Recently, England released its league tables for schools based on its new system of measuring ‘successful schools’. These focus on the results of a pupil’s best eight GCSE results including English and Mathematics alongside a raft of data from the Department for Education to evaluate how well pupils progress in a school. This is not unique to England with various countries (For example, USA, India) and organisations (PISA) now relying solely on exam results to measure success. A pertinent question to ask here is, is the data being used, valid (and reliable) evidence in order to judge the performance of a school (and even an individual teacher)? When one remembers that a school is much more than the exam results it produces and research consistently showing that various other factors play a role upon student results, a slight skepticism is only fair.
There is in fact little evidence to suggest we can link the performance of a teacher to exam results, and vice versa. However, there exists plenty of evidence to suggest hereditary and environmental factors have the dominant impact. Evidence that seems to be conveniently ignored. In a recent and extensive study by researchers at Kings College in London, they concluded that individual differences in educational achievement at the end of compulsory education are not primarily an index of the quality of teachers or schools: much more of the variance of GCSE scores can be attributed to genetics than to school or family environment. In a sample of 11,117 16-year-olds, they found that heritability was substantial for overall GCSE performance for compulsory core subjects (58 per cent) as well as for each of them individually: English (52 per cent), mathematics (55 per cent) and science (58 per cent).
Research conducted by the American Statistical Association (2014) concluded that only 1-14 per cent of educational outcomes can be attributed to the “teacher factor”. Then even within that 1-14 per cent, there are plenty more factors outside of the individual teacher’s control to take into account, such as class size, available teaching resources and budgets. The Coleman study on educational equality found that the remaining 86 per cent can be put down to “out of school” factors. This explains the findings from Cambridge Assessment last year: “It is normal for schools’ results to change – even when teaching practices stay the same.” Yes, this is because, for the most part, results will vary depending on the children and parents, rather than the teachers. The counter-argument, although arguably weak are the cases of schools, many in deprived areas, that achieve outstanding results.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, recently stated that the tables revealed only a limited amount about the true quality of a school. After all, how do we measure whether a child has become more polite? More respectful? More of a critical thinker? The list is endless. Furthermore, Professor Gorard from the University of Birmingham, stresses that attempts to measure pupil progress while at secondary school are doomed to failure due to a lack of reliable data. Professor Gorard’s findings suggest that it does not matter what type of school a pupil attends – academy, grammar, private, specialist or faith school – as the institution itself will have little impact on student attainment. Why then is there so much coverage on results? More cynicism could point to it being an easy political pawn for political parties. Some may say that is a simplistic viewpoint, but others may say it is entirely true. Unfortunately, the impact is felt strongly and most intensely with the students, and the teachers. Students are unnecessarily stressed, resulting in demotivation and losing the love for many subjects, often learning itself. Many teachers are leaving the profession or moving abroad as a result of the unrealistic expectations with its inevitable stress-related consequences.
The current state of affairs has been foreseen and forewarned. In 1979, the psychologist Donald Campbell theorised that, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” He also wrote: “Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” Quite simply, when the measure becomes the objective/goal, and when people are punished or rewarded for meeting or not meeting this aim, the measure is corrupted.
In a 2008 research paper, Holding Accountability to Account, Richard Rothstein points out that accountability and performance incentive plans in education are compromised by goal distortion, gaming, and corruption. Tying high stakes to measurable goals affects behaviour in negative ways in every field, not just education. Education policy makers who design such plans have paid insufficient attention to similar experiences in other fields. He does feel accountability measures work but not the current ones in place as they are prone to corruption. Instead, he advises more open-ended and subjective measures to be implemented. The lesson of Campbell’s law: Do not attach high stakes to evaluations, or both the measure and the outcome will become fraudulent. Daniel Koretz, author of The Testing Charade: Pretending to make schools better concluded that the reform movement in USA failed badly because of its devotion to high-stakes testing as the one and only measure of educational quality.
Despite the clear failure of test-based accountability, which Koretz amply documents, policymakers cling stubbornly to this corrosive doctrine. Testing taps into peoples’ love of competition, incentives, and scores. It makes perfect sense to rank football players and sports teams by their wins and losses, but it does not transfer to children or schools. Children may be talented in the drama or sports or other areas, and it will not show on the tests. Education is a developmental process, a deliberate cultivation of knowledge and skills, a recognition of each child’s unique talents, not a race.
Sadly and finally, it seems that Albert Einstein’s famous quote, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts”, has not been heeded by the various governments and organisations. Instead, we seem to have a system whereby gaining immediate and quick approval, via so-called tangible results, is the norm. A perfect example here is George Bush Junior’s educational reform in 2002 based on so-called success in his method in Texas. It is quite baffling how our educated and high-profile leaders resort to leaning towards such weak ‘evidence’ and worryingly allow it to dictate wholesale policies. The result is what we see now – overemphasis on testing, teachers fired (or leaving) based on this measure and no real educational improvement. This rash, uneducated and ill-informed approach appeals to the masses but is affecting our children. It must stop, but who will be brave enough to say enough is enough?
Sources: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/thousands-teachers-are-long-term-stress-leave-new-figures-reveal https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/teachers-can-only-ever-have-a-small-impact-their-students-results http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-42366024 https://newrepublic.com/article/145935/settling-scores https://www.compare-school-performance.service.gov.uk/ https://www.teachingtimes.com/articles/league-tables-flawed-ignored.htm