Why is there an attack on public education and its teachers?

In yesterday’s post I argued that we have hardly begun to provide high-quality education for every child, for to accomplish that we would need to focus on the child, not on the school, and by doing so we would eventually overturn the current paradigm of ‘the school’ that all of us know and went to. What Australians do instead, many of them, anyway, is complain that the school and teachers are not giving them what they want. One of our teacher-daughters had once to deal with an exasperated parent who couldn’t understand why his child was not at the top of the  class. ‘I pay a lot of money for him to be here, you know!’ The fault was that of the school and the teacher (yes, this was a private school).

The attitude is characteristic of our times, and has been picked up by governments, particularly the Commonwealth Government. Part of it has been caused by the drift of children into the private sector, which suggested that there was something wrong with public education, and with teachers, rather than the somewhat obvious fact that as the country grew rapidly wealthier school education was becoming, like health, a consumption item.

Professor Stephen Dinham, who gave the Phillip Hughes Oration in Canberra on Thursday night, pointed out that on average there has been one state or national inquiry into  teacher education every year for the past thirty years. Imagine if that had been the case for doctors, or lawyers! It suggests to the uninformed that something is seriously wrong with the whole system, and Dinham countered that perspective in one of the best speeches I have heard for a long time. I agreed with it, too, but it was packed with the right argument and evidence.

I thought Julia Gillard’s time as federal Education Minister was not a great success, because she assumed all too easily that there was a real problem that she could solve. And, like so many other ministers who have never faced a class, she fell for a simplistic ‘solution’ that someone said had worked somewhere else. Kevin Rudd, another person whose knowledge of schools is confined to the ones he went to as a child, thought that a computer in the hands of every child would be a great step forward. So it might be for some, but what is to happen when the computers need replacing?

Dinham sees danger that the push for ‘improving teacher quality’ is being hijacked, with absurdities like the Victorian government’s suggestion that the best thing to do would be to sack the bottom five per cent of teachers. (And replace them with whom?) Why not a system of well-funded professional development? What worries Professor Dinham, and me, is that our political leaders seem to be subject to panic attacks about schools and teachers, and respond with ‘simplistic, quick fix, populist solutions promulgated by economists, those from the business sector and educational advisers and politicians out of touch with teaching’.

Like politicians involved with research, about which I wrote the other day, they worry about Australia’s falling behind the rest of the world, and accept all too ready international comparisons without thinking hard about their context and what they mean. Dinham reminds us that we were once told to emulate Japan, because of the strength of the Japanese economy. We don’t talk about copying Japan today. Nor should we be interested in emulating Shanghai or Singapore, which are city-state environments with quite a different educational culture to our own, and one in which, on the evidence, many children are victims even when they are apparent successes. Yes, Finland is a model, but it is small, mono-cultural and wealthy. You have to recognise differences as well as opportunities.

In fact Australia does quite well in these comparisons. We are not at the very top, but we are in the top, along with Canada and New Zealand. ‘Should we be satisfied with this?’ asks Dinham. ‘No, but we shouldn’t “beat up on ourselves” either.’

Dinham calles teaching ‘the battered profession’. It daily receives ‘damning statements — denigration, verbal abuse, misinformed criticism — about the dire state of education’. In the US public opinion surveys show perennially that while there is a high level of concern about the quality of public education, there is also a high level of satisfaction and support for the respondent’s local school. As a ‘grandfriend’ who visits his grandchildren’s schools, I can say that I am deeply impressed with the quality of the teaching they receive (in our public schools), the ambience of the classroom, and the uniformly high rating they give their teachers. I see no sign of weakness or failure at all.

There are problems, and one of them is that we are currently producing more teachers at the primary level than there are places for in the schools, and there is no sign that any government is prepared to reduce class sizes so as to accommodate them. But we do have a good system, and it has helped to produce the Australia of today. We should be congratulating the public school system, and assisting it to do better with increased,  thoughtful, funding.

As a first step — no more reviews for five years!

(Those interested can download the Dinham oration here.)

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Didactic says:

    Your reference to ‘educational advisers and politicians out of touch with teaching’
    strikes a cord with me. The rhetoric of Julia Gillard and Christopher Pine on
    teacher quality sounds and probably is genuine, from their point of view.

    Many people who have not been class room teachers – particularly in suburban high
    schools around years 9 and 10 – commonly believe that if a teacher is a professional
    in their subject knowledge and gets on well with students, then that is sufficient. What is known but not always appreciated in terms of teaching implications, is that students at this stage of their lives may have little regard for learning and may be disruptive in class; they may be more preoccupied with peer group dynamics and friendship patterns than what is happening in class; and they may even experience enormous conflict in the school yard, coming or going to school on trains, in buses or walking home.

    The implications of this are that successful teachers need to establish a classroom
    atmosphere where different viewpoints can be heard and respected; an effective teacher needs to be able to project a communication presence that students know they have bumped into.

    Another point often underappreciated, particularly by politicians, is that teaching is
    not just a transmission model where the teacher talks or ‘lectures’ for most of
    the lesson; education is about promoting and engaging with students’ responses
    and developing perspectives and therefore interactive. In the past I have taken school groups to Parliament House and they have been appalled by what they saw.

    It is very difficult for universities to produce graduates with these qualities after
    four years. In my experience of teaching for 17 years in NSW high schools, well
    funded professional development and membership of professional associations
    were the best ongoing approaches to improving teacher quality.

    What constantly amazes me, though, is the incredibly high and unrealistic
    expectations many people have of teachers. At University, I recall a comment by
    a lecturer that if you taught one good lesson a week, your hand shouldn’t
    tremble when you collected your pay cheque. Low benchmark!?

    Quality is often a personal thing, and one point that even Christopher Pine and Julia
    Gillard as ex-lawyers might appreciate, is that in the ABC program ‘Silk’
    Martha Costello brings an extraordinary energy, passion, professional expertise
    and incredible ethical commitment to her clients, even the most under-privileged and marginalized. Successful teachers need to bring these same qualities to every class they teach but instead of dealing with one client they have 25 – 30 at least in each class and in comparison with lawyers they are paid very poorly indeed. As Martha often finds, there is not much left over at the end of the day for other relationships or outside interests and the bizarre cycle of expectations of many parents is that they want a Martha Costello teaching equivalent in each of their sons or daughters’
    classes, especially in private schools where the fees almost demand this.

  • Tony Shaddock says:

    Your reflection on Stephen Dinham’s excellent address picked up on several of his key points and I was pleased to see that you provided the link for the full paper. It is well worth reading – and rereading! In contrast to so much of the discussion about education, Dinham’s case was backed up by evidence. He referred to recent research about teacher and teaching quality, international comparisons of educational performance, and the basis for our governments’ responses, and he suggested sensible, evidence-based directions for the future.

    As I walked to the car park after the event I overheard a comment from another participant, something (very roughly) along the lines of “What he had to say was excellent but the message has to get out to the wider community. There were a lot of older, retired people in the audience.”

    Much of the coverage of Australian education in the popular media is simplistic and politicized. Even the language of ‘education reform’ assumes that things are bad and must be fixed. Stephen Dinham calls for educators to contribute to the debate and I believe we should. But asking most teachers after a day that doesn’t just start when they walk into the classroom, or end when the last school bus has gone, to then sit down to write letters to the editor, call talkback radio or email their local member is not a feasible solution. However, if they have the energy and time, I encourage them to do so.

    One of the most effective things classrooms teachers can do is to vigorously pursue the goals of Australian Schooling – day by day (Melbourne Declaration, 2008, http://www.curriculum.edu.au/verve/_resources/National_Declaration_on_the_Educational_Goals_for_Young_Australians.pdf) If Australian citizens become more “successful learners, confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens” they, as citizens, will gradually elevate the importance of education and demand more of their media and politicians.

    That said, I believe it is the duty of those of us who are not in the classroom every day, but who care about the quality of Australian education (in my case, particularly for my grand children), should influence the public debate in the ways we can be most effective. Well done Don and well done Stephen Dinham!

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