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.

Why I Wouldn’t Have Boycotted NAPLAN

Well, after 6 months or so of blogging here it’s about time I did something a little controversial. So, keeping in mind that these views are not the views of anyone other than yours truly (not Teach for Australia, not my school, not the education dept, etc) – here’s my thoughts on the NAPLAN saga.

Background (from the media)

Australian teachers, through the education unions, were threatening to boycott supervision of the National  literacy and numeracy test which for acronymical details that elude me is called the NAPLAN test. The data from this test have been the backbone of the controversial MySchool website.

Background (from my end)

We (as staff members) have received trickles of information about how the AEU (Australian Education Union) was not going to have their members supervise the test. I’m not currently an AEU member, though I’m not yet certain that I won’t be in the not-too-distant future, and as such I am at liberty to choose whether I would support the AEU ban. All our staff members got an email today saying that a list would be at the office, where we could sign to indicate whether we would be supporting the ban or not. Then late today we received official word that the AEU had been satisfied in negotiations with the government and the ban would no longer go ahead. If you need any more background – this gives you an idea.

Why I Wouldn’t Have Boycotted

On receiving the email requiring to state a position quite publicly, I was forced to think about which way I’d go. So why not boycott?

  1. I think that the NAPLAN results are a valuable tool for teachers in understanding their students a little better. This in itself is a slightly controversial opinion, but I’m in favour of teaching staff having the option of knowing as much about where their students are “at” with issues of literacy and numeracy as possible.
  2. I agree with the MySchool website in principle. There, I said it. I actually do believe that schools should be accountable and (to a degree) transparent. My issue with the site is actually that the data is currently poor. Very poor. The site lists NAPLAN data for year 7 students who have barely been at the school for a term. It’s not measuring improvement of students during their time at the school – it’s just listing where an individual cohort is at. And I actually believe (perhaps naively) that the government is interested in improving the data, with things like their (relatively) recently announced national student number. Once you can start tracking improvement at schools, rather than just some arbitrary measure of exactly where students are at a certain point in time – you end up with something different.

For their part – I’m actually quite impressed with what the AEU has managed to negotiate for: a working party to evaluate the best way to be using student performance data with AEU members on the working party. And I do think that as it stands MySchool is a damaging attempt at bringing competition policy into the education sector. But all the same, that’s my position. And now I don’t have to worry about it after all.