PISA is about education systems, not teachers

Education can be talked about in two ways, as a culturally lived experience, or as a commodity. It’s like marriage, you can talk about the depth of the relationship, or talk about the size of the ring. As we begin to digest the latest round of international reports on educational achievement we have a similar choice. We can discuss the lived experience of students and teachers, or simply discuss the numbers. This article focuses on the culturally lived experience of education.

Assessment is universal in education. It can be as simple as a teacher asking a student “are you ok?”, or as complex as an international assessment program. Both show a concern for students and demand a response. Teacher assessment demands a response from teachers, and international assessment demands a response from systems.

Those that consider education a commodity will look for that golden nugget, that vital statistic that explains, and brings kudos to the finder. Those that consider education a complex cultural process will know that these statistics are a faint echo of a multiplicity of intersecting systems. They see the diversity of interests that go into making a school, a classroom, and learning happen.

Seeing children struggle can be painful, particularly for teachers. Some will seek to relieve feelings of guilt by conjuring a LouAnne Johnson from Dangerous Minds. These silver bullet solutions are consistent with our own educational experience –  where one good teacher changes our lives.  Some gladly proffer a LouAnne Johnson, for a fee. Others recognise that these initiatives are superficial with no system impact. It only leads to marketing and publicity that demeans the broader teaching workforce.

Education systems are complex.  There are legislative complexities, with different legislative frameworks for the early years and for the school years. There are jurisdictional complexities between state and federal governments. There are many systems for managing teachers and managing finance. There are also complex information systems, building and infrastructure systems, payroll systems, curriculum systems, assessment systems, and various support systems. Each with its own jurisdictional and legislative complexity. Each with its own problems and levels of both competence and incompetence. These systems cater for over 3 million primary and secondary students across Australia.

Most in education work hard and are dedicated to doing their best. Particularly teachers, who bear the sins of systems, the sins of students, and the sins of colleagues. Teaching is hard, its emotionally draining, tiring, and often quite isolating.  Opportunities for teacher professional development are sparse compared to corporate careers, making diffusion of innovation difficult. Yet teachers are exposed to high levels of control, monitoring, and auditing.  Nevertheless, most teachers work in good faith and embrace systems, explain them when required, and apologise for them when they fail. They are primed for the sucker punch.

The sucker punch comes every couple of years when international test results such as PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS are released. Teachers react to such media storms as they would a bushfire that has burnt their school.  Teachers first internalise the bad news, then frame hope, then look for lessons to be learned. This makes them prone to attacks from commentators, researchers and think tanks. Teachers react in good faith by listening for lessons, and their instinct to defend education is deliberately misconstrued by some as recalcitrance. Teachers are not to blame, systems are.  Teachers are vulnerable.

Some believe that over two hundred thousand teachers can, and are, conspiring in an ideological plot. Various quick fix solutions are offered. Perhaps an ideological fix, a silver bullet teaching approach, a handful of glamour young wiz bang teachers, or a career restructure. All these suggestions fail to take into account the systemic nature of education. These suggestions are in the main glib, and cast teachers or teaching as the problem, they demean the profession and are hurtful towards those in it.

Suggestions are often portrayed as ‘strategic’, but this is misleading as they are mostly bereft of strategy and better characterised as opportunistic.  They often use hard data such as PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS and NAPLAN, but lack the sort of finesse encouraged by strategic thinkers like Henry Mintzberg. Instead they just rehash data and add spin, often with a vested interest. They often proffer simple quick fix solutions from overseas, in doing so they ignore the strategic work of Michael Porter, who argues that in order for nations to be competitive they must develop capacity and appropriate industry structure.  Those offering solutions from overseas have greater interest in arbitrage than education.  Then there are those that ignore Mark H. Moore’s work on authorising environments, and fail to take into account the legislative and jurisdictional complexities of the quick fixes they propose. In being blind to the systemic nature of education, they only see the teacher, and blame them. Then there are those proposing mindless assessment, without regard for system complexities, as shown by delays in getting NAPLAN online. These suggestions by commentators, think tanks and researchers are devoid of rigour.

Systems need to respond to the latest round of testing results, not teachers. This necessarily requires structured engagement from intersectional interests across the system. Australia could revisit outcome focused education.  Outcomes focused education is when abstract educational measures are used as economic proxies in a neoclassical economic supply and demand sense. Australia has been doing this for a number of years, using data from programs such as NAPLAN, PISA and TIMSS to control the work of teachers through markets.  This has been at the expense of a concern with educational inputs such a syllabus, curriculum, teaching practice and so forth. There is much assessment for monitoring, but not much assessment for providing useful information to teachers. The neoclassical economic approach to education appears not to be working.

Another possible area to look at is transparency of vested interest.  While there are good arguments for competition for services such cleaning contracts, the argument for competition in education is less compelling. Nevertheless, the rise of markets and technology within a relatively buoyant economy creates an educational environment with intense competition. Particularly for services such as testing.  It is often difficult to decipher if calls for more testing are motivated by educational interest or by vested financial interest. Particularly given the significant amount of cross organisational board membership and financial interests in the sector.  These interests span government, not-for-profit, and private sector organisations as well as universities. The lack of transparency could be draining the energy out of the education system and be causing Australia’s educational decline. It’s an area worthy of inquiry at the governmental level.

Given the expenditure on education, economics is an important consideration. David Gonski’s report on funding is a good example of how PISA and NAPLAN data provide a useful broad brush for identifying issues. The recent Productivity Commission report had similar conclusions and draft recommendations relating to data. But it was disappointing that the Commission did not make a greater effort to look at the sector and industry structure. There is little depth to these analyses from an industry perspective.

Teacher education is another area rife with issues, not because of the people working in it as often portrayed by simplistic commentators. Teacher education has complex jurisdictional issues in a climate of higher education reform and the rise of markets. Teacher education should be an arena of intense cooperation, but the rise of markets often means Deans of Education need to compete with each other. Academics too are often torn between servicing the broad needs of teachers, and servicing the specialised needs of academic publishing for career progression. Educational leaders could be addressing this issue, but ignore it perhaps due to vested interest. Particularly as private players are seeking entry to this potentially lucrative market, in often opaque ways.

The obsession with teacher and teaching quality is puzzling. It demeans the individual for faults of the system. Rather than teacher quality, there are bigger issues with many teachers teaching out-of-field through no fault of their own, particularly in mathematics and science. There are also structural issues with teachers on short term contracts. These are industry wide structural issues, not the individual teacher, or teacher education, issues.

Education is a complex system for which teachers and teacher educators are the public face. However, international testing and reporting do not address these vulnerable teachers. Teachers will naturally be curious and gain much from reading the reports. However, the purpose of these reports is to hold the system to account and to inform policy development and reform.

terpodcast on which this blog is based

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