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Britain’s Bet on a “Teaching Excellence Framework”

An experiment in higher education is set to begin—or really continue—as Britain moves forward with reforms to its higher education sector, begun in 2012 under Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government. Earlier this month, the English minister for universities and science, Jo Johnson, announced a national project for assessing teaching in higher education, called the “Teaching Excellence Framework” (TEF). According to Johnson, the aims of the framework can be paraphrased as

  • ensure all students receive excellent teaching and prepares them for employment,
  • build a culture that values teaching as much as research,
  • inform students about teaching quality,
  • recognize institutions that do these things well.

These are admirable aims in their own right. But the thorny question that remains unresolved is how these measures will be developed and carried out. Johnson, the education minister, has indicated he wants to avoid a “big, bossy, and bureaucratic” approach, which was how he described last year’s rollout of a national assessment project on research quality, known as the “Research Excellence Framework.”

Women construction workers

Women construction workers preparing a window frame in England circa 1941. (Public Domain)

But developing a framework to evaluate teaching effectiveness across disciplines and institutions seems to be–at least to me–a Quixotic goal at best, or worse a destructive and destabilizing policy prescription. How will the same instrument measure a saxophone professor’s teaching effectiveness versus a chemistry professor’s?  To me, instructional strategies must be adapted to the subject being taught. And if instructional methods vary according to discipline, how do you develop one standardized assessment across disciplines?

More questions that remain unanswered are to what extent will outputs, such as evidence of student learning, be accounted for? And how will the inputs—such as students’ varying levels of educational preparation, socio-economic status, etc., be controlled for?

It’s true that I’m not an expert in assessment, and I might lack the knowledge and experience to imagine a standardized framework that is flexible enough to evaluate teaching across disciplines in post-secondary education. But I think it will be a process fraught with complications—and perhaps unintended consequences.

Even though there is an ocean of distance between the U.S. and Britain, similar political forces that are animating the debate about accountability in the U.K. have taken taking in the United States. While this has been particularly true K-12 education– with 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act, the subsequent increase in standardized testing, and lawsuits seeking to pushback against teacher tenure laws–there is also a growing chorus among the political right to extend these measures to the field of higher education. For example, Wisconsin governor and Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker and his allies in the state legislature are attempting to exert control over tenure and curriculum in the University of Wisconsin system.

For those of us interested in how teaching and learning is supported—and yes, assessed—in higher education, then these are developments well worth watching.

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