Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Schools and Markets - Mutually Exclusive

Education is still in the media.

This may have something to do with the fact that the new school year is just over the horizon, and the media is cashing in on the annual surge in interest in schooling matters. Whatever the reason, the letters columns in the various papers that I read have been full of missives on the topic.

The letter featured was written quite some time ago and published in the Courier Mail on 15th December 2008. I'm including it here as it gives me a small excuse to have a rant on the topic. I also know the author from another life and respect his opinion –
There is a growing consensus that teachers can make a difference, and there is talk about improving teachers' skills as well as a range of other measures. Yet some problems that have given rise to continued educational underachievement by too many students have yet to be addressed.

Your editorial (C-M, Dec 13-14) states that blame for student underachievement may lie else­where. Providing teachers with regular in-service training, raising their salaries and working conditions, and improving community per­ceptions about the value of teach­ing as a profession addresses the problems in an unbalanced ap­proach.

For too long, reactive policy development, unnecess­arily conflicting ideologies and curriculum imbalance and inco­herence have been a hindrance to the day-to-day business of the work of principals and teachers.

I suggest that there is a long-overdue need to shift the chain of command back to the schools, to balance the chain of responsibility for student learning. One of the quickest ways is to provide princi­pals and teachers with coherent syllabus documents that contrib­ute to a shared understanding and language for teaching within and between schools.

Rod Campbell, Aspley

He touches on a number of issues near and dear to my heart. The first one is that in order to improve school performance, it's necessary to focus on teachers.

Back in the nineties, When Borbridge was in power in Queensland, there was an initiative called “Leading Schools”. It was decided that the best way to improve schools was to make them self managing. Schools were offered extra cash to sign up, and many did, especially high schools. At the same time as this was happening, research was commissioned which was supposed to show that self-managed schools would get better results for students.

When the research was completed a few years later, it showed absolutely no correlation between how schools were managed and results for students. What it did show was a strong link between teacher performance and student results. “Leading Schools” was abandoned after two years.

This is a long winded way of showing that the best way of improving results for students is by improving teacher performance. So far, no administration has tackled this, except for the ill-considered notion of performance pay for teachers which has been shown time and again to be counter-productive.

I'll list some suggestions from someone who's been teaching since 1968. Most of them bear directly on teacher performance –
Increase teacher pay by 25% immediately.
Transfer any teacher who has been on the same class or in the same school for more than three years to another teaching posting.
Mandate - by affirmative action - a minimum of 25% male teachers at every school.
Put the best teachers on the most difficult classes.
Fine parents whose children are suspended for bad behaviour - $1000 a throw.
Make OP scores for teachers 9 or better.*
Mandate a post graduate qualification for all newly graduating teachers.
Introduce a statewide internship programme, so that graduating teachers spend their last year of training in schools day by day - same as medical graduates.
Provide realistic bonuses for teachers who work in difficult and challenging situations. I’m talking thousands monthly.
Make teacher registration dependent on continuing study - in other words, if you’re not studying, you can’t teach.
Create a stream of teachers who are paid the equivalent of administrators (principals) to stay in the classroom, and mentor beginning teachers.

The unions would probably accept these initiatives conditional on the first suggestion (the pay rise).

Campbell also mentions "chain of command", in other words, system administration. The administration of state systems needs to change in the following particulars - Eradicate corporate managerialism as an overriding culture in state education agencies.

Restore the power of principals to determine the philosophical direction of their school communities.

Restore the division of regional education boundaries so that regional managers of remote and rural schools are located in the geographical centre of the regions they administer.

Eradicate the principle of contestability as a corporate mantra in these same agencies.

There is a dogma (which has been embraced completely by corporate managers), that unless competition forms a part of any organised activity, the outcomes will be sub-standard. This principle (“contestability”), has crossed the Pacific, and colonized the thought processes of corporate managers, both public and private; in much the same way as the cane toad colonized Northern Australia.

Unschooled as I am in corporate managerialism, I can’t for the life of me see how competition makes any difference to efficiency and effectiveness, unless perhaps your business is producing toilet rolls, and your employees respond like Pavlov’s dogs.

It is out of place in human services, yet has been so completely embraced that anyone foolish enough to be critical of it is destined for the corporate doghouse.

As I said, I’m obviously na├»ve, because I believe that the majority of people working in human services do so because they enjoy it and believe they can make a difference.

Perhaps more to the point, the notion is most appropriately applied to the market, and not every form of human endeavour can be designed or described as a market, despite the best efforts of those exercising financial power and influence.

We need only to look at the market as a metaphor for effectiveness and efficiency as it has developed in the last six months. The new name for the stock market is Armageddon.

Let's not apply its dodgy principles to this most important intergenerational undertaking.

* OPs in Queensland determine university places. Other states have equivalent schemes. We need our best high school matriculants in teaching.


Boy on a bike said...

I tried reading the Year 7 syllabus this year, and couldn't understand a word of it. It made absolutely no sense. If the aim is to confuse and confound parents, then that aim has been met. Insurance companies have to produce "plain english" contracts - Education Departments should be forced to do the same.

I agree with a lot of what you've said, but you've got to remember to sack the useless bastards too. Having worked in the public sector and seen the corrosive effect boat-anchors can have, I now think the first priority in any organisation is to excise the useless. The better performers will love you for it, since they no longer have to work extra hard to make up for their uselessness. Nothing destroys morale like protection of the useless.

I'd suggest employing no one as a teacher until they hit 25 or even 30. Teachers need to have a bit of life experience and maturity in order to handle kids, especially uppity teenage boys.

As for pushing management back to the schools, you can do that by sacking 90% of the education department. If there are no managers there who have to justify their positions by meddling, Headmasters will be free to take control again. You cannot decentralise management so long as you have a big group of managers in head office who will instinctively want to claw back power into their own hands. Off with their heads!

Having worked for organisations that have decided to change every year, and sometimes more often, I'd freeze the syllabus for at least 3 years. Even if the syllabus is complete crap, the chaos of changing the syllabus is more destructive than a crap syllabus. Force a syllabus freeze by sacking the entire syllabus development department. That should send a clear message to teachers that they will be given breathing space to get a grip on the current syllabus, without worrying about if being constantly fiddled with.

1735099 said...

Teachers, like other professionals, have their own jargon. Unfortunately some use it when talking to non-teachers. Even more unfortunately, syllabus writers use the same jargon.
My experience with the "useless bastards" is that the vast majority leave the profession before they do too much damage. Teaching is untenable if you're failing. A look at the statistics surrounding the attrition rate reveals the quantifiable side of that. Some statistics place the new teacher attrition rate at nearly 40% after four years (Moir, 2003). We need to prevent them from becoming "useless bastards" in the first place - it's too late once this has happened.
There is a need for some bureaucratic infrastructure behind classroom teachers. What should be eliminated is the cohort of media advisers and minders who deal with the political dimensions of the task, and the HR personnel who deal with hiring and firing - principals should be doing that.
A simple test could be applied -
"How does this job advance teaching and learning?" If the answer isn't immediately clear, it should be axed.
To some extent, the media can be held responsible for the rate of pointless change. There is a sense in which politicians push change to show that they are "doing something" about education. Generally, "top down" change accomplishes nothing - it's cultural change that's needed, if any permanent positive change in teacher behaviour is to be developed.

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