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how do we assess teacher quality?

This is a post originally writing for Talking Teaching. It's a difficult question for universities, but an important one at a time when they are increasingly under scrutiny for the quality of their educational outcomes (read: student completion & retention). It's a difficult question for individuals too!

Way back when I was a secondary teacher, & there were signs that the government of the day was looking at a possible move to performance pay, there were fairly frequent staffroom discussions discussions around how to assess the quality of one's teaching. (There's a much more recent report on this subject here.) One metric proposed was how many of your students passed School Cert. (I told you it was a long time ago!) That was all very well for those whose classes - we had streamed classes at my school - contained students who could mostly be expected to achieve rather well. I had one of those, but I also had the 'problem' 4th-form (year 10) class: kids who for a variety of reasons weren't viewed by many as likely to pass.

I had no real problems with that class. I had to teach them science, and so we 'did' science in contexts that they found engaging & relevant: the science of cooking, the science of cosmetics, & so on. We had a ball, & in the process they seemed to absorb some knowledge of science: what it was, & how it worked. But mostly they still didn't attempt School C (the equivalent of today's NCEA Level 1), & so by that rubric I'd have been judged a poor teacher. Perhaps, if we'd looked systematically at the level of prior knowledge those students entered my class with, and assessed the gains they made on that, both they and I would have been judged differently.

I was reminded of this during a discussion today about assessing the quality of teachers in a university setting. Now sure, we have a system of paper appraisals and teaching appraisals. But they aren't shared with line managers as a matter of course, and so that can make things difficult during goal-setting and promotion rounds. For in the absence of that information, just how do line managers (& others) come to any evidence-based assessmentof a teacher's abilities and performance in the classroom? I suspect the short answer is that they can't, not really.

But even where the appraisal data are available, they shouldn't be the only tool individuals (& managers) use to assess performance. I'm often told the appraisals are easy to 'game', although I'm not sure how correct that is; it does tend to assume that students aren't able to assess papers and teacher performance reasonably well. I mean, statements like "this teacher made it clear what was expected of me", "this teacher made the subject interesting", and "this teacher was approachable when advice or help was required" are fairly objective, after all. But ideally they'd be just one element in an educator's portfolio.

That portfolio could also include notes and commentary from an option that teachers in the compulsory sector will be used to: having a colleague sit in on a class and provide constructive feedback afterwards. In my experience this is rare in universities, which is a real pity, because both parties can learn a good deal from the experience. (We are accustomed, and encouraged, to have others cast a critical eye on our research outcomes, so why not our teaching?)

It could also include notes & reflections from the education literature. I firmly believe that while my teaching has to be informed by current research in my discipline (& I simply can't imagine teaching the same thing, year after year!), it must also be informed by findings from research into pedagogy.  Things change, after all. Teaching & learning methods that might have seemed to work for those who taught me at uni are almost certainly out of date in today's classrooms. As regular readers will know, I put much of my own reflection into writing these blog posts: the blog makes up a largish part of my own portfolio.

And of course, if you're dipping into the literature, and attending seminars or workshops from your equivalent of our Teaching Development Unit, then you'll pick up all sorts of other, informal, tips for gaining feedback on how things are going in the classroom. It's worth linking back to a guest post from a my friend & colleague Brydget, as she summarises all this very well.

The trick, of course, is to work out how to present that information to one's line manager :)

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