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To fix education, send good teachers to bad schools

Transparent accountability, merit-based pay and concentrating on the worst schools is a start, writes education consultant and former teacher and principal David Edmunds.

Mark Latham, in a summary of the education section of his excellent Quarterly Essay (published by Crikey on Monday), reckons Australian public school education is not good enough. But he fails to describe the role the state might take to fix it.

He points out educational outcomes are overwhelmingly related to family expectations, a point made by Barry Jones in his book Sleepers Awake a couple of generations ago. Unfortunately, we ignored Jones’ book, and a conservative agenda that prescribed choice as the route to educational performance has dominated — and has comprehensively failed. Under this policy, federal money for school education has been targeted precisely where it can be guaranteed to do the least good. Latham as opposition leader tried to make this point, but with extraordinary help from the conservative media the message was swamped under the slogan of “the politics of envy”. Unfortunately, this is still the policy of the federal coalition.

Incrementally, federal Labor has defined a route that is likely to result in improved school results, particularly for our lower-performing students where the problem is most acute. Transparent accountability through the My School website is the first element. While opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne has described the incorporation of financial data in this site as “the politics of envy”, this time it seems that the slogan did not work.

Secondly, there is enormous potential in the national curriculum. This follows from the very successful introduction of a national vocational training system, started by the Bob Hawke government and continued under the Paul Keating and John Howard governments. The economies of scale offered by the national curriculum could lead to teacher certification to teach particular elements of the curriculum, online delivery and online assessment.  There are precedents for this in IT training systems.

And thirdly, there is Gonski.  For the first time, schools will be funded according to need, and this will allow the most important change of all: the allocation of our best teachers to the schools that most need them. This is a point I made in the comments section of Crikey in response to an article by Dean Ashenden. We cannot address educational shortcomings unless our best-paid teachers are doing the most difficult work and are awarded accordingly. Ashenden is pessimistic about the Gonski reforms, and in the short run he is probably correct. But the current situation is so clearly dysfunctional and will become electorally poisonous as people realise the consequences of not acting. In the medium term, something like Gonski will happen.

Currently, there is almost a complete lack of accountability of anyone in our public school systems from the director-generals downwards. Almost all positions are tenured, and those that are not might as well be. Teachers are not rewarded according to the quality of their work, but for survival. In an ideal system all promotion positions from senior teacher to director-general would be based on a contract, with performance evaluated at the end of the contract. The performance data that makes this possible is increasingly available, and there is a strong argument for increasing the scope of the My School project to enhance this potential. Ideally the system should allow mediocre performers to filter out of the system, and competent people to rise.

What we lack in this country more than anything else in schools is genuine leadership.”

Our objective should be to place our best teachers in our most difficult jobs and reward them accordingly, the reverse is the case now. Under a high-functioning system, principals would receive funding commensurate with the difficulty of the job they face and would be able to recruit and pay teachers accordingly. For example, a school in an outer-suburban area with a particular issue with numeracy could recruit an expert in this area and perhaps pay as much or more than the current principal’s salary for this person. There is an analogy here with hospitals. The administrator does not expect his salary will necessarily exceed that of all doctors who work there.

Our best teachers are contemptuous of authority and administration, willful but focused, loose cannons and proud of that, charismatic and they change lives. Good principals get out of their way and pick up the pieces in their wake. Mediocre principals object to the flouting of their authority and drive them out of their schools. Needless to say, education departments are much happier with the actions of their mediocre principals. Were these senior administrators genuinely accountable, such teachers would be valued.

In order for our education systems to work we need to create an Australia-wide market for teachers. This would entail an extension of the recently introduced teacher registration systems to include for all interested teachers a form of validated online CV. Teachers should then have the ability to publish this registration page as far and wide as they choose. Principals would be able to advertise jobs through this system and indicate the salary they are prepared to pay and the skills they require.

Clearly such a system has huge implications for the education unions. They would have to morph from a 19th-century cloth-cap industrial model to an industrial consultancy capable of advising members on career pathways and available salary packages. This will not be easy, but every other professional union in the country seems to manage it, and does better for their members than the Australian Education Union.

Even assuming we can raise the standard of Australian education to be among the best in the world, it is highly unlikely that level of performance would justify the salary premium over the rest of the world that Australians expect. We need to add to our schools a culture of innovation that will transform the rate of wealth creation in this country. This is possible, and it does not even have to be expensive.

What we lack in this country more than anything else in schools is genuine leadership.

10
  • 1
    Posted Friday, 15 March 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    There are many flaws in this argument. For a start, the national vocational education and training system is deeply flawed and any educationalist should be ashamed to describe it as ’ very successful’.

  • 2
    prembrowne
    Posted Friday, 15 March 2013 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    What would you categorise as the ‘most difficult’ jobs? How would you define the ‘best’ teachers? Where would it leave the students who attend schools where the ‘least good’ teachers teach? Wouldn’t we end up shuffling teachers around to plug holes, or to make space for ‘better’ teachers? How do we attract these better teachers to the profession in the first place - simply by offering them more money to work in a horrible school? To me the whole concept of performance pay for teachers seems fraught with disaster. While I agree with some of your ideas David, it seems a classic case of ‘easier said than done’.

  • 3
    Matt Steadman
    Posted Friday, 15 March 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the general thrust of your article (ie the headline and its supporting points), but you seriously lost me at “Our best teachers are contemptuous of authority and administration, willful but focused, loose cannons and proud of that”. Life is more nuanced than an episode of House; there are countless different personalities that can be an effective teacher.

    So how would you assess teacher performance, or the difficulty of their specific role against others?

  • 4
    Damien
    Posted Friday, 15 March 2013 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    All this flexibility - I can’t believe we’re supposed to make larger class sizes so we can pay teachers more. Here’s a niggardly problem, school rooms are not designed for larger groups. They have capacities of about the usual class sizes (24-30). Perhaps we should build bigger rooms! BER on roids! If we’re to have larger class sizes, how large? Maybe 50 Year 1 kids in a class. Try providing some word attack skills for the kid down the back who is struggling to read among that group. Perhaps 45 in a Year 8 Maths class (Dad, why are there letters next to the numbers?) Nonsense.

    Maybe teachers are just ordinary folk who want to do their jobs diligently and go home to get on with their own lives. Maybe they’re not quivering, untapped wells of innovation, excellence and energy just waiting for the right touch to go off like so many educational hand grenades.

  • 5
    Ailsa Purdon
    Posted Friday, 15 March 2013 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    An Australia wide market for teachers - does the market work in rural, regional and remote locations where many of the most difficult educational contexts operate. Thing is teachers like doctors, dentists and others don’t seem to want to live and bring up their children there.

  • 6
    norm cook
    Posted Saturday, 16 March 2013 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    Our best teachers are contemptuous of authority and administration, willful but focused, loose cannons and proud of that, charismatic and they change lives. Good principals get out of their way and pick up the pieces in their wake.”

    What a piece of claptrap. Who is this guy?

    Having educated 2 boys through 15 years of the state and private systems in Queensland - here are a few facts.

    Some state schools are well organized with highly motivated staff and true vocational dedication to their jobs. These are the outstanding minority.

    Most private schools have the trappings of luxury facilities and well motivated teachers who put in much extra time on sport and other activities outside the classroom. Private schools generally are much more disciplined and get better results from brighter students sent there by better heeled parents who in the end pay the piper and call the tune.

    Both systems are subject to the broader problems afflicting our society…the destruction of stable families in lower socio-economic classes mainly due to absent fathers and promiscuous lifestyles as well as moronic voyeuristic popular culture characterized by tats and studs, binge drinking and boganization of the aspirational working family.

    None of this hides the fact that great results can be obtained in a tin shed with a chalkboard by a well trained teacher and motivated student.

    The key is teacher training, and the elevation of the profession to similar status as medicine, law, engineering etc. Now for the simple solutions:

    Drop the fetish over class sizes. Increase class sizes and clean out the illiterate and poorly motivated teachers with limited sense of vocation. A 10% reduction in numbers would allow a 10% immediate pay increase for the 90% left. That should get the protectionist teachers unions attention. Make it clear that State School teachers are answerable for their performsnce to their employer - the State and the parents.

    Put extra money into teacher training and education, and less on trappings such as kids laptops and air conditioning. A primary kid does not need a personal laptop.

    Reduce the entry salaries for the brand new graduates and increase the margins for skill and experience and further training so that the higher trained and experienced earn comparable salaries to other professionals of similar service. Measure performance by the overall historical improvement of schools as well as against objective standards such as external public examination of students.

    Reorganize the school year. Severely limit homework and return the school year to 43 weeks. Drop ‘pupil free days’ and have teachers train in the 9 weeks of holidays - 5 weeks longer than the rest of the workforce. Some schools run a 38 week year, reducing class time by up to 5 weeks over previous generations.

    Clearly homework (cookie cutter projects and assignments) are used as a substitute for more class time and student development of basic skills and understanding.

    Finally get teachers out of denim shorts and sandals into office standard dress, so that the kids see that their teachers take their workplace as seriously as their parents and other ‘professionals’ do.

  • 7
    Scott Buckby
    Posted Saturday, 16 March 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Its a nonsense to suggest that you can filter out ‘bad’ teachers. Issues of motivation and support exit in just about all schools.

    But remember, teachers are us. So for every less than average teacher encouraged to move on, there’s a 50% chance they’re replaced by another dud. Its probability people!

  • 8
    David Hardie
    Posted Saturday, 16 March 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    I love the headline.
    But it goes downhill from there.
    You cant say that there is ’ enormous potential in the national curriculum’. Good teaching will persists in the context of bad curriculum. Bad teaching will not be fixed by good curriculum.
    You almost assume that teachers do not move states as it is. Like the rest of the western world, teacher recruitment is carried out online and effectively is Australia wide. Why do we need to create an Australia wide market for teachers? It exists already. The problems that exist are more to do with geography and wont be fixed by a ‘validated online C.V.’.

  • 9
    Andybob
    Posted Sunday, 17 March 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    You have to rotate good teachers through bad schools. There is such an entrenched culture of failure that people become demoralised quickly unless they are very very strong minded.

  • 10
    Posted Monday, 18 March 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Interesting proposals, norm cook. How would you reorganise the school year? Would you change the school day?

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