The ethics of research on teacher effectiveness: Why we should be supporting teachers, not questioning their ability to teach

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 likely to be the 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?

What are the ethics questions raised by testing teachers?

Beyond the expected focus on informed consent, teachers should be assured of confidentiality and anonymity, and should be kept informed as the research progresses. But what happens when the findings of research testing teachers’ competencies are disseminated? In 2008, in Nigeria, teachers were tested, with shocking results – of 19,125 teachers, including 2,628 university graduates, who took a test for Primary Four (about 10 years old) pupils, only seven passed. This revelation led to newspaper reports about the ‘utter decay’ of the education system (see Johnson 2014).

This is not constructive use of data from teacher assessments. It reflects a negative view of teachers, who are often characterised as overpaid, ineffective, and even blamed for the fact they are not held accountable. The reality is that teachers may have had little or poor training, they lack resources to enrich their teaching, and many work in depressing and challenging circumstances. Often teachers are poorly paid, or not paid at all – in Nigeria, teachers often struggle to pay rent or bills because their salaries are so insecure. Yet despite all of this, some teachers thrive, and so do their students. Research needs to ask what helps some teachers thrive against the odds, as Buckler (2011) does, and how teachers in all types of schools can be supported as professionals.

Evaluation of teachers therefore requires more thought.  As a recent report from TALIS shows, the professionalisation of teachers, and the policies which can help are very context-specific. Naylor and Sayed (2014) emphasise that ‘any evaluation of teaching quality should be cognisant of other context specific factors that can influence this’ and must involve teachers in its design and implementation. Understanding context is vital to understanding teacher effectiveness.

Respecting research participants/teachers who are the subjects of our research

When writing up findings of research, researchers need to be mindful of how participants would feel when they read the report – one technique is for researchers to imagine their respondents looking over their shoulder at what is being written. Researchers need to manage this, while simultaneously maintaining analytic integrity.

Thought needs to be given to the ethics of the impact of published research, and how research may make people feel, especially if they have contributed data. Few research participants have the right of reply or the opportunity to redress the balance, unless they are very powerful. Researchers need to think about unintended consequences of dissemination of findings, and the effects their research may have on wider groups of people they study. Perhaps researchers could share preliminary findings with teacher participants, discussing solutions, and gaining teachers’ views and reflections on these.

Researchers need to balance attention to how to respect teachers, listen to and learn from them, and avoid silencing and excluding them, on the one hand, with preventing harm being done to them as a group when research is published. Teachers must be able to trust researchers, moreover, the political dimensions of the demand for data on teacher effectiveness, and the intentions that lie behind the use of such data, must be transparent (Johnson 2014).

Blog written by Rhiannon Moore & Ginny Morrow

Rhiannon Moore is Education Research Officer at Young Lives, working on the development and implementation of the School Effectiveness Survey in India.

Virginia Morrow is Senior Research Officer and Deputy Director at Young Lives. Her research interests include the ethics of social research.

The inspiration for this blog post came from Barbara Payne (DFID Pakistan) following a DFID-Young Lives write shop.

References & further reading

Barrett, A, Sayed, Y., Schweisfurth, M, & Tikly, L. (2015) Learning, pedagogy and the post-2015 education and development agenda. International Journal of Educational Development. 40, 231-236.

Buckler, A. (2011) Reconsidering the evidence base, considering the rural: aiming for a better understanding of the education and training needs of Sub-Saharan African teachers. International Journal of Educational Development, 31, 1011, 244-250.

Johnson, D. (2009) ‘More and better? – The political and policy dilemmas of teacher professional development’ in J Furlong et al (eds) Policy and politics in teacher education International perspectives.

Johnson, D. (2014) Big data and the politics of education in Nigeria. In Fenwick, T., Mangez, E., Ozga, J. (eds) World Yearbook of Education 2014: Governing knowledge: Comparison, Knowledge-based Technologies and Expertise in the Regulation of Education. Florence: Routledge.

Naylor, R and Sayed, Y. (2014) Teacher quality: evidence review. Office of Development Effectiveness. Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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