Friday, October 08, 2010

Education 101...

Karl Du Fresne raised the topic of “education vouchers” in the course of presenting his views on the current state of wage negotiations between teachers and the state. That started an interesting (for me at least) debate with another of his readers and it is in the spirit of that debate that I wish to present my thinking on these matters educational.

The first point that I need to make is (and I am as guilty of this as the next) is that by taking any of the elements of education in isolation the debate immediately becomes very simplistic and ignores the inter-relationship between the various factors – and factions.

Second, I also need to clarify my “position” on the subject. Both my parents were teachers, in rural service, in the 1950’s through 70’s. My secondary education was at Taipa DHS and Kaitaia College. I am a “retired” accountant with (obviously) tertiary qualifications. So given that background I do tend to focus on the difficulties of education in rural and low socio-economic communities. I have two (now adult) children, one of whom is university qualified and the other not. (As a matter of interest, the latter earns more than the former). I am also fortunate to have two very good friends, now retired, who taught and were Department Heads at one of Auckland’s larger “low –decile” colleges. A good part of the more recent “experience” is based upon their experience as well as my own as a parent guiding my two children through their secondary and tertiary education.

Third, I am going to try very hard to not appear to advocate for any particular group. So, if I point to salary as one of the major hurdles in obtaining suitably qualified teachers I am stating that as a “fact” rather than to support teachers in their current negotiations. As it happens this is a consequence rather than problem – it is the result of the comparative riches available to NZers in other countries; be they teachers, doctors or accountants. No amount of control or payment is going to resolve exodus resulting from the far greater buying power of Australia, US, Canada, Japan, China and the European countries where NZ teachers and graduates generally are held in very high regard.

Karl du Fresne, after a seven paragraph opening rant on the history of government versus labour unions finally got to the nitty with this opening –

All of which brings us to the two teachers’ unions, the NZEI and the PPTA, both of which just happen to be locked in disputes with the government right now: the NZEI over national standards and the PPTA over salary and conditions claims.

There is something depressingly familiar about all this. As the power of the old blue-collar unions has faded, so the militancy of the teacher unions has increased. It has become almost a cliché to describe them as the boilermakers and freezing workers of the new millennium. In fact I see from my files that as long ago as 1995, I wrote an editorial about the PPTA headlined Militants of the nineties.

In that Evening Post editorial I wrote: “As employees of the system, teachers have every right to be consulted on changes. They are entitled within reason to oppose moves which they believe are not in the best interests of pupils, and when all else fails they have the same legal right as any other group of employees to take industrial action. But they misuse their strength – and test the country’s patience – when they consistently use their organisational muscle to frustrate, defy and stonewall the legitimate policies of an elected government.”

I also wrote that teachers had misled themselves into believing that they were the sole guardians and arbiters of all that was correct in education. “They have deluded themselves into thinking, in effect, that they have proprietorial rights over the education system when in fact they are merely its servants.”

After further, and comparatively unproductive, ranting along those lines he gets to this -

And if previous government-union showdowns are any guide, a resounding defeat for the PPTA would leave the union weakened and demoralised, clearing the decks for a slew of potentially beneficial education reforms that have previously been put in the too-hard basket for fear of teacher resistance.

A few that come to mind are education vouchers, which would enable parents to “buy” their children’s education at the school of their choice; performance-based pay, which would reward and incentivise good teachers and strip away the protection enjoyed by non-performers; bulk funding, which would shift power from the central bureaucracy to school boards; and an end to the perverse Labour-imposed system of zoning, which locks the poor into mediocre schools and creates exclusive zones of privilege (as reflected in stratospheric real estate prices) around sought-after ones.

None of these proposals are radical. They seem that way only because the teacher unions have opposed them so vehemently, knowing that the national union structure – the source of their power and control – would probably start to unravel if they were adopted.

For some quite puzzling reason he then spends the last two paras negating the whole of his prior argument -

Good, hard-working teachers deserve far more honour and recognition than they get under the present structure, which supports and protects poor performers under the guise of “collegiality”.

Is it an anti-union rant, then? No. I believe strongly in unions and have held office in one myself. What I object to is the abuse of union power. The teacher unions exert far more control over the education system than is healthy or democratic. They do it only because they have been able to bully successive governments into letting them. But the time has come for the education of our children (and grandchildren, in my case) to be liberated from their grasp.

The first sentence under that last c&p is in many respects the crux. The first sentiment I agree with 100%. That is the truth.

What follows, once again, is the consequence of over-simplification –
…which supports and protects poor performers under the guise of “collegiality”.

The pity is that it is also one of the first fundamentals in the debate.

I want to close this first part by taking a wider view of education. It is not, as Karl states, that teacher unions have taken control of the education system, or that they might even want to do this. It is not, as I have seen recently opined in the press, that teachers are engaged in a covert action to instil socialism into the sub-conscious of their students.

There is another factor which has to be explored and overcome. It centres on the relationship between the education system and the community. It is the fundamental behind the what, by whom, and why of education. It has nothing whatsoever to do with labour union power, who runs the education system, the involvement of government, or whether education vouchers will solve the perceived difficulties of “education”.

For education to succeed, we (our society) all need to be very clear on all of the following.

  • The definition of “education”.

  • The objectives education is required to attain.

  • The distribution of education as a public good.

Back in the good old days – Neolithic or thereabouts – education was very simple. You either learned how to get and provide food and shelter or you perished. Simple and elegant.

More recently, education as we think of it was limited to the privileged few; nobility and religieuse. Outside of these groups education would have perhaps come from craft apprenticeship or direct learning; most often provided by parents and wider family.

The modern world has removed all barriers to education; there are no longer the class and craft divisions; there is an almost infinite increase in the complexity and depth of the knowledge required to “survive”.

The removal of those barriers has created challenges which are still not resolved; they are not unique to NZ; they are the foundation of this debate; they are the “who gets what, why, and how much” of education in this modern world.


Anonymous said...

Du Fresne rolls out the tiresome old arguments used by National party politics from time immemorial.

...performance-based pay, which would reward and incentivise good teachers and strip away the protection enjoyed by non-performers; bulk funding, which would shift power from the central bureaucracy to school boards; and an end to the perverse Labour-imposed system of zoning, which locks the poor into mediocre schools and creates exclusive zones of privilege (as reflected in stratospheric real estate prices) around sought-after ones

Performance-based pay is all very well in theory, but nobody has yet been able to determine exactly how to administer it. When our elected leaders trot out this feeble old anti-teacher ploy, just ask them to set the example with performance-based pay for MPs.

As for the 'poor' being locked into low-decile schools by zoning, 'elite' schools have various means at their hands to keep out what they think of as riff-raff. For example, should there be a minor uniform infringement from a student the school can institute suspension - and of course fees, along with uniform requirements, are a big expense. So naturally in such a climate 'poor' students are immediately disadvantaged. We are a long way from egalitarianism in our education system.

Bulk funding is an adjunct to performance pay - the two go together like Atilla and Genghis (anachronisms notwithstanding!). I suspect that the voucher system (originally I think proposed by Ruth Richardson some years ago) would again be an extension of b.f. ... and the question arises as to who gets vouchers? And how are they administered? I find it hard to believe that vouchers will lead to better education.

Teachers have always had to fight for better conditions and better pay - and of course teachers by and large need to have a united voice, so it follows that the unions are powerful. When people like Du Fresne realise is that if teachers didn't need the collective voice, the union membership would drop because said union is unnecessary, then teachers would be getting decent pay and conditions.

So, probligo, you make valid points in your blog.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the multiple entries here...either my browser or my fingers went haywire in the editing process.

The probligo said...

Tidied, assuming that the last was the most correct... if there were any difference between them.