Teacher quality and the blame game

Andrew Viller
Chester Hill High

Teacher quality is a seemingly permanent feature in what passes for education reporting at the moment. Since the election of the Abbott Government, Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne has brandished the drastic need for “improved teacher quality” as a foil against calls for adequate needs-based funding. These calls reflect beliefs that have straddled both sides of politics for some time.

The latest initiative is compulsory literacy and numeracy testing (NAPLAN for all!). In NSW, the State Government has been pushing the same agenda framed by the Great Teaching, Inspired Learning (GTIL) document. Not without its merits, the GTIL document features some dramatic shifts to the nature of teaching practice, including profession-wide institute membership.

Divided we fall

It is worth mentioning that some of the “teacher improvement” strategies proffered by the political class and bureaucracy, when taken in isolation, appear on their face to be fairly reasonable or at the least difficult to mount a case against; there is, however, depth in this debate that is rarely examined.

To begin with, the whole framework of the mainstream debate must be discarded and the very notion of teacher performance challenged. It is a discourse that intentionally atomises and individualises teachers. This process of reconstituting the profession from a collective experience to an individualised one is the essence of the agenda.

Any teacher will know that teaching is nothing if not a social process.

From our first years as beginning teachers when we gain confidence, adopt strategies and develop collegial trust, teaching at its best is a collective profession. While a few standout performers have found ways to “go it alone” it is the shared wisdom of generations of teaching upon which the bulk of us have built our careers.

Furthermore, as teachers are widely aware, learning outcomes are rarely linked to individual teacher performance. The social process of education is not only located within schools, it occurs within families, homes and communities and is mediated by factors such as social class, ethnicity, gender and location.

We still have a system predicated upon the truth that where a student starts will dictate the probability of where the student will finish in the web of student measurements (from NAPLAN to HSC).

Far from indicating a crisis in teacher quality, low scores point to the fact that social disadvantage reigns supreme. The most reliable indicator of HSC performance remains parental income.

These factors are rarely part of public debate. It is imagined that teachers can, by some miracle, cure entrenched social disadvantage by teaching “better”. This is as absurd as trying to lower incidents of skin cancer by improving the quality of surgeons. Politicians show no desire to open a genuine debate about real cures to social disadvantage.

United we stand

There is no question that teachers can improve their practice — and they do: one need only look at the seismic transformation of the delivery of curriculum in the last decade. Public school teachers, however underpaid, under-resourced and over-worked, continue to innovate with bringing 21st century learning opportunities to students.

While external professional development has been accessed, without question the best professional development occurs in the classroom. This is reinforced through collegial and collective structures within schools.

The informal and very human practices that organically develop in schools challenge the systemic individualising of teachers. These processes are formalised by institutions such as Federation which aid in the collectivisation of the social process of education.

It is only from the collectivising of teachers in unions that counter-hegemonic tendencies can emerge, producing calls for fair funding; adequate resourcing of the disadvantaged and a more rounded and humane curriculum focused on community need rather than industrial profit.

This is the hard argument to make. Decades of teacher (and teacher-union) bashing in the mainstream press has put teacher unions on the back foot.

The false suggestion that we hide and protect “bad teachers” has forced union leaders to embrace the language of standards, professionalism and institute membership. Indeed, GTIL was supported with few criticisms.

Surely our central target remains the wage freeze. It’s audacious to call for a lift in teaching standards when we are unable to make a fair and just wage claim to the IRC.

It is also incumbent upon teachers to ensure that the terms of reference for the teacher quality debate are challenged. We must not pander to the corporate language of performance and standards but do what Federation has done best: uniting teachers, the hubs of community, and mobilising them in a fight against the social inequality that so many of us confront every day of our careers.

What better time to move this way than with the dramatic cuts to education, health and pensions? Uniting with the budding coalition found in large marches against Abbott’s Government we will be in the best company.