Performativity: how measurement, evidence-gathering and accountability are wrecking education
I imagine you are familiar with the terms “evidence-based reporting” and “accountability”. Both of these concepts seem perfectly reasonable, don’t they? I mean, the idea of gathering evidence to draw conclusions or learn more about something is fundamental to the scientific method, and holding people to account for their actions is a crucial component of a fair and just society. However, these two concepts have been twisted together to form something different, known as performativity, which is severely damaging our profession. In this post I’ll try to explain what performativity is, and I’ll give some examples of its impact on my own teaching context. As you read, you may want to reflect on the extent to which performativity impacts on your professional practice.
We live in a world where knowledge is regarded as a commodity, a bit like oil. The well-known economist Joseph Stiglitz said, in 1999, ‘Knowledge and information is being produced today like cars and steel were produced a hundred years ago.’ (Stiglitz 1999: 1). This makes educational institutions sound a bit like factories, and to a large extent they are, with governments regarding education as a means of producing individuals with the knowledge and skills to develop their nations’ economies. Investment in education is therefore seen as investment in economic growth, as explained by Little in her definition of Human Capital Theory:
‘…the skills that people acquire are a form of capital, human capital…these are acquired through deliberate investments in education…skills are the capacities that contribute to economic production’ (Little 2003: 438).
The perception of education as a vehicle for economic development has led to governments becoming increasingly interested in educational performance and outputs. Like private companies, they want to know what they’re getting for their money, so they create a framework to evaluate the performance of educational institutions:
‘Now the state is the agent…which…defines the terms in and on which the education service will be evaluated. It defines educational “effectiveness”.’ (Cowen 1997: 67-68).
This evaluation process, according to Cowen, ‘…involves defining and measuring and publicising the “results” of education in quantative [sic] terms.’ (ibid: 68). So we’re talking about measurable criteria such as exam results, student retention, the use of checklists to evaluate teaching “performance”, that sort of thing. Using criteria like this to pass judgement on educational institutions, and individual teachers, is what is known as performativity.
One of the strongest critics of performativity is Stephen Ball, a renowned academic in the field of Education Policy. This paragraph gives you an idea of what he thinks of it:
‘Performativity is a culture or a system of “terror”. It is a regime of accountability that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of control, attrition and change. The performances of individual subjects or organisations serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of “quality”, or “moments” of promotion or inspection. These performances stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organisation within a field of judgement.’ (Ball 2013: 57).
Basically, performativity reduces teaching to a series of limited, externally imposed, measures, and places judgements accordingly on teachers’ ability to do their jobs. Teaching by numbers, if you like. In order to justify this means of evaluation, governments created what Ball has termed a “discourse of derision” (Ball 1990), described by Forde et al as ‘…the perception that teachers and the teaching profession are unable to deliver the required standards of schooling’ (Forde et al 2006: 25), thereby justifying the need for the state to intervene.
The use of measurable criteria to establish how well a system is working may seem like a reasonable and scientific approach to take. However, the location of power is significant here; the discourse of derision suggests that the criteria used are deliberately designed to make educational professionals look bad. Furthermore, performativity creates a culture within which, according to Forde et al, ‘…we laud that which can be measured and ignore what cannot be measured, even though it might be as important in the educative process.’ (ibid.).
We all know how hard it is to measure learning, and teaching for that matter. Using things like exam results to measure success doesn’t take into account distance travelled, or the number of barriers that students have to overcome in order to pass. Nor does it take into account any cultural or linguistic bias that may lie within the exam. For example, many English language assessments contain references to topics that some cultures are more familiar with than others, or expect students to perform in a way that comes more naturally to European students than it does to students from, say, China. When evaluating teaching performance, the use of a set of pre-determined criteria skews the focus of the lesson towards the meeting of these criteria, rather than meeting the needs of the students as the lesson progresses (I’ve previously written touched on this issue here).
Focusing on the measurable at the expense of the less measurable also affects the professionalism of teachers. Forde et al describe a 1997 study by Wright and Bottery on teacher trainers’ perceptions of professionalism, which revealed this:
‘…while there was a very strong emphasis on the practical classroom skills, there was very low priority accorded to the wider professional growth of the trainees, or to their understanding of other parts of the educational process.’ (Forde et al 2011: 25).
I imagine that if a similar study was carried out today among teacher trainers on initial training courses in ELT, the results would be similar. Lots of focus is placed on the technical side of things – classroom management, clarification techniques etc, – but there’s very little focus on the wider implications of being a professional educator. Of course, this plays into the hands of employers in both state and private sectors; if teaching is simply a means of implementing a series of skills and techniques which can be acquired in the space of 4 weeks, teaching can be perceived as a fairly low-level job, and teachers themselves are relatively expendable. This helps to explain why English language teachers in many countries are paid so badly.
The other issue of concern is that of accountability. The impact of performativity on teachers, according to Ball, is ‘…a sense of being constantly judged in different ways, by different criteria, through different agents and agencies.’ The system is designed to ‘…make individuals responsible for monitoring and disciplining themselves, to make them responsive and flexible.’ (Ball 2013: 58). Teachers feel conscious of the need to perform according to the various inspection criteria, policies, reports and recommendations that are thrown at them. This starts to take precedence over the more immediate, actual needs of their students, to the point where teachers spend so much time trying to show that they are doing a good job, that they don’t have any time left to actually do a good job. All this evidence-gathering ‘…consumes so much energy that it drastically reduces the energy available for making improvement inputs.’ (Elliot 1996: 15, quoted in Ball 2013: 59-60).
Not that what actually goes on in the classroom counts for much anyway. The “best” teachers are not the ones who actually do a really good job, but those who are able to make it look like they are doing a really good job. This is what Ball calls ‘fabrications’, where individuals or institutions describe, in reports and other texts, the work they do using language that demonstrates that they are meeting performative criteria. What they say they do within these texts becomes more important than what actually happens in practice. Ball puts it this way:
‘Fabrications are versions of an organization (or person) which does not exist – they are not “outside the truth” but neither do they render simply true or direct accounts – they are produced purposefully in order “to be accountable”. Truthfulness is not the point – the point is their effectiveness.’ (Ball 2003: 224).
So far I’ve been trying to describe performativity and its implications in a very general sense, with occasional references to ELT. Now I want to give some more specific examples of how performativity impacts on my own practice, because I feel that the performative culture I work in, rather than helping to maintain or enhance teaching performance, actually undermines standards. Have a look at these examples and see what you think:
- Education Scotland, the body that reviews standards in Scotland’s colleges, uses the same criteria to evaluate teaching across all subjects. The criteria, therefore, are either so generic as to be meaningless, allowing for pretty poor standards to be accepted across the board, or they favour some teaching contexts over others. Is this type of value judgement likely to develop us as teachers?
- The need to generate evidence can be ridiculously time-consuming. Senior managers understand this, but feel they must prioritise evidence-gathering over everything else. It has been suggested to me in the past that I cancel lessons in order to attend pre-inspection meetings. Shouldn’t the students and their learning take precedence over everything else?
- “Best Practice” is a term that is commonly used when evaluating performance. If one college is doing something that works well for them, other institutions are expected to follow their example. But what if the thing they are doing for their students doesn’t match the needs of my students?
- One of the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) used to measure the success of our programmes is Retention, or how many students stay on the course until the end. If I want to ensure high retention, I need to recruit students who are unlikely to drop out of the course – this encourages me to prioritise people who are settled in the country, with a steady income and no major distractions that are likely to impact on their studies. But what about people in less stable situations – asylum-seekers (who could be deported at any time), jobseekers (who could get a job at any time, which, perversely, is recorded as a negative outcome), people with health issues, single parents (who are likely to miss classes if their kids get sick) – should they be excluded? If I excluded them, my KPIs would look much better.
- If I have a student with poor attendance, punctuality, or discipline, I’ll try to identify the root of the problem and see if it can be solved. Sometimes though, for whatever reason, the best course of action may be to withdraw the student from the course. But this would negatively affect KPIs, so I am instead expected to do everything I can to keep the student on the course, no matter how negatively they influence class dynamics, and even if it is not in that student’s best interests.
- The use of attainment figures as a KPI raises ethical issues when it comes to initial placement. The focus is on ensuring as many students as possible pass the course. So, do I place students in classes where they will be challenged and where there is scope for them to make a lot of progress, or do I place them at a level they can already achieve at, knowing that this will make my KPIs look better?
- Of course, the other issue about attainment in a performative culture is that teachers are under pressure to pass everybody. When assessing students, I should employ good professional judgement and fail anyone who doesn’t meet the required standard – right? But if I do this it reflects badly on me. A teacher with a less well-developed moral compass might just pass everyone, and as a result they would look like the better teacher.
I’ve tried to demonstrate through the above examples how a performative culture, rather than maintaining or raising standards of education, actually conspires to make the quality of teaching worse. As professionals, we teachers are caught in an impossible paradox. If we do the things that we know to be right (prioritise teaching and learning over everything else, challenge our students, have an inclusive recruitment policy, instil a productive and hard-working class dynamic, use professional knowledge and judgement when assessing students’ performances etc.) it may look like we are doing a bad job. If we “play the game” and focus solely on doing what is required to look good on paper, we could find ourselves doing things that we know to be immoral, unethical or unprofessional.
In Stephen Ball’s article entitled ‘The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity’ (Ball 2003) he argues how performativity isn’t just damaging teaching, it’s damaging teachers as well:
‘The novelty of this epidemic of reform is that it does not simply change what people, as educators, scholars and researchers do, it changes who they are.’ (Ball 2003: 215).
Ball argues that teachers are required to question or contravene the values that were previously fundamental to their professional practice, to such an extent that they no longer know where they stand. I’m not sure if I would go that far myself, but I can see the effects of performativity on my own working environment, and they are not good. As G.E Johnson, a teacher quoted by Ball, puts it:
‘What happened to my creativity? What happened to my professional integrity? What happened to the fun in teaching and learning? What happened?’ (Ball 2013: 59).
It’s not impossible to do a good job within a performative culture, but justifying what you know to be right, when externally-imposed value judgements say otherwise, is a constant battle. And it’s getting harder and harder.
Ball, S. 1990, Politics and Policy Making in Education: Explorations in Policy Sociology, London: Routledge.
Ball, S. 2003, ‘The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity’, Journal of Education Policy, 18:2, 215-228.
Ball, S. 2013, The education debate (2nd edition), Bristol: The Policy Press.
Cowen, R. 1997, ‘Autonomy, Citizenship, the Market and Education’, in D. Bridges (ed.), Education, Autonomy and Democratic Citizenship: Philosophy in a Changing World, 61-73, Abingdon: Routledge.
Elliott, J. 1996, ‘Quality assurance, the educational standards debate, and the commodification of educational research’, BERA Annual Conference, University of Lancaster.
Forde, C., McMahon, M., McPhee, A. and Patrick, F. 2011, Professional development, reflection and enquiry, London: Sage.
Little, A. (2003), ‘Motivating learning and the development of human capital’, in Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 33:4, 437-452.
Stiglitz, J. 1999, Public Policy for a Knowledge Economy, available from: https://www0.gsb.columbia.edu/faculty/jstiglitz/download/speeches/PublicPolicy/Public_Policy_for_Knowledge_Economy.pdf [last accessed 01/08/2015].