84 - Measures of Success

The culture of criticism

While I have been in China I have coined the term ‘Measures of Success’ and I wish to apply it to teaching. I am depressed by the apparent conviction that results are the only measure of a teacher’s worth—taking no account whatsoever of the standard of the students. I can see the worth of value-added measures while at the same time appreciating how difficult they must be to measure.

Here are some depressing examples I have experienced while teaching. A Centre is a school or the sub-school within a school; if you’ve only taught in Britain, think of a large sub-division like Boarding or a Junior School within a larger unit (or the Sixth Form College, for that matter. A CP, a Centre Principal, is near in action to a Head in a British school, less the reporting to Governors, anything to do with finance and a lot of the selling.

•   The measure of success of a CP is the level of complaints received and made by the management of the host school. No complaints means this is a brilliant CP.                  
•   The measure of success of a teacher is the level of complaint made by the students; the lower the level of complaint, the better the teacher is deemed to be.
•   The measure of success of a Centre is the level of complaint received by the management of the company.

You need to recognise that there are environments where every call from a parent to the school is called ‘complaint’; I have worked in such places. I wonder what doctor’s surgeries call complaints that are not illnesses¹?

Exam results are too infrequently compared to the turnover of staff to affect many teachers directly. The complaints reach a boss-person (“Let me speak with your supervisor”), who uses this as the significant measure of lack-of-success because it causes them to do work not of their own choosing, and because it is uncomfortable—and they do not see the message as a criticism of their own management (when they could do that, treating the subsequent action as a positive thing).

For exam results to have a bearing upon teacher’s reputation, there must be either some selling or self-promotion going on or there are some very good records being kept of this ‘added value’ thing. Research needed. Input from others, please.

I found a site explaining some of the value added idea; with enough figures you can find a correlation based on what I would call the parent population, say (as the site referred to does) between Key Stages 2 and 3 in Britain. This gives a trend line—the correlation line—and then you work out where your datum fits; you hope you fit above the line, demonstrating that you have improved the students more than ‘the national average’. In the case of KS2 & 3, the GCSE figures (that’s KS3) are ‘capped’ at 8 GCSEs. You’re measuring your intake level (to GCSE) at KS2 from the results and then the correlation line indicates where you might expect the same cohort to be at KS3. All exceptions are ruled out—if you haven’t got the data, those people are omitted; if they weren’t with you the whole time, they’re omitted and there’s a list of reasons to omit people. So without a parent population to indicate what to expect, you’re stuck comparing one cohort with those of previous years. If you have the students with you for a long run of years, then you’re not measuring added value as much as you’re measuring when a child hits its best years of development—and, in an unselfish way, you’d like those to be after they’ve left your care, surely. Even then, the only thing being measured is success at gaining academic value on a points scale.

One of the things one is encouraged to do when working for your PGCE is to reflect upon your lessons and ask yourself what went well, what might work better and so on. At our Centre that reflection proves useful for each member of staff and we do this every week as part of our reporting cycle. It may or may not be read by others, but it has been written primarily to encourage the individual teacher into doing that reflection. This works particularly well when there is enough time in any week to do something more than say to yourself “Oops, that didn’t go well” and “Can I slope off home now?”.

In the modern school, one has a review of your teaching—this may indeed be a frequent occurrence. The most positive environment I have experienced made it a common occurrence for fellow teachers to visit the classrooms of others to observe, which often resulted in joining in and making the whole classroom experience a positive one. When this happened the students often benefited from the extra breadth of experience. The alternative approaches to problems demonstrated on these occasions (including teaching problems) frequently allowed students to see their subject (or that topic within the subject) from a different perspective and I several times saw a student make a break-through in understanding in such sessions. Smart use of different experience (“Have you used this outside teaching?”) can produce immediate examples that no teacher could easily plan for. In a positive constructive environment everyone enjoys (benefits, and learns from) what is going on. Never once did any class wish to complain that teachers were demonstrating weakness, as would happen in China. Having an environment in which a teacher can safely say “I don’t know, but I can find out; what do you think?” and even ask a colleague that in front of the class can be a whole-group learning exercise and positive. In other environments it can be a crushing and demoralising experience.

None of that measures anyone’s success as a teacher, does it? (Or does it? It might, and maybe it should.) One of the regular actions in China is to canvas the students for their opinions upon the teaching quality of their staff. That could possibly be constructive but, in this country, few people will offer criticism of anyone. That directly means that most students tick the most extremely positive box to ‘make the problem go away’, which is this case is being disturbed so as to fill in this form. This means that the measure established is flawed from the start, because every individual who chooses a different box to tick (less than perfect) produces a reaction out of all proportion to the expressions of adequacy (rather than perfection). So I have staff to take to task because their approval rating is below 90%, accordingly to the local boss person.

Now since when did approval become a measure of good teaching? Since when was popularity a measure of good teaching? Obviously, if you knew the test was about to be carried out, you’d bring a bag of chocolates and hand them out to the class as prizes for being nice (pick something that everyone can qualify for) and the kids will happily (and possibly unconsciously) reciprocate with votes for your popularity. I worked closely with a teacher who regularly won these competitions in her school. She happily admitted to me that she bought sweets for teh lessons of the week before the canvassing. She was greatly dismayed at my reaction—which was entirely directed at her assumption that winning this award gave direct evidence that her teaching was good. But she would be right in the culture of complaint, wouldn’t she?

Is the school a success? What measures apply? But the measure of success is itself all about perception, and that is largely a stranger to truth. So the measure of success is based entirely upon perception, which probably is affected by sales spiels. What are the measures of success of sales? Well, that should be obvious, it is the number of customers acquired, isn’t it? And so it is, to the sales staff. To the teaching staff this is not at all true, because students are not equal, and we have in my current Centre typically 20-25% of intake that we cannot teach in English because they do not have enough English to benefit from lessons in that language. Indeed, these students need at least an extra year and many will not survive or succeed even with that extra. So the system is flawed because the measures of success are flawed. I point to this as a (distant remote, focused on other things) management issue, but discover it is something larger, more akin to one of company ethos. And then, I discover that the customers themselves create a significant proportion of the problem because they buy the dream without ever measuring the dream against reality. Or perception against truth. It is very difficult indeed to persuade anyone in sales to drag a customer’s feet to earth.


I have a number of solutions but the best one would be not to start from here… ²
The next essay is actually quite closely related.

DJS 20120507

Thumbnail pic of me at work in the classroom, this in Shanghai on a week long course for Oxbridge hopefuls, all within the Dipont umbrella of schools. Typically 10% of those on the course were decent propositions for the dizzy heights, 10% had been sent to be occupied and the middle 80% wanted (and received) help in choposing a decent list of prospective tertiary sites.

1 Chinese readers might need to know that ‘a complaint’ is (among other things) the poor state of health that you report to a doctor, as if perhaps you are complaining that your health is not perfect and it is the State’s fault. In Britain it is the State’s problem to cure your complaint—that’s what the National Health Service [NHS] provides.

2 A tourist in Ireland pauses his vehicle beside a local pushing his bike along a country road. “Can you tell me how to get to Cork?”, he says. There is a long period during which the local makes several attempts to reply—imagine I have written twenty lines of dithering (more than the usual overkill, then)—and then comes the answer, “Drive that away (points) for half an hour and ask again”. “Uungh? Explain please”. “Well, it would be better not to start from here”.

Links hidden above:   http://www.education.gov.uk/performancetables/schools_04/sec3b.shtml

© David Scoins 2017