Video Performance Reviews Of Teachers An Excellent Initiative

AN IDEA from business identity, former Sydney councillor and Gonski panel member Kathryn Greiner offers the missing link to reconcile the salary expectations of teachers with the educational outcomes the incomes they aspire to demand; the use of video to review teacher performance is a brilliant concept that should be introduced and developed as an integral plank of education policy. If teacher unions object, then frankly, to hell with them.

It’s so simple — and so obvious — it begs the question of why it hasn’t been raised before and/or debated in the context of the perennial argument over how much teachers should be reasonably paid; certainly, the matter has arisen several times in this column over the years, and I am happy to take the idea on board and champion it with vigour.

The call by Gonski education review panel member Kathryn Greiner for teachers to be filmed so their performance can be reviewed and improved has enormous merit; properly implemented, it would see all of the key stakeholders in the education process — government, teachers, students, parents, and the community at large — emerge as winners.

The one group almost certain to be hit hard by the measure — and equally certain to lash out with a viciously obstructive campaign against it — is the unions, who in my view can take a long walk off the proverbial short pier. More on them a bit later.

I find it something of an irony that the only major media outlet reporting on this is Fairfax; to be sure, dear old Uncle Fairfax has dutifully noted the warning shots fired across the bows by teacher unions and other self-interested figures about not using video for “punitive” purposes, but it’s refreshing to see it at least record news that threatens the left-wing cabal on which what remains of its influence rests.

It’s also ironic that my remarks today will reference a truly useful, meaningful role for more bureaucrats; as readers know, my view on civil service roles is that they should be created and filled strictly as required and otherwise not at all, so today there’s something for the public service here in the blue corner, too.

But first things first: Greiner hits the nail squarely on the head when she says that “it is about time teachers understood that they must be assessed, they must be a part of professional development;” in what seems an unmistakable allusion to the perception that teachers — through the might of their unions — expect rocketing levels of remuneration that are in no way accompanied by commensurate improvements in educational outcomes, she suggests that every teacher in Australia should be reviewed using video.

I’ll leave readers to peruse the article from The Age, but here are my thoughts on the matter after some reflection.

I have long advocated that the best teachers in our classrooms should indeed be paid more, and perhaps significantly so, depending on the outcomes they deliver — namely, the results those students in their charge achieve on a range of educational indicators including the basics, but also their ability to gain critical insights into the material they study and a solid practical grounding on which to build in later years beyond the classroom.

The entire concept of collective bargaining on which unions are predicated is utter anathema to me, best evidenced of late in the educational arena in the protracted standoff over teacher pay in Victoria, in which an attempt to introduce so-called performance pay was brutally and savagely faced down by teacher unions which refused to accept differential remunerative arrangements for individual teachers.

I find it ridiculous and contemptible that a 22-year-old “teacher” — fresh from school to university to school again, with little or no adult life experience to speak of except a couple of paper qualifications — should automatically be entitled to be paid well in excess of $1,000 per week from the minute they set foot at the front of a classroom. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, an obscenity of the union bargaining process.

And by the same token (and this is an old story when it comes to awards, union enterprise agreements and similarly offensive collective bargaining instruments), I simply don’t agree that the “best of the best” of teachers should be limited in what they may be paid by the number at the top of the highest band of teacher rankings.

As an aside, what are those bands based on? Qualifications? Seniority? It seems implausible that they are based on outcomes; if they were, Australia wouldn’t be sliding down the international rankings when it comes to the top performing nations on educational indicators weighed against other developed countries.

I think Greiner’s idea is one that can and should be introduced as part of a suite of reforms to monitor teacher performance; an obvious first step is for governments and independent school boards to have cameras installed in all classrooms, along with adequate data storage infrastructure to file the footage for, say, each calendar year on a rolling basis — a measure that could be funded at a relatively small cost, given the colossal and burgeoning amounts of money expended on education with no apparent benefit in terms of outcomes.

I agree fully with some of the privacy concerns raised in The Age‘s article: obviously, the footage would be strictly for internal use only, with teachers able to review their own classes at will, or for formal review purposes (and of course, for performance appraisal purposes and any appeals that might arise from those), but certainly not to be made public in any way.

The application of the idea in terms of measuring teacher performance is relatively straightforward: a random selection of each teacher’s classroom time (say, one hour per month or term) may be extracted and reviewed by a panel comprising — for instance — the head of subject in a high school, along with a member of a School’s Inspectorate (I said there would be something for the public service) and perhaps an independent member of the school board. The exact composition of such a panel may be argued, but I think the principle is clear.

Such a process — benchmarked against the progress of the teacher’s students, their educational achievements and weighted against results across a given state — would provide an effective means by which to more accurately determine individual teacher performance; it would also offer a tool with which to better identify those teachers who are the best performers, and to pay them accordingly.

I think the reinstitution of an inspectorate-style regime for schools would restore (and better utilise) an important link in education regimes that has been mostly abolished by state governments, or effectively neutered; such a division within state education departments (and their equivalents in independent school authorities) would need to be well resourced, and come with the happy additional consequence of providing yet another potential career avenue for the very top teachers it would be charged with identifying, rewarding, and indeed promoting.

And such a wholistic shift in performance management and benchmarking of teachers from the collective to the individual would also restore to some extent to role of the school principal, which — by virtue of the collective agreements struck between teacher unions and governments over pay and conditions — has been rendered almost redundant when it comes to having meaningful input into the management of the workforce within his or her school.

I have little time for the almost complete aversion to anything that may carry negative repercussions for poor teachers when it comes to their performance: teacher unions have gone to great lengths in recent decades to engineer a public environment in which their members are treated as sacrosanct on questions of security of employment and entitlement to guaranteed pay rises at or above the cost of living.

If this country is to live up to the “clever country” moniker demanded of it in the 1980s (by a Labor government, no less), this is the sort of outdated thinking that must be abandoned.

Teachers are no different to any other body of professionals or employees in that there will be outstanding teachers, acceptable teachers, and poor teachers.

In my view, the outstanding ones should be rewarded; the acceptable ones coached, encouraged, and provided additional training and support; and the poor ones — just like poor employees in other walks of life — should, to put it kindly, be involuntarily motivated toward alternative employment opportunities.

It goes without saying that the powerful education unions will react with outrage to suggestions of the kind I am making here: bully for them if they do.

Over the past 20 years (and it neatly correlates with a time in the early 1990s, when most of the states were electing new Liberal governments), teacher unions have enhanced their muscle by campaigning on blatant fearmongering about the intentions of conservative governments and the impact of those purported intentions on the schooling of children.

Consequently, the education unions are now among the most powerful — if not the most powerful — of all the unions in Australia.

I don’t think they serve their members well — after all, there’s a limit to how well you can do for yourself under the EBA regime if you’re a brilliant teacher — and I don’t think they serve their students well either, given anyone able to complete teacher qualifications but who is otherwise an idiot can find their way into a classroom full of kids.

Frankly, the unions should embrace the use of video technology for performance management of their members: the only genuine reason to object is to protect the pitiful among their ranks; education is not a charity pursuit, but in fact the vocation every bit as critical to nurturing new generations of Australians as the leaders of teacher unions loudly proclaim — with an outstretched collective hand.

This is an idea that certainly merits further discussion, and I am very pleased Mrs Greiner has raised it.

At the end of the day, however, the teacher unions have two choices: embrace such a measure in a constructively critical spirit, or do what they always do when standards of increased accountability are put on the table, and cause as much trouble and disruption as possible (including to the education of their students) to ensure it never sees the light of day.

To be entirely candid, if the unions take the latter path, they can go to hell. And every parent, school principal or decent teacher with a real stake in improving the standard of the education each student receives should tell them precisely which way that is.

 

AND ANOTHER THING: For those who might like to accuse me of being doctrinaire, advocating the smashing of teacher unions (not that it’s a bad idea) or simply regurgitating conservative dogma on education, I’ll point out I’ve got a daughter due to start school in 12 months’ time and a son a few years behind her: this is an issue of great personal relevance, and I shudder to think of some of the excesses of teacher union conduct that have been played out publicly in recent years being applied to the education of my own children.

 

Back To The Future: The Education Revolution We Need

I’ve been reading the newspapers online today, shaking my head; it sticks in my craw that powerful education unions — backed by a pliant Labor government — demand usurious pay increases whilst generating outcomes that, frankly, are a fraud against any reasonable measure of expectation.

Some readers may accuse me of curmudgeonly petulance — or at least they might, if they have any idea of what a “curmudgeon” is, of course.

It’s a great bugbear of mine that Australia’s schools seem increasingly destined to turn out “graduates” with a flawed grasp of the English language, and an increasingly faulty application of it in daily life.

Reading the opinion section today of one of the supposed leading newspapers in this country, I’ve been treated to a discussion of the political “judgment” of Julia Gillard, written by somebody recognised as one of the leading political opinion writers both nationally and within that journalist’s media organisation.

The same news outlet recently published a feature piece on the “aging” population.

Switching news sites — and reading coverage of last night’s win by the Carlton Football Club over Fremantle in a NAB Cup match — I was informed that “It was difficult to fully gauge the merits of the Blues practice match romp.”

Having listened to the radio coverage on 3AW, I know the Blues’ efforts were stellar.

Listening to that match came after a visit to a bank branch earlier in the day, in which I was invited to add my “signiture” to an official deposit form in order to complete a transaction.

And, shortly thereafter, a sign I encountered during a window-shopping visit to a clothes store informed me that “food and drink are definately not to be consumed in this store.”

These are, to be sure, examples that I have come across in the space of one 24 hour period.

Regrettably, however, they are not isolated, they do not represent every such instance I noticed during those 24 hours, and — sadly — this sort of thing is fast becoming the norm rather than the exception.

I am writing this piece because in the present climate, it is both relevant and topical; as things stand in the state of Victoria, Ted Baillieu’s government is locked in a protracted dispute with the Victorian Teachers’ Federation over pay rates for teachers.

Baillieu had promised during the 2010 state election campaign to make Victoria’s teachers the best paid in Australia: “not the worst-paid, but the best paid,” he memorably pledged.

Negotiations hit an immediate impasse when the powerful VTF entered negotiations seeking annual 30% pay rises for its members, as opposed to a government offer of 2.5% plus additional amounts in return for productivity.

Naturally, the situation is deadlocked, with both sides in the dispute refusing to back down (although the teachers’ union did revise its ambit and ridiculous demand of 30% pay rises down to 12.5% over a three-year period).

In case readers think this is a Victoria-centric article, I assure you it isn’t; I merely make a skeletal summary of the situation in Victoria by way of example.

I could just as easily have chosen to talk about negotiations over teacher pay in any other state; the script — especially on the union side — is depressingly familiar wherever one looks and, somewhat surprisingly, it matters little whether the state government at the centre of negotiations is Labor or Liberal.

The only real difference on that last point seems to be a greater inclination on the part of teacher unions to strike and cause disruption when dealing with a Liberal government than with a Labor one, but in honesty, it’s simply a question of degrees.

In short, teachers (or at least, their unions) think they should be paid at a level which reflects their self-designated “status” at the very apex of society.

Indeed, some teachers I have had the misfortune to encounter over the years have told me that in their view, teaching is more important than any other vocation.

I call it “a vocation” because it’s too much of a stretch to describe it as “a profession:” if I were completely honest, the example set by teacher unions make it “just a job” like anything else.

And as far as I am concerned, it’s a job whose outcomes neither match the hype nor merit the ridiculous pay structures its protagonists seek.

Using Victoria as an example again, a look through the relevant state government website reveals that starting pay for a graduate teacher (with no previous experience) is $56,985 per annum; pay rates increase through a series of grades up to “Leading Teacher Level 3” which commands $91,883 per annum — or a shade under $1,770.00 per week.

This is an industry that offers its members 21 contact hours per week (“contact hours” being the length of time they actually stand in front of a class); significant amounts of designated time for preparation and marking (free periods) during what the rest of us would call business hours; 12-13 weeks’ paid annual leave each year; a number of paid student-free days; and a raft of other benefits not typically available to workers in other industries.

I’ve heard the argument that teachers take a lot of work home with them, and I am not unsympathetic. But so do plenty of people in other jobs, often earning a hell of a lot less than a teacher does.

My point is that I think teachers are more than adequately remunerated for what they do — the importance of teaching as a vocation not in any way subject to challenge here — but it is my firm contention that if the teachers’ unions want more, their focus must be on improved outcomes rather than increasing the fortunes (literally) of the collective.

This is a point that has been repeatedly made by Victoria’s education minister, Martin Dixon, although it applies to every jurisdiction in the country.

Dixon simply says that the government is happy in principle to pay the best teachers more money (and for the record, it’s a position I not only endorse heartily, but am also an advocate of).

He also says that what the government is not prepared to do is to embrace a position by which underperformers are rewarded at the same level as those who deserve and merit higher pay for the better outcomes they achieve and again, I can’t argue with him.

The VTF can, however, and does; it says that it cannot and will not agree to any resolution of the current dispute in which differential rates of pay (i.e. the productivity route by which the government seeks to reward better teachers) leave any of its members “straggling” or create different tiers of remuneration for its constituency, the members of which “all do the same job.”

I’ll concede that quantifying and scaling teacher outcomes on an equitable and reasonable basis is a difficult question, but it is one that needs to be addressed.

And if that means that the likes of the Victorian Teachers’ Federation needs to pull its head in — or have it kicked — then so be it.

For the past six years we have witnessed the spectacle of a federal Labor Party making even more noise about education than it historically has — and “education” is something the Labor Party has arrogated to itself as its own issue for a long time.

Yet reality has not matched its rhetoric; Kevin Rudd campaigned on an “Education Revolution” wielding a laptop computer, proclaiming it to be “the toolbox of the future.”

After more than five years in government Labor’s laptops have not been distributed to schools in any comprehensive manner, and its education “revolution” has manifested itself in the form of a series of largely useless structures strewn across school grounds throughout Australia.

Now, Julia Gillard wants to commit upwards of $9 billion to the school sector to fund the so-called Gonski reforms; it has been made abundantly clear that she expects state governments to fund this particular adventure, but I would ask, very simply: will these so-called reforms make one jot of difference to educational outcomes?

I doubt it.

And this brings me back to my opening remarks on the failing standard of teaching the English language, and my criticisms of the perpetrators of those failings.

I once dated a girl who was studying for a Diploma of Education; having offered to type her assignments for her, I was amazed to find the handwritten drafts not just unintelligible, but that she had extreme difficulty even explaining what they were intended to communicate.

Ultimately — after I spent many hours rewriting them — the two assignments in question earned her the highest pass level available to students in her course; it’s something I have regretted being responsible for ever since, and something I’m sure the Queensland University of Technology would be aghast at.

But I am not singling anyone out here — rather, the illustration highlights to my mind the probability that where one such example exists, there are bound to be many, many more.

The problem we face is that there is a great number of excellent teachers who are well worth the money they are paid (and, in fairness, probably deserve more if it’s affordable to pay them accordingly).

There is also a large contingent of “teachers” who shouldn’t even be in the education system: incoherent and unable to accurately communicate, these people are taking good money to turn out students inadequately equipped for real life in the traditional “three Rs” of reading, writing and arithmetic.

I know I am focused on the language side of the ledger here; the English language is my forte, whilst I do not even pretend to amount to a mathematician’s bootlaces.

Even so, what I am talking about is alarming enough.

Many so-called educators argue that accuracy is unimportant; that provided graduates are able to convey meaning and effect communication, it shouldn’t matter about such niceties as spelling, or punctuation, or grammar.

In other words, sloppiness and mediocrity are not only acceptable, they should be aspired to in the name of so-called teachers being allowed to hide behind their own incompetence.

And everyone has heard the contemporary stereotype that “spell check” has rendered such considerations irrelevant.

That might — on one level — have some substance, were it not for the fact that spell checkers themselves now perpetuate incorrect and inaccurate executions of the English language; type “aging” and “judgment” into the spell checker on the latest version of Microsoft Word, and it won’t miss a beat: those bastardisations of the language are now stock issue, it seems.

It’s the latest INSTALMENT in the degradation of language; even then, many spell checkers will seek to change “instalment” to “installment,” because slovenly contemporary practice has seen the latter (incorrect) spelling supersede the former.

And fire up your Apple device…and watch the so-called auto-correct function change any permutation of the three letters “its” to “it’s.”

It’s enough to drive you nuts when the computer wants it’s (incorrect) version to prevail.

Closer to home — and returning to the media — words such as flavour, saviour, candour et al are not correct when the “u” is omitted, despite what whoever sets editorial policy might proclaim, or the pap spouted to justify it.

Readers will also note I referred earlier to BASTARDISATIONS of the language, not BASTARDIZATIONS: this is Australia, not the USA.

The buck has to stop somewhere for all of this.

Teachers, if they cannot communicate accurately or use the language correctly, cannot expect to have usurious sums of money thrown at them to reward a culture of error and mediocrity.

Government policy makers — be they conservatives or social democrats — have a responsibility to address this, be it through additional training, modifications to curriculum, or through evaluation metrics used to gauge teacher performance.

And the community at large has a responsibility to hold both entities to account rigorously, to ensure coming generations receive the level and quality of education to which they are entitled, and which the vast sums of public money expended on education must deliver.

The teacher unions have a role to play, and I need to be clear about that point.

But they are not entitled to demand that society rewards an education culture that delivers utter mediocrity in terms of outcomes, and they must never be allowed to elicit huge monetary stipends for individuals who, on balance, are too incompetent and/or illiterate to justify the stain they place on their vocation, merely by virtue of their presence.

Winston Churchill once opined that anyone who could not write a sentence in good English must have very little of interest to say.

Alas, I fear it’s not so much a case of having anything of interest to say, but of having the means with which to say it; and when it comes to educational outcomes, “near enough” simply isn’t good enough.

If governments of whatever stripe wish to embark on an education “revolution,” perhaps they could begin by getting the basics right.