28 Nov The delusional voodoo of grading lessons has got to stop.
Last week I tweeted this message, along with a link to my Lesson Observations Unchained post from last year.
I received several replies from people in schools across the country where grading lessons is still very much alive and kicking. One person suggested that their lessons are given sub-grades: 2.1, 2.2, 2.3 etc. Think about the very special powers you would need to sustain that with any level of reliability! It’s either delusional madness or a weird power game of some kind.
The de-bunking of lesson grading has been running for some time now. Most people (especially those who run schools) should have read or heard Professor Rob Coe and his report on the MET project study. If not, here’s a link to a superb round-up by Prof Coe Classroom observation: it’s harder than you think. And here are the slides:
The conclusion is clear: even well-trained observers can only agree 61% of the time and observations only agree with data 49% of the time. More likely, with less well-trained observers, they can disagree 90% of the time with inadequate judgements. Of course this is just one study but it highlights the fact that observation is complex and unreliable. To me, it is obvious that individuals and certainly groups of people are not capable of applying a consistent set of criteria to something as complex as a lesson, where the key outcome (learning) is invisible. To think you can, is to kid yourself; it is a delusion.
To think you could reliably judge a French lesson (where 25 complicated people are all interacting with the teacher in a complex manner) to be Requires Improvement but not quite Good on one day and, several weeks later, judge a Maths lesson (where 25 complicated people are all interacting with the teacher in a complex manner) to be Good and not RI – is to believe you have special powers.
Ofsted has acknowledged this fully. Ofsted inspectors do not grade lessons or expect or encourage schools to do so.
Despite the changes to Ofsted and the strong research evidence that grading is dubious, it persists. I would like to encourage all teachers in schools where grading remains to ask their Heads or Principals directly why this is the case. It’s a legitimate question and the subsequent discussion would be fruitful. Here are some reasons that might explain their position; some might be hard for them to accept!
They haven’t read the evidence: Easily fixed; send a copy.
They haven’t caught up with the change to Ofsted framework. This would be worrying on many levels so definitely worth making sure they have the latest guidance.
They know about the two points above but ‘don’t trust Ofsted’ and, for that reason, will keep grading to show that they’re good at leadership and management. Perhaps point out that, now, even Ofsted is likely to look unfavourably on Heads who grade lessons despite the evidence. It suggests you can’t evaluate quality effectively in an intelligent triangulated manner.
They struggle to imagine how they could reach an overall judgement of the quality of teaching for Ofsted purposes without counting up the grades. Suggest that this practice has always been dubious. The Ofsted criteria relate to an overview of all lessons and their link to outcomes. It’s not a hard science; it’s a rough picture best-fit process, nothing more.
They are genuinely deluded about their special powers and say things like ‘any Head worth their salt can just tell’ or ‘I’m sorry, but some lessons just are better than others’ – as if that somehow backs up their ability to grade reliably. This is a tough nut to crack because you’re not dealing with a rational analysis. Perhaps chip away by emailing the Rob Coe article to all staff and governors and by requesting a show-down debate so it can be thrashed out.
They may suffer from Stockholm syndrome. They know they should stop grading but are scared of the change; worried about stepping into the unknown. Send them blogs by all the various Heads who don’t grade lessons. It’s fine! It’s better! It works!
They are control-freaks. They know grading is edu-voodoo but want a neat way to hold teachers to account even if it’s all nonsense. Chasing ‘Outstanding’ keeps people on their toes – that kind of thing. Again, a tough one because of the cynicism. Perhaps it’s worth appealing to their ego – do we want to be a school that is this far behind the times? This out of touch?
Perhaps they are deeply conservative and perceive ending grading as a radical, maverick move despite the evidence. They may be scared, risk-averse and lack professional courage. Maybe they have been defending grading for so long that they feel they can’t back down. I would write a formal proposal, citing the evidence from multiple sources, and request that this is debated at a full staff meeting and governors’ meeting. Perhaps, through collective courage, the Head could find their way to take the right path.
None of the reasons for retaining grades are built on sound educational principles. None. There are no good reasons. If you are a grading Head, you are either deluded (which sounds rude but is meant in a literal sense), cynical, out of touch, autocratic, unjustifiably scared or dogmatic to an extreme. Take your pick. It pains me to think of all the teachers whose annual review process hangs on getting ‘at least Good in two or more observations’ and other such nonsense. Never mind all of their other lessons – or the absence of meaningful assessment of long-term learning within an observation.
Come on people, let’s end this nonsense. It demeans the whole profession that we allow a practice that has been so soundly debunked to persist. Wake up! Wise up! Release your staff from the edu-voodoo.