Manufactured panic around teacher quality obscures the bigger issue

By Nicole Mockler

Politicians of all persuasions use the language of panic and crisis to whip up fear about the ‘quality’ of teachers, and their teaching.

The consequence of this deliberate attempt to shape public opinion, is that ‘quality’ has effectively become a smoke screen, obscuring the real and serious educational equity problems we have in Australia.

Equity is the equal opportunity for all children to get a decent education in schools that are adequately funded and resourced.

Some of my recent research has looked at how the language of panic and crisis are playing a role in public discussions about schooling in Australia.

In 2011, Australian writer David Marr wrote Panic, a collection of essays in which he examined the use of moral panic by Australian politicians in the shaping of public discourse in relation to different areas of social life.  On the dynamic of panic within Australian society, he wrote:

I’ve come to believe the fundamental contest in Australian politics is not so much between Right and Left as panic and calm…This is an issue that goes deeper than division between the parties.  It’s about the odd willingness of Australia’s leaders to beat up on the nation’s fears.  They coarsen politics. They narrow our sympathies. They make careers for themselves in this peaceful and good-hearted country in states of exaggerated alarm…

Education is fertile ground for panic, as it provides a mass point of reference for the electorate: most voters attended school themselves and a large proportion of the population at any given time has children at school.

As Marr suggests, the key consequence of moral panic is fear.  Along with panics regarding ‘law and order’ (pink jumpsuits for bikies, anyone?) or the ‘takeover’ by immigrants and asylum seekers, educational panic seeks to undermine social trust while at the same time offering a simple solution to a complex problem.  In this case the solution is “improving teacher quality.”

I recently analysed 42 Prime Ministerial and Ministerial speeches, media releases and interviews, along with related print media articles, produced over a period of one week in September 2012.  The week in question began with the announcement, in an address given by the then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the National Press Club, of the ‘National Plan for School Improvement’ (NPSI).  The NPSI was the long-awaited Government response to the Independent Review of School Funding conducted by a panel chaired by David Gonski AC (otherwise known as the ‘Gonski review’).

The Government’s response at the time was surprising.  While the Gonski review had been set up to make recommendations about achieving greater equity, the response that came out the other end was largely about quality.  Largely absent from the ‘solution’ was any sense that the ‘problem’ was one of fairness and equity.  The NPSI looked more like a response to a review of teacher quality itself.

The claim that “nothing matters more to the quality of a child’s education than the quality of the teacher standing in front of the class room” is dominant in these texts.  This notion is deeply troubling because it discounts students’ background and simplifies the education discussion to the point where success or failure hinges on the quality of the teacher ‘in front of’ the class.

Kevin Donnelly, long-term opponent of “progressive fads” in education, like current Education Minister Christopher Pyne, extended the argument to suggest that the key problem here lies in “teacher training institutes”:

Attempting to lift teacher quality, by mentoring beginning teachers and ensuring trainee teachers have more practical experience, will come to naught unless teacher training institutes are forced to base what they teach on evidence-based research about effective pedagogy and less on postmodern, new-age, politically correct theory.

Accepted is the claim is that teachers are not effective enough, not literate and numerate enough, not skilled enough, seduced by dubious ‘fads’ and entranced by political correctness.

As Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, argued in a recent address on this issue in the US:

We need to stop chasing silver bullets and shibboleths if we are going to create genuine educational opportunities for all.  And finally, if American education is to improve we will need to support rather than blame our teachers.

The issue raised by Darling-Hammond of support rather than blame for teachers, is a salient one here in Australia. No matter how far we see that our educational problems as a society are complex consequences of a lack of equity, teacher quality is repeatedly named as the problem that needs to be fixed.

Australian politics has been particularly volatile in the months since the completion of my study.  First we saw the exit of Gillard and Garrett, the key champions of the NPSI, and subsequently the defeat of the Rudd-Gillard Government by the Abbott Liberal Government.

However the points I make about the role of panic and crisis in manipulation by politicians are perhaps even more salient now.

Current Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne tells us our education performance is falling according to OECD measures (as did Julia Gillard) but he said,

It is not money or smaller classrooms that make a difference because we have increased spending by 44 per cent in the past decade and reduced classroom numbers by 40 per cent. It is the quality of our teacher education training and the way we teach that has impact on student performance.

He also said at the same time,

Teacher education quality has been put in the too-hard basket for too long. A quality education system must be underpinned by quality teachers. The profession knows it, parents want it, our students deserve it and the nation needs it.

In other words, it’s all about teacher quality.  No equity issues to look at here, folks. (Read the full text of his piece HERE.)

All of this is not to argue against accountability.  Teachers must be accountable for their practice – to their students, their colleagues and their school communities.  But the kind of accountability embedded in critiques and crises of quality not only undermines trust in the profession but is also unlikely to bring about actual improvements in quality, despite ‘ticking all the boxes’.  The sad truth is that the vision of ‘teacher quality’ embedded in this version of accountability is an impoverished one.

Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the goal of attracting the ‘best and brightest’ into the teaching profession will be met under the current conditions and trajectory of accountability. What is required is perhaps a more intelligent form of accountability, described thus by Onora O’Neill, a teacher, philosopher and crossbench member of the House of Lords, in her BBC Reith Lectures in 2002:

Perhaps the present revolution in accountability will make us all trustworthier. Perhaps we shall be trusted once again. But I think that this is a vain hope – not because accountability is undesirable or unnecessary, but because currently fashionable methods of accountability damage rather than repair trust. If we want greater accountability without damaging professional performance we need intelligent accountability…Intelligent accountability, I suspect, requires more attention to good governance and fewer fantasies about total control.

For those of us within the teaching profession, there are specific implications and imperatives from this manufactured ‘crisis’.  We need to understand more deeply the political context of our work and the political processes that capture education.

We need to play a part in public debate and discussions of education, to address misconceptions and misunderstandings, to reject the premise of politically expedient yet educationally empty strategies and to suggest good alternatives.  We all – teachers, teacher educators, educational researchers – have a part to play in this.

Anything less is likely to contribute to, rather than address, a very real crisis of educational quality.


Mockler2Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests include teacher professional learning and identity and the politics of education, and she teaches in the areas of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice and research methods. Her published work includes Student Voice: Beyond Legitimation and Guardianship (Springer, Forthcoming) and the Australian Curriculum: Classroom Approaches series (Palgrave, 2013).  She is a member of the Executive of the Australian Association for Research in Education, an Associate Editor of Critical Studies in Education, and a General Editor of the book series Local/Global Issues in Education.


10 thoughts on “Manufactured panic around teacher quality obscures the bigger issue

  1. David Zyngier says:

    Nicole thanks for a great article. Once again we must challenge Pyne’s nonsense based on incorrect data from Ben Jensen at Grattan Institute. Not only has education funding NOT increased 44% – more like 18% if it is done on per student basis – but class sizes now are bigger on average than they were 30 years ago – and teachers teach more hours and to more diverse populations.

    It is all about equity of course – that is why Gonski is Goneski! Equity is NOT a priority for this government – unless it involves private equity!

    If teachers are not to blame then its the teacher educators – another inquiry has started Federally and another is about to start in Victoria.

  2. Nicole Mockler says:

    Thanks very much, David. Yes, I find the recent (-ish) trend toward naming teacher education as another crisis of teacher quality deserving of a quick fix (in the absence of the federal government employing any actual teachers to ‘fix’) very worrying.

    Its a case of ‘watch this space’, I guess…

  3. Anne says:

    Great article – good food for thought. It seems to me that the teaching profession is under attack more than it has been in quite some time. It’s actually quite scary when you think about it how little input the teacher at the coalface has into what gets taught through the policy trickle down effect, when really, they’re the ones who know their students, their needs, their capabilities and their interests. But obviously, we can’t be trusted.

  4. Nicole Mockler says:

    Thanks Anne. My own sense is that the impact of policy on classroom practice has become far more pervasive in the past decade or so, largely at the hands of initiatives such as standardised testing and the machinery that goes along with it. I do think that trust is a huge issue, and that the reinstatement of trust in the teaching profession should be a priority for any government seriously concerned with issues of ‘quality’ in education.

  5. Iain Macpherson says:

    A well-written article, Nicole. I understand the thrust entirely.

    Sadly the public gets lost in the (largely fraudulent) teacher quality argument. There’s a lot of traction developed in that argument by print media, radio talk tack mythology and the TV air time given to alarmists like Pyne.

    Devoted education reporters in major dailies are thin on the ground. Few of the people reporting education talk to classroom teachers or attempt to get to the depth of debates going on. It’s all ten-second news grabs and three/four word fear headlines with little or no analysis.

    Gone are the days of Anne Susskind (SMH) and Maralyn Parker (DT) explaining government policy or teacher objection/reaction thoughtfully.

    Community and parents are well-meaning but every man and his dog feels qualified to comment on education, no matter how many years have passed (since they were in a classroom) or how little relevance to the 21st Century classrooms we work in.

    I mentioned talk-back and phone-in radio. It serves almost no positive purpose in the education debate(s). People (usually 45-70 years old) phone in remembering some golden age when “everyone” was literate and numerate and the world was perfect and focus on one or two negatives about what they saw or heard at their grandchild’s school. They extrapolate one comment/action by a teacher or principal at an Easter hat parade or Friday assembly performance as the death knell of standards or the fall of Western comprehensive education.

    Teachers, by and large, are flexible, intelligent and highly adaptable. I’m in my 40th year (now teaching ICT to kindergarten and Stage 1 in a large primary school) and that was a job that did not exist when I started (1/2/75).

    My biggest problems in doing my job well are: (1) under-resourcing of schools and particular programs, (2) unreasonably high administrivia and record-keeping that few read or care about and (3) poor quality school maintenance that means buildings/spaces are not conducive to safe/comfortable learning. Add to that (4) T& D done by people who are tired and short on subject knowledge reading to teachers late in the day from powerpoint presentations that I could read myself in 1/3 of the time. In-depth inservice/T&D was buried and forgotten in the 1980s.

  6. Nicole Mockler says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful response Iain. I think the portrait you draw probably resonates with many teachers out there, unfortunately. The four issues you raise could provide a good starting point for thinking about what constitutes ‘quality’ in education.

  7. Iain Macpherson says:

    Further to my previous contribution point (2).

    I want to have modern education rethink “report cards”. Who is actually reading them and what are they getting anyway?

    For the 85th (90th?) time in my career, I have prepared reports (last week) before starting my World Cup long service leave.

    I had to report on the almost 400 students I see weekly in RFF lessons in ICT, Science and Mathematics at a K-6 school. The comments were 410-720 characters per child per subject space. 410 characters for Kindergarten ICT is barely 65 words to sum up a child’s 16 weeks since starting school. 720 characters to explain progress of talented maths candidates skills and achievements in Years 3-6 is not fair … about 115 words.

    In this day and age, I could say all that in under a minute but I’d rather look a pair of parents/carers in the eye and say what Karen or Robert can do and s/he need to redouble efforts or concentration to get best possible results. I want to say how Ken and Suzi work in a team or a group in problem-solving tasks.

    Instead, I am forced by some vague 1930s departmental “promise” to provide a written report each term or semester. Parents and carers, in the main focus on the A-E performance scale for “result’ and the 1-5 rating for “effort” as if there are really five levels and that their offspring are always a “4′ or a “1”.

    Few people read or care about teachers’ “whitewashed” comments any more because we are largely banned for “fear or litigation” or “irrational irate parent response” from saying what we actually believe about students’ progress these days.

    And don’t get me started on fearful line managers (assistant principals) and bosses (principals) wanting wholesale changes to large parts of the work I’ve just spent 25-30 hours per week writing for over a month from ANZAC Day to Queens Birthday weekend.

    The tired teacher is less effective during the daytime. I’d hope that when I am retired I’ll hear that this archaic burden is removed or all but removed from future teachers.

    Most of us are knowledgeable and articulate and willing to talk to parents. I prefer face-to-face with the proud/squirming/nervous child present but, in a pinch, I’ll settle for a telephone interview. The only piece of paper that needs to go home is an A5 with result and effort columns on a grid, a number for absences and a list of non-academic participations that we recognise. Keep it short and simple.

    The face-to-face interview has to be mandatory. And the teachers, me included have to be flexible for an evening or two at the least to give everyone their 20 minutes.

  8. Nicole Mockler says:

    I hear you Iain! Another one of those practices where we sometimes confuse quality with quantity, methinks…

  9. Kitty te Riele says:

    Thanks Nicole, for your important research and thoughtful piece. Within the AARE community your findings may be well accepted, but unfortunately likely to be surprising in the wider community. Hopefully you can get this out more broadly – the Conversation, newspapers, the project … but you’re probably onto that already!

  10. Nicole Mockler says:

    Thanks Kitty. 🙂

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