Teachers deserve better

This year New Zealand parents and the public at large have been witness to a number of unseemly events in education as teachers, the trusted educators of our children people who should be held in high esteem by society, have hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Broadly, the situation has arisen from two issues:

  • Teachers’ objection to national standards – a system designed to help parents understand their children’s educational progress, and which is official government policy (remember teachers are public servants).
  • Teachers demanding, and striking for, higher salaries that are completely disproportionate to other sectors, having regard also to their recent pay rises – especially in the wake of the GFC.

Of course, not all teachers are implicated, but this is the danger with a highly unionised profession – the few acting on behalf of the many spread the opprobrium around.

Here are some examples of how this is playing out in the media:

  • A Dominion Post editorial slammed teachers with the headline ‘Get back to work greedy teachers’.
  • Blogger Whaleoil was leaked documents which show that the national standards boycott campaign is paid for by the principals’ associations – which are ultimately funded by the government and the taxpayer.
  • The Dominion Post reports a group of insurgent principals contrived to “quietly take over” a school trustees association representing 90% of school boards in a bid to silence parents who support measuring their children’s performance through national standards.
  • A principal compared the Minister of Education to Hitler.

Unfortunately, this has all reflected very badly on teachers.

Meanwhile, two interesting international reports have been published. Both show that teacher effectiveness is far more important than class size (another major teacher union issue here).

In a media release announcing the launch of the Grattan Institute’s Investing in Our Teachers, Investing in Our Economy, the author Dr Ben Jensen said:

Measures to improve teacher effectiveness will deliver better value for our children’s learning outcomes, improve Australia’s economic productivity and be a better use of public funds than reducing class sizes.

Improving teacher effectiveness benefits our children. Young people who stay in school longer can expect to earn an additional 8-10% per year for each additional year of education they undertake. A 10% improvement in teacher effectiveness would improve student performance and productivity, increasing Australia’s GDP by $90 billion by 2050.  

Another report by British think tank Reform echoes the need to focus on teacher performance:

The new Government wants to improve the quality of teaching. In July 2010, the Education Secretary Michael Gove told the Education Select Committee: “The single most important thing in education is improving the quality of the educational experience for each child by investing in higher-quality teaching … There is simply no way of generating educational improvement more effectively than by having the best qualified, most highly motivated and most talented teachers in the classroom. Everything should be driven by that.”

This is absolutely the right focus.  Academic research suggests that the difference in a pupil’s achievement between a high-performing teacher and a low-performing one could be more than three GCSE grades. The Coalition is right to move on from the debate about class size, which has a much smaller impact on pupils’ achievement than teacher quality.

As reported by the NZPA, class size was one of the ‘pivotal demands’ that the PPTA have held strikes over, yet both these studies indicate that teacher quality is far more important.

However, in New Zealand we don’t even measure teacher quality in any serious way – and quality teachers aren’t rewarded properly.

The answer is improved pay arrangements for teachers so as to reward performance.

Coincidentally, my attention was recently drawn to a post on Red Alert some time ago by MP Kelvin Davis titled Performance Pay for Teachers. He writes:

Roger Kerr made the comment, “How hard can it be? Surely schools aren’t that complex?”

I’m interested in the performance pay model Roger has in mind.

Well, it’s very straightforward – see this article of mine titled Teachers Should Be Rewarded for Performance that appeared in the Otago Daily Times. Essentially I argue that performance should be evaluated not by simplistic metrics (like test results) but by the kind of evaluation processes used in most other walks of life, especially other professions.

Teaching is an honourable calling. Unfortunately unions, and rogue individuals and groups, are besmirching the profession in New Zealand. They would do better to be more reasonable with their salary demands, accept national standards as official government policy (while continuing to debate their application), and open their minds to being paid according to their performance – like almost all other professions. It is in their interests. 

Let’s hope New Zealand policy makers take note of some of the recommendations in these two useful reports.

The full Grattan Institute report is here

The full Reform report is here

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