The golden triangle

This article was written for SecEd Magazine

The golden triangle of performance management takes in quality improvement, performance development and CPD. Matt Bromley explains, offering some key tenets of effective performance management systems

To improve the effectiveness of performance management in schools, I advocate forming a “golden triangle” which connects appraisal to quality assurance and professional development.

However, before we proceed, I should admit that I dislike two of those terms. Rather than “quality assurance”, I favour “quality improvement”. And in place of “performance management”, I would suggest that “performance development” is a more helpful moniker.

Let’s look at each of the three apexes of the golden triangle in more detail…

Apex 1: Quality assurance

When it comes to quality assurance – or quality improvement, as I say – I believe that we should measure the quality of education in a holistic rather than an isolated way.

To do this, we need to ensure that we look beyond the classroom, important though this is, and ensure that our quality assurance activities take account of curriculum planning, too. After all, the curriculum provides the foundations on which a quality education is built. Without an effective curriculum, no matter the quality of our teachers and their classroom practice, we will not achieve good outcomes or fully prepare our pupils for the next stage of their education, employment, and lives.

The Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was a three-year study which sought to determine how best to identify and promote great teaching.

The project report concluded: “Teaching is complex, and great practice takes time, passion, high-quality materials, and tailored feedback designed to help each teacher continuously grow and improve.”

The report shows that a more balanced approach – one which incorporates multiple measures – has two important advantages: ratings are less likely to fluctuate from year to year, and the combination is more likely to identify teachers with better outcomes on pupil assessments.

The project concludes that we must learn four lessons if we are to improve our systems of quality assurance:

  • Teachers generally appear to be managing their classrooms well but are struggling with fundamental instructional skills.
  • Classroom observations can give teachers valuable feedback but are of limited value for predicting future performance.
  • Value-added analysis is more powerful than any other single measure in predicting a teacher’s long-term contributions to pupil success.
  • Evaluations that combine several strong performance measures will produce the most accurate results.

The solutions to these problems are as follows:

  • We should base teacher evaluations on multiple measures of performance, including data on pupil academic progress.
  • We should improve classroom observations by making them more frequent and robust.
  • We should use or modify an existing observation rubric instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.
  • We should give evaluators the training and on-going support they need to be successful.
  • We should consider using pupil surveys as a component of teacher evaluation.

In terms of using multiple measures of effectiveness, the project found that using lesson observations alone had a positive correlation with pupil outcomes of just 0.24. Using pupil surveys alone had a correlation of 0.37. Using value-added data was the most accurate with a correlation of 0.69. But combining all three of these measures had a correlation of 0.72, proving yet again that using multiple measures of performance – measuring the effectiveness of teaching holistically – is the best solution.

Apex 2: Performance management

When it comes to performance management – or performance development, as I say – my philosophy is simple: it is no-one’s vocation to fail. But, despite the best of intentions, sometimes some people do not perform as well as they can or as well as we would like.

When teachers under-perform, they need to be given time and support – including appropriate training – to improve. Many will. But those who don’t, once they have been given sufficient time and opportunity to address their development needs, need to leave the classroom, ideally of their own volition and with our best wishes as they embark upon a new career, but sometimes, perhaps, more forcibly.

Accountability – when managed fairly and accurately, honestly and transparently – is a force for good. Arguing against ineffective systems of performance management (such as one-off, high-stakes lesson observations) is not therefore akin to arguing against the need for accountability. Indeed, performance management matters and it is important that school leaders get it right in order to help teachers improve, reward hard work and challenge persistent underperformance.

A system of accountability based on lesson observations alone – or indeed any other single measure – is a broken one, however, because lesson observations do not accurately or reliably measure the quality of teaching nor the effectiveness of our teachers. What they do, however, is create a climate of fear; they straitjacket teachers.

So, what’s the answer?

First, let me be clear: I am not suggesting we stop observing lessons altogether. In fact, I think walking into lessons to see what’s happening is important.

There is much to be gained by senior leaders, middle leaders and peers observing each other in the classroom, which is, after all, the engine-room of any school.

By observing the classroom environment, for example, we can see the rapport the teacher has established with pupils, we can see how well the teacher manages behaviour and utilises resources.

Lesson observations also allow us to see the ways in which transitions are handled and tasks are organised. And observations in the classroom can show senior and middle leaders how their policies and procedures, and systems and structures are translated into practice, and whether they are workable or onerous, helpful or a hindrance.

A senior leader who becomes divorced from the classroom tends to make bad decisions that may seem sensible from their vantage point in an ivory tower but prove anything but sensible when put to the stress-test.

So, yes, observations certainly have value. But observations alone do not enable us to accurately judge the quality of teaching. For that we need to triangulate what we see and hear in classrooms with other sources of information, not least teachers’ – much maligned but absolutely vital – professional judgement.

The main thrust of my argument with regards performance management, therefore, is simple: we should move away from performance management and towards performance development. In other words, we should avoid instigating a pass/fail system of appraisal that assumes teachers are either good or bad and which is based largely on lesson observations.

Instead, we should strive for a system that recognises the complexity of the job, accepts that people have good and bad days, that many more factors affect pupils’ progress and outcomes than an individual teacher, and that the goal is to help everyone – no matter their career stage – improve over time (while acknowledging that everyone is human, and no-one is perfect).

Let me emphasise those key points again because I think they are important and if you take one thing away from this article, I would like it to be this: performance management should:

  • Recognise the fact that teaching and learning are highly complex and cannot be reduced to a checklist or rubric.
  • Accept that a teacher’s performance isn’t uniform – they have good and bad days, and an ineffective lesson does not mean they have failed.
  • Acknowledge that pupil outcomes are affected by many factors beyond a teacher’s control.
  • Aim to help every teacher in a school to improve, no matter their career stage or training needs.
  • Promote collaboration rather than competition and incentivise team-working and joint practice development.

So, put simply, it is my belief that performance management – if it is to “measure” anything – should measure a teacher’s willingness to engage in professional development activity and improve over time.

As a natural progression from this, it is reasonable to assert that an appraisal system could consist quite simply of one professional development target per year and be reviewed at the end of the cycle on the extent to which a teacher has engaged in CPD activity, tried new approaches and evaluated their impact.

Which leads me nicely onto the final apex of our golden triangle…

Apex 3: Professional development

Professional development works best, I find, when it is: worthwhile, sustained, and evaluated. But what might this mean in practice?

The Standard for Teacher Professional Development (DfE, 2016) – together with the Teachers’ Standards (DfE, 2011) – may hold the key.

The five strands of the CPD Standard are as follows:

  • Professional development should have a focus on improving and evaluating student outcomes.
  • Professional development should be underpinned by robust evidence and expertise.
  • Professional development should include collaboration and expert challenge.
  • Professional development programmes should be sustained over time.
  • Professional development must be prioritised by senior leadership.

As the Standard suggests, the most effective professional development is collaborative and driven by teachers. Professional development, therefore, should involve responding to advice and feedback from colleagues, and reflecting systematically on the effectiveness of lessons and approaches to teaching.

This might take the form of peer-observations and feedback, of peer-coaching, or of more formal lesson study activities. It might also take the form of peer-to-peer work scrutiny, both of students’ marked work and assessment records, and of medium and long-term planning documentation.

Whatever form it takes, the best professional development gives ownership to staff and creates the time and space needed for them to work together, sharing best practice and learning from each other’s mistakes.

Another way to ensure that professional development is effective is to make it an unmissable event, tailored to meet the differing needs of departments and teachers.

Every member of staff should recognise the importance of professional development as a mandatory part of their jobs – not as a voluntary extra. But they will only do that when professional development is worth engaging with and it will only be worth engaging with when it is relevant, timely, keenly focused on real classroom practice, and genuinely and tangibly impactful.

To ensure relevance and focus, professional development should be influenced by research evidence but informed by context. In other words, it should take its lead from what research indicates works best but be mindful of the unique circumstances of each school, each subject, each teacher, and each cohort of pupils.

As well as being unmissable, professional development should be regular, embedded and joined-up. Professional development should be seen as a collaborative enterprise involving all staff working together, rather than something that is “done to” them by senior leaders.

Professional development also works best when it performs the twin functions of innovation and mastery. In other words, professional development should not just be about learning new ways of working – professional development for innovation – although this is undoubtedly important. Rather, it should also be about helping teachers to get better at something they already do – professional development for mastery.

Professional development for mastery is about recognising what already works well and what should therefore be embedded, consolidated, built upon, and shared.

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