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.