A political education: hijacking the quality teaching movement

The debate around teacher quality should be informed by research, not hunches and misinformation. Teacher image from www.shutterstock.com

All we seem to hear about these days is failing teachers in failing schools. Those from business, government and the field of economics have all weighed in, criticising teachers, teacher educators and schools and offering often naive, misinformed or ideologically driven “remedies”.

So called evidence is being selectively used both to paint a grim picture of the “problem” and to prescribe quick-fix solutions.

These are worrying signs that decades of empirical research are being ignored in the discussion we need to have about teacher quality. The quality teacher movement is now in danger of being hijacked.

A long running debate

I have been involved with research into teaching and learning for more than 20 years – studying teaching expertise, recognising and rewarding it and above all, trying to improve it.

We know from research that the biggest in-school influence on student achievement is teacher quality. Developments such as NAPLAN, My School, the Australian Curriculum, the Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), National Partnerships and AITSL have all recognised and led to a greater emphasis on teaching.

I was initially pleased to see the growing attention given to teachers and hoped that this would lead to significant investment in their professional learning. But it is now clear that rather than regarding teachers as our most important asset they are now being seen as our biggest problem.

The blame game

Important work has been misconstrued. John Hattie’s recognition, for example, of teachers’ importance has been twisted to imply that it is the teacher’s fault when students fail to learn.

We now frequently hear of the teacher being “the biggest influence on student achievement” but somewhere along the way a crucial term has been mislaid: “in-school”. Other school and non-school factors in total are more important.

Hattie’s position on direct instruction has also been misconstrued as advocating didactic, “traditional” teacher-centred approaches rather than its intended meaning of teachers having a clear intention of what they are trying to achieve with every student and orchestrating learning in their classrooms accordingly.

Instead of a collegial opening up of classrooms and professional practice, what follows is that because of their influence, some feel we need greater control and surveillance over teachers. Some principals engage in a growing practice of snap inspections of classrooms, sometimes accompanied by video-taking to “catch” teachers performing badly. Rather than useful constructive feedback, we see arbitrary and impressionistic “assessment”, with an unfocused demand to lift performance.

Recent Victorian and NSW government discussion papers on teaching paint a picture of a crisis that requires intervention from on high. The role of professional standards has been twisted to be more about judging and dismissing teachers than developing and recognising them.

Rather than being done with and for teachers, many hastily created measures are being done to them and without them, guaranteeing resistance and minimal compliance and making mutual understanding and collaboration almost impossible.

Where’s the evidence?

Compounding this issue is a growing chorus of ill-informed half-baked solutions to the “problem” of teacher quality, including sacking the “bottom” 5% of teachers, whoever they are, and somehow replacing them with better teachers; paying teachers by “results”, however these are determined and measured; punishing and rewarding schools on the basis of “performance”; giving principals more autonomy and power to hire and fire; bonus pay for the “top” teachers; raising entry standards for teacher candidates, and allowing non-teachers to become principals.

Nowhere in any of these solutions (“sticks”) do I see a way for teachers to develop and be rewarded for growth (“carrots”). What I do see is a blanket stigmatisation of teachers, principals, teacher educators and education system leaders.

All these “solutions” ignore the fact that Australia still performs well on international measures of student achievement such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Of course, we can’t rest on our laurels as there are signs of slippage and as the Gonski report into schools funding pointed out, the equity gap remains an issue.

We are, however, well ahead of the United States on PISA, to use one measure, yet we still look to the USA as a model to follow.

A fixation with Finland, Shanghai, South Korea and the like represents the worst form of cultural cringe. We need to recognise and build on the strengths we have rather than “cherry picking” what appear to be recipes for success from vastly different contexts.

In the 1990s, everybody was talking about emulating the educational and business practices of Japan due to the strength of its economy. Nobody talks about copying Japan now.

Equity and quality

We cannot ignore the effects on learning and development of socio-economic status, family background, geographic location and the resources available to schools. Despite their best efforts, every teacher is not going to be able to bring every student to an average or above average level of performance – a statistical and practical impossibility.

Life isn’t fair, but good teaching and good schools are the best means we have of overcoming disadvantage.

The Gonski report showed we have a highly inequitable and inefficient means of allocating funding to schools which has been cobbled together over time. We need a lean, powerful and efficient system. But instead of Usain Bolt, what we have is more like Frankenstein’s monster.

Changing this system would be hard at the best of times, but the lack of political will makes it very difficult indeed.

Whenever this debate surfaces, politicians fear alienating voters and quickly guarantee that whatever the plan, no school will be worse off. This almost guarantees nothing will change and that inequities will be perpetuated if not made worse.

Time for teachers to speak out

We are at a crucial point in our development as an educated nation and we need strong, informed bipartisan support rather than baseless politicking.

We need to be aware of decades of empirical work rather than dismissive. We need to stop looking for quick fix solutions which have been found wanting elsewhere.

Above all, as a nation we need to recognise education as our most important investment, and not a cost.

It is time for the profession as a whole to speak up and to question from a basis of evidence so called remedies to the perceived problems of teachers.