The surplus model of school improvement

As teachers we are sometimes guilty of assuming that all would be well if only children behaved better and worked harder. This is basically sound; everything would be better is kids did what was in their best interests. So why don’t they? Well, in some schools they do. In some schools there are strong social norms which ensure that misbehaviour and laziness are the exception. This isn’t because only children from more affluent postcodes are capable of doing the right thing, it’s because schools and teachers have worked hard to make it easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing. They have worked on the assumption that mucking around doesn’t have to be endemic, but kids are basically kids; they’ll default to whatever the prevailing expectations allow.

Likewise, all too often schools leaders take the view that everything would be OK if only teachers were more motivated and worked harder. This is the deficit model; the idea that less than desirable outcomes are due to someone else swinging the lead. According to this way of thinking, problems will be solved if this deficit can in some way be addressed. And how should we address this lack in others? Why by supplying more information, stricter parameters, tighter deadlines and clear consequences. This is the logic behind the way our education system manages the accountability process: schools and teachers cannot be trusted to do the right thing and take responsibility for their own development so we will club them with the cudgel of accountability until they fall in to line. Sound familiar?

This edifice depends on the notion that ‘experts’ know best. DfE wallahs, Ofsted inspectors, education consultants, senior leaders are the experts and so it falls to them to ensure that deficits are made up and troublesome classroom teachers are brought into line. There is an inherent and usually unexamined assumption that if you’re an expert it’s because you are in some way better than ‘ordinary’ teachers. But what if we ran our schools on a surplus model? What if we assumed that teachers were basically trustworthy, hard-working, and knew what they were doing? What it were agreed that school leaders achieve their lofty positions not because they ‘know best’, but because their ambitions are different?

But consider this: Any policy predicated on the belief or expectation that teachers can or should work harder will fail. Why? Because, for the most part, teachers are at capacity. Their fingers are worked to bloody stumps and expecting them to pile something else on to their already teetering workloads is not just unreasonable, it’s stupid.

Great school needs great systems. And a system which fails to value the contribution of every member of its workforce is a long way from great. The deficit model recognises that some teachers ‘get it’. They comply, they’re able to juggle impossible demands and somehow perform the Monkey Dance on cue. They are rewarded. And everyone one else is under threat. But not because they’re not working hard, but because they’re not meeting the expectations of ‘experts’. This is formalised in the language we use to grade schools and (although hopefully this is on its way out) teachers: some are good or outstanding and everyone else requires improvement. But if schools are going to be truly great, everyone requires improvement. We all need to be better because we can be. And as Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain point out, left to our own devices our improvement seems to plateau after three years of teaching. We settle for competence instead of striving for mastery. So a decent appraisal system should require teachers to select and develop areas of practice that they wish to improve. To my mind, it doesn’t matter whether these efforts are successful in any measurable sense, it’s the fact that you’ve tried to do something different and difficult that counts.

Great school systems shouldn’t leave teachers to their own devices – we should be actively supported to continually improve. A starting point might be to ask teachers where they currently are and what they need to do. This tool can be a useful starting point:

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 21.20.24

Obviously few teachers will place them selves in the bottom left quadrant. I’m not daft enough to claim all teachers are entirely virtuous. I’ve met some who seemingly couldn’t give a shit about anything except dog breeding but they are thankfully rare. Few people stay long in the profession solely due to the generous salaries or long holidays. We teach because we care. And if we’re unsure, we can ask teachers if they want to improve. If they don’t then we can resort to capability procedures, but if they do then we should work with them. And just in case anyone is unclear, placing teaching on capability proceedings is not working with them.

Lets deal with each group in turn:

Top right

These teachers need both to be recognised and challenged. It’s no good telling them they’re outstanding and leaving it at that. Some who are considered outstanding stop improving just because no one’s sure what to suggest. Just like children who exceed our expectations, these teachers will only improve if we work to increase their aspirations. But we must be so careful not to expect them to work harder. Yes, of course we want them to be involved in system improvement and to spread good practice but only to the extent that we don’t ask them to do more than they’re currently doing. Too often the only solution is promote highly effective teachers out of the classroom where their skills and knowledge are so badly needed. Maybe instead we need to consider how to keep them there as much as we can? They should be both offered challenging opportunities to develop and asked to embrace situations where they might struggle. Offer them secondments either within or outside the school; offer them sabbaticals to develop further; ask them to take on challenges outside their current area of expertise so that they know what it’s like to both to fail and to improve.

Top left

Teachers who already have the motivation to improve are a relatively simple nut to crack. Firstly, any school leader worth their salt already know who they are; there is nothing to be gained from making them even less effective by scrutinising them further. If we’re serious about helping them improve we should think about the following:

  • What are they best at? Most ‘support’ focuses on improving what a teacher is perceived to be bad at, and is consequently, pretty dispiriting. What if instead we started by focusing on and growing teachers’ individual ‘bright spots’ then we have a chance at getting them to believe they can be better.
  • Sort out the basics. If behaviour is a problem, take responsibility for the fact that children think it’s OK to misbehave in any lesson, no matter who the teacher is. In good school this doesn’t happen. Make sure groups are functional and that systems are in place to deal with problems; help teachers set up routines to ensure high expectations. Never ever tell a teacher that poor behaviour is their fault. While it’s true that a well-planned lesson can contribute to good behaviour, it is most certainly not true that good planning can solve behaviour problems.
  • We learn most by observing others and then having an opportunity to ask questions and discuss assumptions. If we want to help struggling teachers improve free them up to observe colleagues. Absolutely don’t expect them to do this in their PPA time – SLT should cover their lessons so that actual support is provided.
  • Use observations as an opportunity to explore mistakes. It’s right that we should have the highest expectations, but this doesn’t mean we should smash people when they fail to live up to them. We would never take this approach with children but it seems pretty standard with teachers. The message must be that it is OK to make mistakes. I’ve heard teaching described as being like air traffic control and that any mistake will cost lives. This is nonsense. We can all always try again and fail better next lesson. Supporting teachers with this message is more likely to lead to something sustainable rather than simply expecting them to get a ‘good’ at the end of a short term intention programme.

Bottom right

There are many teachers who are misunderstood and unappreciated. Maybe they’re not able to ‘turn it on’ for a one-off observation. Maybe their methods are out of step with what the school views as the ‘best’ way to teach. Maybe their face just doesn’t fit. Sadly, if you fit into this category it’s unlikely that any support will be useful if you’re seen as too quirky, too old-fashioned or just too long in the tooth. It is lamentably easy to destroy a good teacher through such ‘support’. Obviously though, we need someway to ensure that teachers really are effective, so what can we do? This is where we need robust performance management measures; not for the pupils’ benefit per se, but to ensure that we are right in our judgements. These measure might include the following:

  • Data – How well do pupils perform in internal and external tests? How well do pupils perform against other teachers’ classes? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’ve got a problem.
  • It’s absolutely reasonable that a school requires that certain standards are ‘non-negotiatiable’. Are they standards being met? How do you know? Formalised classroom observations and work scrutinies are mechanisms for ensuring these basics are in place with out the need for any clumsy grading, but in a good school, leaders will know these things because they are constantly out and about. They will know what different areas of the school ‘feel’ like and they will know who is on message and who isn’t. If a member of SLT is present in corridors and classrooms every lesson then there should be no surprises.
  • How can we use pupils’ feedback to improve what we do? I’m suspicious of Student Voice. Just asking kids whether or not they like a teacher is a ridiculously blunt instrument. But a well-designed questionnaire or interview may be able to capture something useful about pupils’ experience of lessons. Just because this is hard to do well is not a reason for not trying to do it at all.

Bottom left

Some of these individuals are toxic and give us all a bad name. They don’t mark their books, they resort of videos at the slightest provocation and they give kids a thoroughly raw deal. Thankfully they’re relatively rare, but I’m sure every school has one or two. And as with the other categories of teachers, everyone will know who they are. How you decide to deal with them is up to you. Is it worth the effort of trying to save them, or should they be fired as soon as is expedient? That’s a judgement call. But I’d reiterate the point that we should work with everyone who’s willing to improve. Simply forcing them out and giving them a glowing reference is just shuffling the deck. For the whole system to improve we need these teachers to be better if they’re planning to stay in education.

There is a huge opportunity cost with the deficit model. Anything you ask teachers to do just for the sake of accountability is time that cannot be spent doing something more worthwhile. Although setting up a surplus model and trusting teachers to make the most of the support we provide and be the best they can be is scary, it’s the only way a school can be truly great.

If you’d like to discuss how to implement this sort of school improvement model in your school, please get in touch.

13 Responses to The surplus model of school improvement

  1. thom says:

    David, I often think about your earlier posts on the surplus model concept, particularly when I am talking about development of our schools with colleagues, both SLT and staff. To me it comes down to the idea of trust and professional autonomy, within a tight/loose structure. Clear (tight) goals for us, but within a norm of professional autonomy and shared accountability (loose).

    Looking at the matrix you present reminds me of one I saw only yesterday in a book ‘Leverage: Using PLCs to Promote Lasting Improvement in Schools’ by Many & Sparks-Many (Corwin 2014) on p.23. I would give you a link to the text but I don’t know how to embed links on comments. While coming from the lens of leadership I do see a lot of common ground.

  2. […] it at length in Perfect ICT and whilst most evidence is anecdotal, in my experience, it works. The surplus model of school improvement – David Didau: The Learning Spy. As teachers we are sometimes guilty of assuming that all would be well if only children behaved […]

  3. disidealist says:

    I agree with much of this. The deficit model is deeply damaging, and it’s about time we dropped the Cult of the Leader stuff which starts from the premise that all SLT members are automatically more “expert” than all classroom teachers and should thus tell the latter exactly what to do. It’s a toxic culture.

    What I worry about, and I fear I’ve not yet found a good way to express this, is the culture of “continuous improvement”. I think those who push it are genuine in their belief that it is positive. However, if one can continuously improve, then that does rather suggest that one is constantly failing. A culture of continuous improvement, it seems to me, is a culture in which guilt and insecurity must also be a constant. It is also, I think, a culture which enables the very deficit model you rightly criticise, because an “expert leader” will always be able to accuse any teacher, no mater how good or motivated, of being inadequate, simply by pulling out the latest fad and demanding to know why it isn’t being done.

    I recognise the old-fashioned nature of this, but I tend to the view that there is actually a sharply diminishing marginal gains curve in most jobs. We improve rapidly at first as experience kicks in and methods are tried, tested, kept or discarded. But then gains become rather more marginal. More a case of doing different things, but usually getting similar results. People are, ultimately, human, and subject to such constraints as time and energy. The continuous improvement model seems to imply that there is a theoretical future in which all teachers can and should have every student in their class achieving 100% in every exam they sit, and that if this is not hit, then that means there is some activity, some gimmick or some additional blood or sweat which can be deployed to get there.

    But if there isn’t any more blood, or any more activities-with-guaranteed-outcome-improvements, and if 100% achievement of 100% outcomes isn’t a realistic possibility, then all we’re really doing is demanding that teachers continually change what they’re doing in order to achieve similar outcomes to those they already get – creating significant stress, and plentiful opportunities for bullying, victimization and deficit model management. If I had a teacher whose results were good, whose students were happy and who didn’t suffer from behaviour problems, then I’m not sure I’d demand that the teacher change constantly what they do, just so that I could tick the box marked “striving for improvement”. I think I’d leave them be. But then, I don’t think I’m what the NCTL is looking for !

    Sorry about the length of this post. And its lack of clarity.

  4. Anon says:

    Having been on a capability and survived to tell the tale I totally agree with your comments on that process. Now ranked as good I feel so bashed about I am actively seeking a way out, could have been such a different story. Would obviously be grateful if I could remain anonymous as I haven’t yet escaped.

  5. […] you’d like to read a little bit of what got me thinking, check out The Surplus Model of School Improvement, and this thoughtful response to it: The Surplus Model and Continuous […]

  6. Jill Berry says:

    Since I tweeted a link to this yesterday, David, it’s received a lot of attention on my timeline!

    I think I may have said to you before – I’m a great fan of Appreciative Enquiry, where you raise the bar by looking at what’s working well, reflect on what you can learn from that and how you can apply those lessons elsewhere to raise the standard and build on success.

    In my 30+ years in education I’ve certainly come across more good teachers, and more successful school leaders at all levels, than poor ones. I think we need to learn from success rather than focus in hunting down and weeding out failure. I’m sure it would take us further.

  7. […] David Didau writes about the teacher plateau in his blog ‘The Surplus Model of School Improvement’ […]

  8. […] the money we needlessly fritter away should be argument enough. I’ve written before about the deficit and surplus models of school leadership, and it seems clear that trust is the single most important quality we have in such short […]

  9. […] school leaders would be allowed to act more humanely, and maybe, just maybe, it would result in a surplus model of school improvement in which happier, more autonomous professionals who were genuinely allowed to have a growth mindset […]

  10. […] asked has been able to reel off their Top 3 and Bottom 3 almost without pause for thought. As I’ve shared before, heads find it easy to place staff into this matrix: But hang on, can we really trust Head […]

  11. […] school leaders would be allowed to act more humanely, and maybe, just maybe, it would result in a surplus model of school improvement in which happier, more autonomous professionals who were genuinely allowed to have a growth mindset […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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