Peter Lyons: Teacher performance not an exact science

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Judging a teacher by formal assessment results is fraught with manipulation and largely determined by the calibre of the students. Photo / Thinkstock
Judging a teacher by formal assessment results is fraught with manipulation and largely determined by the calibre of the students. Photo / Thinkstock

What makes a good teacher? I just watched a short piece on TV about what makes a good teacher, albeit on one of those infotainment programmes that have replaced investigative reporting.

The presenters were adamant that they knew what good teaching entailed. Their inference was that performance pay for teachers would be a relatively easy affair because all students tend to know who the good teachers are. My problem with this is that, after more than 20 years in the classroom, I still struggle with the idea of being able to rank teachers.

It is certainly possible to grade teachers into broad categories of incompetent, middling and outstanding. But even these boundaries can be blurred on a daily basis and with a given group of students. The ability to rank teacher performance is a very inexact process because the variables are so substantial.

I have taught in a variety of schools and a range of subjects. I am regarded as a good economics teacher, mainly by myself.

I would be a very average, if not inadequate, maths teacher. Yet that is potentially one of my teaching subjects.

Given the whim of a timetable, I could be asked to teach maths and my performance would be less than spectacular.

Over the years my students have achieved good success at formal exams. But this is largely a process of narrow drilling of content, skills and exam technique. Does this make me a good teacher?

Judging a teacher by formal assessment results is fraught with manipulation and largely determined by the calibre of the students. It also puts undue faith in those who decided what was important to teach and assess in the first place.

Sometimes the curriculum is either outdated or irrelevant to the needs of particular students. There is little discussion about whether what we teach our students is most appropriate for them. So I teach academic economics but there is little practical financial literacy taught in our schools.

Constant debate about the relevance of curriculum should be a crucial aspect of an education system otherwise everyone is wasting their time.

One of the most satisfying episodes of my teaching career was when I was given the opportunity to develop a course on world history for students who had failed their schooling but were seeking late admission to university. It was a wonderful opportunity to open their minds to the ebbs and flows of world history and its relevance to our lives.

A problem with our schooling system is the belief that a curriculum developed by faceless education bureaucrats represents what is the best knowledge, skills and values for our students. Those left to teach it often lack the time to fully take part in periodic curriculum reviews.

Most classroom teachers feel disempowered in debates about curriculum, assessment or the status of their profession.

This government has recently trumpeted the increased achievement levels in NCEA. The sad reality is that this likely reflects dubious assessment practices in internal assessments which have played a greater role in assessment in the past few years.

If teachers are required to improve their performances under such a system they will certainly do so. Whether student learning has improved is open to debate. This dilemma is the same in primary schools with the introduction of national standards. It is likely to improve results as teachers meet their performance targets but unlikely to make much difference to actual learning.

Those who perform better in any occupation should be paid accordingly.

Judging teacher performance will never be an exact science. Any system of performance pay would need to ensure that it does not undermine the essential collegiality of teaching. It must also ensure the integrity of what actually happens in the classroom on a daily basis. Sadly the opposite is starting to happen.

Peter Lyons teaches economics at St Peter's College in Epsom and has written several texts.

- NZ Herald

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