xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Education reform or teacher bashing?

Friday, 15 March 2013

Education reform or teacher bashing?

The federal government has made education one of its priorities. Quite commendable.

It has already poured millions of dollars into its Building the Education Revolution (BER) which has resulted in the construction of modern and fully equipped classrooms, school halls and multi purpose rooms right across Australia.

The BER scheme has been constantly belittled by the federal opposition and in sections of the media as a “fiasco”. That is totally incorrect. In fact it is a blatant lie. BER was a resounding success that produced smiling faces on children, teachers, principals and parents. It was problably the greatest amount of money ever poured into primary education in the history of Australia. History shows that secondary education invariably receives more funding than primary.

In Western Australia, the Primary Principals Association conducted a survey to ascertain how principals felt about BER. Only 5 principals out of over 700 reported that they did not get exactly what they wanted out of BER. Hardly a fiasco! More like a resounding success, but you won't read about it in the newspapers.

Now, the Gonski Report will ultimately ensure that massive funding is provided to cater for children with special needs and also to improve education standards generally, by providing teachers and school principals with additional resources such as teaching specialists, school psychologists, social workers and associated teaching aids. Providing, of course, that the states will agree with the federal government in achieving Gonski's aims.

Yes, for education in Australia the prospects look bright. However, there does seem to be a general undertone in all of this focus on education which suggests two things:-
*Our teachers are not really up to scratch.
*Our student teachers are not really up to scratch.

No evidence has been given to support these two assertions. It sounds a bit like teacher bashing to me. Subtle, but still putting down teachers by suggesting that if they worked harder and became more highly qualified then Australia would be sitting on top of the education rankings.

Prime Minister Gillard's has stated that her aim is for Australia to be ranked in the top five nations in the world. A noble ambition. Presumably, the PM is referring to rankings according to the PISA results, which seem to have become, like the NAPLAN tests, some universal benchmark for educational excellence.

PISA is the Programme for International Student Assessment which was instituted by the OECD to randomly assess 15 year olds in maths, language and science.(To find out what I think about “The Misleading Power of PISA” read my blog of September 6, last year).

The top five countries in the PISA rankings are Finland and four Asian countries. All of these countries have homogeneous populations. Unlike Australia, they are not faced with learning problems associated with an indigenous population or a multi cultural society in which, for many, English is a second language.

So, does this mean that our Australian teachers are below standard? Hardly.

Despite the problems inherent with indigenous and non English speaking ethnic groups, Australia is ranked in the top ten countries in the world, according to PISA.

We are invariably ranked above The United Kingdom and The United States, two countries with whom we are often compared and encouraged to copy. Whatever for? In the main, our teachers are doing a great job with limited resources and increasing pressures in an already crowded curriculum.

The main bugbear for principals and good teachers has always been that there are few a “slackers” in teaching who get away with the bare minimum, always know their rights, are staunch union members and contribute little to the corporate life of the school. They drive principals and good teachers to distraction.

Once, at a district professional development meeting, I was sitting at a table with another principal and six local teachers. My principal colleague and I spent some time talking about how we valued good teachers but had little in the way of rewards that we could offer them.. We could not offer more pay, we could offer longer holidays, we could not offer more DOTT time, we could not offer smaller classes.

At length I said, “Just how could we make your job better for you?”

A young lady sitting directly opposite, looked me straight in the eye and said, “You could get rid of the slackers.” Fortunately, she was not from my school, where all of the teachers were effective professionals.

Get rid of the slackers! Easier said than done.

The Union tends to support even the worst “slackers” and the Education Department often finds it easier to move principals than non performing teachers. However, there are now well established processes in place to deal with poorly performing teachers and hopefully the union will also recognise the need to maintain high professional standards.

In the meantime, we should not be downgrading our teaching profession by saying our teachers need to be more qualified and that our student teachers are coming from the bottom of the intellectual barrel. Any teacher will tell you that if you constantly criticise a child for being inadequate their work will tend to fall away. You cannot blame teachers, therefore, for losing their appetite for the job if all they ever hear is, "You must work harder. You must do better."

We should be applauding our under resourced, hard working teachers for the great work that they are doing. In many respects they are like soldiers placed in the front line without adequate weapons and with limited supplies of ammunition, who are then criticised by the generals for not winning the battle.

Similarly, many politicians and other commentators are commenting about the low academic achievement levels of our trainee teachers.They often refer to the low Year 12 pass mark that some students teachers have in comparison for the pass mark required for doctors, engineers and lawyers.

Firstly, the pass mark is not low. Most trainee teachers have adequate to very good pass marks. Graduate Diploma students, of course, have already completed a university degree before entering their education studies. And not all student teachers pass the course. Several of them fail or have their courses terminated because they are not performing satisfactorily. We should not focus on who goes into the education course but on the quality of those who come out and how well prepared they are for their teaching role.

I recall in the mid to late 1950s that there was a serious shortage of teachers in Western Australia. The”baby boomers” were flooding into our schools. The minimum requirement for teachers college entry was four Leaving Certificate subjects, including English. In order to meet the desperate need for more teachers, the department established a six week course during January and early February for people who did not have a Leaving Certificate. Anyone who passed this “pressure cooker” course, as it was called, was deemed to be eligible for entry to teachers college.This scheme ran for three years. Some people failed the course, but those who made it went on to have very successful careers in education as principals, superintendents and university lecturers.

When I was nearing the end of the first year of my two year teachers college course, I was very gratified to hear the college principal, attempting to calm some worried second years, just a month or two from taking their own classes. He told them that “a teachers college is place where you keep together young people who are interested in teaching until they are old enough to legally take charge of their own classes and then they can learn how to be teachers.”

He was right. It takes about three years after teachers college before the young graduate has mastered the survival skills and the teaching skills necessary to become an effective and efficient classroom teacher. This is now well recognised by the system and all graduates are now given, or should be given, special professional development and mentoring by experienced teachers in their first years of teaching.

From 2003 until 2014 I worked in a mentoring role with education students aiming for a teaching qualification. In that time I mentored about 300 education students in their final year of study. Of those final year students, I can recall only one who was totally unsuited for the job and he was eventually terminated by the university well before the end of his final teaching practice.

Out of the remaining final year students, there have been about 15 to 20 who failed to pass or who failed to complete their course because they knew they were failing. That's about 6%. Of course there were many many more students who dropped out or were failed before they reached the end of their course. The last figures I saw, in about 2012, suggested that about one third of enrolled education students do not graduate.

Some people say it is too easy to get into teaching. Maybe so, but it is definitely not too easy to graduate as a teacher. It requires a great deal of intellectual and physical effort as well as a very strong commitment to teaching. The most common remark made to me by student teachers after a few days in the classroom on their teaching practice is, “I just didn't realise how hard it would be” or “I just did not realise how much time I needed to spend on planning my lessons.”

I can relate to these comments. After graduating from Graylands Teachers College in 1958 I had to do my National Service before taking on my teaching duties at Bunbury Central School. I served in the 3rd Field Regiment of the Australian Artillery and when I finished my army training I was as fit as I ever had been in my life. I was discharged on a Friday, arrived in Bunbury on the Monday afternoon and started teaching the 54 children in Year Four on the Tuesday morning. On the Thursday I was awakened from my slumbers at 6-30pm by Mrs Flanigan, my landlady, who wanted to know if I would be joining her other boarders for dinner in the dining room. I had come home from school at 4-00pm that afternoon and just crashed onto my bed. Exhausted. I had been teaching for three days!

I have been very impressed by the those student teachers who have completed their teaching courses successfully over the past ten years. I am very impressed with their enthusiasm, their commitment and their ability to perform their teaching role. Some of them have been absolutely outstanding.

So I do not believe our teachers are deficient and I do not believe our trainee teachers are coming from the bottom of the barrel. Can we do better? Of course we can. But we should be supportive of our teachers and not belittle them or knock them down.

I heard last week of a scheme to test our student teachers in literacy and numeracy before they can graduate.

Great idea. But hardly new. I entered Graylands Teachers College in the mid 1950s. On the very first day I was given an IQ test, a literacy test and a numeracy test. Any students who failed the literacy or mathematics tests had to attend remedial classes until they were considered proficient and capable of teaching in these two vital areas.

Fortunately, I had no trouble with maths and literacy. However, I failed Music. I had to attend remedial music classes throughout my first year because in those days you could not graduate unless you were proficient in literacy, mathematics and music. I doubt many of today's graduates would pass a 1957 teachers college music test, but they do not have to. Now we have music specialists in our schools.The sad unintended outcome of Music Specialists is that now we have almost no singing in our classrooms. The only singing comes from the music room. Rather sad really. I believe all primary children should start off each day with a song. It may even have a positive impact on the rising tide of anti social behaviour in many schools.

In all other respects I think we should thank our hardworking teachers for the great work that they are doing.

I also think we should encourage our best and brightest into the teaching profession. We should recognize and applaud the great effort that they put in to successfully graduating from what is a very onerous, nerve wracking and energy sapping course of study.

Don't believe everything you read in the papers. Don't believe everything said by some politicians with little real knowledge or experience of what actually happens in schools.

Of course teachers and principals need to continually update their knowledge and skills. But that doesn't mean that they are not working hard and doing a good job Our schools are in good shape and our Australian children are receiving world class education from generally first class teachers and principals. They do not need to be told they must work harder or that their efforts are not good enough.Good educators always self reflect and seek ways to improve. What our teachers really need is recognition, appreciation and adequate resources for the tasks they are asked to perform.

Let us hope that federal and state governments will cease their political point scoring and, in the interests of Australian children, help teachers and school administrators do their jobs effectively by giving real financial muscle to the Gonski proposals.We need education reform, not teacher bashing.

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