Sunday, February 14, 2010

Allan Peachey: Calling the Shots in Education

The debate over National Standards is interesting for what it tells us about who controls education policy in New Zealand. It also contains lessons for future education reform. The debate is simple. The Government wants National Standards. This was a significant policy platform for the 2008 election and the National Party was overwhelmingly voted into office. The parents clearly want National Standards and have expressed that view strongly. A lot of principals and teachers want National Standards. The teacher unions apparently don’t. How arrogant was it of the NZEI to dismiss parental support of the Standards by claiming that many parents do not understand them?!!

There is, I regret to say, a harsh reality about efforts at education reform in New Zealand. And not just in New Zealand for that matter. In the past teacher unions have had a far greater say than Government or parents in whether school reform will succeed or fail. Of recent memory is the bulk funding of teacher salaries. Bulk funding, despite its great success, was lost in 2001 after the 1999 change of government. Will the same thing happen with National Standards? Or will the wish of parents for once prevail? The answer will finally lie in the relationship between the teacher unions and the Labour Party. The price of teacher union support for the Labour Party in the 1990s was the abolition of bulk funding. Will the price of union support of the Labour Party in coming years be the abolition of National Standards? I invite Mr Mallard’s response to that. I wonder if Muriel will allow him a columnist’s spot for the simple purposes of answering that question? Incidentally it was the Labour Government of the 1980s, at the behest of a teacher union, that abolished the University Entrance exam, in my view one of the most useful exams in the New Zealand schooling system of the time. Another attempt to dodge accountability?

There is a pattern to teacher union behaviour in New Zealand. When a Labour Government is in office the unions are quiescent and expect to get their way. There has been the odd tiff over wages but that is always resolved in the union’s favour. How different it is when a National Government is in office. The union opposition to National Standards has nothing to do with their merit or their workability and everything to do with the fact that a National Government is in office.

It is time to be frank about how the teacher unions operate and their influence. It comes down to one simple thing. The day a National Government takes office the union branches in too many schools transform themselves into school-based branches of the Labour Party. And it is at that level that they can hinder efforts at school reform. Too often right of centre governments in New Zealand have had to accept union opposition to reform as inevitable and put reform effort in the too hard basket. Maybe this debate over National Standards will change that. In fact there are those like Rod Paige, former United States Secretary of Education, who would argue that the decline in the quality of public schooling corresponds to the rise in influence of the teacher unions. That proposition could be the basis of a future contribution.

For now, the debate over National Standards provides an opportunity for the public generally and parents in particular to place the NZEI under scrutiny. The unions have become too used to providing their explanations for why children are not learning and those explanations are often self-serving and therefore miss the point. In a pay negotiation the unions might argue that the quality of teaching is the single most important factor in whether students learn or not. But when it comes to opposing National Standards, or any other centre-right policy, it is factors other than the teacher that explain whether students learn or not. The days of the unions having it both ways are over. The overwhelming majority of parents want to like and respect their children’s teachers. I hope that the behaviour of teacher unions over this issue does not put that at jeopardy.

There are a couple of other points to note in this debate.

First, the unions have become very good at using the interests of children to justify their stand in opposition to Government policies. This is well illustrated by the class size debate. Class size is more about teachers and their workload than it is about students and learning. Personally, I would have rather had my children in classes of 30 with an outstanding teacher than in classes of 15 with a hopeless teacher. And I’d happily pay the outstanding teacher a lot more! And that’s what hinders genuine professional debate and why ultimately it is not possible for governments to engage successfully with the unions.

Secondly, more attention needs to be given to the employment status of principals. Principals are employed by Boards of Trustees and entrusted to lead their schools on behalf of the Board and in the interests of the children of the parents who elect the Board. So why is it that so many principals can get away with displaying a higher loyalty to their union? I have never believed that it is right that principals can and do belong to the same union as the teachers for whose performance they are responsible. I applaud those principals who don’t for they are in a much better position to give disinterested advice to their employing boards. Perhaps the teacher unions have this time bitten off a bit more than they can chew.

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