It’s that time of year again: performance management (and performance-related pay) review time. Post results day, teachers up and down the country now face their annual appraisal. Before they even get there, some are already considering packing in their middle leadership positions due to the pressure they anticipate will fall on to them.
A few have contacted me in the past few days saying they will “drop down” to classroom teacher simply to avoid the intense scrutiny and demands. Others tell me that on results day, their SLT teams said that they will be having some "difficult conversations with them when we get back”. Hardly a vote of confidence.
Some of the most common questions in review meetings go along the lines of “what will you do to improve results?” Or “what will you do to ensure these particular students make more progress?” or, most notably, “what interventions are you planning to improve results?”
Before I go any further, it's worth noting that student attainment at the end of GCSE is much more of a lottery than we might have ourselves believe.
Research by the American Statistical Association (2014) concluded that only 1-14 per cent of educational outcomes can be attributed to the "teacher factor". The Coleman study (1966) on educational equality concluded that the remainder can be put down to "out of school" factors.
Research by King's College London found that heritability was substantial for overall GCSE performance for compulsory core subjects (58 per cent), as well as for each of them individually: English (52 per cent), mathematics (55 per cent) and science (58 per cent).
These are important considerations for all stakeholders when discussing teacher performance in relation to student outcomes.
Test scores 'beyond the teachers' control'
Beyond this, the teacher answering the question on interventions should consider steering the conversation away from “change” and on to “further development”, and away from “intervention” and on to “doing the good things already done even better and more often”. The word "intervention" seems to have become a synonym for increased teacher workload – the underlying expectation in some institutions seems to be that teachers need to do something “extra” or “different” to improve student attainment.
In a recent blog shared via Twitter, one teacher said it simply: “Intervention is just teaching and I think we need to keep going back to the idea. Intervention is just another word for good teaching. It isn’t something extra. It isn’t magical. It is just teaching stuff and working out the right stuff.”
Going down the avenue of saying that you will organise extra revision sessions, use more coloured pens and start taking individual students out of lessons or into different areas is always tempting – because, in a way, these are “visible interventions” that can be easily “evidenced”. Although their impact could only be negligible on student progress and, even worse, cause a huge impact on workload.
John Hattie’s “visible learning” research looked at the kind of things that have the biggest net gain on student attainment – and things within the teachers' control, like methods of feedback, methods of instruction and teacher professional development, scored highly. He references particular aspects of teaching practice like modelling or deliberate practice as having a very strong impact.
My answer to any question about improving student attainment would always focus on improving my own teaching. A generic example might be: “I want to further enhance my subject knowledge so I can instruct better. I want to learn about the best ways to feed back to students and how to implement those methods. And I want to learn more about retrieval practice and spaced learning and how to implement these ideas into my teaching routines more.”
Of course, it's then crucial to push as hard as you can on the time and support to do this. Sometimes, these meetings can focus on what the teacher is going to do or change and much less on how the school will facilitate those things.
Questions to the line manager might be:
- What can you do to support me in learning more about these different teaching aspects?
- What time will I be provided to work on this?
- If no extra time is available, what would you like me to prioritise on this “to do list” to enable this to happen?
It's important to try and get concrete answers on these, and expressing the caveat “without this support, I might not be able to...” is a clear and concise way of saying that any targets hinge on concrete steps to support, not “inset day in January on mastery learning” or “regular discussions with HoD”. Whilst these may be valid support mechanisms, they aren’t going to be enough to facilitate the kind of massive bridges in attainment (probably) being asked for.
Talking of that, is it worth having a fight over student results from 2017-18 and how they have been interpreted? In my view – absolutely. The premise for the performance-management meeting might be that your results need to improve. But improve based on what? Look carefully at the students in your class; which other teachers teach the exact same group of students you do? Any? Did you teach them last lesson every lesson compared to others who always taught them in the morning? Did you have particularly challenging students in your group? The challenging behaviour of particular students is often completely overlooked in discussions on teacher performance, partly because it's not measurable.
If you were teaching students who, despite being higher-ability, had the most referrals across the whole school for behaviour, it would be worth having that information “handy” in the meeting. If behaviour isn’t strong across the school, then these students could have a negative impact on the attainment of others, whether academic high-flyers or not. If support was not properly provided when dealing with low-level disruption or more serious incidences of poor behaviour, then one could argue that any results comparison is null and void.
If you are in your first few years of teaching and find a performance-management meeting turning into an interrogation of sorts, then please consider important research by Harvard researchers John Papay and Matthew Craft in 2015. They looked at a set of some 200,000 student test scores linked to about 3,500 different teachers from an unnamed urban district. They found that teachers improved their ability to boost student test scores on average by 40 per cent between their 10th and their 30th year on the job. In other words, they found that experience was crucial in student attainment scores and that it was after 10 years in the classroom that teachers started to have the greatest impact on student results.
Teachers' level of experience is crucial
The tendency to see “all teachers as equal” on performance management is unjust and can damage the confidence of teachers even further. I would argue that it could then take them much longer to reach the “peak of their powers”.
Questions about “narrowing the gap” will be inevitable when discussions come up about the gap between pupil premium and non-pupil premium performance. In this instance, it's again worth noting that in that same King's College study referenced earlier, “shared environment is a significant factor in all GCSE scores”. The shared environment (influences like family, neighbourhood and school) impact estimate is 30 per cent and 36 per cent for the mean GCSE score.
For the classroom teacher, they might feel pressure to “do more” for PP students. In reality, as teacher quality improves, so will the attainment of all students within the classroom, whether pupil premium or not. So again, it's better to switch focus away from a dialogue around "what are you doing differently for your pupil premium students?" to "what is my expectation of all students, regardless of their background or parents' financial status?".
Teachers should never have to do any of this to justify performance when they have worked so hard, but it is the game and, for many, it's essential to play it. I hope this article can play a small part in making your PM review meetings less stressful and I wish you all the very best.
For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue.