Friday, June 01, 2007

Education, the softest target of all

I was disheartened this week to find that Thought experiments and The Daily Duck had joined in the national sport of teacher-bashing while I was away. I imagine Bryan Appleyard was a student in the days when intellectual snobs identified themselves by bleating 'Those who can do, those who can't teach,' ignoring the fact that good teachers had made their Oxbridge dream a reality. I didn't know that teachers were held in the same contempt in America.

Everyone is an education expert. Almost everyone attended school, so they all know the score: teachers work short days, get long holidays and are all Lefties. Teachers are to blame when children misbehave or fail but are to claim no credit when their pupils do well - we all know that's only because the exams are easier.

Education is the favoured punchbag of politicians and the media. It suffers more interference, criticism and lack of support than any other area of public life, even the NHS. I am amazed that anyone ever wants to enter the teaching profession and am never surprised when people leave.

I've been engaged in education for most of my 61 years, as a pupil, student, teacher, parent, governor and adviser and I have seen fashions and trends come and go, not at the instigation of teachers but of politicians. The expertise and experience of teachers are ignored when policies are devised, the teachers just have to implement what the government decides is a possible vote-catcher.

A look at a few of the most recent government interventions illustrates what teachers have to face on a regular basis:
  • Private schools should lend teachers to comprehensives. (Private schools are able to select their pupils from families who can not only afford the fees but who, on the whole, recognise the value of education and support their children and the school. Class sizes are much smaller than in state schools. Private schools do not have to follow the National Curriculum or impose SATs on their pupils. I suspect that 99% of teachers in the private sector would not survive teaching a single lesson in an inner-city comprehensive school. The experiment would provide some entertainment for the state school staff, though.)*

  • Teachers should not ask children to put their hands up in class. (Teachers know how to suck eggs.)*

  • Teachers should frisk pupils for knives. (Teachers' lives have been ruined by false accusations of physical or sexual abuse of a pupil, this crazy idea would give malicious pupils even more power.)* *My comments

If politicians and the press would show a little respect for the teaching profession, and let teachers get on with teaching instead of testing, if they would support instead of undermining them, then most schools would sort themselves out. Teachers know that children have different needs and interests and different levels of support at home, if they didn't have unrealistic targets to meet, they would be free to help pupils fulfil their potential, whatever that might be.


  1. While I agree that certain politicians, especially those of a New Labour mindset, are incorrigible tinkerers and must drive teachers mad, you must admit that there has to be some method for assessing teachers.

    Of course, I had lots of fantastic teachers and am related to several.

    But I also had some stupid teachers, some incompetent teachers and at least three borderline-psychotic teachers who should never have been allowed near a class of children. Letting them 'get on and teach' was precisely the problem - I can only think they were tolerated because it was not a state school.

    I don't buy this 'teacher as put-upon martyr/selfless angel' stuff which is always propagated by the teacher's unions - which actually are so militantly red they make the miners look like retired majors.

  2. Every profession has its handful of militants and oddballs, but they are not typical of the profession as a whole. I didn't try to present teachers as selfless martyrs - just people trying to do a job, always under full public scrutiny.

    I don't think teachers are opposed to being appraised, so long as the system is fair. Current systems are a nonsense. Those bad teachers you mention would not survive in a state school. They might have done so twenty years ago when it was virtually impossible to get rid of them, but school governors have more power now.

    I haven't met a 'militant red' teacher for many years - where have you been hanging out?

    Not all teachers are brilliant, or even very good, lots are only 'good enough' but until the critics have spent a day, or, better still, a week in a school, I wish they would moderate their views.

  3. Education is very politicized here in the States, as it is there. Much of the anger is not at teachers per se but at the teachers unions and the politicians that get into office through their patronage.

  4. That sounds like a very different situation from here, Duck. The teachers' unions don't have a great deal of political influence - just a lot of hot air at annual conference, born of frustration. Our problem is that successive governments introduce new schemes without allowing any to run long enough to be effective and then blame teachers for not getting results.

  5. I'm with monix. Linking the power of teachers's unions with what goes on in the classroom has always struck me as a bit of a stretch, except for restricting extracurricular activities. Of course we should be able to get rid of bad teachers, but if the definition of a bad teacher is in the hands of a bad educational bureaucrat or whiny parents, you have a big problem.

    There is a kind of psychological alliance between the educational bureaucracy and too many modern parents. It is based on the theory that every child would excel (and have a ball doing so) if only exposed to the right combination of creative curricula and a teacher with unlimited patience and energy who knows how to draw out every child's inner brilliance and talent without discipline or rote learning of any kind. My wife's private school has no union or top-heavy bureaucracy, but every week there is some flurry of meetings with a parent who is upset because her (sorry, but it almost always is a her--the decline of the father's influence plays a role in all this, especially with kids over ten) little angel is bored/mistreated/underchallenged or "gifted" etc. They usually devolve into endless debates about the philosophy of the school, with the parent refusing to accept there is anything wrong with the kid's behaviour, effort or natural aptitude. Meanwhile, about every two years some absurd new incomprehensible or mind-bendingly boring curriculum designed by some faraway guru who never saw the inside of a classroom is foisted on the teachers, especially in math and social studies. As with the parents, the trick every good modern teacher must learn is to ignore it all while pretending not to, and that gets very disheartening after a while.

    I had a personal taste of this kind of nonsense this week. I coach my son's hockey team for 12-13 year olds. It is a recreational league, which means everybody plays equal time and there are no practices, but within those rules it is very competitve, as it should be and as the kids want it to be. I don't discipline for bad hockey play, but I do enforce no bad language and no trashing your teamates rules strictly.

    Anyway, inevitably there are grumblings from the weaker players that the stronger ones won't pass to them. It's a perennial problem born of a combination of new-found hormonal aggression and immature senses of sportsmanship that works itself out over the season with guidance and chiding and a lot of frowns. In our last game one frustrated mediocre player decided to scream "Pass the @#$%^ ball!" at his teammate right on the floor. I chewed him out royally and suggested he apologize, which he didn't.

    The next day I got a lengthy e-mail from his mother, who I had thought was rather solid, about how the real problems were the ball-hoggers and my coaching philosophy, which should be completely reversed even though we are in first place. Not a word about what her son did. I replied politely but pointedly, because I really didn't have time for such absurdities and because I didn't really care what she thought or would do about it. But if my livelihood depended on navigating this kind of crap every day, my booze bills would be much higher.

  6. If only everyone would refrain from being an expert until they have had such first-hand experience, Peter.

  7. Brit wrote: "While I agree that certain politicians, especially those of a New Labour mindset, are incorrigible tinkerers and must drive teachers mad"

    If it were only a little 'tinkering' there would be nothing to complain about. The problem is that whole systems, programmes, methods and strategies are introduced then dropped because they didn't work overnight miracles. Each new idea requires training of trainers who then run courses for teachers, schools have to be totally re-organised to the new system, new recording and reporting systems introduced and explained to parents - all of this in teachers' own time (did you know teachers can't be paid for extra time - it is known as 'professional time'). Then, after a couple of terms of getting to know how to use the scheme, the government says they want to try something new.

    Here's my Super Plan for education:

    1. Recognise that teachers want their pupils to learn and to be successful.
    2. Acknowledge that teachers are in the best position to monitor pupil progress. Drop national tests and give schools enough resources (mainly people) to deliver what is needed.
    3. Accept that children have different abilities, needs and interests and provide a range of educational establishments - one size does not fit all and the comprehensive system has not worked.
    4. Re-organise the school year to four or five terms. Reduce class sizes.
    5. Set realistic targets and leave teachers to plan their own method of achieving them - drop the National Curriculum.
    6. Use peer appraisal to monitor teacher effectiveness.

  8. In the States, education is largely controlled by local boards elected at (usually) the city or town level. The only people who really care about these elections are the teachers' unions, who can't quite elect members at will but who can almost always defeat members who displease them.

    Not a lot of hard bargaining goes on at contract time.

    The worst results of this are an inability of principals to hire, fire and discipline teachers, a meaningless credentialism that acts as a high barrier to entry (I know lots of talented people who would consider teaching for a year or two. I know no one who'd be willing to go back to school to get an education degree), and a huge expensive and entrenched bureaucracy in every local school system. We also spend a lot of money (nationally, an average of $10,000 per pupil per year) with not much to show for it.

    It must be said, however, that most people are satisfied with their kids' teachers and their local school. We are.

  9. On the whole Local Education Authorities, or Children's Services as they have recently become, do a pretty good job with the centrally-funded aspects of education. The frustration and resentment in our schools arise from government interference in what should be taught and how, as well as the constant testing of pupils.

    I'm glad to hear your parent-teacher relations are good. I would say that's the same here, except for the kind of individuals that Peter described; it's the constant jibes from the media that undermine teachers' morale.

  10. Isn't the real source of teacher dissatisfaction (and I'm sorry, but teachers do complain longer and louder about their jobs than anybody else) the fact that teaching is a vocation?

    Teachers tend to have a 'calling' and strong individual ideas about the best way to mould and nurture children. Therefore, the kind of individual assesment and direction that is perfectly routine in most industries is especially shocking and frustrating to them.

    If teachers want to know what performance-testing is really about, they should try working in sales for a bit.

  11. If I thought you were serious about comparing performance outcomes for sales and teaching, I'd feel I had wasted an awful lot of money on your education!

  12. Brit: My last comment was not meant as a value judgement between teaching and sales - just pointing out the impossibility of devising a comparable performance test. (Your ever-loving mother!)

  13. Teachers tend to have a 'calling' and strong individual ideas about the best way to mould and nurture children.

    Some do, but not necssarily the best of them, who rather have a keen practical sense of how children's minds and emotions work, or at least how their particular pupils' minds and emotions work. But today's teachers are expected to have such general ideas. In fact, I can't think of any other profession where having a philosophy is a job requirement.

    If I were I teacher and were asked what my educational philosophy was, I would simply say: "I believe in educating the whole child", and then sit back and bask in the oohs and aahs.

  14. monix, ...constant jibes from the media ...

    The notion that there would be even a single jibe on p. 18 under the truss ads, is an amusing concept. The teachers unions here are about the most sacred of media sacred cows, along with the trial lawyers associations and public sector unions.

    You're lucky that you have some right of center media where the truth might sneak in. On the national scene, we have the editorial page of the WSJ (and that might change soon as Murdoch is negotiating to buy it) and Brit Hume's hour on Fox News (and I've heard rumors that he's going to be eased out before the election campaign heats up).

    I understand why you and other good teachers object to what seems an over-emphasis on testing, but when we are currently entering the third generation of public schooling under the vise-like grip of leftwing propagandists whose goal isn't to send informed citizens out into the world, but to send out citizens who are illiterate, innumerate and who have a skewed understanding of the world, and who think feelings are not only equal to, but trump, facts, then testing must be at the top of the curriculum.

  15. What I meant was that teachers complain like hell about levels of performance assesment that are commonplace, and often much more draconian, in most lines of work.

    Few call centre employees claim to have a vocation for their work, however.

  16. I see what you're getting at, Brit, but you have missed my point. Let's take the example of the sales exec you mentioned earlier - I imagine his performance will be assessed on how many clients he secures in a given time, or how many orders he fill - he won't be judged on the performance of the goods he sold. The SATs tests, which allegedly assess teacher performance, actually test how much children have learned/remembered on said day/been able to write they do not assess how much effort the teacher put in.

  17. I've no idea if the SATs are any good or not, but there has to be some way of measuring teacher competence against a minimum expected standard, and you can only measure that by what the pupils have learnt, surely?

  18. No, you assess their planning, preparation and delivery of the goods - they are not responsible for the reception or use of them any more than the salesman is.

  19. It's simple enough!
    You said: If teachers want to know what performance-testing is really about, they should try working in sales for a bit

    1. I may be mistaken, but a sales exec's performance would surely be measured by the sales he makes, not by interviewing his clients to find how they are using the products he sold them.

    2.The SATs tests and school league tables, which people claim to be the measure of teacher performance, actually measure the use the pupils make of what the teacher has given them. The tests are national, so a poor teacher in a middle class school, with highly motivated pupils with lots of parental support, comes out as a much better 'performer' on these tests, than an inspiring and hard-working teacher in an inner-city school.

    3. A good appraisal system would show that the teacher who takes disaffected, unsupported kids and gets them interested in attending school, inspires them to learn basic literacy and numeracy and social skills, gives far greater 'value for money' than the other one who lets the children and parents do his work for him.

    Not only is the current system unjust to teachers, in schools where league tables are considered important, 'education' has been replaced by training for tests.

  20. Brit:

    I suggest that, before late high school, assessing teachers on the basis of the objective achievements of pupils (as defined and enforced by bureaucrats)would prove to be as productive, rational and successful as a typical Gosplan directive.

  21. But if you assess by pupils results you can just 'let teachers get on and teach' because outcomes are what count.

    Whereas if you assess by class plan and teaching style, you're demanding uniformity.

  22. Brit:
    Write out 50 times 'I must not be obtuse.'

  23. Brit, you might eventually persuade me that was the least disastrous in the higher grades, but it simply won't work in the lower. Take any twenty parents of nine year olds and ask them what "counts" in their child's education. The beer will be on me if more than two say "outcomes".

    You really don't know much about postmodern parenting, do you?


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