The effects of performativity on schools and teachers: reasons to be hopeful

Educational purpose first, policy enactment second

Policy changes in many countries towards increased transparency and satisfying externally defined judgements of quality and effectiveness have, it has been argued, resulted in a shift in the locus of control away from teachers themselves (Ball,

2003). The evidence of impact of many of these structural reforms on improvement in schools and teachers is mixed. There have been many criticisms by academics who see them as ‘de-professionalising’ teachers and teaching (Apple, 1992; Ball, 2003; Ozga, 1995), and many reports of increased stress, decreased morale, and recruitment, attrition and retention crises in many countries (Borman and Dowling, 2008). Despite the parallel shift to increased school-based financial management and other forms of school autonomy, academic researchers have tended to focus upon the negative effects of the former rather than the positive — and possibly balancing — effects of the latter. So the ‘received wisdom’ among much of the academic community has been that government’s policy reforms have placed undue emphasis upon observable performance of teachers and students; narrowly defined in terms of measurable academic outcomes, that these, ‘inherently undermine teacher authority and autonomy’ (Wills and Sandholtz, 2009: 1072), ‘erode teachers’ autonomy, and challenge their individual sense of professionalism and collective professional and personal identities’ (Day and Smethem, 2009: 142).

However, there are three problems in writings which take a broad ‘system as oppressor’ perspective:

  • 1. little account is taken of the individual schools which engage successfully in building and sustaining school-wide capacity for continuing improvement;
  • 2. research from an educational change perspective, about ‘school improvement’ or ‘schools’ capacity for managing change’ focuses attention upon how schools respond positively to external, often narrowly conceived policy agendas, rather than how and to what extent schools themselves manage their educational aspirations in the context of policy changes; and
  • 3. in new school clustering configurations, educational values and classroom practices are more directly influenced by school principals rather than determined by external policy.

Although the conditions in which teachers work have certainly changed, beliefs, attitudes and practices of principals and teachers who participated in the school-university partnership exemplified in this book represent a much more nuanced picture than one, for example, of compliance, collusion or antagonism towards policy changes that ‘threaten to destroy all they believe in and have committed themselves to achieving for their students and their schools’ (Hargreaves and Goodson, 2006: 25). Writing through the lens of educational change, which is now dominated by policy perspectives in many countries, Hallinger and Huber suggest that:

The global trend of increased accountability of schools assumes that schools are capable of building their capacity for continuous improvement. While policymakers, scholars, and practitioners acknowledge the importance of building school-wide capacity for continuous improvement, empirical evidence to this effect remains thin.

(2012: 362-363)

In countries in which there are high levels of surveillance of school performance through systems of internal teacher performance appraisal, school inspections and pupil performance as measured by pupil test and examination results, the assumption is that it is likely that teachers’ opportunities for development will focus largely upon learning how better to implement government-initiated policies in order to achieve their successful implementation. Ball et al. (2011) describe this as ‘policy enactment’.

It would be tempting to conclude by looking at the governance and financial structures of new, ‘autonomous’ school groupings in England that they have become small businesses which, in order to survive, must make a profit. However, this is, in our experience, too simple a view. The evidence from our ‘policy enactment’ research on successful secondary schools in England and Hong Kong, for example, shows that in these high-performing schools, despite difference in their student intake, education cultures and systems, leaders were values-driven, building structures, cultures and relationships that reflected their deeply held humanistic educational purpose (Gu et al., 2018b). This observation goes beyond the claims so often made by many ideologically driven policy-enactment studies that neoliberal policy agendas necessarily result in cultures of oppression and compliancy in all schools. On the contrary, we found that in these schools, external policies were treated as ‘opportunities’ and resources that leaders skilfully weaved into their processes of school improvement to create educationally equitable and values-based ‘landscapes of success’.

The evidence from the partnership work reported in this book also supports the body of research, which has found that, although the policy contexts in which most teachers now work have increased the demands for performativity in terms of improvements in pupil attainment and although these demands undoubtedly influence what teachers do, how they think about what they do in the classroom, and the forms and focus of the professional learning and development that they experience, many continue to hold and express through who they are and what they do, broader educational agendas. A recent national study of TSAs (Gu et al., 2016) reported that most had, at the heart of their work, strong broad educational values of care for the academic, social and personal welfare of their pupils; and that it was these values that permeated their improvement actions and efforts to work in partnerships with universities and other schools. Within these, they shared another characteristic, identified by the OECD: ‘capable not only of constantly adapting but also of constantly learning and growing, of positioning and repositioning themselves in a fast changing world’ (2012: 34).

Thus, whilst policy trends might be perceived to narrow and over-simplify the complex endeavours of the research, initial teacher education and training in universities, and the purposes of continuing professional learning and development, raising standards of learning and teaching, and processes of student learning and achievement in schools, this is not necessarily the case. On the contrary, one consequence of the coincidence of: (1) increased focus by universities on the production, transfer and application of knowledge generated by academic researchers to

‘end user’ policy-makers and schools, and (2) more autonomous schools and school groupings, has been their increased power to forge new partnerships, both with other schools and external organisations, in applying their vision and broad educational values to the ongoing development of their schools, albeit with one eye upon the government’s standards agenda.

Investing in learning and development

In the current era of policy-dominated change initiatives, the focus of much professional learning and development is likely to be upon improving the craft of classroom practice in order to improve students’ learning and measurable achievements. Within these overarching results-driven policy contexts, however, each school’s learning culture is likely to be a more important influence upon many teachers’ attitudes to their classroom teaching, to their understanding of what is needed for them to be able to teach well and to their best, and to the associations between this, what it means to be a ‘professional’, and their own professional learning and development. Aware of difficulties in recruitment and retention, reports of high levels of stress, disenchantment of many, and of the importance to good teaching and learning of healthy teachers, governments and school leaders are increasingly turning to professional learning and development opportunities which are also designed to meet their broader motivational, commitment, resilience and well-being needs.

Although in many schools, the curriculum time for more social and creative learning has been reduced, it has not been abandoned. A significant number of individual schools and groups of schools, and even regional and national jurisdictions (Harris et al., 2017), have used their increased levels of responsibility also for the development and well-being of their staff, initiating within-school and school-to-school programmes of learning and professional development support.

The example of partnership work presented in this book, enabled through a joint funding bid to the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), aimed at an integration of four kinds of knowledge:

  • 1. academically generated content knowledge relevant to needs defined by schools;
  • 2. school leaders’ practice-based knowledge;
  • 3. jointly constructed procedural knowledge in support of principals in designing and implementing school-based, research-informed teacher learning and development projects; and
  • 4. jointly constructed integration and dissemination of new partnership generated knowledge based on research-informed, practice-generated evidence.

The project was located in these system wide changes in the governance of schools in England, through which schools have become more ‘autonomous’ (with principals becoming more directly accountable for the ‘quality’ of teachers, teaching and learning); and a recent emphasis in academia for research to engage with and have an ‘impact’ on its ‘user’ communities (Thomson, 2015). Although the funding agency (ESRC) named this as a ‘knowledge transfer’ project, it would be more accurate to call it ‘knowledge exchange, creation and integration’. This describes more accurately the symbiotic relationship that we established: ‘The relationship here is less of the high-status research with a white coat observing an objective reality but an embedded researcher offering knowledge and ideas as well as receiving them’ (Anderson and Freebody, 2014: 31).

The broad lines of the partnership were consistent with a number of others in Australia (Sachs and Groundwater-Smith, 1999), the United States (Darling-Hammond, 2005; McLaughlin and Black-Hawkins, 2007; Zeichner, 2010), Europe (van Swet et al., 2007; Veugelers and O’Hair, 2005) and South America (Avalos, 2011). Three important similarities are that:

  • 1. there was a close geographical proximity between the university and partner schools;
  • 2. there was a history of positive relationships between the principal of the Teaching School and the university; and
  • 3. there was a congruence of values between the leader of the Teaching School and the university partners.

This became explicit in the process of preparing the bid for funding which emphasised reciprocity of relationships in the project’s knowledge-building processes (McLaughlin and Black-Hawkins, 2004, 2007).

In systems of more devolved school governance, CEOs and principals, through their close situational knowledge, recognise that both organisational functional, and individual motivational learning and commitment needs, are important, and that no school is an island. Illustrations of this can be found in the well-documented rise of ‘networked learning communities’, ‘professional learning communities’ and ‘school-university partnerships’.

School principals are now charged more explicitly to be key agents in promoting individual school and school-to-school improvement initiatives within overall government policies. A parallel change across all countries has been an increased interest by governments in encouraging a more direct application of knowledge produced by the academic community to learning and teaching in schools; and a powerful expression of this interest has been the growth of school-university partnerships. Whilst these are not new, and there are many examples of such partnerships at pre-service levels of teacher education, there are now many more at in-service levels.

Increasing professional capital

Teachers’ work in the twenty-first century especially, if it is to be at its best, requires higher levels of intellectual and emotional energy than ever before. It requires investment in what Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan have described as ‘professional capital’ (Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012). This is an amalgam of‘human, social, and decisional’ capital (Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012: 3), and is claimed by them as being essential to teachers’ success and wellbeing. Their work draws upon and extends research by Leana (2011) in New York elementary schools. She found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that strong associations between the combination of individual qualifications (human capital) and talent, and ‘the frequency and focus of conversations and interactions with peers (social capital) that centred on instruction’ (cited in Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012: 3), resulted in pupils making higher gains in mathematics achievement (similar findings to those of Bryk and Schneider (2002), who found that relational trust was a key factor in pupils’ achievement in maths and reading in elementary schools in Chicago; and Karen Seashore Lours who identified organisational trust as a key factor in improving and effective high schools in North America). They define the third element of professional capital, decisional capital, as: ‘The capital that professionals acquire and accumulate through structured and unstructured experience, practice, and reflection — capital that enables them to make wise judgements in circumstances where there is no fixed rule or piece of incontrovertible evidence to guide them’ (Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012: 93-94).

The essence of professionalism, then, is the possession of discretionary capital. It is worth unpacking what might be meant by ‘ability’ or ‘expertise’ in the context of the quality of discretionary capital that enables ‘wise’ judgements to be made. At the core of the capacity to exercise discretionary capital are teacher commitment and teacher expertise.

One issue in establishing optimal conditions for teachers’ ongoing professional learning and development concerns the rise in attention given to the organisational needs agenda, to the extent that whilst teachers’ individual dispositions, attitudes to collegial autonomy, which inevitably reduces their scope for individual autonomy, and learning needs are important (e.g. sustaining motivation, efficacy, agency commitment, resilience, well-being), these may be integrated within or even subsumed by the organisation improvement agenda. Another concerns the variance in teachers’ own attitudes to furthering their learning. Those for whom teaching is a vocation or ‘calling’ are likely to have an abiding passion for and belief in the importance of lifelong learning, whilst others, for whom teaching may be ‘just a job’ or career (Seligman, 2002) will need the active and, in some cases, persistent encouragement of their head teacher in order to engage with learning on a regular basis and understand it to be integral to their professionalism.

Some research argues that veteran teachers from the so-called boomer generation (1943-60) have become disillusioned about change (Hargreaves and Goodson, 2006) in contrast to ‘Generation X’ teachers (1961—81) who are more pragmatic about change, and that this is a generational difference (Stone-Johnson, 2014) However, other research argues for a more nuanced and differentiated understanding (Day, 2017; Day et al., 2007). So, for example, teachers may be more or less motivated, more or less committed, and have a greater sense of well-being and job satisfaction depending upon a number of personal, relational and organisational factors, regardless of generational differences. Those who work in schools that are well led are more likely to tell us that their learning needs are fulfilled and that the professional satisfaction and personal pleasure gained from their students’ achievement keeps them going in the profession.

Enhancing leadership influence

In problematising the constraining influences of external contexts, then, generalised critical perspectives often fail to acknowledge research findings on ‘effective’, ‘successful’ schools which point clearly to the key positive roles play by school principals in establishing and building school-wide learning communities in the presence of external contexts which may be seen to privilege narrowly focused, instrumentalist agendas (e.g. Thoonen et al., 2012). There is now an abundance of research internationally which has identified and mapped the powerful indirect influences that successful principals exercise on teachers’ motivation, commitment and job fulfilment, and the quality and breadth of their teaching and learning (Day et al., 2011; Leithwood et al., 2006a, 2006b; Mulford and Silins, 2003; Robinson et al., 2009). Empirical, meso level research on effective and successful schools provides ample evidence that they are ‘values-led’ (Day and Gu, 2018; Gu et al., 2018b), collegial and collaborative (Leithwood et al., 2010), exhibit cultures of trust and distributed leadership (Day et al., 2011). They are also ‘intelligent’ (MacGilchrist et al., 2004), professional learning communities (Bolam et al., 2005) and their leaders are both ‘transformational’ and ‘instructional’ (Day et al., 2016). In these schools, of five key dimensions of effective leadership, providing opportunities for and participation in professional learning and development is claimed to have the largest ‘effect size’ (Robinson et al., 2009).

Murphy et al. (2013) summarised research on the key characteristics of successful leaders of school improvement as:

  • • Establishing a powerful sense of vision and challenging organisational goals and expectations (Leithwood and Jantzi, 2005);
  • • Enhancing students’ opportunities to leant (Harris and Herrington, 2006);
  • • Developing and using data systems to inform and monitor and decisions (Lachat and Smith, 2005);
  • • Providing alignment and cohesiveness to all school actions (Bryk et al., 2010);
  • • Providing actionable feedback to teachers (Hattie, 2009);
  • • Developing communities of practice in which teachers share goals, work and responsibility for student outcomes (Wahlstrom and Louis, 2008);
  • • Creating systems in which teachers have the opportunity to routinely develop and refine their skills (Bryk et al., 2010).(Murphy et al., 2013: 352)

Those authors complete their analysis with strong advice that ‘if school improvement is the goal, school leaders would be advised to spend their time and energy in areas other than teacher evaluation’ (p. 352).

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