Effective performance management practices

Written by: Maria Cunningham | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Is your school’s performance management helpful or harmful? Maria Cunningham looks at the evidence and explains how to make effective performance management and appraisal systems that contribute to genuine teacher development and improvement

The last two decades have seen a toxic culture of performativity pervading our schools. We have had graded lesson observations, performance-related pay, plus ever more rounds of target-setting and data collection.

Indeed, the National Headteacher Standards themselves demand that school leaders “establish rigorous, fair and transparent systems and measures for managing the performance of all staff, addressing any under-performance, supporting staff to improve and valuing excellent practice”.

But we’re certainly not the first to wonder whether all these efforts to monitor development really help teachers to grow as practitioners, or if sometimes an over-emphasis on performance management can hinder this process, stifling the individual at the chalkface.

I and the team at the Teacher Development Trust support our network of hundreds of schools across the UK to listen to the evidence when it comes to staff’s professional learning, helping teachers to thrive and students to succeed. So what does the research say when it comes to many commonplace school appraisal processes?

Let’s start with performance-related pay. Pietro Marenco, who worked on CIPD’s recent report Could do better? What works in performance management? says it’s essential to “divorce developmental and evaluative feedback”. He explained: “People will stop listening about what they need to improve when their salary is at stake.” (Marenco, 2017)

Equally, the Education Endowment Foundation advises that “given the lack of evidence that performance pay significantly improves the quality of teaching, resources may be better targeted”, and that high-quality CPD “may be a more cost-effective way to improving teacher quality”.

It’s a similar story for classroom observation. In 2014, Professor Rob Coe of Durham University collated the findings of a number of studies examining the reliability of classroom observation ratings, and famously challenged the idea that we can judge a teacher’s overall performance based on a 20 or 30-minute snapshot of a single lesson, as well as our ability as observers to actually accurately identify “good teaching” (Coe, 2014). There’s undoubtedly been a turn in the tides since then, and the rise in popularity of teacher enquiry models such as Lesson Study demonstrate the gradual shift in focusing lesson observations away from teacher practice, and towards pupil outcomes.

Much of this is common sense, and it’s not only a question of how well we are measuring performance. In an educational landscape increasingly concerned by teacher workload and wellbeing, it goes without saying that poorly considered financial incentives intended to make teachers work more effectively and excessively scrutinising teachers based on a half-hour snapshot of their lesson, or a page in a student’s book, are unlikely to help solve the retention and recruitment crisis faced by UK schools.

It’s not that performance management shouldn’t happen. Appraisal can enhance CPD, but it’s that the design determines whether it is helpful or harmful. Generic tick-box monitoring can kill it stone dead.
Alex Quigley, author of The Confident Teacher, very recently used his blog to voice the need for reform.

His somewhat damning version of the state of affairs is that, “we are still going about grading teachers and making annual appraisal judgements with the same degree of confidence as we had back in the day when we were grading away 20-minute gobbets in blissful ignorance”.

So, what needs to change?

Agency: Teachers should always have a level of agency when it comes to their development – and that’s not just in selecting the particular targets to which they are held accountable. According to Science for Work, “active participation in the performance review process may positively affect employees’ acceptance of the overall system” (Wietrak, 2017) – so involve staff in their appraisal.

As much as possible, allow teachers to choose which measures are used to evaluate their performance. Feeling a sense of trust and that one’s voice is heard is necessary for people to perceive the overall performance management system as fair, useful and a motivation to improve.

Measurement vs development: As schools, we must achieve a greater clarity between conversations that measure performance (appraisal), and conversations that develop performance (goal-setting). These are two very separate objectives and therefore the targets themselves should look different too.

Limit the use of performance targets to areas where the teacher has a high level of control – e.g. completing a specific scheme of work with a class or entering assessment data on time. Then, for more complex tasks where multiple factors are at play, such as students’ learning, adopt a more holistic, “do-your-best” approach to learning goals so that the teacher can take ownership and engage with their own professional journey.

Setting arbitrary concrete targets in complex areas creates unnecessary gamification and burden, which ultimately has been shown to depress rather than aid development.

Focus on strengths: Just like for our students, self-esteem is intrinsically linked to teacher performance, therefore over-emphasising “what went wrong” can be seriously detrimental to any appraisal conversations.

The aim of an appraisal meeting should always be to inspire future development, so focus discussion on strengths and ensure that there is an opportunity to check-in afterwards so that the individual being evaluated has had a healthy amount of time to reflect upon and process feedback.

Reactions following appraisal determine future performance – so make transparency, trust and fairness a priority.

Data: Take caution about any performance data being collected and don’t be afraid to question its validity. In all professions, “multiple observers of performance should be trained in rating employees using valid and reliable scales, and their scores must be checked and come to a consensus” (Marenco, 2017).

In the case of lesson observations, for example, despite our instincts that we know good teaching when we see it (Coe, 2014), observers require substantial training and a variety of observation protocols in order for their ratings to have true reliability. All data should be checked and ideally be the result of multiple people coming to a consensus.

Career support: Appraisal conversations should include aspects of career support, especially for newer teachers – but make this just one part of a wider discussion.

Performance management is not only about developing your career, it is also about developing a teacher’s practice so that they are supported to be increasingly effective in their current role. Line managers should be trained to use coaching conversations and to inspire professional curiosity in their colleagues, encouraging all staff to develop to best meet the needs of their pupils.

Student focus: Ensure teacher performance management decisions benefit students too. The Developing Great Teaching report conducted by CUREE, Durham University and UCL Institute of Education in 2015 firmly concluded that among the forms of CPD that don’t work is “professional development which does not have a strong focus on aspirations for students” (Cordingley et al, 2014) – so keep in mind how your appraisal and evaluation systems will enhance pupil attainment.

Performance review discussions should focus just as much on why and how classroom learning is progressing, or potential barriers to this, as to what is happening to the teachers themselves.


Getting your performance management right is crucial. Judging, evaluating and rewarding teacher effectiveness in a fair and transparent way can seem challenging, but it is so important if your staff CPD programme is to have the desired impact.

We know that teachers working in more supportive professional environments (with more opportunities for meaningful feedback, conducted in an objective and consistent manner) improve their effectiveness by 38 per cent more over time than those working in less supportive contexts (Kraft & Papay, 2013).
So reflect on what happens in your school,

take note of these six tips and with small changes, you will see your performance management processes increasingly contribute to and support professional learning.

  • Maria Cunningham is a former primary school teacher and programme officer for Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective professional development in schools and colleges around the UK. Visit http://tdtrust.org/

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