits for pupils and teachers alike. Earlier research for the Sutton Trust has shown that if we were to raise the performance of the poorest performing tenth of teachers to the average, we would move into the top rank of the OECD’s PISA tables internationally.

But there is a more compelling reason: by improving the quality of our teachers collectively, we can ensure that every child has a decent education, and is not held back by poor teaching. That is a goal well worth pursuing.

This blog post first appeared on Independent Voices

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.