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Search for the Holy Grail

Some progress has been made in the quest to find an effective appraisal system but, argues Professor RJS Macpherson, a clearer sense of direction is needed. Ted Wragg's research on teacher appraisal (TES2, September 9) has provided trustworthy evidence that current methods and outcomes are a major advance on previous practices but that they have limited value. His findings also suggest that the accountabilities in English locally managed schools require reconstruction if they are to boost the quality and legitimacy of state education.

The methodology of teacher appraisal has limited integrity. Data collection is achieved solely through short-term observation by self-selected peers who sometimes participate in the lessons being observed. What counts as data varies and changes. Bias is uncontrolled and the reliability of peers is questionable. Under these conditions, resulting knowledge about quality teaching is likely to be limited.

This suggests other major problems with appraisal. Teachers' discussions generate a few relatively short-term targets for classroom management and teaching methods. Rigorous methods are not being used to collect data about learning outcomes. Students' evaluations of teaching remain unknown. Appraisals are not linked to staff-development strategies. Less than half of the teachers researched felt that appraisal affected their classroom performance.

Wragg et al. were right to conclude that the "Government will need to decide the future pattern of appraisal". It will also need to revise accountability policies.

But how should the state intervene? Past interventions have created a norm of politicised adversarialism and a tangle of structures. Each of the current accountability strategies, choice, corporate management, local governance and government regulations, has its own set of problems. It is important to review the assumptions of recent interventions and their outcomes prior to suggesting more appropriate forms of accountability.

In educational policy-making, choice, for example, competes with other considerations such as equity and excellence. Professional educators became alarmed when choice, and its handmaiden, competition, were given tyrannical status. It might be wiser to begin policy-making in education with the assumption that many values will need to be accommodated and balanced.

Corporate management was introduced to ensure that employees took a more corporate view of their service in three senses. The school was redefined as a franchised learning outlet that had to become "horizontally corporate" for all local stakeholders. The school was to respond to national guidelines and to demonstrate, through the Office for Standards in Education, that it had become "vertically corporate". The school was to develop as a corporate entity, that is, consultative governance and collaborative management processes had to become the norm.

Again, educators were often confronted and alienated by the mechanisms introduced, such as programme budgeting, and insulted by the assumptions behind the political initiatives, namely that teachers see themselves at the centre of the educational enterprise and that they prefer to control the terms of their service rather than improve their performance.

The local governance of schools was an opportunity to offer participatory democracy. Instead, power-coercive strategies blighted the initiatives. In a crude attempt to raise "school responsiveness", the powers of local governors were boosted. This move showed that the Government believed that schools would improve when, and only when, educators had to account directly to their clients - parents, students and the community. It was also presumed that better performance management would follow when the power to make policy shifted from the LEA and professionals to the community. It was divisive, coercive and alienating.

The third major accountability mechanism is control through government regulations and the use of performance indicators. One example, the monitoring of attendance, is driven by a policy that is based on an established but simplistic fact: time-in-class is positively linked to learning. But like most quantifiable performance indicators in education, time-in-class is not causally related to learning.

The fourth mechanism is self-regulation. English educators tend to self-censor rather than question policies. They have been told regularly that they are rubbish and they often believe it. They are fed all manner of self-evident rot by politicians and they bleat that such statements are wrecking morale. This is pointless since most parents and politicians don't give a fig about teachers' morale.

What they do care about is teachers working better, not harder, and doing the "right thing" by the kids. And what is the "right thing"? Everyone has his or her own answer. This is why educators' self-respect is regularly ravaged by the ill-informed. In the absence of educative accountability criteria and processes, they lack confidence over the value of their service.

Consider the long-term effects of teachers and headteachers drifting into cynicism, apathy and self-censorship. A defeatist attitude towards criticism is dangerous. They should seek out criticism and accept feedback as essential to the growth of knowledge about professional practice.

The Government seems to believe that teachers do not share its concern for quality, equity and the well-being of the nation. It suspects teachers' commitment to greater effectiveness and to greater efficiency in their use of scarce and precious public resource. It suspects that headteachers promote command structures rather than innovative service cultures that empower legitimate stakeholders.

As a result, officials try to embed technical mechanisms and try to manipulate conditions that will force, con or persuade teachers out of their cynicism and self-doubt. Their technical view of accountability assumes that reforming the "core technologies" of schooling requires three things. First is a stream of new knowledge about teaching and learning. Second, reforming the "core technologies" requires effective implementation mechanisms once policy has been made. Third, regular structural adjustments of power relationships are needed at local level to provide constant stimuli.

This technical approach to accountability celebrates the role of "mandated system priorities", what the elected Government wants, a sound knowledge of what schools can actually achieve, and a reliable means of identifying actual achievements.

It also insists that corporate managers use consultations to engineer consent and manufacture priorities in a context of shrinking real resources. At all points it is assumed that managers know best and that teachers are pliable and faithful robots.

Four steps will be needed to build educative accountability policies. First, there needs to be a vision of a better way. It means imagining a scenario where practices are used to collect and report data on performances and services in sensitive ways; ways that stakeholders and teachers, learners and leaders find helpful. This vision needs to be holistic and coherent enough to draw support in principle, to convince people that the general thrust is intelligible, potentially beneficial, plausible and feasible, yet open enough to allow the local articulation of details.

Second, this vision needs to be shared through talk in school communities. Stakeholders need to become committed to identifying educative processes and criteria that are fair and effective.

Third, supportive social groups need to be formed at all levels to map, share and expand accountability policies preferred by all stakeholder groups.

Fourth, formative evaluation must be institutionalised to provide regular feedback on current practices, to help stakeholders regularly review current objectives and policies, and to encour-age the collaborative planning of further improvements.

The teacher appraisal scheme Wragg et al researched needs to be located in a broader context of accountability policy-making. And rather than demonising teachers and teachers' unions, there are some tough tests that should be applied along the way.

Policy frameworks and mechanisms must be both educative and technically sound. They need to provide real avenues for collegial judgment and expert input. And they need to celebrate client interests and the growth of knowledge about learning, teaching and leading.

Professor Macpherson is associate professor of the Department of Secondary and Post-compulsory Education at the University of Tasmania. This article derives from the paper he presented to the recent Leicestershire Secondary Heads' Conference.

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