The Global Goals have set targets for ‘quality education’ on the one hand, and for measurement and monitoring on the other hand. Teachers, teacher training, and what happens inside classrooms, are therefore likely to be a major topic of research in the coming years.
This blog has been driven by our sense of injustice that teachers seem to get the blame for social ills and educational failures in many countries. Within Young Lives, we focus on children’s experiences of school, but what about teachers? Teachers can be powerful influencers shaping children’s lives for good, and we need to pay attention to them too, if children are to have an education that creates curiosity and a hunger for learning in a rapidly changing world. While it is clear that teacher quality is one of the most important components of a good-quality educational system, this does not mean that teachers are responsible for all of the failures which happen within that system. In order to improve education systems, we need to understand the pressures and challenges teachers face, and what inspires and motivates them.
Talking to teachers: preparing for the Young Lives School Effectiveness Survey
In October, we held a group discussion with secondary school maths teachers in Hyderabad, India, as part of the preparation for the second wave of Young Lives’ School Effectiveness Survey. We wanted to ask teachers for their feedback on an assessment of ‘teacher professional knowledge’ which may be included in the survey, and to find out whether they had any concerns about taking part in this type of assessment.
The group discussion was very positive, overriding initial worries from our side that there might be a negative reaction to a ‘teacher test’. In fact, participants were keen to join in a conversation about the assessment, and about specific questions within it. It was clear that they were not concerned that being asked to complete a test suggested that we doubted their competency; instead, they enjoyed the chance to demonstrate their knowledge within their area of specialism.
This example represents a very specific context in which teachers might discuss assessment. These teachers had been invited to attend a meeting to share their views as experts, and had done so readily. Their feedback was that other teachers would be likely to be equally willing and able to complete this assessment, assuming that the questions were relevant and framed in a manner which respected their expertise as professionals. But the context of this feedback is important. In a large-scale survey, assessing teachers involves approaching them in their place of work and asking them to complete a competency assessment – a very different scenario to a small-scale focus group, with different implications for teacher morale and research ethics.
What happens when teachers become the focus of research?
A review of evidence by Naylor and Sayed (2014) suggests the best way to research teacher quality is to collect direct measures via classroom observation – usually the most authentic, reliable and robust methods. But this is expensive. The alternative is to test teachers’ competencies – by giving them the same test as students, or evaluating their corrections of student work, or by assessing knowledge of curriculum content. In recent years, there have been a number of instances of schoolteachers’ competencies being ‘tested’ (in Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, the US). Such methods aim to establish a standard, but do not explore how teachers might be assisted in focusing on teaching. Tests also seem limited in that they can show a standard of teacher knowledge, but this doesn’t necessarily reflect what teachers use in practice – a teacher may have good knowledge, but if there are barriers to effective teaching, such as too many other tasks, or if teachers are de-motivated, then their knowledge may not be used. Teachers may have responsibilities - like elections and immunisation campaigns - which distract from teaching.
Research on teachers needs to understand the political and economic contexts in which they work if it is to support rather than de-professionalise. Moreover, such research needs to be undertaken responsibly if it is to avoid fuelling the view that teachers are part of the ‘problem’. How can we ensure that research with teachers is undertaken ethically?