Should we give teachers the ‘benefit of the doubt’?

Earlier in the week, Schools Minister, Lord Nash announced that schools should be more like businesses and jettison underperforming staff. According to this TES report he’s reported to have said, ““I think one of the things that it’s easy to say … is that sometimes in education there is a tendency to give people the benefit of the doubt too often.” The consequence of this well meaning woolliness is that we consign children to a sub-standard education. Much better for school leaders to be like business leaders. The “best leaders in education” are “tough”, “have a real sense of pace”, and “realise the clock is ticking fast for their children.”

I’m not at all sure this is true. That’s not to say that I’m an apologist for shonky teaching; it’s more an acknowledgement that, while there’s little doubt there are some rubbish teachers out there, we don’t really know who they are. This will sound contrary to many people’s lived experience: in every school I’ve ever visited a cohort of teachers has been identified as requiring improvement. Every school leader I’ve ever spoken to about this admits that when the subject of underperforming teachers is brought up, they can bring to mind a list of teachers to whom they’d love to bid adieu. Other teachers are usually clear on who are the slackers, and even – especially – students feel pretty clear on who the worst teachers are. So why don’t we just sack ’em?

To answer that we need to think about the problems with human bias. We’re very good at identifying who we don’t like, but are extremely poor at understanding why this might be. We don’t like uncertainty so we rush to come up with plausible post-hoc rationalisations for our preferences. Frequently, we arrive at conclusions which cannot be supported by the data we have available. The trouble is, whilst data allows us to say with certainty that some teachers are definitely better than others, for all sorts of complex reasons it doesn’t allow us to reliably identify who those teachers are. The best measures of teachers’ performance we have are like a scales which gives us an individual’s weight to within +/- 50 pounds. This is sufficient to conclude that men are, on average, heavier than women, but tells us nothing useful about the weight of an individual. Does this matter? Well, that depends on what you do with the information. The very best* we can probably manage is to say with a probability of between 0.6 – 0.8 whether a teacher is performing well. This is not good enough for high stakes decisions about pay or employment but it should be sufficient to design effective training. As Dylan William spells out in Leadership for Teacher Learning, when we go with our gut, or place our faith in unreliable data, we end up promoting ineffective teachers and sacking good ones as often as the reverse. In other words, unless we want to give into prejudice, we really should be giving people the benefit of the doubt.

Teachers are, almost without exception, well-intentioned. Few people go into teaching for the easy life or high salary. And, as you might have noticed, we’re currently experiencing a recruitment and retention ‘crisis’. Schools struggle to persuade teachers to stay in teaching as it is, so sacking the ones who are prepared to carry on at the chalk face is a profligate waste of resources. It’s not as if we have serried ranks of excellent teachers queuing up to replace all the crappy ones! If business leaders routinely squander their most precious resource they quickly go out of business. If school leaders behave this irresponsibly they’re hailed as ‘tough’ and having ‘a sense of pace’. Instead, what we need is intelligent accountability where accountability is balanced with trust, and autonomy is earned. Nash is right that the clock is ticking for children – they only get one shot at education, and this is too important not to give teachers the benefit of the doubt.

* What constitutes the ‘very best’ is so expensive and unwieldy it never – or almost never – takes place in schools. From that we can infer that the reliability of judgements will be significantly less. See the MET Project final report for details. 

22 Responses to Should we give teachers the ‘benefit of the doubt’?

  1. Sometimes a teacher who could become good is doing a poor job because of lack of support from leaders and / or suitable training.

  2. Alan says:

    I’ve only worked as a teacher for 5 years but already I am utterly fed up of this kind of fallacious argument. Schools are not businesses. As you say, under-performing businesses fail and disappear. We are all aware of schools that have under-performed for longer than any business ever could because it’s not feasible to simply shut a school. The idea that military veterans could bring discipline back to classrooms was another of these typically political arguments. The military has discipline, so surely a soldier could discipline children. Obvious nonsense to anyone working in education but attractive to the majority who think teachers have lots of holidays and finish work at 3pm. Lord Nash’s comments are lazy at best and dangerous if he were listened to. Even if we could successfully identify poor teachers and it were a big enough issue to merit political intervention, then wouldn’t the problem likely be with training and not necessarily with the individual teachers?

  3. Carl Badger says:

    What if the leaders themselves are incapable of deciding who is or who isn’t the best teachers. Lots of leaders bury their head in the sand about what makes a good teacher and that isn’t producing lovely lesson plans and fill in all the necessary paper work at exactly the right moment.

  4. One way Lord Nash thinks business offers a good model is like this:
    1. He runs an academy chain.
    2. He insisted that at least one school in the academy chain use a particular text book course (a series) from Year 1 to Year 6.
    3. This series is edited by someone who a) was a paid government adviser b) sat on a committee that recommended the use of her text books. c) The use of these text books was subsidised by the government. (This part of the story has been covered several times in Private Eye and the Guardian.)
    4. Lord Nash works in the DfE too.
    5. However, the teachers found that the text books that Lord Nash demanded the chain use did not have the desired outcome in terms of SATs results at KS2.
    6. They asked Lord Nash whether they could stop using the text books.
    7. I don’t know what happened next.

    • Michael Pye says:

      Michael this is a unnecessary ad hominem attack. The article is about the idea of using certain business practices in regards to dealing with teacher competency, not text books or academisation.

      • ‘Business practices’ are carried out by businessmen or businesswomen. They aren’t abstract, with no human agency. Right the way across the public services, there are new ‘business practices’. One kind of ‘business practice’ isn’t hermetically sealed off from another. The whole public sector has become a site of myriad ‘business opportunities’ carried out by business people. Usually business people are proud of their business achievements and they offer each other advice on how they can or might ‘make a contribution’ in another part of the public sector Over the last 20 years both Labour and Tory agencies (councils and government) have encouraged business to come into the public sector. I identified one part of this pattern because, yes, I believe it’s a pattern. I was being no more ad hominem than business people themselves are when they identify their companies, and their business practices. The corollary to this is about accountability. We’re all in favour of that, aren’t we?

        • Michael Pye says:

          You made none of those arguments previously. Instead you used bullet points to guide the reader into concluding Lord Nash is incompetent.

          Please consider simply staying on point for once so that intellect of yours can be used to shed light on the topic we are actually discussing.

  5. jenzington says:

    I have been teaching since 1999 – first as a primary class teacher, the last fifteen as a secondary teacher. Before that, I worked for ten years in the private sector in the City of London.

    Over the years I have noticed the business model creeping into education, but in a bizarrely distorted way. It started with the performance management cycle, now performance-related-pay is a fact of life (where HODs get to pick the plum classes and kill NQTS by palming off the tricky classes on them). Because this is the education sector and not business, the SMART measures of targets set, are rather fluffy and subjective. Instead of cold, hard cash, we are dealing with unpredictable and complex human individuals – both students and teachers.

    Like many of my colleagues, what drew me away from business into education was the desire to help students along their path to self-actualisation and a love of my subject. Now I have to fight the feeling that I am on a never-ending treadmill to improve results in an exams factory. It’s a grey shame.

  6. Nic Price says:

    Your point about the teacher supply issues is important as the impact of this will not be shared equally throughout the system.
    ‘Nice’ schools can afford to dispose of staff safe in the knowledge that they will attract good candidates. Because the teacher supply is limited other schools will have to pick up their discarded, disenfranchised and freshly-demotivated ex-employees.
    Ultimately, Nash’s world of disposable teachers would have a disproportionately high impact on those schools percieved as less desirable greatly widening the divide.

  7. JL says:

    This is a scary idea, particularly now, when teachers here are being evaluated on the Charlotte Danielson model (where, to be a 4, read best, a teacher is merely supposed to sit and observe students discussing and “teaching” each other as opposed to directly instructing them). There is an exceptionally good chance that anyone following a constructivist model will score well and get accolades whilst someone following anything based on recent cognitive science would likely be dismissed as ineffective. I personally know an elementary teacher (now retired) who taught her class phonics and had the highest results (even with “disadvantaged” students). She was praised for the test results–until they found out what she was doing. She was then forbidden to teach phonics. Ideology trumps results. Ironic that in these times of wanting things to be “data-driven” and “evidence-based”, they are able to find a way to twist the data/evidence to whatever suites them.

  8. Mark Feathestone-Witty says:

    Hmm. I’ve met Nash a few times and this sweeping remark (if that’s all there is) does him no favors. Why? It seems he knows little about business or schools. To suggest that the only attribute for a leader is being ‘tough’ is hardly helpful. How about fair?

    I recall when one new member joined our governing body, he asked me: ‘Who would you like to sack? there must be (and I forget the exact percentage) xx% who you’d rather wish weren’t here?’

    I paused, ran through our various staff lists and couldn’t find anyone who I wanted to stop working with. This wasn’t always true. Our solution was a rigorous yearly self-reflective appraisal process, allied with, at least, two catch-up meetings a term. This works both ways. We’ve recently achieved Investors in People Gold (again). I can’t, obviously, line manage everyone, but, for those senior staff that I do, we always discuss high maintenance or unprofessional staff, who report to them.

  9. dodiscimus says:

    I am far from familiar with all of them, but I get the impression a lot of the teacher/lesson evaluation rubrics in the USA suffer from being heavily theory-driven with a lack of empirical support. For this reason I think we need to be cautious about assuming that the relative inability of these rubrics to identify effective teaching, translates directly to the UK. However, since our approach is basically gut instinct (however nicely written), I couldn’t agree more that using these judgements to end the careers of willing teachers would be stupidity-squared. All teachers can improve; unless the baseline is total incompetence and unwillingness to change then we need to ‘love the ones we’re with’ as Dylan Wiliam put it, and support that improvement whether it is closely guided small, simple steps, for those we think are not yet teaching well, or just providing opportunities and encouragement for those who are.

  10. Chester Draws says:

    Teachers are, almost without exception, well-intentioned.

    Well, they start out that way. I’ve worked alongside a fair few that have reached the end of their interest/patience and were just going through the motions. I also don’t think intentions are what matters when we are talking about children’s futures.

    I also dispute that we can’t identify the worst teachers. The worst are so bad that it is clear who they are. The kids hate them and their results are consistently terrible. It does little good to pretend otherwise. It’s usually not even particularly secret.

    Principals are not going to sack merely bad teachers. There isn’t exactly a surplus to replace them with, and if the teacher is merely not good there is a realistic chance the replacement will be worse.

    So I will go against the trend on this one. I think that principals should be able to sack grossly underperforming teachers. It’s not about a “business” model — I would hope a not-for-profit hospital would sack an incompetent surgeon too.

    • Michael Pye says:

      They already can. Nash was clearly arguing for a smoother and quicker process. This is a question of degrees, should we make the process easier or harder and what are the upsides and the downsides. Nash is advocating an approach very much based on a perception of business practice so that model is relevant to the discussion.

      Because there is currently a mismatch between what research suggests is good teaching and what schools identify is good teaching there is a real possibility of the abuses such a move causes, outweighing any upsides. The MET study showed us what it takes to get reasonably accurate data on performance and it does not match the majority of schools approaches to performance management. Combined this gives a very real possibility of a lot of false positives (and negatives) if you are aggressively identifying under performing teachers in order to sack them.

      Most would not disagree with the idea of sacking grossly under performing teachers, What might be objectionable is the idea that we have a clearly defined cut off point with a reasonable degree of accuracy and validity. This is not just a theoretical exercise for me and I suspect many other teachers. I have been both targeted by my senior managers and protected depending on their personal views of my teaching and personality at the time.
      It was the same mangers in each case and I now consider them friends as well as colleagues.

      Alternatively i have worked as a union steward and I know that given half a chance we would never let any one go. Most in fact resigned after being pressured long enough. I don’t remember a single firing.

      When it comes to performance management the devil is very much in the details, though I do think that about most things.

    • David Didau says:

      Of course you’re right that there are a few appalling shits in the system and that getting rid of them is probably in everyone’s interest. There are some very clear proxies that allow us to identify people operating at these extremes: as well children hating them and consistently terrible results it’s also likely that they’ll be unsupportive, uncooperative, lazy and unprofessional. It’s perfectly reasonable to hold teachers to account for not meeting very reasonable minimum standards.

      But, 1) these are the exceptions and 2) we don’t need Nash’s hardman rhetoric to deal with them.

  11. Mark Bennet says:

    Another issue for leaders is that teachers are a scarce resource, so the best available teacher may not be quite what you want. So good leaders make the best of the staff they do have and can recruit, and make really good teachers out of people others (“being tough”) might have written off.

  12. David Jones says:

    I think what the profession is crying out for is a logical way to comprehend the effectiveness of the teacher. Education is such an important aspect of everyone’s life and has billions spent on it and yet there is no system wide, consistent understanding of what an effective teacher is / does. This reflects very poorly on the profession – it is in essence working in the dark and by association, so are its people. Is it truly a profession if you don’t systematically know who the best professionals are?

    The first step in getting better at anything is knowing how good you currently are and without this you are literally shooting in the dark. Imagine a profession where you understand precisely the performance expectations, the development journey and being trained explicitly to get better at the key aspects of your role. Education development is more like a tombola – drop your hand in and pull something out.

    Given the numbers of professors happy to espouse educational theory, one might expect that they would by now be able to help somewhat with this. Now if you do want to introduce performance related pay, there is a body of people who could do with a reality check.

    In 20 years, individualised, adaptive technology based learning will be a reality and do you know what, they’ll know exactly what works, what doesn’t and will refine and refine to the point where every student has a personalised and effective learning journey. Unless the profession wakes up to this, they will quietly be removed from the equation – it’s already happening elsewhere and it will be here sooner than we know.

    Come on people!

    • Michael pye says:

      You have missed the point. Wanting something is a different question then asking what we are currently able to do. Your conclusion that individual learning is inevitable is also a bit optimistic.

      Yes we are likely to be able to control the pace and complexity of content more individually as our programmes improve, but the style of learning is inevitably limited to the choice of the programmer not the student.

      We should make decisions based on our current best evidence. If new technology revolutionises education we will be able to research it and make more informed choices. Until then let’s avoid the philosophical circular argument that everything will change in the future so we need to change now.

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