The Myth of the ‘Quality of Teaching’

Posted on June 29, 2013

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If you’re only as good as your last post on a subject then I am completely off my rocker to even try and attempt a second “Myth of…” post. The first one, on “The Myth of Progress Within Lessons” is closing in on 7000 views making it easily my most widely read post (by a 6:1 ratio). More importantly I know that it had a positive effect on a number of individual teachers and even the odd senior leadership team, which is still scary and more than a little daunting: I’m still waiting for some irate Headteacher to grab me by the collar at a teachmeet or conference with the words “I’ll bleedin’ well show you the myth of bleeding’ progress”. If this post can even have a fraction of the impact of “The Myth of Progress Within Lessons” then I’ll be a happy man.

So here goes. The focus for this “myth of…” post is the quality of teaching as espoused and inspected by Ofsted, ‘rolled down’ by senior and middle leaders and accepted by teachers across the country. As with the ‘progress’ post I’m going to draw copiously from the Ofsted School Inspection Handbook 2013 to unpick some of the myths about the quality of teaching that have become embedded in our collective professional psyche and that inform some of the worst elements of practice by inspectors, senior leaders, middle leaders and classroom teachers alike (or maybe not alike!!).

Before the inspection
This section of the Ofsted handbook deals mainly about the organisational aspects of preparing for an inspection and what schools can expect to have to do in the short time available to them prior to the new virtually zero notice inspection schedule. The first reference to the quality of teaching says that:

“Inspectors should also request that [records of the monitoring of the quality of teaching are] made available at the start of the inspection.”

There is no reference here to grades being given to individual teachers through whole school review processes by members of the senior leadership team, although I am aware that this is what many lead inspectors ask for and many (if not most) leadership teams provide. But what is meant by the phrase ‘quality of teaching’? I would strongly argue that in the context of this sentence it would very much seem to be about the quality of teaching across the institution and yet many schools submit to inspection teams highly individualised data about all of their teachers. Why? Ofsted are quite clear with regards to Performance Management that they want to see anonymised data with regard to objectives set and upper scale increments awarded (or not), so why not anonymised data on the quality of teaching.

Another problem with this – and a problem that would apply equally to anonymised disaggregated data on the quality of teaching – is that it rather assumes that the whole is only ever equal to the sum of its parts. This results in inspection teams and school leaders in turn counting up the number of lessons seen as outstanding, good, requires improvement and inadequate and turning them into percentages. This in its turn leads to schools setting targets for improvement based upon increasing the proportion of good or outstanding teaching rather than the aggregated quality of teaching.

This process of disaggregation has inexorably drawn us away from holistic thinking about the quality of teaching across our institutions (and school system) and has placed huge burdens on individual teachers that manifest themselves in a number of ways: from those dreading their first ever non-outstanding observation as if that were the worst thing possible, to those breaking down uncontrollably when told yet again that their lesson was ‘only good’, to those sensing that they are being shifted “off the bus” for being seen teaching requires improvement (formerly satisfactory) lessons in consecutive observations.

The resulting tensions are nowhere near to being conducive for holistic improvement of the quality of teaching because they fragment trust and create a compartmentalised eggbox culture which can lead to risk aversion and compliance in some teachers or ‘observation innovation’ where some teachers feel an urgent need to do things differently when whole school reviews and Ofsted come calling.

So why do we do this within schools? Is it because Ofsted are looking to make judgments about the quality of teaching based on the disaggregated performance of individual teachers in each part-lesson they see? The answer is a resounding “NO”.

“Inspectors must spend as much time as possible gathering evidence on teaching and learning, observing lessons, scrutinising work and talking to pupils about their work, gauging their understanding and their engagement in learning, and obtaining their perceptions of typical teaching.”

Even if this quote were applied to individual teacher (and I will continue to argue that the quality of teaching judgment is an institutional not individual one, certain of the ace up my sleeve) this section shows that inspection teams are being asked to gather ‘in the round’ evidence based upon much more than the snapshot of what is seen in the sub-twenty minute burst of an observation. At this point I am sure that many school leaders would argue that they do the same, talking with students in observed lessons as well as taking into account the typicality by looking through student books in observed lessons. But here lies the problem with that for me: it is still one observation of one class, possibly among many for non-core subject teachers, and as such is still far from being a holistic evaluation of the quality of teaching by that individual teacher, let alone the quality of teaching across the institution.

And here we must also remember that Ofsted need to talk to students and see books in observed lessons in order to make a judgment because they are only with us for a day and a half!! The rest of us have weeks, terms and years from which to draw our evidence base about the quality of teaching, so why not use that time to ensure it is more robust, reliable and valid?

Perhaps it is because Ofsted are going to make snap judgments about the quality of teaching for us and so we need to replicate their mechanisms in order to effectively predict how an inspection might go for the school, ensuring their are no nasty surprises downstream?

Wrong-headed, I’m afraid. Ofsted don’t really make a judgment about the quality of teaching at all. Instead…

“Through lesson observations and subsequent discussions with senior staff and teachers, inspectors should ensure that they are able to judge the accuracy of teachers’ and leaders’ evaluation of teaching and learning”

The last words bear repeating. Ofsted “judge the accuracy of teachers’ and leaders’ evaluation of teaching and learning” not the quality of teaching itself. Of course I lay myself open to quite a few corrections by teachers and leaders who have strongly felt that Ofsted have come to their schools and very much judged the quality of teaching. My point in response would be that this quote is from the Ofsted handbook itself and that leaders in particular need to know this handbook better than the inspectors themselves, not to try to out-Ofsted Ofsted but to be able to hold them to account if they stray too far from what we are being old is the way inspections should be.

The substantive point in all of this is that Ofsted are not supposed to judge the quality of teaching (for the individual or the institution) but are instead supposed to validate or invalidate the internal evaluation of the quality of teaching. It is an important distinction because it puts paid to the myth that we need to use the Ofsted methodology (essentially a validation methodology) in favour of one that best serves the need of monitoring for individual and institutional improvement.

But even within Ofsted’s validation methodology there is a hint at something better than many schools utilise for their own processes of monitoring the quality of teaching:

“There are many different strategies for planning observations. Lead inspectors should not be constrained by a single approach, but should use their professional judgement to plan an appropriate ‘lesson observation strategy’. “

The list that follows is excellent:

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My one real bugbear with Ofsted is that they don’t use this professional autonomy to do something different to the multiple part-lesson plus learning walks that have become the standard practice that clearly this statement would like to see improved upon. And the reason why it is disappointing that inspection teams don’t mix it up a bit is because that would send a clear message to any Ofsted-lite leaders that they should stop trying to replicate in order to ‘game’ the system because the system would be less game-able. Let’s hope (probably against hope) that the inspection schedule won’t change too drastically in the near future so that Ofsted can instead work on tweaking such under-utilised elements of the inspection schedule as this in order to get better at what they do.

Whilst I’m onto a bit of Ofsted-bashing around the quality of teaching here is, for me, the worst part of the handbook:

“When inspectors carry out lesson observations, they should grade, where possible, key judgements such as achievement and teaching, indicating in particular the quality of pupils’ learning.”

Notice that the words “quality of teaching” are not here, again supporting my point that any evaluation of the quality of teaching is institutional not individual (my ace is still up my sleeve, I promise you). But I would like them to go further and remove any judgments about the teaching of individuals completely. We all know that any claims to reliability are farcical based on twenty minutes or less of what might be a two hour or longer lesson, just as we know that across 40-60 part observations there is likely to be more reliability of judgments. Instead inspectors should solely be looking for qualitative information about what is happening in front of them in order to maximise the validity of their judgments. Sam Freedman puts this better than me in his excellent post urging Ofsted to focus on learning ahead of teaching.

All of which brings me to the part of the Ofsted Handbook which deals explicitly with the “quality of teaching in the school”. It begins with this:

“The most important role of teaching is to promote learning and to raise pupils’ achievement. It is also important in promoting their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.”

This rather validates Sam’s arguments in the aforementioned post. How often do we, as school leaders and as teachers, forget about students in the process of internal reviews? If you’re thinking “not at all” then consider all the times you been told or have told someone that they talked for too long, or didn’t use a “no-hands up” rule, or didn’t review learning, or that their marking was summative rather than formative or any one of a hundred or more judgments about the teaching. If you haven’t done any of those things then you’re a better leader than me and most of us.

Of course each of those things have an impact on learning and I can think of ways to turn each one of them around to be explicitly so, but my point is that they are teacher-centric and so are part of the problem outlined above about the individualisation and fragmentation of making judgments about the quality of teaching. The big question for Ofsted is that if the most important role of teaching really is “to promote learning and to raise pupils’ achievement” then what are they doing making any judgments on individual teaching and teachers at all? And if we as leaders and teachers feel the same way why are we joining them on this particular mistaken pathway?

So finally we come the first of my aces (didn’t I tell you that I had one up each sleeve?) and I sincerely believe that aces are high in this instance.

“The judgement on the quality of teaching must take account of evidence of pupils’ learning and progress over time. Inspectors must not simply aggregate the grades awarded following lesson observations.”

The Ofsted process isn’t about disaggregation in order to aggregate and if it isn’t for them then it shouldn’t be for us as educators. We can’t simply rock up for a half period, whole period or even multiple periods of a teacher’s lessons (even the latter would constitute the tiniest fraction of their annual contact with students) and hope to be able to put a grade on the quality of teaching by that individual. It just wouldn’t come close to encapsulating all that they are and all that they do as teachers.

Such a process merely creates labels which are intrinsically linked to value judgments. These labels then have the potential to become divisive and foster individual competition when collective unity is surely by far a more important for creating a virtuous circle in the improvement of the quality of teaching across the whole school and the corollary of better learning and achievement.

Worse still such a ‘disaggregation for the sake of aggregation’ approach misses the point that successful schools are ones where the whole is actually greater than the sum of its parts. With regard to teaching this manifests itself as coherence, collaboration and collegiality across teachers and departments. This is engendered through individual teachers thinking deeply about their practice, building upon existing strengths to develop new ones or find hidden ones. It is engendered by colleagues taking part in peer coaching activities, co-planning lessons together and observing each other without a hint of judgment but a whole heap of developmental evaluation. It is engendered by senior and middle leaders who create the ethos, time and space to make all of this happen and who don’t create a ‘cult of outstanding’.

Speaking of outstanding, here is the second of my aces produced with a flourish from my sleeve as promised. Here is the Ofsted Handbook’s evaluation schedule judgments for the ‘quality of teaching in the school’. Look closely at the indentation of the bullet points and think about what you see.

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For me I see a single bullet point with a number of sub-bullets which is intended to show that the first bullet encapsulates all of the others. That first bullet is clearly and unequivocally about the quality of teaching across the school and over time not the quality of teaching of an individual teacher. This means that all of the references to ‘teaching’ and ‘teachers’ in the sub-bullets below are a reference to our teaching staff as a whole, not as a collection of individuals.

And in case anyone doubts me on this, have a look at footnote 32 that elaborates upon the phrase “grade descriptors” as applied to the “quality of teaching in the school”. The footnote says to the inspection team that…

“These grade descriptors describe the quality of teaching in the school as a whole, taking account of evidence over time. While they include some characteristics of individual lessons, they are not designed to be used to judge individual lessons.”

Not so much an ace as a game, set and match I believe. The phrase “some characteristics” is at once uncontentious and yet endlessly debatable, but the conclusion of the sentence is as emphatic as you could hope to have. But here’s a question for you: how many of you teach or lead in schools where these criteria that “are not designed to be used to judge individual lessons” are indeed being used precisely for that purpose?

And here’s a second question for you: if you are using this tool designed to “describe the quality of teaching in the school as a whole” for individual lesson observations what are you missing out on that could work more effectively for school improvement that is more likely to foster the coherence, collaboration and collegiality mentioned above?

How do we evaluate more holistically the full quality of teaching by individuals? Or do we look bigger than this and only focus on the quality of teaching for the institutions we work in? These are big questions that school leaders need to ponder, but one thing should be apparent: there is no need to utilise an Ofsted methodology within our own schools for improving the quality of teaching, particularly for individual teachers.

The Ofsted Handbook might offer us a solution that would allow us to consider more fully the contribution of individual teachers within and institutional framework. Hidden away in the handbook with no amplification is this sentence:

” Inspectors should consider the extent to which the ‘Teachers’ Standards’ are being met.”

Now I know the Teachers’ Standards are not everyone’s cup of tea thanks to the cackhanded way in which they were introduced and their potentially divisive link to the performance related pay agenda, but consider the main headings:

Set high expectations which inspire, motivate and challenge pupils

Promote good progress and outcomes by pupils

Demonstrate good subject and curriculum knowledge

Plan and teach well structured lessons

Adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils

Make accurate and productive use of assessment

Manage behaviour effectively to ensure a good and safe learning environment

Fulfil wider professional responsibilities

Now I don’t know about you, but I’d rather someone evaluated my effectiveness as a teacher, or the quality of teaching across the school, against these wider criteria than upon the narrow focus of a lesson observation.

We have the structures in place to evaluate the contributions made by individual teachers to the quality of teaching across the school. They range from performance management or appraisal to continuing professional development to examination results to department meetings to capability and competency procedures to staffroom interactions. We don’t need to hide behind the inappropriate and frankly inadequate Ofsted methodology, with its vulgar 4-point scale and past- and present-tense orientation.

If we use the rich, fit for purpose, nuanced and future-tense oriented methodologies that we already have at our disposal surely we can do more to develop the knowledge, skills and attributes of individual teachers. And if we get that right then maybe, just maybe, the next time that Ofsted come calling with their blunt instrument of school evaluation they will indeed see marked improvements in the quality of teaching in the school.

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