Today, on World Teachers’ Day, we look at one of the findings in the 2017/8 GEM Report on accountability in education due out later this month. The Report celebrates the undeniably critical role that teachers play in any education system: they hold the primary responsibility for educating the students in their care. In recent years, however, the next GEM Report shows that, particularly in high-income countries, pressure on teachers appears to be piling on as more and more responsibilities are placed within their remit. This is often due to the increasing focus on accountability by governments and schools. How can this be avoided?
Accountability and teacher workload
The spectrum of responsibilities falling on teachers’ shoulders often include having to design curriculum, undertake administrative tasks, participate in internal evaluations, help with extracurricular activities, support students’ wellbeing and assist in the hiring process of other teachers. Our next Report shows, for instance, that teachers participating in the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) spent about two hours a week on extracurricular activities, on average, ranging from about half an hour in Sweden and Finland to nearly eight hours in Japan.
In addition to these extra-curricular activities, the 2017/8 GEM Report shows that teachers also have far more requests to account and report, often due to decentralisation and greater school autonomy. About 75% of teachers in Finland and 95% of their peers in Sweden reported that their documentation responsibilities had increased. The issue is when these reporting requests appear to be unreasonable, and when teachers’ ability to teach is being impinged upon. For example, in England, 56% of teachers argued that data collection and management caused unnecessary workload for them, and 93% of teachers and some school leaders viewed workload as a ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ serious problem.
Data for data’s sake?
Quite apart from increasing their workload further, the increasing use of data and reporting also requires additional skills from teachers and school leaders, which evidence shows many teachers do not have. A study of teacher pedagogical knowledge in five OECD countries showed that ‘assessment’, which included data use and research, was the least emphasized element in pre-service education. If teachers can’t use the data, what are we collecting it for? Evidence shows that the number of teachers who say they are confident in using data for instruction is too low. A survey of teachers and school leaders in Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland and the United Kingdom found that most respondents used data at a superficial level to monitor rather than to improve instruction. Primary and secondary teachers in their first year of work in Ontario, Canada, said their preparedness in the use of educational research and data analysis was one of the elements they felt the least confident about. Two out of three teachers in the United States were unsatisfied with the use of data to improve instruction, often citing the excessive amount of data.
Frustration on the rise
Unsurprisingly, these high demands can increase teacher frustration, and produce a feeling of being overwhelmed, especially in settings where teachers are already struggling with limited instructional materials and overcrowded classrooms. In addition, many countries do not recognize the time teachers spend on supplemental responsibilities. Statutory working time is limited to teaching hours in countries including Bulgaria and Tunisia. Teachers whose work is not properly recognized and rewarded often feel overburdened and undervalued, which can influence absenteeism, motivation and effectiveness. All of these factors may cause talented young people to avoid becoming teachers: studies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States show that the pressures of accountability systems and the resulting stress reduce the pool of candidates for the positions.
How can we make sure we don’t end up with teacher burn out?
Policy recommendation 1: Gather data thoughtfully
Gathering data is vital for monitoring education systems, but gathering excessive amounts of data can negatively affect teachers. It’s vital that governments consider the purpose for which the data is being collected, the minimum amount of data required to achieve their aims, and re-use previously-gathered data if appropriate. This also requires considering what reporting requirements are excessive and aren’t providing sufficient value in the education monitoring process.
Policy recommendation 2: Help teachers use data effectively
Teachers need to be supported and prepared to be able to manage data demands and data interpretation, which would allow them to use data to improve teaching and learning.
Teachers’ data literacy could be significantly improved if it were better embedded in initial teacher preparation and training, as well as in continuous professional development. The Netherlands has introduced continuous professional development programmes: teachers and researchers work together to analyse school data. Utrecht University has developed a course to prepare teachers to be data coaches, and the use of external trainers in a classroom had significant and long-lasting positive effects on teacher efficacy in terms of using data to improve instruction. In the United States, 41 of the 50 states reported that they provide teacher training on how to use data to inform instruction and 42 that they provide training on understanding data reports, such as early warning data reports.
As well as initial teacher preparation, leadership preparation programmes for head teachers and other school leadership positions must include assessment literacy training. A promising programme is Chile’s Marco para la Buena Dirección y el Liderazgo Escolar (Good Management and School Leadership Framework), which includes curriculum and resource management, based on student assessment results, as well as staff selection, evaluation and development. In Texas, United States, a programme provided school principals with 300 hours of lesson planning, data-driven instruction, and teacher observation training, and resulted in higher learning gains among students relative to schools that did not benefit from the intervention.
Accountability should be a means to education ends, not an end in itself. Designing accountability is a delicate game, as the 2017/8 GEM Report due out on October 24 will show. Mounting pressures related to accountability without corresponding support, and increased capacity are more than likely to implode upon themselves. Please join us in a few weeks for our launch to delve further into this subject.