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A critical re-thinking of ‘teacher effectiveness’

Written by: Meg Maguire  Emma Towers
8 min read
Meg Maguire and Emma Towers, King’s College London, School of Education, Communication and Society, UK

Different perspectives on ‘teacher effectiveness’ 

Good teaching matters, and decades of research has shown that teachers can make a difference in student learning (Stronge, 2018) and that teachers are one of the most important in-school factors in students’ academic success and life outcomes (Burroughs et al., 2019). However, the related debate about what makes an ‘effective’ teacher is ongoing and complex. While teacher effectiveness is contested and challenging to define, especially given the complex task of teachers’ work (Stronge et al., 2011; Muijs and Reynolds, 2011), various conceptualisations of teacher effectiveness have been proposed (e.g. Ko et al., 2013; van der Lans et al., 2018), with the most common and typical interpretation connected to improved student outcomes. Studies have shown that teachers who possess certain professional and personal skills and qualities are more likely to be effective practitioners, where effectiveness relates to academic achievement (see Stronge et al., 2011). Although a body of research offers critiques to the notion of teacher effectiveness (e.g. Skourdoumbis and Gale, 2013), much of the normative work on teacher effectiveness highlights aspects that are so well established in research, as well as in teacher education and development courses, that they are almost a ‘common sense’ of teaching. Professional skills and attributes, such as teachers possessing good subject knowledge, good pedagogical knowledge and skills, and good communication, and being able to use a range of assessment techniques, all feature in the dominant teacher effectiveness literature. Being judged to be an ‘effective’ teacher and an ‘effective’ school is necessary for those working in state schools in the UK. 

In recent years, Ofsted has attempted to shift the emphasis of inspections, from its previous focus on formal examination results and student attainment as a measure of effective teaching and effective schools, to encompass a broader range of aspects of school life (Ofsted, 2019). The new framework includes a ‘quality of education’ judgement, with a keener focus on the curriculum and the specialist knowledge, understanding and skills necessary to teach. Inspections are required to consider the wider curriculum offering in schools in a bid to reduce the reliance on examination results as a measure of school quality (Ofsted, 2019). The framework also aims to take into account students’ personal development, including their overall wellbeing. In other words, Ofsted’s current interpretation of an effective school is no longer limited to student academic outcomes but also takes into consideration a broader view of a student’s educational experience. Teachers’ subject knowledge, pedagogical skills and knowledge, and their ability to create a positive learning environment are among the key aspects of teachers’ practice on which they are measured and judged. Indeed, Ofsted continue to judge the overall effectiveness of a school and provide schools with a grading from 1 to 4, with inspectors considering whether the standard of education, training or care is good or outstanding (Ofsted, 2019). Thus examination scores still remain a key feature of how a school is judged in the UK, and schools are ranked according to their examination outcomes in nationally published league tables. In other words, despite a shift in emphasis in Ofsted’s terms, ‘effectiveness’ in relation to student outcomes remains a high-stakes game in educational systems such as those in the UK (Goodley, 2018). 

One consequence of these high-stakes measurements of a school’s effectiveness (measured through various accountability strategies, including the ranking of schools in league tables, as well as Ofsted inspections) has been a strong emphasis on improving teacher effectiveness to raise standards, achievement and outcomes (Burroughs et al., 2019). The introduction of teachers’ professional standards into many educational systems, including the UK, Australia and the USA, has been designed to provide a set of expectations for the professional practice and conduct of teachers (Goepel, 2012). For example, the Teachers’ Standards in England (DfE, 2011) aim to quantify effectiveness, quality and accountability of the teacher, including their professional conduct, and expectations of their work across their teaching career (Ryan and Bourke, 2013). Measuring teacher effectiveness, as well as monitoring teacher effectiveness, is a key policy focus, which centres on concrete ways in which to make teachers more effective by introducing prescriptive strategies such as monitoring classroom teaching (for example, through learning walks), high-stakes testing and strengthened accountability structures, as well as aiming to prescribe what and how teachers should teach (Towers and Maguire, 2022).

School effectiveness, teachers and assessment

The rhetoric of school effectiveness has an immediate appeal, for who would want to work in or send their children to an ineffective school? Thus, there are valid reasons for wanting to assess how well schools are doing – not least in terms of which students are well served or not by their educational experiences. The new inspection framework (Ofsted, 2019) goes some way to addressing the wider educational experience for all students; however, the neoliberal logics that have positioned educational success in narrow, instrumental and economistic ways (Grek, 2009; Verger et al., 2019) remain powerful in educational discourse. The ‘successful’ student is one who achieves well academically in high-stakes tests. The ‘successful’ teacher is one who can produce ‘good’ students like this. However, outcomes that stress academic credentialising and school performance can lead to some unintended consequences. Teachers can become caught up in tactics like revision, teaching to the test, booster classes and targeting those students most likely to score well (Ball, 2021). Ball talks of what he calls a ‘new moral environment’ (2021, p. 56), where the pressure to demonstrate effectiveness lies with improving test scores and grades. The policy imperative is towards the ‘internal well-being of the institution and its members, and a shift away from concern with more general social and educational issues’ (Ball, 2021, p. 56). Effective teachers and effective students, constructed through an effectiveness discourse, can work to displace other equally important aspects of the educational experience. Where effectiveness is simply seen as a narrow focus on assessment and test scores (Gorard, 2010), what can get overlooked are:

children’s broader “soft skills”, their mental health and resilience, their physical health, their social and emotional development, and their ability to successfully navigate the challenges they will face in the workforce and in their lives (Farquharson et al., 2022, p. 98).

While there have been some incremental gains in student attainment over time, the barriers of social class, race and gender remain firmly in place (Tarabini, 2021). If this is the case, then it might be argued that, despite many years of measuring, testing, assessing and producing league tables, and similar attempts to demonstrate effectiveness, effectiveness work has not actually been that effective in practice. Farquharson et al. (2022, p. 3) also made another telling point:

Despite decades of policy attention, there has been virtually no change in the “disadvantage gap” in GCSE attainment over the past 20 years. While GCSE attainment has been increasing over time, 16-year-olds who are eligible for free school meals are still around 27 percentage points less likely to earn good GCSEs than less disadvantaged peers.

So, although the new Ofsted inspection framework addresses the mental health and resilience of young people in education, the overall emphasis remains: academic outcomes are what counts as a key – if not the key – indicator of school effectiveness, and thus impacts what is taken as ‘the effective teacher’.

Rethinking effectiveness 

In this short piece, we have highlighted some questions, such as what is meant by teacher effectiveness and for whom are schools effective? Even if we could get some agreement around these questions, how do we actually manage to ‘measure’ this phenomenon in a process as complex as schooling? Perhaps the only consensus surrounding effective teachers and effective schools is that no one would want to support ineffective provision. But there are other questions that need to be addressed. If effectiveness is going to be measured and rewarded (largely, but not solely) in relation to those young people who do well, then what of those students who do less well and what of their teachers? Is it reasonable, possible and even desirable to expect that attainment grades will rise year on year until everyone gets top marks? Even more fundamentally, are ‘good’ examination marks the main or only purpose of schooling? While questions about the aims of education are not being foregrounded in this brief discussion paper, nevertheless they are unavoidable in questions exploring policy and practice in schools around teacher effectiveness.

In a recent paper, Ball and Collet-Sabe (2021, p. 2) have explained that ‘the school as an institution is taken to be a sensible and necessary building block of modern life but one that is badly designed and processually unfair’. In mainstream policy terms, problems are identified and then they are ‘remediated by improvement or reform’ (p. 3), or so it is thought. In many ways, this policy juggling is what we have seen in respect of the effectiveness movement over time (Reynolds et al., 2014). School effectiveness has become normalised and institutionalised so that what we see in its various manifestations is a form of policy path dependency – where institutions become committed to minor reforms while sustaining the status quo (Towers and Maguire, 2022). While the effectiveness movement has been critiqued for its conceptual inadequacies (Skourdoumbis and Gale, 2013), it has also been problematised for some of its statistical and procedural shortcomings (Gorard, 2010). Nevertheless, the powerful rhetoric of needing to be able to judge how well schools and teachers are doing has persisted but has collapsed into a focus with standardised test scores and grades, largely displacing other aspects of education, such as inclusion, creativity and kindness, despite some recent policy moves and changes in the inspection framework designed to address these areas of education. A notion of effectiveness driven by normative discourses such as academic attainment, measured through testing – an approach that persists to this day – means that, as we have argued, what happens in schools might be damaging some young people, who may leave school as soon as they can with a lack of fondness for schools and learning (Jeffreys, 2022).

Ball and Collet-Sabe (2021) claim that many of the normalised strategies and tactics in schools that produce the successful and unsuccessful student, such as testing, streaming and grouping students according to prior attainment, as well as other assessments, are so embedded in schooling as to be ‘common sense’ and taken for granted. Their major point, though, is that for these reasons and more, schools cannot be made more effective or improved through tinkering with reforms and taking a ‘redemptive perspective’ that holds to the view that things can always get better – when, in fact, very little has changed (Farquharson et al., 2022). ‘In the end, the issue is whether the school is a solution to the problem of education or rather a constant and ineluctable source of educational problems’. (Ball and Collet-Sabe, 2021, p. 2)

We are left with one final question: is school effectiveness work in schools part of the problem or part of a solution? Schools are typically expected to be accountable to those who use them and to public stakeholders, and so it is also unlikely that attempts to measure effectiveness will vanish – although it is likely that these techniques will take different forms. Perhaps one part of a solution is to support educated teachers who have been exposed to critical and reflexive approaches towards their work in their professional development.

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