Saturday, July 25, 2009

Dirty words in the teachers' lexicon

(Published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 22.)

Who controls the education system?

It’s a question that arises again in the light of the fuss over the proposed introduction of numeracy and literacy standards in primary schools.

The primary school principals’ organisation, alarmed that the introduction of mandatory standards might lead to the publication of “league tables” which would enable parents to make comparisons between schools, got up on its hind legs and threatened a boycott.

In the education sector, “league tables” are dirty words. Teachers’ organisations have fought tooth and nail to prevent reforms that might better equip parents to make judgments about which school is best for their children. We are expected to simply trust the teachers.

Other dirty words in the teachers’ lexicon include “bulk funding”, “performance pay” and “education vouchers”, mention of any one of which is guaranteed to make teachers’ union leaders look as if they have just sucked a lemon.

All of the above concepts offend the entrenched notion that teachers should be exempted from the performance measurements and competitive pressures that other industry and professional groups are subject to. Any time one of these ideas is mentioned, teachers’ organisations put up a smokescreen of largely spurious arguments against them.

Bulk funding of schools is opposed because … well, because it would give schools a degree of autonomy and flexibility, particularly in crucial areas such as individual teachers’ pay, which the teachers’ unions find threatening. And why do they find it threatening? Because it would undermine the highly centralised education model that enables teacher unions such as the PPTA to wield such power.

Once the centralised system starts to unravel, so does union control. That explains why the PPTA fought a determined campaign of sabotage and intimidation against bulk funding during the term of the Bolger National Government.

A compliant Labour-led government obligingly shelved bulk funding after winning power in 1999. With a caucus packed with former teachers, Labour couldn’t help but be sympathetic to the education unions, which is why they have been relatively docile in recent years. But the primary school principals’ rebellion over National’s intention to introduce standards may be a sign that the truce is over.

So what’s the objection to standards, then? Well, they are said to be too narrow. “Summative assessment of data from two just two learning areas from young children has limitations,” according to one teacher’s letter to a paper, couched in the fuzzy jargon familiar to generations of despairing parents.

In fact most parents are probably smart enough to realise that literacy and numeracy standards are not the only means by which to judge a school’s performance. But there’s no getting around the fact that they are the two most vital aspects of a child’s education and therefore the ones parents most want to know about.

“League tables”, which would enable parents to assess schools’ performance against national standards, are opposed because they would supposedly disadvantage already under-privileged schools. Teachers complain that publication of league tables would encourage parents to withdraw children from poorly performing schools and thus accelerate the schools’ decline.

Better, then, to keep parents in the dark about schools’ performance and deny them the right to make an informed choice about which school will best serve their children’s needs – or so the primary principals seem to argue.

And don’t dare suggest that the publication of league tables might actually have a beneficial effect by forcing under-performing schools to make a choice between lifting their game or losing more of their pupils. That’s far too radical for the teachers’ organisations to comprehend.

Government-issued education vouchers, which would enable parents to “buy” education from the school of their choice, are vehemently opposed for similar reasons – they would shift power from teachers and education bureaucrats to parents. Rather than being forced to put up with inferior schools, parents could withdraw their children and take them elsewhere. We can’t have that, can we?

That simple word “choice”, which we take for granted in so many other facets of our lives, is denied parents when it comes to their children’s education. (That is, unless they have the money to buy a house within the zone of an elite state school such as Auckland Boys’ Grammar – but don’t get me started on the illogic of zoning, which has produced consequences that are the very opposite of those envisaged by its architects).

I also mentioned performance pay. This offends the sacred notion of collegiality, which seems to hold that one teacher should never be paid more than another of equivalent qualifications and experience, regardless of how good they are.

I can’t think of any other profession or industry in which this rule applies, but teachers insist they are different. Why? Well, they just are.

What collegiality means in practice is that indifferent, lazy or bad teachers are protected while good, conscientious teachers are denied proper recognition and reward. This may help explain why there are so few talented male teachers; the career prospects just aren’t there.

The big question hanging over all these thwarted ideas for education reform is the one posed at the start of this column: who controls the education system?

This is much more than an industrial question; it is about respect for the democratic process. Voters give governments a mandate to effect change, and organisations which set out to forestall that change – as the teachers’ organisations have done in the past, and are now showing signs of doing again – are effectively giving voters the fingers.

Whether we will see a re-emergence of the bolshie, arrogant PPTA that we remember from the 1990s remains to be seen. The current union president, Kate Gainsford, is a personable and intelligent woman who bears little resemblance to strident PPTA leaders of the past such as Martin Cooney, so perhaps there will be a rational policy debate rather than the bullying intransigence of old.

As the people who have to make the system work, teachers are entitled to a say in how education is run. Governments owe it to them not just to listen to their concerns, but where they are valid – as teachers’ concerns sometimes are – to try and allay them. But ultimately, teachers need to pull their heads in and accept they are the paid servants of the system, not its masters.

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