A Storm in the Teaching Profession

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The Government’s announcement that it plans to introduce new psychometric tests for teachers has created a storm in the teaching profession. At present, entry into the profession requires a test in what the BBC describe as ‘simple’ arithmetic and word identification. These tests are to be replaced with harder tests in maths, English and reasoning.

But will increasing the entry level to the profession produce better teachers?

The whole subject of training, recruiting, motivating and assessing teachers’ performance is complex.
On the one hand, in job design freedom to determine how a job is done is a motivator. On the other hand, good performance management relies on the setting of objectives and appraisal. Teachers have long argued for the freedom to teach outside of a straightjacket curriculum.  They argue too that it’s impossible to appraise their performance (since it is so dependent on pupil aptitude). This dichotomy of freedoms has dogged the profession and successive governments have refused to relax these criteria, arguing that both are essential in search of excellence.

So now as well as control through job description and appraisal, the Government wants to increase the entry levels.

Psychometric tests

The new tests proposed appear to be a form of aptitude test – in this case in numerical, verbal and abstract reasoning. There are many aptitude tests.  And one strong thread in psychology concludes that aptitude testing is simply a form of intelligence test.  General mental ability (intelligence) and aptitude, they argue, are synonymous.  If this is true, all the Government proposes is a test that selects the most intelligent to enter the profession.

Such tests return a result that measures intelligence.  This is generally then compared with norm groups.  Candidates for jobs, for example, can then be selected with reference to the intelligence of similar workers, thus avoiding an absolute scale that requires the highest intelligence for every job.  The Government will therefore have to select its ‘norm group’ to impose a pass/fail threshold that selects at the aptitude or intelligence level it wants.

How good a measure?

The question then is will such a test produce teachers that perform at a higher level than those teaching today?  Research into cognitive ability testing does show that aptitude or cognitive ability tests are a good predictor of how well someone will perform in a job.  There is correlation between test score and performance, so the Government is on the right track.

Performance depends on lots of other things too: like setting goals and appraising performance and like having a job that is defined well in the first place.  Role clarity (as might come from a curriculum) is an important job characteristic.

So to assure performance in the classroom, employers should design the job well, select applicants for aptitude and manage their performance.  That means teachers should stop bleating about freedoms and unfairness and acknowledge their employers’ acceptance of the wealth of research that proves this simple three step process.

The wider picture

Whilst performance might be about getting the brightest into the profession and managing them appropriately through goals, one has to attract good candidates in the first place.

Earlier in the year, writing in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development Andreas Schleicher reported that all countries need to raise the status of teachers in order to correspondingly raise their skills and performance.  The report goes on to note that “people who see themselves as knowledge workers are not attracted by schools organised like an assembly line, with teachers working as interchangeable widgets in a bureaucratic command-and-control environment”.

And last week Education Secretary Michael Gove reported that he wanted more teachers to train “on the job” in order to swell the ranks. This seems to be perhaps counter to arguments to select only the best, though it may acknowledge that not everyone intelligent goes to university. Teachers themselves are very much against lowering the standards and opening the door to everyone.

There seem to be a number of confusing messages in recent weeks.  If all are to be followed, we need to select more intelligent teachers (whether with or without a university degree), improve teachers’ status with increased freedoms, whilst managing them as professionals though goals and appraisal.  That doesn’t seem so impossible.

A Storm in the Teaching Profession

Aptitude testing with a high threshold of pass will select out all but the most intelligent applicants.  Intelligence correlates with performance so that’s a step in the right direction.  Universities already select on the basis of intelligence.  Demanding that teachers come only from the Russell Group of universities, for example, will select only those of highest intelligence.

That leaves one issue – how to attract those high calibre candidates.  For this we may have to take a leaf from the OECD report and increase the rewards available.  But for this to happen we must re-design the teaching job, set tasking goals for our teachers and appraise their performance.

After all they of all groups should understand the ideas of goals and performance management.  It’s what they practice on their pupils!

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