Reclaiming Teacher Quality

Jane Caro is a bit of a hero in the public school system: one of the few in the commentariat who have shown genuine understanding of why public schools need more appropriate funding levels, and who has long been an advocate for the hard work of teachers. I like to think of myself as being on the same side as Jane Caro, and feel like I understand relatively well why she says the things she does. You can catch the video here.

Recently, Jane gave a pretty impressive diatribe on the ways teachers have had their reputations and the reputation of the profession denigrated over time. It made some magnificent points, but there was a key moment when I just lost all ability to concentrate.

“I don’t think we have a quality problem”

We absolutely have a quality problem. Certainly not primarily a problem with the quality of the people in the system: Caro’s points hold up 100%. But we do have a quality problem, because teachers are simply not able to prepare lessons, mark work, meet (ever increasing) compliance requirements, differentiate for varied abilities and interests (and on and on it goes), in the allocated time. Teachers are left with two options: work like a crazy person and likely burn out, or compromise on quality. In their first couple of years, they usually have to do both.

And there’s nothing more demoralising than not being able to do the job you’re so passionate about to the standard you’d like. To take the quality of teaching out of the equation is to say that our lessons shouldn’t improve. No teacher believes that, or if they do it’s been beaten into them because they don’t see another options.

Our union – the AEU – has provided the easiest solution they can find: class sizes. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong horse to back. There’s no evidence that when class sizes drop (below reasonable levels), learning outcomes improve at all. But so much funding gets spent on keeping class sizes below arbitrary levels. It comes from a place of wanting to protect teachers , but it’s misguided at best. And while ridiculous class sizes have a serious impact on teacher morale, the difference between a class of 25 and a class of 28 is negligible at best.

But providing more time for teachers to prepare, cutting the relevant teaching allotments is a much clearer way to build morale, and massively improve “teacher quality”. Amazingly, it seems that the Grand Poobah of education research Monsieur Hattie hasn’t done the legwork on the effect size of increasing teacher prep time, but it’s certainly vastly different in those systems doing better in the PISA arms race.

Will it happen? It’s a tougher sell to parents, that’s for sure. But at very least, there’s no way that teachers should be ignoring “teacher quality” as just something being imposed from outside – it’s what we do.