The issue of lesson grading seems to have been given a good airing this week on a whole series of blogs. The most popular view seems to be that we should stop grading lessons. What I’m less certain of, having read these blogs, is what we are actually going to use as “quality measures” within the Education System. Let’s not be naïve nor lack a strategic dimension to our thinking, with £88 billion pounds of public money used to fund education it is simply unrealistic to expect zero accountability, in fact it is unhelpful.
We need to a set of intelligent accountability measures. If we can’t propose sensible and intelligent measures there will always be someone or something that comes up with some pretty unintelligent blunt measures to impose on us.
In the first school I worked in there was a Year 10 (or actually Fourth Year for those readers who can remember old money) Pre-Vocational Science class on my timetable. Their curriculum was explained to me very succinctly, “Teach them anything you like as long as you keep them all in the room.” There was no external examination for the students, which might help passport them into further education or employment.
Numerous detentions and far too much shouting later, I think I met the curriculum aim given but I’m pretty sure I didn’t provide a quality education. I certainly wouldn’t have accepted this for my own children, yet it was inflicted on other people’s children. We’ve now gone from this extreme to another with an accountability system with Ofsted, performance tables and performance related pay. It is a toxic maze for schools, headteachers and teachers to try to negotiate and is doing far more harm than good.
Don’t Stop Grading Lessons, Just Get Better at It
The “blogging bubble” is great to throw around ideas and suggest different approaches. However, imagine a conversation with a prospective parent that goes something like this:
Headteacher: “The quality of teaching is very important at this school. We take great pride in the high quality teaching we provide”
Parent: “So, how good is the quality of teaching?”
Headteacher: “I don’t know we don’t measure it”
At some point we need to get real and actually devise an intelligent accountability system or accept the one imposed on us and get on with it. Some of the blogs I’ve read vilify the twenty minute lesson observation and the requirement for a leader’s or school’s latest favourite “jazz hand approaches” being included within any observed lesson. The answer is simple, stop doing it and get serious about grading some lessons properly.
The article by Professor Robert Coe is very interesting as he identifies a number of important issues and problems around lesson observations but his concluding remarks are:
“Various suggestions include that we should disband or reform Ofsted, that lesson observation should be used only formatively, or that we should stop doing it altogether.
My position is this: I am not against Ofsted; I am certainly not against inspection; nor am I against classroom observation. In fact there are good reasons for wanting to observe teaching. It is hard to imagine a credible evaluation system that doesn’t include some observation; when done properly it does contribute to a valid judgement of teaching quality; and the process of having to think harder about how to do it should help us to understand better what effective pedagogy means. However, if we are going to do it we should do it in the most defensible way possible.”
Professor Robert Coe, Classroom Observations: it’s harder than you think
He suggests trained, informer observers are required, valid observation protocols, ensuring an observer has evidence to support their interpretations and further research to investigate how feedback can improve teaching. Grading lessons remains important unless we can come up with better measures around the quality of teaching – would proxy measures using the outcome of Student Voice be more acceptable or possibly just use examination outcomes to judge the quality of teaching and teachers?
Whole School Student Voice Data – November 2013 – We gather student voice data twice per year. Individual teacher’s data is only seen by them. Whole school data and departmental data is provided to all staff with the former placed on the College’s website. The teachers in the top quartile for each measure is made known to all teachers as a “resource” for others to approach if they are interested in developing a particular area of practice.
All these measures have their benefits but also their downsides. Lesson observation grading is an imperfect measure but is it a better measure of the quality of teaching than nothing? When added to the other two metrics mentioned above and the findings triangulated a useful, balanced measure may be obtained.
Don’t Grade All Lessons
There are horror stories that circulate around about schools and academies where the number of graded lesson observations have reached epidemic proportions. This is the toxic accountability gone mad that will actually limit improvements in teaching in a very short time.
Our professional knowledge about assessing students’ work tells us that feedback is powerful. It also tells us that if you are formatively assessing work don’t put a grade on it but do expect a “learner response”. The same is true of formative lesson observations for teachers. These are about developing practice and gradings have no place in them. Clear feedback is needed against agreed criteria and the opportunity to revisit elements of practice to refine and hone in a deliberate way. In addition, the work of the National Teacher Enquiry Network on Lesson Study is beginning to help evolve observations in lessons in a manner that allows a growing body of practitioner led research and evidence to be determined.
External Accountability versus Professional Controls
Tim Oates’ presentation at the SSAT National Conference 2013 was facinating. He stated, “We’re not in crisis in education we are just not improving – what will take us from good to great and how will we measure it?”
He emphasised the need for “control factors” but not necessarily top down. In High Performing School Systems these controls build quality into the education system and so reduce the need for aggressive external accountability. It is the control factors that ensure quality.
I work with a governing body who believe if you “Pay One” you “Get One Free” – it’s our POGOF mentality for teachers. Whilst trying to blame the governors, I’m as guilty as any one for doing this – two great English teachers at interview, appoint them both. Looking for two Assistant Headteachers but five top class applicants in front of you – we’ll have the lot. I’m not joking, we’ve done both these things recently and many more beside. I have never been disappointed or regretted it.
At the moment we have numerous jobs advertised and will significantly overstaff the school by the 7th March 2014, when the last scheduled interview is. I accept we are lucky because of the positive budget situation we have but this is because we have good student numbers which in turn are linked to the great staff and the fabulous work they do – it’s a virtuous spiral. If you think overstaffing the school is expensive, the costs of being understaffed are ten times worst. It happened one year, never again.
A deliberate strategy of going out early, at risk, and seeking to employ the brightest, best and most emotionally literate teachers helps build “controls” into our school. As a consequence the need for accountability systems begin to decrease. This “control factor” is enhanced by assessment, tracking and intervention systems that seek to maximise student achievement.
Tristram Hunt M.P. managed to stir things up with his Teacher Licence scheme that got a very mixed review but interestingly was quite well received by some of the unions:
“We need to keep improving if we are to deliver for every child and to keep pace. My priority as an education secretary in the next Labour government would be to make sure we have the best generation of teachers in the world – a highly qualified, inspiring, self-motivating and dedicated professional workforce.
International evidence is clear: the quality of teaching – not an obsessive focus on the type of school – is what drives up standards.”
I’m not sure there is that much to disagree with here particularly as you put it alongside Dylan Wiliam’s contribution to this debate in, Teacher Quality: why it matters, and how to get more of it:
“Our future economic prosperity therefore requires that as well as improving the quality of entrants to the teaching profession, we have to make the teachers we have better—what I call the “love the one you’re with” strategy.”
The confusion with the proposals put forward on licensing teachers was the idea of teachers not being re-licensed or being de-licensed and essentially unable to practice. I can see a huge box ticking bureaucratic nightmare on the horizon. If I was to be critical of some Labour education policy, in the past, it would be the unprecedented and unnecessary levels of bureaucracy they generated at times. Employment of teachers is a matter for schools, as employers, and not government. The licensing scheme confuses this.
However, the insistence of teachers being required to undertake high quality professional development, this would also challenge the education system to raise the quality of professional development on offer to teachers, builds in another control factor and further pushes back external accountability. I wouldn’t want to go to a doctor who marketed their practice on the basis they hadn’t undertaken any professional development in the past twenty years. The same should be true of teachers.
The post, The New Professionalism – Reimagining the Profession, was a rather crude attempt to look at an alternative career structure for teachers. Imagine if the stages required a teacher to have undertaken a certain level of classroom based research and attained certain professional qualifications to progress. This is a model found in many other professions.
School Organisation Not Type Does Matter
I would also challenge Tristram Hunt MP to take into account how schools are organised:
There are benefits to thinking around the organisation of schools. He’s right, it is not about type but families of schools, organised in local geographical groupings, have significant benefits. Firstly, they have shared ownership for a group of students and can work together for the benefit of all these students, not just those in an individual school. We have experience of this in the Blackpool Family of Catholic schools, more specifically in a hard federation with Christ the King Catholic Primary School and in the very near future as part of a multi academy trust.
Secondly, this local family of school can build in internal controls to monitor, evaluate and develop the quality of provision and outcomes. This reduces the need for external accountability as quality is built into the system through “controls” such as enhanced professional development, shared innovation and knowledge transfer and high quality assessment, tracking and intervention programmes devised with shared expertise and implemented with shared human capital and resources. This is possible outside of formal organisational structures but less likely to occur and also more difficult to maintain as leaders change.
More of these Controls
- Attract and recruit only the top graduates with high levels of emotional intelligence and provide high quality on-going early training and induction.
- Make engagement in high quality professional develop aimed at improving practice a requirement not an option. Government, unions, higher education, researchers and the school system working together to provide classroom based research opportunities and a professional qualification and accreditation framework focussed on both enhanced subject and pedagogical knowledge.
- Develop a structured curriculum from 3-19, with key knowledge – factual, conceptual, procedural and metacognitive (avoiding the false skills/knowledge debate) – structured in the correct sequence supported by appropriate assessment and accreditation systems
- Create local families of schools who hold each other to account in a rigorous manner
- Create local families of schools who share human capital and develop social and decisional capital to enhance the overall professional capital of the workforce.
- Develop ourselves as a self-regulating profession with a Royal College of Teaching
Less of these Accountability Measures
- Performance Tables
- Performance Related Pay
As Andy Hargreaves says, “Accountability starts where responsibility ends.” Let’s make sure we take on responsibility for holding ourselves accountable, a self-regulated profession with the associated metrics, and push back the bounds of external accountability. Don’t look for Easy Street, it’s a dead end.
There are a plethora of posts on grading lesson observations that have been written recently, you may want to look at these as they give opposing views to help you develop your own perspective: