Thinking Beyond Hollow Conceptions of Teacher Performance

EDUCATION

Will it be appropriate to rate teachers based on students’ performance alone or are there many nuanced factors that determine the way the child learns at school apart from the way the teacher delivers in class? Will critiquing the rating of teachers necessarily amount to allowing teachers to escape from being accountable to teaching?

Shruti Shankar is a teacher in Bangalore.

Image Source : The Better India

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Hindu reported on 30th November that government and aided school teachers are ‘rankled’ by the Karnataka Education Department’s decision to prepare report cards for them based on their students’ performance in the Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) exams. The report featured a quote by the President of a teachers’ association remarking that the move was unfair towards teachers.

Why should a teacher be rankled by being judged on the basis of student performance? How is this unfair to teachers? Aren’t surgeons judged by the number of successful surgeries they perform? Aren’t salespeople judged by their sales numbers? If you are a teacher who takes ownership of her performance, why should this seem unfair to you? Do teachers wish to escape the norms of accountability that other professionals are subject to? As a teacher and education researcher who has worked with education NGOs, I would like to offer a few explanations.

Personally, I care about accountability and hold myself accountable to my students more than anyone else in the school. However, their test scores would not be a good measure of my performance. Ask any teacher and they will tell you that there are a host of other factors that impact a child’s score. Theorists of educational systems describe schools as ‘loosely coupled systems’. This means that often teachers’ actions will have little to do with what students gain from the experience of the school.  Multiple factors impact a student’s performance, including how close the curriculum is to the cultures they are exposed to, major life events, the economic feasibility of their family to keep them in school and attending it regularly. Today, as progressive educators and parents, we acknowledge that test scores do not paint a holistic picture of a child’s learning. Why then should we accept the same scores as indicators of the teacher’s capability?

The other concern is how these grades are going to be used in relation to teachers. According to the Education Commissioner, these report cards will give teachers feedback on their performance, motivate them and identify teachers who do well so that their good practices may be shared. Teachers need feedback and motivation but classifying them into graded hierarchies on the basis of student scores most likely won’t help. Let us look at a scenario where a teacher receives a report card that she is not happy about.

How does the administration imagine her moving forward? She has been through a teacher education system that has likely not empowered her to improve her teaching. Teacher education in India is in complete shambles. In-service training programmes are also seriously wanting in terms of their ability to practically help teachers. This is akin to telling a child that they are bad at Math without really having a plan to support the child. (This scenario assumes that the teacher does have a teaching degree. In reality, both government and private schools are increasingly hiring untrained teachers due to the lower salaries they demand.)

Let us come to the issue of using report cards to identify and share ‘good practices’. Educational change theorists say that it is precisely this approach that contributes to the failure of several change initiatives. By trying to identify the exceptional cases in a dysfunctional system and encouraging others to adopt their practices, we look at the problem upside-down. What we must do instead is create conditions that ensure teachers improve.

Unsurprisingly, the improvement strategy of using student scores to rate teacher performance has failed elsewhere. Instead, student scores transform into a powerful weapon to intimidate and, sometimes, attack teachers. In the USA when the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act began to distribute and withhold rewards to schools on the basis of student performance on standardised tests, teachers began ‘teaching to the test’. We in India certainly need no further encouragement to teach to the test!

Despite proven faults, why has this strategy been introduced? We must recognise that the move is influenced by shifts in today’s globalised policy environment. Globally, there is a move to make government spending more efficient. Therefore measuring the performance of public servants and keeping them accountable for their performance is more important than ever. In the context of schools, student scores are a convenient way to get a quick picture of a teacher’s performance. Educational institutions across the world are increasingly facing such efficiency and accountability measures. At an Education Conference earlier this year, philosopher of Education David Hansen from Columbia University called the push towards efficiency in the USA ‘ferocious’.

There is no imaginable way we can dismiss the importance of efficiency itself in a resource-constrained context like ours. We want public funds to be used in the most fruitful way. But perhaps what might be fairer to teachers is to measure their performance in more wholesome ways. Let the mechanisms that measure performance not rest on an understanding that performance is limited to outputs; we know that especially in the case of Education, it is quality inputs that slowly build up to quality outputs over several years.

It is also important to respect and account for the enormous efforts that are critical to being a good teacher but do not necessarily impact student performance. There must also be an acknowledgement of the several hard-to-measure outcomes of education that are meaningful to students and society. Most of all, we must develop a robust support system that teachers can rely on pre-service and in-service if we intend to help teachers improve. No amount of grading or feedback is useful to a teacher who doesn’t possess the knowledge, skills or mind-sets to improve her teaching.

In the face of all the things we can do to understand and strengthen teacher performance, the Education Department’s move seems like a lazy solution that may turn out to be ineffective, if not counterproductive.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Rankled by ranking! Teachers had it coming for some time now. Shruthi Shankar does well to ask, why should ‘students’ be the only party to share praise or blame in the pedagogic encounter. Our policies have ensured the child goes to school … but no policy or it’s implementation is yet to assure what happens to the child inside the school. Teachers would have to conjure up ways to demonstrate that tbe ‘learner’ is more than his / her academic achievement / performance – lest teachers too fall into the pit they have inadvertenly helped dig!

  2. Shruti Shankar has made a telling point; do not evaluate the performance of teachers solely on the basis just the performance of her students. How well a teacher instills human and ethical values in her students and how deeply the teacher fosters the sense of respect and duty to society, nation and mankind in her students are more suitable performance benchmarks for the teacher. After all, the primary goal of a teacher is to make a child into a responsible and humane adult and an adult into a conscious and aware citizen. Even though I have left the precincts of my high school nearly forty five years ago, I still hold some teachers of my school very close to my heart, for the all round “education” they have provided. Perhaps, because basic values are ingrained when one is yet a child, our special love seems to be reserved more for teachers at schools rather than in the higher institutions of education. I subscribe to Shruti’s view that it is possible to arrive at a fair mix of yardsticks to judge a teacher’s performance. I wish the author follows up on this piece with another one dwelling on what could these ideal performance metrics be to determine the true “quality” of teachers.

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