Change One Thing: Post-primary teacher performance management is urgently needed, says Bill Reidy
One of the most interesting findings of the OECD’s 2008 research into post-primary teaching conditions, was that the percentage of teachers in Ireland who had received an appraisal of their teaching, or feedback from their school principal, was the lowest among the 24 countries.
This is a serious indictment of our system when viewed in the context of international research. In 2008, a British report found that “the most successful education systems in the world are characterised by high levels of lesson observation and ongoing, regular performance management”.
The recent publicity about the Teaching Council being empowered to act on underperforming teachers has done little to advance the debate about the quality of teaching in Ireland. The proposals are little more than a minor amendment to procedures in the Teaching Council Act, with some additions to the sanctions.
There is not and never has been an adequate system of teacher performance management at second level.
This is surprising because teacher unions have signed off on a number of social-partnership agreements referring to performance management across the public service generally. The 2003 Sustaining Progress agreement, for example, stated “It is essential that modern and appropriate performance and accountability systems are in place at individual, team and organisational level”.
There is accountability at team and organisational level in second-level schools: team accountability can come with subject or thematic (for example Transition Year) inspections, with organisational accountability through whole school evaluation reports. The big gap is in individual accountability, with no general performance-management system for individual teachers.
More recently the Haddington Road agreement stated “The parties accept further steps are needed to strengthen performance management systems and procedures in place across the public service.”
As it stands, we have a complex system to deal with underperforming teachers and principals, but this focus on underperforming teachers is of limited value in developing an accountable, affirmed, socially valued and managed teaching force. The international evidence of the benefits of performance management, where teachers are appraised systematically throughout their careers, cannot be ignored.
There is ample evidence the vast majority of our teachers are highly functioning and many work at a level far above basic requirements. Yet, as the OECD pointed out, these teachers are rarely, if ever, affirmed in these roles. When teachers are criticised in the media there is no empirical evidence to use in defence. A proper performance management system allows good teachers to be affirmed and their value recognised while providing an early warning system for teachers in difficulty. The latter would allow appropriate supports to enable poorly performing teachers to improve.
In affirming the teachers who are working well it is acknowledged positive feedback in the workplace is a highly motivating factor for workers.
Of course a lot of work will need to be done on developing a rubric of appraisal but with goodwill, and the Social Partnership agreements which indicate unions are broadly in support of developing performance management systems, the factors are in place to initiate the process.
The Department of Education and Skills might initiate a pilot project in a small number of schools to determine the criteria and time cycle for appraisal. The roll-out of such a process would, I am convinced, be seen as a positive development by teachers, students, parents and management groups in the longterm.
The development of a performance- management system for teachers is the single best way of ensuring and affirming high-quality classroom experiences for pupils and teachers.
Schools’ consultant Bill Reidy is a former teacher and principal