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Building a profession: teacher performance reviews not just about ‘bad teachers’

Finally, perhaps the time has come. The Australian Charter for the Professional Learning of Teachers and School Leaders and the Australian Teacher Performance and Development Framework, both signed off…

Education minister Peter Garrett along with his state counterparts have agreed upon some pretty big changes to teacher development. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Finally, perhaps the time has come. The Australian Charter for the Professional Learning of Teachers and School Leaders and the Australian Teacher Performance and Development Framework, both signed off by state and federal education ministers on Friday, have the potential to support a significant rethink of teacher development and learning in Australia – a rethink that is well overdue.

Predictably, the major news outlets’ coverage has skipped over the main story to focus almost exclusively on teacher appraisal as a tool for punishing “bad” teachers, with headlines like Back to School for Queensland Teachers who get Ds (The Courier Mail), and Teachers to Undergo Performance Reviews (ABC News).

I say predictably because the Australian media rarely wastes an opportunity to position teachers as requiring remediation and disciplining, drawing on the fact that we’ve all been to school and can all remember one we didn’t like.

The real story, however, is far bigger than how to deal with the small percentage of teachers who wilfully underperform. And neither is it about the (shock! horror!) idea that students and parents might be brought into the conversation about teachers’ practice – more about that one later.

The real story is that at the heart of charter and its corresponding framework is an understanding that teaching is a complex, messy, human business where “performance” or “effectiveness” can’t be measured via students’ NAPLAN scores or even their ATARs.

There’s an understanding also that real teacher learning and development needs to be relevant, collaborative and future-focused: this is no one-size-fits-all, spray-on or drive-by business, but something more purposeful, sustained and far more powerful.

Lawrence Stenhouse, the great British curriculum reformer, called in the 1970s for teaching to become a research-based profession. This was no call, however, to what we might recognise today as “evidence-based practice”, often a sterile and compliance-driven process where the evidence in question is so narrowly defined as to be meaningless.

No, Stenhouse was referring to teachers systematically engaging in robust processes of inquiry in relation to their practice, working within their communities to ask tough questions of themselves and each other, to gather and make sense of data about their practice from a rich variety of sources, and to make public their findings.

In 1975, he wrote:

“There can be no educational development without teacher development…the best means of development is not by clarifying ends but by analysing practice”.

The Australian Teacher Performance and Development Framework opens the door to the possibility that this kind of teacher professional learning and development might, over time, become the dominant model in Australian schools.

For that to happen, however, we’ll need to resist the urge to mandate every detail of the process across the range of different school contexts and trust schools and teachers to develop local processes that work for them – this one is hard for us, so fond are we of the technologies of compliance and so distrusting are we of difference.

We’ll also need to provide teachers with significant conceptual and practical support in analysing and improving their teaching, and encourage them to engage in the process authentically, without the fear that admitting that there might be room for improvement is akin to proclaiming oneself to be a hopeless joke of a teacher.

This one is hard too – it can be difficult to engage in a process that allows the chinks in the armour to open up during times when, as I’ve noted above, the media seems intent on positioning teachers as substandard and in need of remediation, and public opinion is so easily shaped by such rhetoric.

So there are some factors in our systems, both societal and educational, that might yet see this relegated to another set of empty words. I do find myself hoping, however, that, at a time when so many of the international education trends to do with compliance and standardisation are being shown to have failed our children, the counter-cultural promise of the charter and framework might just find some fertile ground.

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. Jack Arnold

    Director

    The principal impediment to the sensible Stenhouse approach to teacher training is the need to obfuscate the matter of state funding (or political middle class charity) to private schools. The accompanying historical problem of unimaginative, inadequately trained Head Office 'administrators' protecting their pensions may be circumvented.

    Performance indicators will never replace a kind smile from a young female teacher as a motivator to improve academic results in any class.

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    1. Lorna Jarrett

      Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      Jack,

      " a kind smile from a young female teacher as a motivator to improve academic results in any class".

      Did you forget "pretty", curvy" and "blonde"?

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    2. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      No ... based on too many years hard experience "young & female" was all that was required. (Blonde jokes not relevant here).

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  2. Trevor Riches

    logged in via Facebook

    While not unhappy in principle with the idea of students and their parents contributing comments on teacher effectiveness, I'm wondering just how it would work. For instance, how would the feedback be collected and who would collate it to come up with a succinct report? How would comments be handled where parents or students carry large and very obvious chips on their shoulders?

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    1. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to Trevor Riches

      How about teachers contributing comments about the parenting skills of the respective parents?? Surely that would be equally relevant??

      However, in practice it may be a little difficult as in my experience, over 50% of secondary students do not live in a family structure with their two natural parents.

      Perhaps lack of basic student skills like oral reading fluency, mathematical table fluency & training in problem solving eg mind mapping, are more relevant to academic performance than teacher bashing by middle class interests protecting government charity to private schools.

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  3. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Thank you Nicole, especially for the Stenhouse reference and the focus on teaching as professional practice. The media performance in relation to teachers is one of gross hypocrisy given their performance here and elsewhere.

    It is easy to focus on teachers rather than teaching as one can blame a person for anything even when one actually knows nothing about how to do what they do. On the other hand, it is not so easy to get to understand teaching as a professional practice. Most journalists, and many other commentators in the field, operate on the mistaken assumption that it (teaching) is a simple content transfer operation - a simplistic and erroneous view, but probably the best the teacher-bashing journalists can manage.

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  4. Frank Pollard

    Adjunct Associate Professor leadership at Griffith University

    Well put Nicole. For me the uniform assessment applied to teaching and students' results is a big part of what is limiting teaching in the 21st century. Certainly it might be equally limiting to simply let teaching find its own level depending on local circumstances, but we are a long way from there. In between there is an ocean of opportunity for teachers to be allowed, trained in and supported in developing bespoke programs that better fit their students. In the consulting area I work in, organisational development, my clients quite rightly demand my programs fit their organisational learning needs. Why can't this be the case across all learning activities?

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    1. Trevor Riches

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Frank Pollard

      @Frank Pollard
      "In the consulting area I work in, organisational development, my clients quite rightly demand my programs fit their organisational learning needs. Why can't this be the case across all learning activities?"

      Hello Frank
      I'm afraid your vision is but a wistful dream as far as most classroom teachers are concerned. More's the pity!

      Give me a class of 30 bright and self motivated youngsters and I'll write a bespoke program to suit (I've done so in the past with HIP classes).

      But stand me in front of a class of the same size where the brightest would cope in a class of HIP students and the least capable gets angry because "in yesterday's Maths lesson 'x' had a value of 4 and yet today it has a value of 7" and I'll show you a teacher who has Buckley's chance of providing a bespoke program to properly suit each student.

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    2. Frank Pollard

      Adjunct Associate Professor leadership at Griffith University

      In reply to Trevor Riches

      Perhaps that's assuming one teacher per class. I know current funding models do not allow for this, but why couldn't there be a number of teachers working with those 30 different students? At the moment it appears we don't value the process enough to commit to this level of funding. That in itself seems to be more the problem. It's not that it can't be done, we just don't seem to get the importance and value of this kind of investment. My business clients get it. They understand restricting their…

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    3. Frank Pollard

      Adjunct Associate Professor leadership at Griffith University

      In reply to Frank Pollard

      I take back my comment re Australian governments. It's too easy to balme governments. This is not just their problem it is our problem collectively. This last para should read:

      Collectively we need to think about this. We spend a lot of money on education, but it's not enough so in many ways it's an inefficient investment. We need to spend more, and spend it more creatively, to ensure the full potentials of the kids of today are realised. That potential will not be realised with cookie cutter approaches. And to waste the potential of any child, just because they don't fit a particular model is wicked.

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  5. Adrian Bertolini

    logged in via Facebook

    I actually am partnering several schools in developing teacher performance frameworks. We have created variations on the AITSL examples as we weren't happy with the way they delineated teachers into boxes. We have gone for looking at the behaviour teachers would be demonstrating in specific school valued focus areas (mainly because each school has different areas of interest and developmental areas). For performance one needs to look at behaviour not tick boxes. Our intention as we develop these performance frameworks is really inside of what Nicole and Stenhouse promote ... scaffolding the development of teacher capacity to empower them to be exceptional and masterful teachers. If you are interested in seeing examples of these teacher performance frameworks drop us a line!

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  6. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    Part of the real difficulty dealing with a lot of this right now is Peter Garrett trying far too hard to look like Michel Foucault. He's no intellectual, of any standing, but a rock muso with a law degree. They are all lawyers, or union organisers, or both.

    In short, I've switched off everything now coming out of Canberra until we see a change of government, and some redress for the harm done.

    After more than 200 years of education in this country, the state school systems still can't sort themselves out. Far better to do as the Barnett Government here in WA did under the stewardship of Dr Liz Constable, which is to allow government-owned schools their independence.

    That's what the rest of us need to do, in all fields of endeavour, leaving the various governments as little more than investors seeking good outcomes, real returns, and an end to the endless ideological drivel and perpetual reinventing the square wheel.

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    1. David Heasley

      Contracts manager

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      "Part of the real difficulty dealing with a lot of this right now is Peter Garrett trying far too hard to look like Michel Foucault. He's no intellectual, of any standing, but a rock muso with a law degree. They are all lawyers, or union organisers, or both."

      I draw extreme exception to this statement as someone with both a law degree and post grad qualifications.
      A law degree can and often does require a level of intellectual achievement that rivals any other profession or discipline.
      Yes, some politicians are not bright, but neither are some Anthropologists....

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    2. Jack Arnold

      Director

      In reply to David Heasley

      I agree David and also take exception on the same grounds.

      Teachers have been financially exploited by successive governments since being sold the Accord in the mid 80s.

      Pay peanuts and you get monkeys.

      Now the monkeys are rattling the cage because the efforts put into tertiary studies are NOT being adequately rewarded when compared to the remuneration of the licensed trades that traditionally take the academic dross from the education system.

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  7. aitsl

    logged in via Twitter

    This article captures AITSL's intent ...... Australia holds an enviable position globally. Not only do we have National Professional Standards for Teachers and Principals developed and endorsed by the profession, our focus on teacher performance is firmly grounded in development and learning. The Australian Teacher Performance and Development Framework and Australian Charter of Professional Learning for Teachers and School Leaders make it clear that is not for individuals, schools or systems to chose whether or not they will engage in performance and development processes - the fact that all teachers are entitled to feedback on their performance and support to learn and grow is a given. Implementation of these polices will require thoughful dialogue about what collaborative, relevant and futures focused development and learning will look like in Australian schools. AITSL is looking forward to supporting these important conversations.

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  8. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    I have worked with some very poor teachers.

    Few of them had started off bad. Most had been worn down by weak and inconsistent administration: locally, regionally, at State level or through conflicting demands of State and Federal.

    That was even before the conflicting demands of students, parents, and local community, and philosophical or political conflicts between teacher and administration or community.

    Not many people get into teaching to be a bad teacher, or because it is the easy option. (Yes, certainly when some of us older readers were in school, before the teacher unions were able to push for proper qualifications for teachers, but that was a long time ago).

    No teacher is an island.

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  9. Greg Elliott

    Assistant Principal - Magdalene Catholic High School

    Nic, for me it comes back to the age old problem: if it is important we should measure the heck out of it. If it can't be measured, it must not be important. Certainly there are bad teachers, but there are also successful teachers whose greatest achievements cannot be readily quantified.

    Whether it be quantitative, standards based measures, or even qualitative, student-voice data sets, there is so much scope for making assumptions about teaching. Some of my greatest successes have been with students who may have scored poorly in tests and rated my work with them negatively - but they stayed out of gaol, didn't struggle with an unplanned pregnancy, and remained safe in their homes.

    Nicole's call for comprehensive and life-focused professional learning (rather than meely compliance) is realistic and long overdue. Let's lift the status of the profession ourselves so that the rising tide lifts all the boats.

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