I spend a lot of time speaking to teacher groups, principal groups and others with an interest in the education of our young people in early childhood centres, schools and tertiary institutions. The topics I am asked to speak on include things such as “Educating for the 21st Century”, “Visioning the future of Education” and other such grandiose titles. The common themes involve change, educational reform, pedagogical shifts etc., and generally focus on the impact of technology, societal changes, vocational changes and so on.
I’ve only occasionally been confronted by someone in the educational system who doesn’t accept that we need to change what we’re doing in our schools and how we’re doing it. Generally, there is a high level of acceptance that the world is changing, and that our students need to be prepared for it in ways that are different to the traditional ways we’ve done things in our educational institutions.
The problem occurs, of course, in shifting these ideas from our head (our understanding of the situation) to our hands (actually doing something about it.) Some would argue that there is a third dimension that is often missed out – the heart, from which flows our sense of passion, driven by belief and a sense of vision. In visiting a large number of schools now around NZ (and overseas), plus the experience of my own five children as students at school and university, I can only say that there is a huge degree of variability in terms of how successful we (as a profession) are in realising and responding to change.
Thus it was with interest that I read this morning of a report just released by Education Sector, a national independent nonpartisan education think tank, titled Waiting To Be Won Over: Teachers Speak on the Profession, Unions and Reform. The report contains the findings of a survey of over 1000 teachers in the USA about their views on the teaching profession, teachers unions, and a host of reforms aimed at improving teacher quality. It examine teachers’ opinions and attitudes toward teacher unions, teacher unionism, and a range of current district reforms, including those aimed specifically at improving teacher quality.
The survey itself asked specific questions about the work teachers do and about reform proposals that are currently being debated in the US. It also examines the views of new teachers and those who have been in the system for some time. And, when possible, the survey discerns trends by asking some identical questions from a 2003 national survey of K-12 public school teachers and comparing the responses.
While the context is the USA, the findings ring true for us in New Zealand as well – and are worth considering, particularly for those of us who are working in the area of challenging the existing paradigm and seeking to bring about changes at all levels from policy to practice. Some of the trends and findings that stood out for me…
- Concerns from teachers who feel ‘locked in’ to teaching, with no real options for doing something else if they feel they’re past their prime. “Too many veteran teachers who are burned out stay because they do not want to walk away from the benefits and service time they have accrued.”
- Well over half of the teachers surveyed (55 percent) say that in their district it is very difficult and time-consuming to remove clearly ineffective teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom
- A strong feeling that their experience of appraisal (teacher evaluation) was ineffective, not providing any worthwhile sort of feedback for growth or recognition of work well done, or in identifying and dealing with poor performance. Most saw this as just a formality.
- When responding to a question about what sort of school is best for students teachers were unanimous in talking about providing flexibility and dispensing with unnecessary rules and restrictions.
When asked to identify the things that would contribute significantly to change in schools, teachers responded with…
- making appraisals and teacher evaluations more rigorous and meaningful
- Providing financial incentives, including for teachers who work in ‘tough’ areas or poor performing schools
- De-emphasising the use of student test scores as a key measure of teacher performance and basis for financial rewards.
- Providing more time in the school day for teachers to carry out planning and preparation work as a way of attracting high quality people into the profession.
No big surprises for me here – but the detail of the report reveals some interesting perspectives that were shared, and to be honest, disappointed me from the perspective that, frankly, I can hear these same perspectives echoing in my mind from numerous meetings and staffroom conversations I’ve been involved in over my 30 years of teaching.
Yes – this report is useful as a benchmark or ‘state of the play’ – but for goodness sake, where is the innovative, “outside the box” thinking that will truly energise and refresh our whole approach to education – that will ensure we are educating students for their future – not our past??