How to make a school system mediocre

I’ve been playing with these thoughts, and inspired by @Disidealist’s tweet on Saturday night (below), and a discussion with some friends this morning, I’ll put them down on (virtual) paper. You might find they’re echoes of other posts of mine. I’m interested in your thoughts, if you have some, and would use them to construct a better theorisation of the phenomenon I’m trying to describe. In fact, someone else has already done this, and I just haven’t come across it in the narrow research I’ve done... As ever, I reserve the right to change my mind and improve this post!

We’re in danger of designing a school system around the failings of people who just aren’t very good at teaching.

— DisappointedIdealist (@DisIdealist) July 15, 2017

For some time now, our education system in Queensland and Australia has been structured around the most mediocre of teachers within the system. The majority of major policy moves, such as towards standardised testing, direct instruction and scripted lessons, are framed around redressing mediocrity. In doing so, the system becomes one in which it is easier to be a mediocre teacher, and constrain others’ attempts to be a competent, or even a proficient teacher. Instead of doing this, what we should be doing is designing and implementing policy that most enables and empowers competent teachers to become more.

Feeding these policy moves are deficit narratives: “Failing” teachers (and preservice teachers), “failing” students“failing” schools, all signs of a “failing” system. You can see these narratives in justifications given for NAPLAN, the Phonics Check, direct instruction, scripted lessons, Curriculum 2 Classroom (Queensland), and the impending external testing for senior subjects (new to Queensland). These narratives strip agency from teachers, students, schools, and the system as a whole.

For example, last Saturday night, at the Creative Generation – State Schools performance for 2017, the Director General of Education Queensland suggested that a school system is only as good as the “collective quality” of staff. This discourse invokes a particular logic toward “improving” the situation: the worst performers (mediocre teachers) need to be “brought up” (terminology that implies a lack of agency on the part of teachers) to lift the “average” performance of the workforce (as if the performance of teachers is quantifiable in a valid and reliable way).

Ultimately, it’s the opposite that happens: in building policy around these teachers, the “average” is brought down.

When policy discourse and leadership conversations are framed around those who “can’t,” “won’t,” or “don’t” make decisions to the satisfaction of others, the predictable response is to take away that decision-making agency by prescribing pedagogical practices to them (or to implement a program that impacts on pedagogical practices in a predictable way; e.g. NAPLAN encourages pedagogical practices that superficially improve test scores by teaching surface skills for short-term test results, rather than those that would develop more meaningful conceptual or procedural understandings over the long term. NAPLAN also narrows curriculum to largely that which is tested by NAPLAN). Ultimately, these attempts to control the decisions of mediocre teachers reduce the agency of other teachers to make decisions, too.

To be clear, I don’t think this movement is deliberate or intentional. I think it arises from focusing solely on these perceived deficits, and in attempting to address them, ignoring or becoming blind to the bigger picture. Politicians and other policy makers, who for the most part, do not have much (any!?) teaching experience or understanding of education (or even systems), focus so much energy, funding, and time doing this, they don’t realise the impact of their policy moves, which actively constrain those outside of the narrative (the competent, proficient, and expert teachers/students/good and great schools/systems) from doing their best.

We’d do better to ask “how can we best enable competent teachers to maintain their own version of practice, and perhaps allow them to become more if they can?” Any response to this question means allowing teachers to make decisions that are appropriate and useful to them and their students, recognising that even the greatest of teachers is going to make a poor decision from time to time.

At a school level, one strategy may be the active development of a school culture that enables and encourages teachers to engage in regular honest, open, low-stakes professional conversations about their decision-making and the fruits of this. These reflective discussions should be viewed and framed as being for professional learning. They should be regular, and ongoing. Such discussions give all teachers, regardless of their experience or expertise, an opportunity to learn from and with each other, and reflect on their own decisions. These may provide the structure and conditions needed for teacher agency to emerge.

At a systems level, almost certainly there is a need for more funding, sufficient to enable schools to choose professional development on the basis of need rather than cost. What other system level policies might shift the structure of our system away from supporting mediocrity?

Some of you may still be thinking about those mediocre teachers. How do we identify and respond to teachers who consistently make decisions that are not appropriate or useful to them or their students? I’d suggest an ongoing and unjustified reluctance to join in reflective decisions, refusal to share or justify their decisions and processes for making decisions, or resistance to attending professional development or trying new strategies or approaches to teaching are some of the signs that a teacher is struggling or lacks competence. Other professions consider this an HR issue. I’d suggest we do the same.

What do you think?