'A global high quality teaching force could help improve decision-making for mankind’s future'

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By Dennis Sale

Schools are major agents of socialisation and are fundamental to both the wellbeing of citizens and the wider social, economic and cultural context. Hence, they must be accountable for their activities, methodologies, and outcomes to a wide range of stakeholders.

In this column I will focus on what I see as the key purpose, practices and process of good school appraisal. This is based on documented best practices in the research literature, and from my own experiences as both a school appraiser and advisor to schools facing appraisal.

  • The purpose of school appraisal

Of course, accountability is essential, though my focus here is on the worth of what is being appraised in terms of impacting student learning outcomes. This relates to our educational aims, and notions of what constitutes an educated person (e.g., the knowledge, skills and attitudes to be developed), and how. Educational aims and outcomes are a contested area, but appraisal must focus on the extent to which existing desired outcomes are being met, their current relevance and applicability, and what may be improved to respond to changing societal demands and increasingly differentiated student cohorts.

Hence, the appraisal process must also focus on what can be improved, on what basis, and how. Educational systems require a shared vision, mission and learning framework from which to base evaluation; albeit contextualised to individual institutional contexts. These frame the standards and criteria for best practice across the various areas appraised (e.g. curriculum, teaching, assessment, leadership and resource allocation).

  • The practices of good school appraisal

These must be calibrated to assess the extent to which the purposes are met. Two key areas of practice must focus on the quality of teaching and educational leadership. Teaching and school leadership roles are challenging and constitute two of the most important factors in determining educational quality. For example, at the school level, Rowe & Rowe (1993) argued:

Based on our findings to date it could be argued that effective schools are only effective to the extent that they have effective teachers.

Similarly, evidence shows that school leadership is second only to teaching in its effects on student learning. About a fourth of the school-related variation in student achievement can be explained by school leadership (Leithwood, Louis, Anderson, & Wahlstrom, 2004).

Darling-Hammond & Rothman (2015), from their analysis of high-performing educational systems, notably Singapore and Finland, noted that while successful systems may differ in several ways, there are common systemic features – in that they are systems for teacher and leader development, which:

…support the overall goal of ensuring that each school in each jurisdiction is filled with highly effective teachers and is led by a highly effective principal.

In this context, school appraisal must have a focus on the quality of both teaching and leadership, as these also impact such key features as school culture, staff morale and student learning outcomes (e.g., attainment, engagement, wellbeing).

Furthermore, good school appraisal must be underpinned by a valid and current evidence-based model of learning, not one driven by ideological or political vogue. For too long education has been a creature of fashion. Fortunately, this is now changing, though not everywhere, but is ready as Petty (2009) noted:

…to embark on a revolution, and like medicine, abandon both custom and practice and fashions and fads, to become evidence-based.

It is now firmly established that there is a strong evidence base relating to how best to design and facilitate the various practices we call teaching that can significantly enhance student learning opportunities, attainment levels and the experience of learning (e.g., intrinsic motivation). This change is an inevitable result of our increasing knowledge relating to how humans learn, what teaching methods and practices work best and why, and unpacking of what the best teaching practitioners do and how. Much of this significant research on learning has already been documented in the literature (e.g. Willingham, 2009; Hattie & Yates, 2014; Sale, 2020). As Darling-Hammond & Bransford (2005), from surveying the research findings, concluded:

There are systematic and principled aspects of effective teaching, and there is a base of verifiable evidence of knowledge that supports that work in the sense that it is like engineering or medicine.

  • The process of good school appraisal

This need to be explicit, transparent and the standards and criteria upon which appraisal is based needs to be clearly communicated to all stakeholders. It is essential that appraising personnel have high professional credibility, especially in the eyes of those being appraised. They also need strong interpersonal skills, especially in listening and questioning.

To foster trust and build rapport, appraisal should initially focus on what the school is presently doing, with a strong emphasis on self-appraisal. In other words, appraisers must seek to understand what the school has done, is doing, and identify staff perceptions of the challenges involved.

Appraisal of all areas framed by the standards must follow the evidence-based standards approach outlined above. School personnel need to see that plans for development/improvement are both meaningful in educational terms (e.g. add value to student outcomes), and viable given resource allocation and time frames.

Finally, within the limited scope of this column, school appraisal should encompass wider considerations beyond individual school improvements. For this reason, both within and between educational institutions, there needs to be open sharing of best practices, collaborative action research and a driving out of fear relating to educational evaluation and future professional development. This is particularly important in relation to teaching faculty – as Hargreaves and Evans (1997) stated:

…where educational change is concerned, if a teacher can’t or won’t do it, it simply can’t be done.

In summary, I see the aim of school appraisal as one that seeks to improve teaching quality globally, as I feel that’s something worthwhile in terms of establishing a better moral landscape (e.g., Harris, 2010) that promotes core values, good thinking, and enhancement in human conduct – something really needed. A global high quality teaching force would help a generation of learners to better understand the complexities of life and the world they live in (both the one inside their heads, and that external to self). It may also contribute to better decision-making for mankind’s future, which would represent a major existential feature of human progress.

  • Dennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as advisor, researcher and examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100+ consultancies in the Asian region. Dennis is author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015). To contact Dennis, visit dennissale.com.

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