The theme I’d like to address over the next couple of days is something that seems to be getting lost in all the discussion over the Glaze report, and that is what I will call the “joy of learning”. I like to think that we’d prefer our children to love school, and to come out of it with a love of learning that will last them all their lives (of course we want them to have knowledge and skills too, but of what use are they if students aren’t interested in using them?) Who is on the frontlines, charged with passing this on to students?
Teachers, of course, and their administrators. During the past few weeks, I have read so many heartbreaking testaments to how teachers love their jobs, but are finding it more and more difficult to keep their joy in learning alive. The recent survey by Educators for Social Justice has just shared a “sneak peek” of its preliminary results, of what teachers love about their jobs – it is well worth seeing, and I look forward to the full results when they will tell us what they need to keep that up.
Yesterday, the teachers union announced they had received a strong mandate to strike over this issue. Keeping in mind that this would be an illegal strike, and teachers, in my experience are some of the most law-abiding people around, I think that this is an indication of the depths of conviction that they have about these issues. And the fact that they are not planning to strike right away, but instead want to talk with the Minister (who has said, fine, he’ll talk, but nothing’s going to change) shows how reluctant they are to disrupt student learning.
I am hoping that the talks with the Minister will work, and that when he is presented with some solid evidence from educational experts (like PISA, education academics and NS teachers in the classroom) he will have a change of heart, and mind. Perhaps learning that there is solid academic evidence from international studies like PISA that teacher job satisfaction is one of the biggest predictors of excellent academic outcomes will give him something to think about.
One of the recommendations from the Glaze report, “take assessment responsibility away from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and establish an independent Student Progress Assessment Office (SPAO) to develop high-quality student assessments and report directly to the public” has very ominous overtones to me. I taught in Britain about 16 years ago when their incredibly centralized examination system was beefed up – to the point where 7 year olds were taking them. It’s only become worse since then.
Today, I’d like to start addressing the issue of how standardized testing, when it is used to control teachers and students, can seriously interfere with the “joy of learning” in the classroom, and therefore with better outcomes for children. I wrote this piece about 4 years ago in an earlier draft of my book. I think it interesting that just yesterday, a half page ad in the Guardian newspaper (print version) was offering to pay people to train to be teachers – and this in a country where average post-secondary tuition is about $16,000 annually. There is a serious teacher shortage in Britain today.
Standardized Curricula and Examinations: Britain’s Case
Britain’s relentless drive to increase test scores has had a host of negative effects on students and teachers. In the decade since I taught there, the “reforms” have become more entrenched, “failing” schools have been closed, to the point that they have one of the worst records in the developed world for teacher recruitment and retention. Almost 50% of teachers leave the profession after 5 years. This is in spite of having relatively good salaries and benefits. Britain is an example of a system that has eroded teachers’ autonomy (deskilling them) and has led to them feeling undervalued. Parents want their children to feel valued…it is much more difficult for teachers to convey this to children when they feel undervalued themselves.
Comparison of PISA results for reading (mean scores)
What are some of the factors that have led to this situation? Britain’s top-down, centralized educational system, in which curriculum, and assessment are created at the national level, and foisted on schools can take a lot of blame. The highly standardized curriculum and testing that goes along with it leave little room for teachers’ creativity or initiative. The National Literacy and Numeracy hours were highly prescriptive lessons that had to be followed precisely. Right from the beginning in 1998, teachers pointed out that these plans did not meet the needs of many of the children, but they were not listened to. And, over the years, teachers have complained that they are forced to teach to the test, and this has resulted in the narrowing of the curriculum, to the point that it has become joyless and repetitive.
Then there was the drive to improve teaching, by establishing reward systems for effective teachers. When I was teaching in Britain, teachers at my school had to submit all their extracurricular hours, professional development activities and “successes” for consideration for advancement. I witnessed the time and stress that went into all this record-keeping, as well as the inherent unfairness. Why were some activities (like coaching football) counted, and others such as volunteering at the school fete, which took place in the evening, not? In addition, this system was competitive, pitting teachers against each other and encouraging them to look out only for themselves instead of collaborating with each other. For example, teachers would be more inclined to plan by themselves, so that when they experienced a “success” they would get all the credit.
Finally, the examination system, with its consequences for “failing” schools, puts huge pressures on teachers, and consequently on their students. Not least is the fact that teachers’ unions have been complaining about the extent of the testing for years, and have not been listened to. Then on top of the assessment that children go through, teachers have to put up with the OFSTED assessments of their schools every 4 years or so in which inspectors are free to barge into classrooms at any time. It is no wonder the job satisfaction rate among British teachers is so low!
A “Secret Teacher” (from a column in the British Guardian newspaper that allows teachers to write anonymously about their situation) says, “In the last few years of my teaching career some excellent, talented, charismatic teachers just disappeared. I remember one colleague was observed and “dropped in” on 30 times in one term after their results didn’t meet impossible targets. Who can endure that long? I know lots of teachers who have given up and resigned in July, quite exhausted by this process of performance management, only for their results to be among the best in a department when published in August. Monitoring and managing performance is not always a precise science.”
The Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw actually said, “If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all time low’ you know you are doing something right.” One wonders when the British educational establishment will recognize that when teachers have autonomy, trust and time to collaborate, their job satisfaction will be higher and they will be more likely to pass on their joy in learning to their students. This will lead to better educational outcomes – as has been shown over and over by PISA, and many other studies.