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Want teacher quality? Upsize the dangling carrot

League tables - NZ schoolsThe argument over league tables is a political red herring.

Parents are “desperate” to measure school quality and league tables masterminded by the Ministry of Education are the best solution. According to Prime Minister John Key, at least. They are desperate! Every morning when Key opens up his front door, sobbing parents are prostrate on the step, inconveniently collapsed in a heap on top of his daily paper and pint of milk.

“Mr Key, sir!” they scream. “Help us! Give us league tables!”

Sound unlikely? It is. League tables are just another political red herring in the debate over the state of education in this country. Some of it depends on who you listen to. One minute we have a world-class education system, the next, our kiddies are turning up to school without having had their Weetbix and hot milk beforehand. Or perhaps it depends on which side of the political spectrum the soapboxer sits on. Then again, perhaps it depends on the decile of the school in question.

League tables and class sizes are a distraction from the issue National is loath to tackle, aside from tyre-kicking around the issue of performance pay: teacher quality. The government has already displayed some hypocrisy in nixing student allowances for postgrad qualifications, while at the same time leaning towards compulsory postgrad for teachers. Where’s the support? There simply isn’t any.

Teacher quality is a somewhat fluid issue. Standards, NCEA results and league tables won’t give you a consistently clear picture of which teachers are the good teachers. But go into any school in the country and ask the principal, the janitor, the receptionist and Gav who mows the school lawns once a week, and any of those punters will be able to tell you who the best teachers are. Performance pay, however, remains a reward system based on a subjective judgment. NCEA results? Even dodgier.

Who the hell am I to talk about teacher quality? Let me take you back to mid-2005, when I joined 41 others in a class studying towards a graduate diploma of secondary teaching. The first day, even the first week (or month, for some gluttons for punishment), we were a vision of rosy optimism, determined to help chart the course for the Army of Tomorrow. We were the future!

Wind the tape on a little further and despondency began to set in. Not so much with the ideals of teaching as a vocation, but more so with the volume of work and thanklessness involved in a job that was going to pay us $35k as a starting salary – if we were lucky. Then there’s the dropout rate; if you really want an issue to beat on, look at the number of teachers who do one or two years and then get the hell out.  

Admittedly, teachers’ college was something of a walk in the park. After placements at schools, where hands-on teaching practice was carried out, we’d come back to the classroom, hold hands in a circle and sing Kumbaya. We’d talk about our feelings, our hopes, dreams and experiences. One guy talked about the kid with the gun in his class. Another talked about the kid with the knife. Yet another told how he nearly got his head bashed in by another kid with a piece of wood with nails sticking out. All things considered, we concluded that teachers, rightfully, should get danger money.

Some of the teachers-to-be in that class were entirely unsuitable for the task and never should’ve made it through the interview process, let alone into the classroom and in the vicinity of young people and their delicate sensibilities. Such is the nature of our bums-on-seats mentality of tertiary education. And those trainee teachers will never make excellent teachers, the sort Gav the lawnmower would rave about. Yet they will make it through the system and they’ll sit in teaching jobs for years on end, causing pupil anguish and a lack of learning outcomes year after year.

So what’s the solution?

Firstly, make it a hell of a lot harder to get into teachers’ college and out the other end. End the bums on seats mentality. For sure, make postgrad education compulsory for teachers. Go on, John. Do it.

But secondly, support them well while they’re doing it. Regulate the number of trainees going through the system each year, give them allowances and a university fee immunity across the board, regardless of teaching subject.

Lastly, raise teachers’ pay enough to make teaching a desirable and lucrative career. Attract the best prospects. Typically the best prospects aren’t attracted by long hours and low pay, but rather by ample support, professional development and remuneration that reflects their capabilities.

Throwing performance pay at the equation, along with league tables and national standards, is not going to fix it. It is merely a distraction.