Undermining the expertise of teachers is a losing bet: why factory-model education reforms just won’t win

By Melanie Ralph

Suites of ready-made resources may be a crutch for some teachers, but we stand to lose the best and brightest if we pursue more top-down reforms that would deskill teachers and kick a struggling profession while it’s already down.

Recently, think tank The Grattan Institute published a report titled Ending the lesson lottery: How to improve curriculum planning in schools.  It investigates the “complex and time-consuming” demands of effective teaching, which, according to the report, “relies on high-quality curriculum materials.” It claims that “many Australian teachers are being left to fend for themselves” with regards to curriculum and lesson planning, and that because teaching varies from one classroom to the next, student achievement is being impeded, creating “a lesson lottery” for both students and teachers.

Consider the odds of winning lottery.  Apparently, the odds of claiming the jackpot in a Powerball draw are 1 in 292.2 million. Therefore, it is offensive and grossly unfair to suggest that the odds are this remote of a teacher creating high-quality materials, or of a student in an Australian school receiving effective teaching.

Yet, in true Grattan Institute form, the irony is on point, in that their humble intention of investigating teacher workloads – which are undoubtedly an important issue – only further entrenches the widespread belief that teachers are incapable of doing the core business of their job:  lesson planning and curriculum design.   

Most concerning is that their calls for a top-down approach in which all students receive “common” learning experiences are being listened to at a federal level.  For instance, Grattan would like to see governments or external providers “ensure every school and teacher has access to a suite of comprehensive, high-quality curriculum materials,” and this call is echoed in the Draft National Teacher Workforce Action Plan, which recommends the development of “optional supports” and resources that are adaptable to help reduce workload.

On the surface, it seems harmless enough; both documents hint at the reform being optional. But the Grattan Institute goes a step further down a path that should concern teachers and the wider community.  Grattan recommends that the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST) be updated from their current expectation that, even at a graduate level, teachers should be able to design lesson plans and programs, to instead “clarify that teachers are not expected to develop curriculum materials individually.” 

No one would argue against the good logic of having shared resources within collaborative teams, nor individual schools investing in ‘suites’ of quality resources to support those teachers who need it; think textbooks (yep, these still exist and have a place), digital libraries, mentoring, or school-based professional development in curriculum design. 

But it is deeply worrying to propose expensive, factory-model reforms that aim to eliminate the inevitable variation in teaching and learning across classrooms, and that undermine the professional autonomy of teachers by fundamentally altering the very reasonable standards upon which the nation agreed to ensure quality teaching.

The message here is that because lesson planning is hard, teachers shouldn’t have to do it.  What’s next?  Should we change the professional standard that expects teachers to differentiate, because meeting the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities (APST 1.5) is too hard?

The reality is that ready-made lessons are not what most teachers in Australia are asking for. 

Imagine a group of chefs are crying out for better pay, more time to update menus, better resources in their kitchen, and more time to collaborate with other chefs.  Now imagine their managers respond by investing in microwavable, ready-made meals prepared by “experts” from outside their restaurant to eliminate the “high degree of variation” across restaurants and reduce the “unsustainable workload.”   

Talk about offensive.  The chefs weren’t even complaining about the cooking – that’s the best part!  They’re asking for the time and resources to be better chefs, just as teachers are asking for the time and resources to do their job effectively, as well as for pay that matches the complexities and value of their work.  For many teachers, myself included, curriculum design is one of the true joys of the job.

But both the government and the Grattan Institute seem unable to read the room when it comes to what Australian teachers actually want. For instance, Grattan’s recommendations fly in the face of research that shows when we enact ‘top down’ directives that teachers must ‘take up’ we actually write teachers out of the policy process, “rendering them “simply as ciphers who ‘implement’”.  This system has been described as a form of ‘remote control’, “in which ‘“experts” from outside the school establish the goals of schooling, the specific policy interventions to achieve them, and the ways to assess them; while school-based educators are charged with the task of implementing it all, and are held responsible for the outcomes.”

Jal Mehta of Harvard University describes these kinds of reforms as “industrial-age” and while some – particularly those who are not teachers – could interpret them as rational approaches to helping teachers with their workload, Mehta explains that “in practice this system does not work well because teaching is a complex activity that is hard to direct and improve from afar. The factory model is appropriate to simple work that is easy to standardize; it is ill suited to disciplines like teaching that require considerable skill and discretion.”

Instead, Mehta argues that like in the professional models of medicine, law, engineering, or accounting, consistency of quality should be less about “holding individual practitioners accountable” and more about “building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed, and then using their professions’ standards to guide their work.”

Indeed, the Australian professional standards for teachers, created in 2011, already “serve as a quality assurance mechanism to improve the overall quality of Australian teaching.”  Looking over even the graduate level descriptors of the standards reveals how demanding and complex the job is.  This should surprise no one.  But this is no reason to enact a ‘remote control’ system of curriculum design which would, over time, deskill teachers and fuel more toxic teacher-bashing in Australia.  Remember, teachers are already called ‘duds’, ‘lazy’, ‘bottom feeders’, and ‘dumb,’ – I shudder to contemplate the discourse if teachers are no longer expected to plan and design curriculum.  

Ironically, Grattan refer to teachers as “experts” who need to have ownership of teaching and learning, yet, characterise them as seemingly not quite expert enough to make the “huge number of decisions” involved in designing a unit on Ancient Egypt for Year 7s.  In a longwinded anecdote, they describe the “tall order” it is to expect teachers to have a “sufficiently solid grasp of ancient Egyptian history” to teach a Year 7 History class. But because most teachers “aren’t experts in Ancient Egypt” it is suggested that the task of lesson planning and curriculum design should be transferred to experts to make ‘high quality resources.’

But is it a tall order to expect that teachers have a solid grasp of content?  Because we can’t possibly be ‘experts’ on every topic we teach, should we therefore defer to distant experts who will sit in corporate offices writing Year 7 lesson plans?  It’s laughable. 

If this is the case, I’m done for once my Year 12’s find out I’m not an expert in Shakespeare.  And Mr Luckley is, too, if the kids catch on that he’s not an expert in Ancient China and the Persian War.  Talking to Mr Luckley, who has been teaching for 5 years, about how he’ll prepare for this tall order, he told me he’ll use a combination of our school’s textbooks, his own reading and research, some materials shared within his team, and some materials he will create himself to design the unit.  Indeed, the nature of the job is that one will need to fend for themselves sometimes in this journey. But instead of simply cutting this requirement altogether and outsourcing the work, I’d argue that Mr Luckley and his students will benefit more from his expertise being developed in-house. 

In fact, over the last 14 years of my full-time teaching career, I’ve found this kind of bowerbird process of sourcing content from multiple sources, including colleagues, the internet, books, and local experts, to work very well, and I have become the effective teacher I am today because of it.  The expertise lies not in being an expert on every topic, but in curating and creating content, as well as engaging students.  Sometimes, even world-class experts can be the worst teachers.   For instance, Albert Einstein biographer Walter Isaacson summarized that although he was a brilliant physicist, “Einstein was never an inspired teacher, and his lectures tended to be regarded as disorganized.”

But according to Grattan, it’s this apparent lack of expertise and looseness in curriculum decision making that creates the “widespread variation in teaching and learning between classrooms.”  Yes, Mr Jones in Kirribilli will teach Ancient Egypt differently to Ms Smith in Caboolture, and even if they used the same high-quality resource, their lessons would be totally different because a teacher’s personality can be the “most significant variable” in a classroom.

We know that a teachers’ personality influences student success.  For instance, in one study, students described the traits of ‘liked’ teachers as being conscientious, open, agreeable, emotionally stable, and creative, while traits of a ‘disliked’ teachers included being suspicious and antagonistic towards others, using ineffective teaching methods, harming self-esteem, being an unhappy teacher, and lacking classroom management skills.  Thus, variation is inevitable because even if using the same high-quality resource, both a ‘liked’ and ‘disliked’ teacher would deliver a lesson differently and no high-quality resource can compensate for an ineffective or disliked teacher. 

Additionally, though the report claims the “big pay-off” of this approach is that teachers can save up to three hours a week, any effective teacher would need to spend time familiarising themselves with the content before delivery. Surely some background reading is necessary should a pesky student ask a pesky question that can’t be addressed in the materials provided.  What then?  Call the experts?

To dumb down the job by deskilling teachers is to kick a struggling profession while it’s already down – and we simply cannot afford to take this path.  Public perception of the profession has the potential to “either energise or demoralise” teachers, and the sad reality is that “teachers have reported frustration and disappointment that they are so publicly denounced.” 

Take a look at the unprecedented challenges teachers have navigated over the last few years in extremely challenging conditions.  Not only this, but Babak Dadvand, senior lecturer at La Trobe School of Education, refers to a ‘moral crisis’ that the teaching workforce has been grappling with for years.  The crisis, he says, “is rooted in despair when teachers face persistent and chronic challenges to the values that animate their work,” and that “teachers’ morale and their sense of career optimism” has been negatively impacted by “inadequate remuneration, unsustainable workloads, administrative burdens, and growing bureaucratic requirements.”

Despite this, Grattan drives the boot into teachers further, scolding them for using *gasp* the internet to find materials, claiming “the methods teachers use for planning only exacerbate the problem.”  Because sites that teachers use frequently like YouTube, Teachers Pay Teachers, or Twinkl, “do not have robust vetting processes to ensure the materials are high-quality,” Grattan claim “the result is that teachers use materials of varying quality in their classes.” 

But although the sites themselves do not have a robust vetting process, let’s remember that real teachers in real schools do use their human brains to vet material.  I’m even vetting material from the internet right now to construct this article! 

Sure, some teachers vet better than others, but this kind of pedantic nit-picking – such as criticizing teachers for accessing the internet to find materials – detracts from what Nicole Mockler describes as the root causes of the education crisis, such as inadequate and inequitable funding and unreasonable administrative loads.  It is problematic, she says, to focus on the “purported deficiencies of individual teachers” rather than on the “collective capacity to improve teaching.”

Oddly, both Grattan and the Federal Education minister cite Queensland’s Curriculum into the Classroom, or C2C, program as an apparent success story in helping teachers by rolling out ‘high-quality’ curriculum materials.

Yes, Education Queensland has been there, done that.

In 2012 they invested in teaching and learning materials – such as lesson plans, unit plans and assessment instruments – to guide teachers as they introduced the Australian Curriculum.

But the project was plagued from the start.  The rollout at the time was described as “chaos” with “total confusion” and then Queensland Teachers’ Union president, Kevin Bates, acknowledged Education Queensland did not have “sufficient bandwidth” to handle the required resources.  Even now, school internet speeds in Queensland are reportedly 200 times lower than New South Wales benchmarks.  I’d laugh out loud, but it’s just too sad.

Additionally, teachers reported finding C2C “really time consuming to have to look through everything and to follow the links” and said that they had to put extra work in to differentiate and modify content that did not match student capabilities.  Further, a colleague of mine remembers the resources were “not particularly interesting and they could be dated” and that there was “no sense of regional or community differences.” 

This reflects reports that C2C content was dated even when first introduced because resources could only use material that was out of copyright or made freely available by those who owned the copyright.  This was no fault of the curriculum writers of C2C, who were no doubt intelligent and talented practitioners just doing their job.  But it was entirely the fault of the cost-cutting bureaucrats behind the scenes.  

Perhaps most troubling about the C2C program was the suggested interference by the LNP Campbell Newman government at the time, who “vetoed” some resources, and “as such, lesson plans were held up to scrutiny via the “Courier Mail test” or whether they would hit the newspaper for content Newman’s government might determine was partisan.”

Shockingly, here we are in 2022, and as yet even the Grattan report tells us “there has been no independent evaluation of the quality of C2C materials or a publicly reported evaluation of their impact on student learning.”

That’s right – nobody knows conclusively whether C2C had any impact on students or teachers.  Talk about a losing bet. 

The C2C model tells us all we need to know about top-down curriculum reforms: approaches that get ‘rolled out’ tend to roll over teachers.  They are often rushed and reactive, and evidently the ongoing upkeep (and Government interest) is unfeasible and unaffordable. 

A more viable plan is to invest in training and retaining teachers who are flexible, creative, adaptable, collegial, and collaborative, and to create systems in which they can thrive.  We need teachers who have excellent social awareness and relationship skills; teachers who can meet the ‘tall order’ of the role, and who have high self-efficacy, that is “teachers with a strong belief in their own ability to ‘get the job done’,” because it’s those teachers who “have the biggest impact on a student’s learning.”

How are we helping teachers to meet these demands and get the job done if we carve up the job description and outsource their core work?  More immediately, who cares about a suite of high-quality resources if we have no one to deliver them?  Afterall, the Government is predicting a shortfall of 4000 teachers in Australia by 2025, with “NSW and Queensland expected to bear the brunt of that deficit.”

Ready-made resources may be a crutch for some teachers, but we stand to lose the best and brightest if we pursue more ‘top-down’ reforms that lower the bar for all. 

Besides the cost of losing more teachers, the financial cost of these programs is eye watering.  While there is no public information on the cost of C2C, Grattan’s proposal is estimated to cost “about $15-to-$20 million per major subject area” for Foundation to Year 10 in the subjects Literacy/English, Humanities and Social Sciences, Maths, and Science. 

Teachers of senior classes:  sorry, but you’ll have to continue to fend for yourself. 

I’m no expert, but on the low end of $15 million, this estimation equates to $75 million dollars – and the approach would clearly require additional funds for upkeep and monitoring. It is quite the wager to bet that external experts could write better lessons on Ancient Egypt than the teacher who knows their students and the school context.

Let’s be clear.  Sharing resources and working collaboratively in a school is a no-brainer and should be encouraged.  But the last thing Australian teachers need is more overhauls of school approaches, more audits, more reviews, more quality-assurance mechanisms, or more public admonishment about their perceived deficiencies. 

Someone who knows this is Michael Fullan, former Dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto. In Canada, Fullan successfully transformed Ontario’s Education system by empowering teachers and challenging top-down models of system change.  He observed that “Governments have become less and less effective at leading system change. The old model – prioritize and implement – is no longer suitable. It cannot generate innovation and learning fast enough for the demands of the 21st century.”

Perhaps we should also look to Finland, the “poster child for school improvement,” where “teachers and schools are responsible for their own work and also solve most problems rather than shift them elsewhere,” and where “schools provide time for regular collaboration…and professional development.”

Then there’s Singapore, where the Ministry of Education “reduced curriculum content to create white space for teachers.”  In this model, “teachers can use the freed space and time to customize lessons, develop instructional content and materials, and use a broader range of pedagogical and assessment modes that are more finely tailored to the strengths, interests, and needs of their students.”  Most teachers in Singapore have about 14 hours of academic teaching time per week, with some senior teachers having up to 19 hours of professional planning and learning time per week.  Comparatively, Queensland primary school teachers currently get two hours and thirty minutes of non-contact time per week. 

While Australian politicians pine over the academic results of these high-performing nations, they continuously fail to consider the approaches that lead to system-wide change. 

These nations prove it’s a win-win when governments discard industrial models of education reform, and instead invest in and value the expertise of teachers by giving them autonomy and space to collaborate, design, refine, and focus on the core business of their jobs.

When the stakes are this high, anything that falls short is a losing bet.

Copyright © 2022 by Melanie Ralph. 

2 thoughts on “Undermining the expertise of teachers is a losing bet: why factory-model education reforms just won’t win

    1. Barbara, thank you for commenting and for reading! I always love to hear from you on here and am unsurprised you’ve had similar thoughts. It felt good to finally put all into a cohesive article – and I hope it crosses Jason Clare’s path. Have a lovely holiday season 🙂

      Like

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