Measuring performance

Teachers are doubtful about how the proposed changes for schools will be measured, and if there will be fairness in its implementation.

TEACHERS on the whole are quite used to hearing reports about soon-to-be implemented changes or “transformations” related to the education system but every once in a while there are announcements of certain policies or innovations that leave us with a feeling of unrest and discontent.

We feel disturbed but we can’t quite define our feeling or put a finger on it.

After all, these announcements come with such high-sounding objectives and goals that as teachers and purveyors of this “noble and glorious cause of education”, we feel almost duty-bound to jump with joy and share in the general enthusiasm.

The media splashes the news of these changes or transformations that are about to happen in the education system, these brilliant plans that are without doubt going to ensure “quality, world-class education”, “high-performance”, “improved student outcomes”, “incentives for teachers” and so on.

For a fraction of a second, we look up from our duties. Our hopes are raised and there is a moment of expectancy. A moment only. Because after going through the details of these plans we realise that for many of us, it is not going to make any difference. And so with a shrug ,we turn back towards whatever we were doing and mentally chide ourselves for being so silly as to have expected something in the first place.

Some of us also feel guilty about our less-than-enthusiastic response towards these obviously far-sighted and meticulously planned goals by our educational visionaries

Quite often, the demands of our jobs scream so loudly into our ears that we can’t even hear ourselves think. And yet in the brief intervals that we do actually begin to understand the contents of what has been so well packaged and presented to the public, we begin to feel a kind of anger and a sense of deep injustice.

Similar sentiments

We talk about it amongst ourselves and find comfort that there are others in the teaching community who feel like we do. We read letters to the press that echo our own thoughts and feelings and manage to convince ourselves that someone, somewhere has taken up our cause. At times, there are hasty follow-up declarations made by the formulators of the change to put to rest any feelings of discontent among those who had not “clearly understood” the whole thing. Peace offerings of vague promises are served, with assurance of fulfilment in ‘the near future’.

What exactly qualifies as “high-performance” in education and how do you measure it? If it is measured merely by academic, curricular or extra-curricular achievements, then perhaps, we should redefine our national philosophy of education that focuses on the holistic development of every child.

How do you measure spiritual and emotional “performance” if it even exists? You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realise that the measurement of distance travelled would have to be based on the starting point.

There has to be a zero mark, a point of reference to measure where one is at present, relative to where one was in the beginning. It is the measure of difference between what you had at first, and what you have now, that indicates what you have really achieved.

A school that manages to produce outstanding students despite a lack of resources — that is a high-performing school.

A teacher who despite being given a set of students with low self-esteem, low-motivational level, and low-academic aptitude, manages to create a sense of purpose, self-worth and interest in education among these students, should be considered a high-performing teacher.

And many of the individuals who have contributed the most to our society, are our nation’s “best” who came from schools that had a much varied and broad cross-section of student population.

Perhaps it is this interaction with others of different backgrounds and varied academic abilities, that sowed the seeds of excellence in the first place.

There may be many justifiable reasons for placing students who are high academic achievers together in particular schools, but to then label these schools as high-performance schools and its staff as high-performance teachers, based merely on the achievements of these already high-achieving students somewhat defies rational thinking.

School labels

“I’m not really bothered about all these labels,” said a teacher-friend of mine recently. “It is just that whenever I need funds for special school projects or student competitions, I am told that funds are low.

“And then I hear that some privileged schools are going to be given all these funds. Schools that as far as I know are already quite well-equipped. So how am I supposed to feel?

“Maybe I’m getting it wrong, but to me it is like saying, since you already have so much, let me reward you further … does it make sense to you?”

And what does it make the rest of the teachers who do not teach in these ‘‘high-performance” settings. Medium-performance teachers? Average-performance teachers? Low performance teachers?

But when questions like these are even dared to be raised, we are quickly reminded that we have to see the “big picture”, and not be so myopic. We are assured that pretty soon every school will have these privileges. And we should not misunderstand or be envious.

“Of course you are all excellent, high-performance teachers. We are aware of your sacrifices and the noble work you do. Congratulations and keep up the good work.”

A few pats on the back and you are on your way again in your not-so-high performing schools, with your not-so-high- performing students, trying to shake off the mantle of not-so-high-performing teacher that has crept insidiously over your mind.

Why this segregation, why this elitism ask some teachers. Yet there are others to whom the word ‘elitism’ means designer labels and having your garden patio featured in some Home and Living magazines.

There are teachers too who have spent their entire teaching career in schools without even basic facilities, in rural schools or in schools which can boast of no major curricular or extra-curricular achievement apart from the high level of effort and enthusiasm.

There are schools where teachers have extremely high standards of professional integrity, dedication and commitment.

Then there are teachers who have managed to be creative and innovative despite the lack of many resources, and teachers who have managed to retain their positive outlook and cheerfulness and believe in what they are doing.

What about teachers who are given classes of students who have not reached the minimum level of proficiency needed to be at that level?

“Which would be considered a higher teaching “performance?” another teacher asks me. “A teacher who helps a student achieve 20% from nothing or one who helps attain 91% from 90% ?”

Granted, one cannot make the grade with 20% as far as the examination system is concerned, but at at the real level of education, these are the successes, these are the performances

There is more achievement in transforming a potential school dropout into one who manages to get his SPM certificate, (even if he just manages to pass) rather than transforming an A grade into an A+.

When one product on a shelf is stuck with a label of quality, then by default a similar product next to it which is not stuck with the “quality” label is deemed to be of lesser quality.

That is the perception of many individuals both within and ouside the teaching community. We teachers are familiar with society’s somehow slanted perceptions of teacher’s ability or standards.

If you teach a higher form you are perceived to have more knowledge than a teacher teaching in the primary grades, even if that primary teacher is actually higher qualified both academically and pedagogically.

It is bad enough that teachers often have to put up with a great deal of societal misperceptions stemming from a lack of information. However, to experience this from people within the system who should know better, is painful.

That is the way society perceives it. If you teach in a school with a special “elitist” label, you are perceived to be better than another teacher who is not. But then again perhaps you really are.

We have to be fair to teachers of these schools too. We are all part of the same teaching community.

Many of them are our close friends and we know them to be exemplary teachers. We cannot allow our own disgruntlement to impair our sense of fairness.

Teachers from these schools tell us that maintaining high standards of achievement among the already high achievers may not be as easy as it looks.

Also they are quick to point out that they are subject to much more stringent working requirements compared to the others.

All these are perfectly valid reasons and justifiable. And when you think about it, the issue is not really about these schools themselves nor their teacher and student population.

Rather it is the spill-over feeling of having been discriminated against and having been judged with unbalanced scales.

by Mallika Vasugi.

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