Put professional judgement of teachers first or we’ll never get the systemic education improvements we all want

James Ladwig

I’d like to bring together three different lines of educational analysis to show how our contemporary discussions of policy are really not going to lead to any significant change or educationally defensible reforms.  I realise that is a very big call, but I’m pretty confident in saying it, and I hope to show why.

Essentially, I think we really need to change the way educational reform debates are framed, because they are based on questions that will not lead us to the systemic improvement that I think most ‘stake-holders’ are really seeking.  Before I launch into this discussion, though, I also need to point out that there are a host of related issues which really can’t be sufficiently addressed here, and which I won’t explain at all – but which I will name toward the end of this article.

Consider three main points

  1. There is growing recognition that a fundamental linchpin in quality schooling is always going to be our reliance on the professional judgement of teachers.
  2. There is also growing recognition that our current system architecture works against that in several ways, and
  3. this is the clincher, the systems that we have implemented are producing exactly that for which they were designed (where teacher professional judgement plays little or no part).

The practical conclusion of bringing these observations together is obvious to me. We are never going to get that “systemic improvement” that we all seem to think will be good for Australia, because we don’t have the right system architecture to achieve it. I believe we need to start thinking more carefully and creatively about how our educational systems are designed. The hard part begins after sufficient numbers of stakeholders come to this realisation and want to shift the debates.  We aren’t there yet, so for now I just want to open up this line of thought.

The starting point won’t be a surprise for followers of public educational policy pitches.  On the one hand, anyone with Findlandia envy and followers of the recent statements from Pasi Sahlberg, now at UNSW’s Gonski Institute, will know that much of the strength of the ‘Finnish Education Mystery’ (as it has been named by Hannu Simola) has been built on a strong commitment to the professional autonomy and expertise of Finnish teachers.  This isn’t simply accidental, but a consequence of a long understandable history that included (but isn’t only due to) careful and intelligent design by the Finnish Government.

On the other hand, here in Australia, Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, Nicole Mockler, and her colleagues have aptly shown that teachers are more than interested in using evidence-based approaches to help guide their local decisions, but their judgements are not really being supported by evidence they see as relevant and useful. My own analysis of this situation has led me to raise significant questions about the way in which technical issues of measurement and their statistical applications have been reduced to incorrect and really misleading uses, and the way in which the institutions which are supposed to promote teachers and teaching have reduced that exercise to classic institutional credentialism based on tick box exercises that really don’t reflect that which it claims. 

No matter how much politicians and other stakeholders might wish to create systems that guarantee this or that universal practice, student learning is always individual and in schools always dependent on whoever is guiding that learning (the same would apply to entirely automated systems, by the way).  So the goal of designing systems based on the presumption that we can somehow specify practice to a point where there is no uncertainty in delivery, is folly. And yet these are precisely the sorts of education systems Australia has been building since at least the late 1980s. 

In broad terms this corresponds to the significant changes in educational governance known as ‘the ministerialisation of education’ documented by educational researchers Dr Janice Dudley and Professor Lesley Vidovich, long ago.  It was in this time period where the penultimate attempt to nationalise curriculum developed, with the corresponding creation of national goals (the Hobart, Adelaide, Melbourne declarations), former civil servants were replaced by contracted ‘Senior Executives’ across federal and state bureaucracies, and teacher education was handed to the federally funded Universities alone (plus a range of massive shifts in TAFE). Since then it has been a long slow process of standardisation within and across state systems, the formation of ‘professional institutes’, and the expansion of public funding to private schooling. 

The roll out of ‘standardisation’

The case for why these systems inhibit or actively work against the exercise of teachers’ professional judgement should be pretty obvious with the term ‘standardisation’.  These days, national curriculum is designed with the intent of making sure children of the military can move around the nation and ‘get the same stuff’, accountability is centrally developed and deployed via the least expensive forms, like NAPLAN (and an expanding host of supposedly valid measures), teaching has become regulated through standardising the people (at least on paper, via ‘professional standards’), and securing employment and advancement has been directly tied to these mechanisms. 

Even measurement instruments originally designed only for research, and later to help provide evidence for teachers’ use, have become tick box instruments of surveillance.  As a researcher I am not opposed to good measurement, and in fact I’ve created some of those being used in this larger schema, but how systems deploy them makes a huge difference. 

From the reports of the implementation of NAPLAN it is very clear (as was predicted by then opponents) that many of these instruments have become much more high stakes than advocates predicted or intended (opponents were right about this one).  Whether it be novice teachers beholden to developing paper work ‘evidence’ of standards for their job security through to executives whose jobs depend on meeting Key Performance Indicators (which are themselves abstracted from actual effect), we have developed systems of compliance within institutes in which real humans play roles that are pre-defined and largely circumscribed.  And those who readily fit them without too much critique fill these roles.

After years of this, is it any wonder that teacher education programs by and large no longer teach the history and practice of curriculum design, nor the history and philosophy of education (which is now largely relegated to ‘ethics’ in service of codes of conduct) and what once were lively fields of educational psychology and sociology of education have become handmaidens to ‘evidence-based’ teaching techniques and bureaucratic definitions of ‘equity’? In the University sector these ‘foundational’ disciplines literally do not belong in education anymore for research accountability purposes.

One bit of historical memory: in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this process of moving the intellectual (‘mental’) work of teachers into standardised categories defined by management was shown to have a long-term effect known as ‘de-skilling’.  From our work in the New Basics Trial in Queensland (which was actually much more successful than most realise) it became very clear that what were once widespread teacher capacities in local curriculum design and development had been forfeited to (extremely well-paid) bureaucrats.  

When I met the teachers who took part in the early 1990s National Schools Project (in 1993 and 1994), state differences were really obvious and relevant. When teachers were invited to restructure any aspect of their work to improve student learning, through an overt agreement between the unions and employers, teachers from states where there were strong traditions of local curriculum development and pedagogical reflection (most obviously Victoria and South Australia) were squarely focused on trying to find ways of providing rich educational experiences for their students (curriculum, and pedagogy were their mainstay).  Teachers from the state that has provided the basic structure of our current systems (NSW) were largely concerned about timetables and budgets.  Of course this is a very big generalisation, but it is also obvious when you work with teachers in schools developing new curriculum projects.

What is the effect of all this?  Precisely as intended, the systems are standardised, stratified, countable and a ready source of ‘evidence’ used to meet the needs of the politicians and ‘independent’ stakeholders, and advancing employees who probably actually believe in the reforms and initiatives they advocate. But let’s be honest, these actors are not around after they have used the political capital gained from initiating their pet projects.

Let’s go further

There are hosts of other developments that buttress this larger system which need further analysis and elaboration than I can provide here.  From the expansion of testing measures based on statistical assumptions few teachers and principals and fewer parents really know well (they are not taught them), to professional development schemes based on market determined popularity, to pre-packaged curriculum and apps literally sold as the next silver-bullet, to contemporary ‘texts’ of education carrying far more implications than the ones named by those selling them.

There are the huge range of ideas and presumptions that lie behind those sales pitches. Some teachers sometimes seek these out in the hope of finding new ideas and effective practices.  Teachers’ dispositions and capacities have not come from nowhere, they are the historical product of this system. But who is going to blame them (or the bureaucrats, for that matter) when they rightfully focus on making sure they have a job in that system so they can support their own children and parents? Yes, we have systems we created. On the one hand, that’s not encouraging.  On the other hand, that does mean that we can re-create them into something quite different.

Change the questions

One of the first steps that needs to be made in collectively trying to find new ways of constructing our school systems, is to change the questions we think we are answering.  Instead of using the type of questions needed to drive research, e.g. anything of the form ‘what works?’, we need to start asking, ‘how do we build systems that increase the likelihood that teachers will make intelligent and wise decisions in their work?’ 

Research and the categories of analysis CAN provide clear ideas about what has occurred in the past (with all the necessary qualifications about when, where, measured how) but those answers should never be the basis for systems to prescribe what teachers are supposed to do in any given individual event or context.  For example, diagnostic testing can be incredibly useful for teachers, but it can’t tell teachers what to do, with whom, when. 

Do we have systems that support teachers in taking the next step in their decisions about which students need what support at what time, while knowing what those tests actually measure, with what margin of error, in what contexts for whom?  The question for systems designs isn’t what’s ‘best practice’, it’s what system increases the probability of teachers making wise and compassionate decisions for their students in their context at the appropriate time.  That includes making judgements relative to what’s happening in our nation, economy and in the larger global transformations. 

Our systems, in the pursuit of minimising risk, are very good at proscribing what teachers shouldn’t do; but, they are not designed to support teachers to wisely exercise the autonomy they need to do their jobs in a manner that demonstrates the true potential of our nation. We can see that potential in the all too rare events in which our students and teachers are given that sort of support – often on the backs of incredibly dedicated and professional teachers and school leaders. From local innovative uses of technology, to large scale performances in the arts, the potential of Australian educators isn’t really hard to find.  But we need new systems to support them in doing more of that type of work, with more students, more of the time.

So when it comes to advocating this or that system reform, please, change the focus.  We don’t need more ‘best practice’ policies from vested interests, to discipline our teachers, we need systems designed to promote true, authentic excellence in education.


 

This article was originally published on EduResearch Matters, April.8.2019

James Ladwig is Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle and co-editor of the American Educational Research Journal.  He is internationally recognised for his expertise in educational research and school reform. Find James’ latest work in Limits to Evidence-Based Learning of Educational Science, in Hall, Quinn and Gollnick (Eds) The Wiley Handbook of Teaching and Learning published by Wiley-Blackwell, New York (in press). James is on Twitter @jgladwig

This article appears in Professional Voice 13.1 Mental health, reporting and education futures.