Blaming teachers

classroomClassroom teachers appear to come under fire for all sorts of things. At the recent Education Leaders Forum in Rotorua we heard from educators across the broad spectrum of education, from ECE and schools to tertiary and industry training. All had their views about what is happening in our sector and how it needs to be improved. We heard a stunning presentation from Prof. Paul Callaghan – Founding Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, who provided a very big picture about what is important for education and how we need to be thinking about NZ’s future prosperity. We also heard from Prof. Russell Bishop – Foundation Professor of Maori Education, University of Waikato and Prof. John Hattie – Professor of Education, The University of Auckland and Director of the Visible Learning Labs – each of whom shared perspectives on areas of weakness in our current school system and providing strategies for addressing these.

Not surprisingly, there was a great deal of emphasis placed on improving teacher capability as well as system level changes suggested. However you look at it, there is a conundrum here – teachers are both a part of the problem and the solution! Larry Cuban focuses on this issue in his latest blog post, saying:

Has anyone noticed that much of the blame showered on teachers and unions for blocking school reform by business-admiring pundits and policymakers is usually followed by perky pay-for-performance plans and other solutions wholly dependent upon teachers embracing the changes?

The post is well worth a read, as Cuban explores a range of issues related to the paradox of teachers being blamed for a problem and then expected to turn around and solve the very same problem. His reference to pay-for-performance plans struck a chord with me as I have heard this idea surfacing from time to time in our current political climate, and was reminded of the complexity of considering such an idea in regards to schools and teachers when I read an article today in the Teachers College Record titled What Will Keep Today’s Teachers Teaching? Looking for a Hook as a New Career Cycle Emerges by Jason Margolis. In this article Margolis explores ways that universities and schools can better partner to increase teacher job satisfaction – one of which is to consider the notion of merit pay. Margolis comments:

It is important to note, however, that merit pay is a complex topic, and has multiple manifestations in policy and practice. Many teacher unions are still opposed to this reform. However, others are seizing the issue of merit pay as a way to shift the debate from political-policy questions like “Should there be merit pay for teachers?” to more purposeful pedagogical questions like, “What in teaching is meritorious?”

I have yet to see the evidence that the debate around merit pay in NZ has shifted in this direction, but wouldn’t be unhappy if it did – not that I’m supporting merit pay, but a clear understanding of what in teaching is meritorious would be helpful.

The teritary area has begun recognising merit in tertiary teaching staff with the Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards, overseen by Ako Aotearoa. These awards are judged on the basis of the portfolio that is submitted with the nomination form. There isn’t an equivalent in the compulsory schooling sector – and the one that comes close to this, the eLearning Fellowships, has recently been scaled right back.

And yet we need this sort of opportunity more than ever. At the ULearn conference a couple of weeks ago, Minister of Education Ann Tolley announced it was time for the country’s education system to “fully commit to the digital age”. In an interview with the NZ Herald following his time at ULearn, Gary Stager, when asked to respond to the idea that the next generation of teachers would embrace the technologies available, and open it up to their pupils, commented:

“Well, first of all, an entire generation of kids have lost out on opportunities that they deserve as a result. And, second of all, there’s no evidence whatsoever that new teachers are any bolder or more imaginative … in fact there’s quite a bit of evidence to the contrary.”

Without a doubt, we must stop blaming teachers and accept that the current situation is the result of a complex nexus of social policy, historical application and systemic resistance to change. Singling teachers out as the villains isn’t helpful for, as Cuban points out, they must inevitably be a part of the solution.  I agree wholeheartedly with Cuban that we must  strive to shift the rhetoric away from teacher blame and into areas that are more pro-active. Merit pay, awards and scholarships may all be part of how we improve things – but only part.

We have to create space for dialogue about how we can achieve systemic change – and that creates huge demands for those in leadership in our country. A common reference at the ELF was to the ‘leadership vacuum’ we currently have in our education system in NZ, caused through a combination of circumstances including the economic downturn and a focus on cost containment and risk mitigation.

And it won’t happen overnight. A recent article from Inside Higher Ed titled Lessons half learned describes 10 years since the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) began working with colleges to improve learning outcomes while reducing cost. The article refers to Carol Twigg, an internationally recognized expert in using information technology to transform teaching and learning in higher education who has been advising in these projects. Despite the accolades, Twigg says the reforms she’s pressed for 10 years remain elusive.

“One of the things I find personally sort of ironic and hilarious is that I’ve won every major award higher education gives; I get constant praise, and I’m against the higher education culture,” Twigg says. “People in higher education believe in what we’re doing, as long as they don’t have to do it.”

No-one says it will be easy – but we can’t give up – neither can we go on blaming the very people who we are relying on to address the issue.

4 thoughts on “Blaming teachers

  1. Interesting and thought provoking post Derek.

    One point to note is that teacher innovation is also constrained by the systems and structures that we have in place – especially in the secondary sector. I sometimes don’t blame teachers for sticking to what they know when they have exams hanging over their heads…but only sometimes.

    When collaboration seems to be ever more prevalent in society and we are finally beginning to see teachers working together, wouldn’t merit pay, and even awards to some extent, be potentially divise?

  2. Hi Darren
    I totally agree re systems and structures – this is where the leadership is required. Also agree re your thoughts on merit pay – on balance I can’t see it providing the sorts of benefits being promoted, on the contrary, it works to perpetuate the notion of teaching as an essentially private and individual endeavour, where the culture of schools we’re trying to develop is more collaborative and community based.

  3. Hi Derek,

    I’m confused. Was my newspaper quote being used to support your thesis about blaming teachers? I was engaging in some myth-busting AND sharing an obvious observation about how long we have been engaged in this struggle.


    1. Hi Gary – sorry for the confusion 🙂 I thought your comments supported my views that we mustn’t fall into the trap of blaming teachers – that this is a complex issue and does require time to resolve.

Leave a Reply