`Good morning, class. Can we talk about a pay rise?'

8th May 2015 at 01:00
Pupil feedback being used in US to decide teacher remuneration

For many teachers, the prospect of being scrutinised and rated by their students is the stuff of nightmares.

But in cities across the US, pupils are not only being given the power to rate their teachers' performance: they are being given a say in how much teachers are paid.

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 15 per cent of teachers' pay is determined by what students think of their lessons.

According to a report by academics from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, more than a million primary and secondary pupils across the US are being asked by their schools to take surveys that allow them to rate their teachers' classroom skills.

Pupils are asked the degree to which they agree with statements such as: "What I am learning now connects to what I learned before"; "My teacher explains difficult things clearly"; and "My teacher seems to know if something is bothering me."

Increasingly, the answers are being used as part of the official teacher evaluation process. For example, in Memphis, Tennessee, pupil surveys account for 5 per cent of teachers' evaluation scores. In the state of Georgia, they count for 10 per cent.

Because teachers' pay is based on their evaluation scores, the upshot is that pupils are able to determine a sizeable proportion of their teachers' pay.

"Students watch us deliver lessons every day and can make observations that help to expose blind spots in our practice," Greg Myers, a Massachusetts superintendent of schools, told the academics.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, agrees. "I've always been a big fan of student feedback as a tool for teachers' professional development," he said. "As long as students know their feedback is anonymous, and that teachers are not going to get into trouble for it, you can learn much more from this than from hours of lesson observations."

However, he added: "The moment you attach it to pay progression, it no longer becomes about learning and instead becomes a high-stakes activity. It may mean that teachers are very nervous about the feedback."

Performance-related pay was introduced into English schools in September last year. Although schools are required to demonstrate a link between teachers' pay and their performance in the classroom, they are free to determine which criteria their staff are assessed on.

The move has been controversial. In January, TES reported that more than a quarter of teachers were denied a pay increase under the new system.

Half the teachers surveyed by the NUT teaching union in January stated that their school's pay policy was unfair. Some 60 per cent thought that performance pay had undermined the use of appraisals for professional-development purposes.

Mr Hobby believes that this could apply equally to pupil surveys. "Students know how these surveys are used," he said. "Generally, they like their teachers and don't want them to suffer in this regard, so they will often be over-generous."

Difficult conversations

This is echoed by Allan Foulds, head of Bournside School in Cheltenham: "This sort of dialogue and conversation should happen. The best teachers initiate that conversation anyway.

"But there's a difference between having that information to hand and using it to make pay decisions. The overriding responsibility of an employer is to make decisions that are valid and fair," he said.

Eighteen-year-old Luke Shore, who is a member of the pan-European working group for school-student democracy, argues that pupils' heads will not be turned by their newfound power.

"Whatever students say after being taught by a particular teacher has to be taken seriously," he said. "If there was resentment of a particular teacher, that would have to come from somewhere."

In fact, Luke sees no reason why pupils' opinions should not be sought on a range of school processes.

"We should also be involved in bigger policy debates as well: how we evaluate teacher performance, and changes to curriculum and exams. You have to apply the logic consistently," he insisted.

`It needs thought'

Tim Plumb, headteacher of Woolwich Polytechnic School in London, is unequivocal about the usefulness of pupil feedback.

"As a principle for professional development and raising standards, student voice is clearly something that's very valuable," he says. "But linking that directly to pay decisions is something that would require very careful thought - not necessarily because it's a bad thing, but because it's very contentious.

"It's an area that needs to be discussed thoughtfully and with clarity, to ensure that decisions are made fairly and that people understand the process."

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