It’s been a big week in US education research.
Joshua Bleiberg and his colleagues published the first nationwide comprehensive study of the policy of ‘teacher evaluations’ (wonk-speak for formal observations, assessments, rubrics, rewards and sanctions). The study concluded that despite spending $15-20 billion, they found “precisely estimated null effects, on average”.
Let that sink in. Awkward right? In the increasingly popular language of ‘bets’ in education, if they are right we can put teacher evaluation down as ‘not a good one’. It was a helpful reminder of how lucky we are that when it comes to teachers, our policy makers here are going down a different path: professional development.
Their calculation of our best bet for encouraging better learning is to have more expert teaching. And to get more expert teaching we need better professional development, both directly for those teachers and for the leaders in schools who work with them.
So as well as welcome reforms to initial teacher training (ITT) and the introduction of a new package of early-career training based on the early career framework (ECF), we now have a new and growing suite of fully-funded national professional qualifications (NPQs).
The emphasis for these NPQs is on the new part. That’s because, alongside our US colleagues, we had some research of our own published last week: an evaluation of the old suite of NPQs. It highlighted a number of areas for improvement which helped to inform five big changes which are at the heart of the new suite of qualifications.
- Better structure. The first qualification in the old suite was for middle leaders. But when you dig into it, middle leadership is far from one thing. The new suite replaces the generic middle leadership qualification with a group of specialist qualifications that better recognise the specialised nature of leading in roles at that level. They include leading teaching, behaviour and culture, teacher development and, soon, literacy.
- More coherence. Like any curriculum, coherence and careful sequencing matters. Not only did this suite of qualifications need to be coherent as a group to support progression (e.g. NPQSL to NPQH), they also needed to be coherent with the ITT core content framework and the ECF. These qualifications complete the golden thread: a curriculum, sequenced over time, for teaching and leading in schools from initial training to executive leadership.
- High-quality evidence-based. In the past, our profession (particularly in leadership development) has been too susceptible to the equivalent of palm reading. These qualifications draw a line under that era. The frameworks that underpin this suite draw on high-quality literature, challenged by some of our best academics and signed off by the Education Endowment Foundation.
- Adapted for teachers’ busy lives. Having a great structure and a high-quality, coherent curriculum is no good if teachers don’t have time for it. This was perhaps the biggest weakness of the previous suite. The new qualifications require virtually no time out of school (the average over the year is one day), make the most of online learning, and have been designed to fit around teachers’ busy lives. A big time-saver has been removing poor-quality, high-workload project- and portfolio-type assessments and replacing them with leaner, more-evidence based approaches.
- Greater SEND focus. Last but not least, the frameworks have a welcome focus on improving outcomes for pupils with SEND. First, they strengthen the content to prepare teachers in mainstream schools to support pupils with additional needs. Second, they ensure that the qualifications are suitable and inclusive of those colleagues who work in the specialist sector, either by joining mixed cohorts or, I hope in time, by joining cohorts specifically tailored for colleagues who work in that sector.
There are no doubt things that we can do better, and I look forward to the evaluation of this latest suite of qualifications in a few years what see what those are.
But for now, improvement is in the cards. We’re taking some big steps down the right path to improvement, away from ineffective teacher evaluation and towards teacher development.