#LSLD The wider view

Given that so many of the proposed educational policies that NSW and Australia have to look forward to are influenced heavily by policies from the U.S. and U.K., and have also been trialled in other parts of the world, it would seem short sighted not to look to the experiences of other countries to evaluate the impact of policies on Australia’s educational future.

One significant issue is performance pay for teachers, which has been championed by the federal Labor government for some time now.

PISA, the educational assessment arm of the OECD (www.pisa.oecd.org) recently published their findings on the efficacy of performance pay, drawing on global examples. The report concluded with the following statement:

“Performance-based pay is worth considering in some contexts; but making it work well and sustainably is a formidable challenge. Pay levels can only be part of the work environment: countries that have succeeded in making teaching an attractive profession have often done so not just through pay, but by raising the status of teaching, offering real career prospects, and giving teachers responsibility as professionals and leaders of reform. This requires teacher education that helps teachers to become innovators and researchers in education, not just civil
servants who deliver curricula.”

The idea of respecting teachers and their professional judgement doesn’t seem to play any significant role in public discourse about education in Australia at either a state or federal level, yet here it is identified as a crucial factor in raising educational standards. The idea that there is a perception of teachers as ‘just civil servants who deliver curricula’ certainly resonates with my experiences as a teacher in NSW, and policies like Performance Pay and Local Schools, Local Decisions only further that perception by focussing entirely on economic factors that ignore the professional elements of the role that teachers play.

The lack of respect for teachers in policy making can also be observed in the U.S., particularly in Wisconsin, and more recently in Chicago, where the political rhetoric of the respective political leaders would have you believe that teachers are little more than unionist thugs seeking to hold children’s education to ransom for the purpose of personal gain.

While we should be thankful that the NSW govt. has not been quite so blatantly hostile in their rhetoric as some U.S. political leaders, the key elements of the Local Schools, Local Decisions policy, and also of their legislative changes regarding public service wages and the Industrial Relations Commission share many similarities of intent with these events in the U.S., namely to legally and politically inhibit public sector unions and remove them as barriers to cutting jobs and wages for teachers and other public sector workers.

And what were the results of these policies in Wisconsin and Chicago? A sit in protest at the capitol building of Wisconsin in 2011 that lasted so long that the governor decided to use police to break up the protest and arrested a number of the teachers involved. Continued discontent led to a recall election of the governor, which he won by a similar margin to the original election (to the dismay of public service workers around that state). In Chicago, legislative requirements that a strike action required a 75% majority vote were met by teachers unions voting at nearly 90% in support of mass strike action, in a conflict that is still being played out between unions and local government.

These are only recent examples of policies in the U.S. that have been carried on the back of anti-teacher rhetoric, and numerous states around that country have a long history of controversial policies that have echoes in Australia’s educational landscape. Examples such as school league tables, websites ranking school efficiency (taken to the ultimate extreme in NewYork with a website ranking individual teachers by student results), and the repeatedly abandoned policy of performance pay have all been implemented, disputed, and often rescinded.

However, amidst the unrest caused by these conflicts,discussion of educational outcomes all but disappears, while the external evaluations of PISA show the U.S. continuing to decline in international comparisons of student academic knowledge and skills.

So will Australian politicians look to the long term lessons to be learned from international allies? Will they implement policies that explicitly elevate the status of the profession rather than denigrate it? Or is the ugly educational landscape of the United States a glimpse into our collective future?

It seems to be a question of educational outcomes versus economic ones, and so far, explicit discussion of educational outcomes is eerily absent.

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