Monday, April 16, 2007

Performing teacherhood

Julie Bishop was on the radio the other day talking about how awful it is that her idea of performance-based pay as a way of 'improving the performance of teachers' has been knocked back by all the state governments. 'Well, it was a good idea,' she said huffily, and then segued into "never miss a chance to bash the other side" auto-spin by remarking that the state [implication: Labor] governments probably didn't have any ideas of their own.

I don't know if 'idea' is really the word she wanted. Performance-based pay for teachers is wrong in so many ways that it would take more time than anyone has to unpack it all.

For a start, implementation of the idea that there's limitless potential for 'improvement' in human 'performance' is one that, as we now know, can end up driving people to suicide. And the idea that such changes are needed begs the question of whether teachers are doing their job inadequately -- which, as is clear to anyone who has the foggiest notion of what is currently happening in schools, is manifestly not what the problem is. The only people who think schoolteachers are not grotesquely underpaid and overworked are those who have never taught in schools and don't know anyone who does. This group contains a large subset of parents who think teachers should be doing their parenting work for them.

But the main issue seems to me the total dehumanisation of both teachers and students that's written into this kind of thinking. The idea of performance-based pay rests on the belief that human effort can be satisfactorily quantified, which of course it can't. Further, it would set teachers against each other and create a climate of suspicion, envy and unrelenting hierarchy. It's the (incidentally union-busting) 'divide and conquer' method of classic wedge politics: undermine any form of collectivity by setting up a divisive infrastructure. I'd really love to know how much Bishop is aware of this herself and how much's she's simply saying what she's been told to say.

But worst of all, what this kind of thinking suggests is that a school student is some kind of empty vessel which must be filled, and which has no active part in the education process at all. It implies that the student is a passive recipient of either 'good' or 'bad' teaching and that his or her own attitudes and efforts don't come into it.

Don't these people actually remember their own childhoods? My memory of school is that how well or badly I did from year to year and subject or subject depended almost totally on my own behaviour. I got some brilliant marks for subjects taught by incompetent and/or hostile and/or burnt-out teachers, and some terrible marks for others taught by brilliant, funny, hard-working ones. And the best help I ever got out of a teacher (she brought me her own old notes on the Impressionist painters from her Fine Arts MA at the Sorbonne) came as a direct result of my showing a bit of real interest and intiative in my work.

My school assignment and exam results had everything to do with my own aptitudes and preoccupations and almost nothing to do with what happened in the classroom. And the idea either that my brilliant maths teacher or my bloody awful BLANK and BLANK teachers (this is Adelaide: there's bound to be someone reading this who knows who I'm talking about) should have been held responsible by way of their pay packets for the fact that I wasn't very good at maths but was really interested in BLANK and BLANK is ludicrous and desperately unfair.

Is this what happens when pollies blindly follow the ideology of their parties? Is the economic-rationalist notion that human beings are merely quanitifiable units something that these people really believe? Or have they just stopped bothering to see whether the ideology matches up with the daily life as we know and live it?

But in the meantime, Ms Bishop, here's an idea for improving the performance of teachers. Leave them the hell alone, and stop putting even more unwanted and unwarranted stress on them than the load they're already carrying.


Anonymous said...

I work in oe of SA's universities and am annoyed at how the students are referred to a "clients" these days...they are STUDENTS, f'heaven's sake!

Pavlov's Cat said...

That's exactly, but exactly, a part of the dehumanisation thing I mean: the reducing of an intangible human relationship to an inhuman and simple (-minded) commercial exchange. One of my sisters, who is a nurse, went ballistic a few years ago when the hospital instructed them to start referring to their patients as 'clients'; I too was outraged, and said 'It'll be students next, ha ha.'

I thought I was joking. No such luck.

robert merkel said...

PC: don't people distinguish on such things (and get paid differently) in other professions all the time?

Are you arguing that the idea is bad in all professions, or that there is something special about schoolteaching which makes it particularly unsuitable for merit pay schemes?

Kathleen said...

Hi PC - really enjoy your blog!

A friend teaches music at a private school that takes a Julie Bishop view of performance in teaching. When told she had to improve her students' marks before the final examinations, she replied, "But I can't give them talent for the subject if they don't have it." "Well that's what their parents are paying you to do," came the reply.

I recently finished a few years as a university teacher. The students-as-clients idea led to me receiving literally hundreds of emails from students - asking for help with every possible type of task, even ones that required almost no initiative from them. It's one of the reasons I'm glad to be on the administrative/research side of the fence now.

After all, what happens with marking if "the client is always right"? Reminds me of a piece in the Oz's Higher Ed supplement a week or so ago - opinion vs. fact.


Pavlov's Cat said...

"don't people distinguish on such things (and get paid differently) in other professions all the time?"

Depends on the professions. Also, I'm not sure what you mean by "such things".

"Are you arguing that the idea is bad in all professions"

No. Not all professions are based on inter-human-being dynamics the way that teaching and nursing, for example, are. 'Teaching', like 'nursing' or whatever, is the name of a relationship, not the name of a product or of a commodity. Merit-based pay is fine in business where results are objectively quantifiable, like how much typing one can get through, cars one can assemble, cakes one can bake or houses one can sell in a day.

"Are you arguing that there is something special about schoolteaching which makes it particularly unsuitable for merit pay schemes?"

Not 'something special about schoolteaching' in particular or in the way I think you mean, no. I'm arguing that "merit" pay schemes are not suitable (not the other way round) for any work whose point is for one human being to have a good effect on another human being, and/or for any work in which, again, the results aren't clearly and objectively measurable and uncontestable. Sorry, I thought I'd made a clear and detailed argument in the post about that.

Kathleen, the notion that it's possible to pay someone to give one's kid talent is exactly the kind of robotic thinking that I'm whingeing about. Spot on. But how can people be that dumb?

Dany le roux said...

PC,bless your tortoise shell person for this fine piece of writing.It is the best and most precise discussion of this subject I have seen in print since Senator Bishop started spruiking this crap in an effort to ingratiate herself to the aspirational.Your words should be syndicated throughout the land.
Right wingers have never liked teachers because education can be a ticket to a prosperous career and this might displace one of their number who are of course (in their heads) born to rule.
One should not take your idea of personal responsibility for learning to its absolute limit ie young students should not be made totally responsible for their learning because there is scope for a teacher to inspire enthusiasm or excitement for a subject.
I think there is even something to be said for the view expressed in former times by religious schools that a state of grace must exist in a classroom for learning to truly take place . If this is so it makes a mockery of the idea of performance pay.

Pavlov's Cat said...

'One should not take your idea of personal responsibility for learning to its absolute limit ie young students should not be made totally responsible for their learning because there is scope for a teacher to inspire enthusiasm or excitement for a subject.'

Yes, of course, and also to kill any such enthusiasm or excitement stone dead. My real point was that being taught is a two-way dynamic and that education is something one builds for oneself, ideally with good help, rather than something one does or does not get handed to one on a plate. I probably should have enlarged on that a bit more, but the post was getting very long as it was.

Anonymous said...

Coincidentally, today's Sydney Morning Herald notes that the thing most Nobel prizewinners have in common is an inspiring teacher around ages 12-14. Of course! -- but hard to quantify.

It's also worth noting how geared toward maths and science this "performance-related" stuff is; as well as so ridiculously short-term.

Personally, my great moments in education were almost always extra-curricular. I still think fondly of the teacher who played us the Fred Dagg tapes for a whole English period because he found them so funny -- showing us that he found writing enjoyable for its own sake was one of the few golden moments in an otherwise bleak school years.
Coy Lurker

dogpossum said...

Apparently performance based pay... employment is something unimelb are into...
It frightens me.

Mikhela said...

If I was a teacher confronted with performance based pay, I could:
- let slip the test questions before the event
- keep the less gifted ones out of my class/school
- adjust their answers after I collect up their tests (teachers in somewhere - maybe Michigan? did this for a few years after performance based pay was introduced there)
My understanding of market economics suggests that if there's an incentive, creative humans will find many more strategies

blonde canadian said...

PC, thank you for an inspired post. As someone who has recently left the teaching profession, I found you've nailed my views exactly.