If accountability is the solution, what’s the problem?

It’s become axiomatic that you can’t remove accountability from education and that teachers must always be held to account. Why? Because they’re feckless scoundrels and can’t be trusted further than you can throw an interactive whiteboard.

Education has been reduced to teachers vs. the rest of the world. Here’s how some of those struggles play out:

Teachers vs. government – Education policy is predicated on the assumption that everything would be fine if only teachers were prepared to work a bit harder. Like a giant set of human whack-a-mole, as soon as a new problem comes to light, ministers and policy wonks start hammering teachers. Exam boards in race to the bottom to compete for business? Whack! Change the assessment system mid-year. Slipping down PISA rankings? Whack! Force teachers to do whatever’s being done in Fin-apore. Islamic radicalisation? Whack! Make schools accountable for teaching British values. And then send in the shock troops to make sure everything is good to outstanding.

Teachers vs. parents – Parents often exude distrust of teachers. I mean, why haven’t they got a proper job? I’m just as bad. I’m no longer allowed to go to parents’ evening on my own. My wife had to explain to me that the purpose of parents’ evening is not to hold the teachers to account but to make them like my children. Who knew? Of course very many parents are appreciative of what teachers try to do and understanding that there’s a limit to what can be done. But there’s a sizeable minority who demand, insist and then withdraw support when their children fail to meet teachers’ very reasonable expectations that they do a bit or work and don’t make other kids’ lives miserable. On more than one occasion I’ve had colleagues report that the response to a parental phone call was to be asked, “So what’s your part in all this?” or, “If your lessons weren’t so boring then perhaps…”

Teachers vs. students – A commenter on my blog points out how this relationship seems to have changed since he was a student:

…the idea then was that YOU were responsible for how well you did at school and not the teachers. I was academically average, but I did my homework (mostly!) made sure I revised for my exams and in an internet free world I went and found stuff out in the library.

I now spend my time chasing my students to do their homework, I put revision sessions on that most of them don’t attend because they have busy social lives and if I ask them to ‘research’ a topic they cut and paste from the net without reading the whole article. Hand it in – job done.

Scottish teacher, Kenny Pieper recently blogged about the potentially damaging effects of intervention and last minute exam preparation sessions:

So does Easter study class really help them? Do they need more time with a teacher to go over material they haven’t learned yet or need more practice in? I don’t think so. What I think serves them better is time on their own to revise and learn, revise and learn; time to think for themselves and develop understanding of the things we no doubt spend ages in class going over pre-holiday. Dare I say it but, yes, developing understanding is at times a very solitary activity. My pupils will benefit greatly from sitting quietly in their own rooms and revising the work.

We may well be doing them a disservice by providing more teacher access at this vital time. I haven’t done the research though. Sorry. But, in my experience, it seems that perhaps we over-protect them from real learning at this time of the year. Perhaps we provide too much of a safety net. We may do that for genuinely caring reasons: we want great results for pupils and school; we worry that a little bit extra just might make the difference.

Kenny’s right: we do provide too much of a safety net and this probably does do them a disservice. In many cases we’ve allowed students to outsource their critical faculties to their teachers.

Teachers vs. schools – I’ve blogged before about how lack of trust has led to a situation where teachers’ workload has become unmanageable. The latest shock stats suggests 4,000 teachers leave the classroom every month! The expectation that students’ work is triple marked, lessons planned in mind-numbing detail and reams to meaningless data input on an increasingly frequent basis means that the marrow has been sucked from teachers’ souls. A 60 hour week is common place. Teachers’ performance is scrutinised in microscopic detail; many schools still grade lessons, check books are marked in the appropriate colour pen and expect teachers to make sure all students pass exams.

But is the problem being solved? Does any of this make teachers or teaching more effective? Is this micro-management of education actually in anyone’s interest? If teachers weren’t held in such suspicion would they all start sloping off to the pub at lunch time and using Year 7 homework as coasters? What would happen if we started trusting them to do their job without constant interference and the need to justify every decision?

The answer is, I don’t know what would happen. Some teachers might take the piss, but I rather expect most would rise to the occasion. Daniel Pink suggests the answer to motivation is threefold: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Teaching tends to be pretty good on purpose, iffy on mastery and poor on autonomy. There are some very obvious structural constraints – we can’t really have teachers deciding not to show up for certain classes – but we could do better to work with what we’ve got.

I get asked a lot how would go about implementing a performance management system which acknowledged that teachers cannot reasonably be held account for students’ learning – even if it were possible to measure something so complex and misunderstood. Here are some suggestions for holding teachers to account in a way which might actually make them more effective:

1. Negotiate your ‘non-negotiables’

It seems reasonable that teachers be held to account for carrying out agreed tasks, but who gets to decide that these tasks are worth carrying out? If teachers don’t know why they’re being asked to work 60 hours a week (and worse, if school leaders don’t know either) then surely it’s reasonable to negotiate? Should English teachers have same set of expectations as PE teachers? Should all maths teachers be treated equally? Who says? Unless you’re prepared to negotiate what’s non-negotiable then you’re just thug wielding a cudgel.

2. Don’t treat everyone the same

I hate the misbegotten concept of equality. We’re not all the same – we all have different talents, passions and failings. In the one-size-fits-all approach to performance management we treat everyone according the lowest common denominator. If some staff don’t mark their books then everyone needs to be scrutinised in the same way. Why? Because that’s fair. Only it’s not fair. It’s patently unfair to treat everyone the same. If some colleagues need support – give it to them. If others merit freedom, then for God’s sake let them have it!

3. Ask and ye shall get

Tell teachers your expectations and ask them what they are going to do in response. At a school I’ve been working in, teachers were told that the school expected a minimum standard of grammatical knowledge. Most teachers have muddled through without explicitly knowing this stuff. Teachers were asked to self-assess themselves, given a variety of means to address any deficit and told they would be held to account for their choices. Teachers were then left alone and trusted to act as professionals. This seems an eminently fair way to get what we want.

These approaches seem a much fairer, more humane and, ultimately, more effective way of getting what we want: motivated teachers and students.