Q&A: Leading the change in education

I was recently interviewed for the American Educational Research Association’s Education Change SIG publication Lead the Change. The Q&A asked challenging and important questions about the field of educational change now and into the future, around the AERA 2021 theme of ‘accepting educational responsibility’. It’s wonderful to contribute to this publication alongside previous contributors such as Ann Lieberman, Yong Zhao, Pasi Sahlberg, Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, Alma Harris, Dennis Shirley, Diane Ravitch, Carol Campbell, Helen Timperley and Mel Ainscow. You can read my responses here in the Lead the Change publication, here in International Education News, and below.

Lead the Change (Ltc): The 2021 AERA theme is Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions. For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

Deborah Netolicky (DN): The rhetoric of education policy the world over is about the common good and quality, equitable outcomes for all. In Australia, we had the Melbourne Declaration (Barr et al., 2008) and now the Mparntwe Declaration (Education Council, 2019). Both declare an education goal of excellence and equity for all young people, and the building of a democratic, equitable, just, culturally diverse society that values Australia’s Indigenous cultures. Australia likes to imagine itself as a multicultural melting pot of inclusive diversity, yet, as in many countries, our rhetoric and our imagined national identity fall well short of our reality. As Suraiya Hameed, Marnee Shay, and Jodie Miller (Hameed et al., forthcoming) note, the concept of excellence in education for Indigenous students has been greatly under-theorised and requires a strengths-based rather than a deficit perspective. Racism, sexism, classism, religious discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, ableism, and the reverberations of our colonial past, persist. Inequities remain. Educational change is too often a political ball bounced back and forth, with governments making decisions based on short term political cycles and winning election votes, rather than on holding the line on sustained improvement for all.

Part of ‘accepting educational responsibility’ is working from a foundation of citizenship grounded in a shared moral purpose. Citizen-scholars and citizen-practitioners engage deeply with education committed to excellence, equity, and opportunity for all. We must not ignore the reverberations of past oppressions and the echoes of past violence in our current world. If we are to address the intensifying challenges that face society, education, and individuals, education scholars and practitioners need to make the implicit explicit, deeply interrogating systems, structures, policies, pedagogies, practices, and our own beliefs, behaviours, and language. Scholars, practitioners, and pracademic scholar-practitioners need to engage with, and provide safe spaces for, education debates, including, and especially, those that are uncomfortable and awkward, and that require us to examine our own motivations, biases, and privilege. As many authors argue in the forthcoming edited book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Equity, Democracy, and Inclusion (Netolicky, forthcoming), positive educational change requires challenging and providing alternatives to Western (that is, White, masculine, materialist, hetero) norms and paradigms.

“We need to engage with, and provide safe spaces for, education debates, including, and especially, those that are uncomfortable and awkward, and that require us to examine our own motivations, biases, and privilege.”

Decolonisation—deconstructing dominant ideologies and dismantling educational structures—is not enough. What is needed is not just the breaking down of systems of power and privilege, but also the building up of what we would like to exist in its place. This means including, embracing, and investing in Indigenous, culturally diverse, and culturally marginalised ways of knowing, being, teaching, and leading in education. We need these ways of knowing and doing to understand and apply inclusive policies and practices that serve all those in our communities, especially the most vulnerable.

LtC: Much of your work is informed by your positionality as a “pracademic” and the special understandings and experiences that come as a result. What would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience sitting in this specific space?

DN: Much of my scholarly work has involved looking at education, educational change, professional learning, and educational leadership through the lens of identity (e.g., Netolicky, 2017, 2019, 2020a). I have defined identity as the “situated, ongoing process through which we make sense of ourselves, to ourselves and to others” (Netolicky, 2020d, p.19). Examining education through the lens of identity allows us to remain focused on education as a human endeavour, wrestling with multiplicities, complexities, and tensions. In our forthcoming chapter, Claire Golledge and I (Netolicky & Golledge, forthcoming) advocate for what we call a wayfinding approach to school leadership that balances intuition with strategy, improvisation with systematisation, empathy with policy, the individual with the whole. This approach, and awareness of the multiple tensions navigated constantly by those working in schools, could be considered and engaged with by those in the field of educational change.

In the book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools (Netolicky, 2020d), I utilise my positionality as boundary spanning teacher-leader-researcher who works to bridge the gap between research and practice. The structure of the book mirrors the ways I bring a practice lens to scholarship, and a research lens to my daily work enacting theory into practice. In our upcoming Journal of Professional Capital and Community Special Issue—‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’—Trista Hollweck, Paul Campbell, and I (Hollweck et al., forthcoming) explore the identities, spaces, and tensions of what can be called pracademia. The multipart identities and multiplicitous spaces of pracademia involve simultaneous active engagement in education scholarship and practice.

Democratic educational change benefits from those operating in different educational spaces and also those operating between and across various educational arenas and communities. The pracademic whose day job is in the world of practice is free from the metrics and pressures of academia, free to engage in scholarship in some ways on their own terms, but also often in or beyond the margins of the academe. The pracademic whose day job is in a university is active in the practice of school-based education through working amongst and alongside practitioners, immersed in the work of school contexts, and engaging in scholarship ‘with’ rather than ‘to’ or ‘of’ those in schools. Often the in-between spaces involve unpaid bridging, sharing, and collaborating work.

Identity work—of pracademics, practitioners, or academics—can be part of scholarship that is a political act, edging from the margins of the academe towards the centre, in which we challenge ourselves to do “writing that matters – to us, to our communities, to our nations, to social justice, to the greater good” (Netolicky, 2017, p.101). Education theory and practice are always intertwined, but embracing the concept of pracademia in educational change is about intentionally embracing nexus and community. It is about co-creating a collective space shared by teachers, school leaders, scholars, policymakers, political advisors, and community members. It is about working within and across education spaces, and working together.

LtC: In some of your recent work regarding the future of education in a Post-COVID world, you speak to both the possibilities for a return to some practices and change for others. What do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice in the field, in educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students alike to create, as you say, reform for good?    

DN: Injustices and deficiencies in our education and social systems are being revealed during the pandemic. Often multiple and intersecting disparities such as racial, gendered, socioeconomic, and cultural inequities became evident in, for example: the significantly increased risk to women’s employment and livelihoods compared to men’s; and the increased risk of mortality from COVID-19 of Indigenous Australians, ethnic minority groups in the UK, and Black Americans, as compared to their White counterparts. The pandemic also accelerated educational change, forcing innovation and introspection in education (Netolicky, 2020b). The person—child, student, teacher, leader—has come into sharper focus. Care and collaboration rose to the top of the priority list in education (Doucet et al., 2020), as did increasingly flexible ‘whole-person’ approaches to judging student success and providing student pathways for future success. What has receded is a focus on standardised testing as education systems are forced to reflect on how the apparent success of education is measured, and negative impacts of cultures of competition, surveillance, and hyperaccountabilities. While tertiary entrance examinations went ahead in Australia in 2020, alternate admissions pathways were also introduced by Universities. These include calculation of a predicted Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) based on students’ Year 11 results, and a Special Tertiary Admissions Test available to all students including those studying vocational pathways at school. In the UK, examinations (GCSE, A-Level, Scottish Highers, and Scottish Advanced Highers) were cancelled in 2020 and 2021, replaced with aggregated teacher-assessed grades that currently form the basis of UCAS applications. US universities have varying admissions policies, but most are currently ‘test-optional’ for a year or more (some permanently), meaning applicants do not have to sit the SAT or ACT standardised college admissions test. Rather, US applicants are submitting portfolios of achievements, employment, and community involvement to demonstrate their readiness for university. Universities leading flexible admissions criteria and processes (including portfolio entry, virtual tours, and online interviews) may help to change the focus of schools towards preparing students for beyond school, rather than on succeeding in examinations at the end of school. These increasing flexibilities may also go some way to democratising the university admissions process for marginalised groups.

During periods of remote learning, educators asked themselves: (1) What is it that we’ve missed during remote education that we want to bring back to schooling and education?; and (2) What is it that has been removed that we do not want to return to? (Netolicky, 2020c). Underpinning these questions are what we—those of us working, teaching, and leading each day in schools and universities—have come to realise are paramount: health and wellbeing, the importance of learning for all students regardless of circumstance, meaningful work, community, connectedness, adaptability, and resilience. We learned that governments, education systems, and schools need strong, clear leadership that can respond to crises with immediacy while considering the long-term view and the needs of the specific community. We learned that technologies can support teaching, learning, collaborating, and developing student autonomy, but cannot replace the connection, engagement, and learning that is possible when we are face to face. We learned that schools are more than places of learning. They are sites of community, relationships, society, values, and care. They also serve the practical, economic function of looking after children while parents go to work.

“We learned that schools are more than places of learning. They are sites of community, relationships, society, values, and care.”

Teachers have missed seeing students in person, and the complex and important non-verbal communication of the classroom, in which the teacher can ‘read the room’, see how each young person is approaching the day and the lesson, re-engage a disengaged student, or re-teach a concept to those who aren’t getting it. Students have missed school as a place where they see their friends and their teachers. What we would benefit from continuing to develop are:

  • Curricula in which students are active agents;
  • Use of a range of technologies to enhance learning, collaboration, and communication, and to empower students in their learning;
  • The declining focus on high-stakes testing and cultures of competition between schools and education systems, replacing this with a focus on multiple pathways to success and flexible alternatives that address the needs of students and their families; and
  • Providing trust, support, and resourcing to the teaching profession so that educators can get on with the complex work of serving their communities.

LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?    

DN: Transformational professional learning— “learning that shifts beliefs, and thereby behaviours, of professionals” (Netolicky, 2020d, p.18)—has the capacity to support schools and school systems to successfully propel fruitful educational change. I argue (Netolicky, 2020d) for professional learning for those working in schools that:

  • Is targeted and ongoing;
  • Is driven by educational (not corporate or political) agendas;
  • Considers identity and humanity, providing high support and high challenge; 
  • Offers voice, choice, and agency to the adult learner; 
  • Pays close attention to context, culture, and relationships, avoiding one-size-fits-most models; 
  • Enables collaboration that is rigorous, purposeful, sometimes uncomfortable, and allows respectful disagreement; 
  • Broadens our definition of professional learning beyond courses or conferences; and  
  • Invests time, money, and resources in the learning of teachers and school leaders. 

Those in the field of educational change can support practitioners through teacher training, partnerships, sharing their scholarship broadly, and supporting practitioners undertaking post-graduate study. In my literature class, we are currently studying Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and discussing the ways in which this 1985 novel continues to resonate with modern readers, dealing as it does with inequities; misuse of power to protect the needs of a few; unjust class structures; oppression due to gender, sexuality, race, and class; and reduction of individual freedoms with increased government control in the name of a ‘greater good’ (something we have experienced during the pandemic). One of the characters talks about the intention of the novel’s distressing dystopian reality as intended to be “better” but notes that “better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some.” We need education that is good for all, not just good for some. It is imperative that we continue to consider the very purpose of education, and how we invest in what we value. I often talk in my workplace about changing culture and building trust ‘one conversation at a time’. We all have a responsibility to change education for the better for all students, one conversation, policy, study, action, paper, citation, webinar, social media post, at a time. Scholars can ensure that they are speaking not only to one another, but to communities, governments, and education professionals. We can communicate our scholarly work through accessible channels (such as open access, and popular, online, or social media) so that it is available to those working in schools.

Those working with, and alongside, schools and school systems can do so with an understanding of the realities of the lived experiences of school-based educators, including: intensification of workload; increasing job complexity; and escalating emotional stresses resulting from family and social issues impacting students such as violence, financial difficulties, discrimination, and mental health. We can resist the short termism of fast policy change that follows election cycles, in which politicians present education policy quick fixes or simplistic solutions to win votes, rather than playing the long game of education. We can all advocate for sustained educational change focused on common good and long-term improvements. We can challenge deficit media narratives around teaching and schools when they are accused of ‘failing’ or ‘falling behind’ and instead work to instil trust in, offer alternate narratives of, and engage in scholarship that shares the voices and complexities of, the teaching and school leadership profession.

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

DN: One exciting thing I see happening in the field of educational change is the global, networked approach fortified and amplified by the pandemic. Collaboration—local, national, and global collaboration that is meaningful, transparent, productive, and focused on the shared moral purpose of the greater good for all—is key to a positive future. Now, more than ever, we are talking, researching, and working together, across societies, countries, systems, sectors, and fields, to co-design solutions to injustice, inequity, and discriminatory structures and practices.

An ongoing development in educational change and other fields is an increasing diversity of voices, perspectives, and representations. As Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson, and I noted in Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education (Netolicky et al., 2019), and as is evident in my experience as editor of two books aiming to share diverse perspectives, this is not easy to achieve. It is often those with important perspectives to offer—from a range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, genders, sexualities, classes, belief systems, and (dis)abilities—who are least able to contribute, for a range of complex reasons. It remains important for all scholars, educational leaders, and organisers of conferences and events, to consider who is cited, who is invited, and who is excluded, and to pursue the ongoing work of diversity and inclusion. We need to ask ourselves what behaviours and language we accept without challenge. We need to speak against microaggressions in our own professional and personal contexts. We need to consider how measurements of educational ‘excellence’ might perpetuate discrimination, favouring some and disadvantaging others. What do our measures measure, and what do our methods of research reinforce?

We need to seek out and seek to understand Indigenous and non-Western knowledges, ways of knowing, theories, and theorists. Including diverse cultural positions and approaches to research moves from problematising and othering cultural minorities, to expanding perspectives and the current knowledge base (Shay, 2019). What is exciting is the increasing valuing, reclaiming, and development of Indigenous research methodologies. Australian examples include Melitta Hogarth’s Indigenous Critical Discourse Analysis (Hogarth, 2017, 2018) and Marnee Shay’s Collaborative Yarning Methodology (Shay, 2019). Drawing simultaneously on Indigenous and Western methodologies—learning, working, and researching at ‘the interface’ (Ryder et al., 2020)—can challenge societal norms (Hogarth, 2017) and lead to innovation, the formation of new knowledge, and the development of culturally safe methodologies (Ryder et al., 2020). It is this work at the boundary, the interface, or the nexus that offers possibilities, as it means not binary thinking but both/and thinking in which new spaces, communities, and knowledges are formed, that can move educational change forward, while honouring and acknowledging its past.

References

Barr, A., Gillard, J., Firth, V., Scrymgour, M., Welford, R., Lomax-Smith, J., Bartlett, D., Pike, B., & Constable, E. (2008). Melbourne declaration on educational goals for young Australians. Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs.

Doucet, A., Netolicky, D., Timmers, K., & Tuscano, F. J. (2020). Thinking about Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic: An Independent Report on Approaches to Distance Learning During COVID19 School Closures. Education International & UNESCO.

Education Council. (2019). Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration. Carlton South, Victoria: Education Services Australia.

Hameed, S., Shay, M., & Miller, J. (forthcoming). “Deadly leadership” in the pursuit of Indigenous education excellence. In D. M. Netolicky (Ed.), Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Routledge.

Hogarth, M. (2017). Speaking back to the deficit discourses: A theoretical and methodological approach. The Australian Educational Researcher44(1), 21-34.

Hogarth, M. D. (2018). Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy. (Doctoral dissertation, Queensland University of Technology).

Hollweck, T., Campbell, P., & Netolicky, D.  M. (forthcoming). Defining and exploring pracademia: Identity, community, and engagement. Journal of Professional Capital and Community.

Netolicky, D. M. (2017). Cyborgs, desiring-machines, bodies without organs, and Westworld: Interrogating academic writing and scholarly identityKOME 5(1), pp. 91-103.

Netolicky, D. M. (2019). Elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders in educational research, practice, and policymaking. In D. M. Netolicky, J. Andrews, & C. Paterson (Eds.) Flip the System Australia: What matters in education. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020a). Being, becoming and questioning the school leader: An autoethnographic exploration of a woman in the middle. In R. Niesche & A. Heffernan (Eds.) Theorising Identity and Subjectivity in Educational Leadership Research, pp. 111-125. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020b). Leading from Disruption to ‘Next Normal’ in Education. In Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined: Thoughts and Responses from Education’s Frontline During COVID-19 (e-book). World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in partnership with Salzburg Global Seminar.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020c). School leadership during a pandemic: Navigating tensionsJournal of Professional Capital and Community5(3/4), 391-395.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020d). Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (Ed.). (forthcoming). Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M., Andrews, J., & Paterson, C. (Eds.). (2019). Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M., & Golledge, C. (forthcoming). Wayfinding: Navigating complexity for sustainable school leadership. In D. M. Netolicky (Ed.), Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Routledge.

Ryder, C., Mackean, T., Coombs, J., Williams, H., Hunter, K., Holland, A. J. A., & Ivers, R. Q. (2020). Indigenous research methodology – weaving a research interface. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 23(3), 255-267. 

Shay, M. (2019). Extending the yarning yarn: collaborative yarning methodology for ethical Indigenist education research. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 1-9.

ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.  Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung KimGraduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.

5 anchors for leading in a time of crisis

image source: krystyna-rawicz.blogspot.com

At times of volatility, catastrophe and trauma, we often feel like ships in a stormy sea, searching for something to hold tight to, a way to steady ourselves. Here are five anchors to steady and guide school leadership in this time of pandemic-induced global emergency.

  1. Vision and values

In simpler times—when we could leave our homes for any reason at all, congregate in groups of any size, travel far and wide, and find any grocery on any shelf of any supermarket—school leaders thought a lot about vision. Schools have always sought to develop commonality of vision and purpose, while school staff have sought to align with their school contexts in terms of their own beliefs, identities and the purpose that propels them in their work.

Shared vision remains more important than ever, and school leadership in a time of crisis means holding strong to values, principles and vision, as anchors to our decision making.

  1. Navigating tensions

Leading during a pandemic has brought to the forefront of my thinking one of the findings of my PhD: that leadership involves a tightrope-walk between priorities. Leaders constantly navigate tensions: the collective and the individual, accountability and autonomy, the bottom line and the greater good.

Leaders simultaneously make decisions with a view of the dance floor as well as from the balcony, (or, if you like, from both the trenches and the war room). They must consider a range of impacts (individual, organisation, wellbeing, learning, service provision, performance, staffing, financial implications, management of resources, sustainability of business) while keeping all of their individual people in mind. To make effective decisions, they must know the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of their contexts, but also best practice occurring elsewhere and the best available evidence of what is likely to work.

In a time of crisis, leaders must act swiftly and with foresight, but also with careful consideration of options, consequences and side effects of actions taken. They must communicate with clarity and purpose, but also with empathy and humanity.

And in a crisis, perfection is the enemy of progress. As Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of WHO, recently explained in regards to emergency response:

“You need to act quickly … Be fast, have no regrets. You must be the first mover. … If you need to be right before you move, you will never win. … Speed trumps perfection. … Everyone is afraid of the consequence of error, but the greatest error is not to move. The greatest error is to be paralysed by the fear of failure.”

Leaders must act quickly, and yet know that they may make mistakes and have to evolve and adapt as advice and conditions change.

  1. Safety before learning

In our independent report Thinking about Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic, my co-authors and I say that now is a time for ‘Maslow before Bloom’. What we mean, of course, is that a time of global crisis, grief, trauma and instability is a time to put health, safety and wellbeing first; before curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. At this time more than ever, we must consider humans before outcomes, students before results, wellbeing before learning.

Learning is, of course, important. Our jobs as school leaders, teachers and educators, are to ensure the very best learning outcomes for our students, within the parameters of the unusual emergency circumstances in which we presently find ourselves. But learning (and especially assessment) should not be prioritised above basic human needs.

As time goes on during this pandemic, all those in our communities will be touched by the social, emotional, physical, mental, financial and human impacts of COVID-19. We need to pull back on notions of accountability and focus our efforts on compassion and togetherness. We need to continue to know our people, check in with them even at a distance, and interrogate how we can best support them through this time. It’s also important for leaders to fit our own proverbial oxygen masks so that we can continue to help and serve those in our communities.

  1. Trusting and supporting teachers

Trust throughout the educational system, and of teachers, is key to ensure a collective approach on all fronts to best serve our school communities during this crisis. Rather than a top-down one-size-fits all approach to education, teachers can and should be trusted to lead.

There are challenges. Time and support are needed to help teachers develop the appropriate competencies and confidence to pivot to, and thrive in, distance learning models. Yet, the nature of a global pandemic is such that the pace of change is brisk and biting. There is little lead-in time and so decision making happens quickly, on the best advice of the day, which can change at any time. Just look at the pace of government announcements. It nonetheless remains important that teachers feel trusted and supported to make the best decisions for the students in their contexts.

In a time of crisis, we need to pare education back to its essentials. Doing less and expecting less goes against the grain of our normal ways of operating, especially in a our profession, in which teachers often measure themselves by how much they provide.

My message to teachers remains similar to my advice on Day 1 of distance learning at my school:

  • Do your best with what you know and can do. This isn’t like ‘normal’ school and it isn’t going to mirror ‘teaching as usual’. It’s teaching during a pandemic while juggling working from home and schooling our own children; while the parents of the children we are remotely teaching are working from home and possibly dealing with financial hardship, health challenges and family complexities we cannot imagine. Students, too, will be going through a multitude of challenges, many of which we will not know about as we lead and teach at a distance.
  • Keep it simple. Start with the learning intentions, pare back to essentials, rethink ways to gather evidence of student learning, find efficiencies and set professional boundaries and routines.  Less is more.
  • Trust your professional judgement. Teachers know themselves and their students. Do what works. Be ok with less. Be ok with easing back on expectations of yourself, students and parents.
  • Be kind to yourself and others. This is distance learning during a global pandemic. It is continuing our students’ education while in the midst of a major health, societal and economic crisis. There will be a multiplicity of very real challenges for students, teachers and parents during this time. Maslow before Bloom!
  1. Community

Schools are more than places where learning happens. The closure of schools around the world has highlighted the ways in which schools help to address inequities, and how schools act as spaces of safety, nourishment, connectedness and support for many. Everyone—students, teachers and parents—is missing ‘school’ and all that  it provides (much more, it turns out, than classroom lessons and assemblies). Video conferencing can provide some semblance of person-to-person check-ins, but there is nothing like being in a room with a class and gauging their responses with the rich data that being there together provides.

For many students, families and teachers, the loss of onsite schooling is felt deeply. We know, though, that we are staying at home to keep ourselves, those we love, and those who are vulnerable, safe. It needs to be done and so schooling must innovate.

However, enthusiasm for opportunities for education reform must not overtake the current conversation. Yes, we are rethinking education. Yes, we can later consider what kind of normal we want to return to, and what we are happy to leave behind. Yes, we can be deliberate about continuing some of the current crisis innovation into our future realities. Life, work, school, pedagogy, assessment and university entrance may never be the same again. But we must consider connectedness and community.

While crises can lead to individualistic thinking in which every person is looking out for themselves, we will best survive this by considering the ways in which we can continue to knit together as families, school communities and a global community.

Supporting one another, connecting in new ways and building a sense of solidarity and ‘we’re in this together’ is what will get us through (to use a Game of Thrones reference) The Long Night. So let’s be in this, together, with generosity of spirit, open communication and empathy.

Week 1 of Distance Learning

video conference

photo: Getty Images

We are in a time of rapid education reform. Australian schools have in recent weeks been planning for and beginning to enact distance learning. I reflected on Tuesday after Day 1 of my school’s move to distance learning, and over the last few days I’ve reflected further as I’ve led, taught and listened to the responses of students, teachers and parents from across the school.

Below are my Week 1 takeaways.

Less is more

This week, our teachers have been working incredibly hard. They have been putting in extremely long hours to make this ‘pivot’ work. They have been preparing content and front loading teaching before the school day begins, as our Distance Learning Plan notes that the day’s work needs to be to students by 8.30am on the morning of a particular lesson, so students can plan their work for the day. Teachers are responding to individual emails, messages and requests from students and parents. What they have achieved individually and collectively is nothing less than extraordinary, and the gratitude from the school community for their hard work has been resounding. However, teacher workload in a distance learning model is an issue we need to consider. ‘Less’ is better for teachers.

Students have been engaging positively and openly with the distance learning model, but some have felt inundated with communication and set work over these first days. The pace of learning from home can be slower than learning that happens at school, the delivery different, and the need for disciplined student work habits greater. Some students have been feeling overwhelmed. ‘Less’ is better for students.

As we continue to evolve in our distance learning provision, we need to think carefully about the desired learning outcomes, what is really important, and what is possible and desirable in the current climate of global crisis. We need to be realistic about the hours teachers have in the school day to provide teaching materials, learning opportunities and feedback; and the ways that learning happens in a home environment, when many students are learning independently and with less support than they have in the school classroom.

One thing we are considering is what a lesson’s worth of work might look like. A lesson at school includes transition time between lessons, roll call and packing up, as well as probably some teacher-directed instruction and some student working time. How might we use this to guide what we provide and expect of students, giving students time between lessons to stand, move, be active, do chores and catch up with each other in non-classroom spaces and ways.

‘Less is more’ will become even more important as teachers increasingly work from home, with all the complexities of family environments.

Let’s make sure that students, parents and teachers are all able to be human beings at this time, not human doings. Teaching material shouldn’t be about keeping students busy, or glued to their screens, but about continuing their education, wellbeing and connectedness in these uncertain circumstances.

Testing and tracking

Similarly, we need to consider the purpose of assessment and feedback, and how these can best work in a distance learning environment. We can think about this from the point of view of what is possible for teachers to enact, and what is useful for student learning.

How might we use our professional judgement to rethink, redesign or reschedule assessments? How might we use technologies to give meaningful feedback? Video conferencing, OneNote, and online rubrics through platforms such as Schoolbox and SEQTA, are some tools that teachers can use to  provide online, continuous feedback.

At my school, we are not taking lesson-by-lesson attendance, but we are tracking student engagement in learning by asking students to ‘like’ posts in Teams, seeing who joins class or small group video meetings, student work in OneNote class notebooks, and checking in on students who don’t appear to be engaging.

Humanising distance learning

In this time of physical distance, our students and staff are keen for a sense of connectedness. We’re finding that video and audio are humanising distance learning for our students. This includes live video and audio meetings with groups of students, pre-recorded screen casts, and PowerPoints with audio or video.

Seeing teachers’ and peers’ faces and hearing their voices can help to bridge the isolation we all feel, and bring some of the connectivity and relationality missing when we are teaching and learning remotely.

COVID-19 forces educational and societal reform

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The last couple of weeks have been hectic around the world and the pace of change at all levels has been rapid and relentless. In Australian schools, leadership teams and teachers have been preparing for distance learning. Parents have been making decisions about whether or not to send their children to school. Worry in households and panic in shopping centres have reached climactic levels. School leaders are doing their best to remain calm and methodical while preparing their schools for what seems like imminent closure in the near future.

It is surreal to watch corporate and education reform happen at such a rapid rate. We are reforming the workplace and rethinking how we go about our work. We are reimagining how we interact and collaborate. We are reframing education and redesigning schooling on the fly.

Those who have been calling for the abolition of standardised tests and the rethinking of university entrance are seeing education systems transform before their eyes. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant the cancelling of standardised tests (GCSEs and A-Levels in the UK; NAPLAN in Australia so far) and the consequent abolishing of league tables derived from these tests. Those who have been calling for the end of traditional schooling are seeing the swift move to remote learning and the upskilling of teachers in learning technologies and online platforms.

Australian teachers and school leaders, whose jobs are already incredibly complex, are supporting increasingly anxious students and parents. They are communicating work to students who are not coming to school. They are preparing for a move to teaching remotely. They are considering how learning might look different, authentic and meaningful when done from home. They are considering issues of equity and access for their communities. They are worrying about their own children, parents, families, livelihood, groceries.

Educators are collaborating within schools, they are collaborating with other schools. They are sharing their distance learning plans and teaching resources, because as a profession and as a society, we are better together.

We are one society, one humanity. All of our jobs and job descriptions are now in flux. What does our workplace, our clientele, our society need now, at this moment in time? Grounded flight attendants stocking supermarket shelves? Military personnel assisting surgical-mask-producing and toilet-paper-manufacturing facilities? Consultants training teachers to use online technologies? Office staff filling bottles with hand sanitiser and disinfecting workplace surfaces? All of us rearranging furniture and staying at a distance from one another?

We are needed in new ways, and there is an almost wartime redeployment of labour and a need for banding together as whole workplaces, as a whole society and as a whole world.

This is a time for us all to think about what leadership means, regardless of title or position. We can reach out (from a physical distance) to others and support one another as best we can, even though isolation feels like it goes against our biology. We can consider carefully where we get our information, and how we respond to that information. We can all lead by example, by clear communication with one another, and by clarity of purpose and cohesiveness of action.

During the current crisis, Canadians began a ‘caremongering not scaremongering’ campaign. This week is Kindness Week, a week to think about how we move beyond fear and individualism to compassion and courage. Australia has not yet seen the full force of COVID-19 and its real, human ramifications. There is no more important time to be kind to ourselves and each other than right now. We are in a time of adaptation and evolution, by necessity. When we come out the other side, society, work and education may be reformed for good.

Flip the System Australia: Book club questions

Steven Kolber and others on Twitter have been discussing the possibility of a Twitter book club around the recently published (and excellent!) education book Flip the System Australia: What matters in education. Based in the unique Australian context, this book situates Australian education policy, research and practice within the international education narrative. It argues that professionals within schools should be supported, empowered and welcomed into policy discourse, not dictated to by top-down bureaucracy. It advocates for a flipping, flattening and democratising of the education system, in Australia and around the world. It brings together the voices of teachers, school leaders and scholars in order to offer diverse perspectives, important challenges and hopeful alternatives to the current education system.

As one of the editors, and author of Chapter 1, below  I share a first pass at some possible questions for readers, based around the sections of the book. My co-editors and the book’s various authors may have additional or alternative ideas.

Foreword and Introduction

  • What do you understand the editors to mean by the term ‘flip the system’? How is this relevant to education? Does the phrase connect with you, or would you describe it in a different way?
  • Why do you think this book might be important? What might Australia have to offer the education world?
  • What do you hope to get out of reading the book?

Part I: Teacher identity, voice and autonomy

  • How do the authors in this section focus on what matters, rather than what works? What does matter in education?
  • What comments do the authors make about commercialisation in education? Do these resonate with your own experience?
  • Why and where might teachers voices be shared? Do you think this is important and even possible? Why / why not?

Part II: Collaborative expertise

  • What kinds of collaboration do the authors present as effective and beneficial? Why is collaborative expertise something worth investing in and pursuing?
  • What warnings do the authors offer around collaboration in education? What differentiates good, productive collaboration from toxic or ineffective collaboration?
  • What is the role of wellbeing in collaboration between teachers, school leaders, schools and education systems?

Part III: Social justice

  • To what systemic inequities do the authors refer? Which of these reflect your own experience?
  • What is the role of voices and stories, versus policies and systems, in democratising education and addressing inequity? In what arenas could and should equity in education be addressed?
  • What are teachers, schools and systems already doing? What could they stop doing and what could they start doing to address social justice issues in education?

Part IV: Professional learning

  • What is the role of professional learning in a flipped education system? Why is it important?
  • How do the authors describe effective professional learning? How does this sit with your own experience of professional learning for educators?
  • What seem to be the necessary conditions for professional learning to be effective and make a difference? What points made by the authors should be considered by school and system leaders?

Part V: Leadership

  • What are the tensions and complex demands of school leadership, as described by the authors?
  • What do the authors of this section suggest as ways to effectively lead in schools and education systems? On what should leaders focus? What should they do and what should they avoid doing?
  • Do the authors in this section agree, or are there conflicting accounts of what is important in school leadership? What does this reveal about the complexities of leadership in education?

Conclusion

  • This is a book that shares diverse perspectives from a range of authors from a multiplicity of contexts. What threads and themes did you notice as you read the book? What draws the book’s contributions together? What differences did you notice?
  • What quote stuck with you from one of the chapters? Whose chapter stood out to you, spoke to you, or surprised you?
  • What is your overall response to the book? How are you left feeling?
  • What do you now understand the phrase ‘flip the system’ to mean? How might you flip the system in your own education context?

Teacher voice to flip the education system: ACEL 2018 panel presentation

Here I write a blog version of the panel presentation speech I gave at the Australian Council of Educational Leaders national conference. The three Editors—myself, Cameron Paterson and Jon Andrews—each spoke during our panel on a different theme from the Flip the System movement (you can read more about Cameron’s panel presentation on democracy in education here, and Jon’s on education leadership here, on their blogs). My contribution to our panel explored one aspect of our upcoming edited book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education: teacher voice.

The absence of teacher voice in education policy and practice

We three Editors are current teachers and school leaders in Australian schools with more than 60 years of experience between us. We are thrilled to have co-edited a book on flipping the education system. Part of what brought us together is our shared belief in the profession of which we are a part, and its expertise.

Yet, teachers are mostly absent in the formulation of policy, on advisory boards, and on media panels. Mostly, ‘experts’ are wheeled in to speak for or about teachers and school leaders. An example is this week’s conference, during which there are 30 concurrent sessions on offer, in three time slots, despite there being around 130 abstracts submitted by Australian educators keen to present on their practice and to learn from one another’s experience. Non-practitioners or ex-practitioners of course have something to offer, but their dominance in conference programs at the expense of practitioner presentations diminishes teacher and school leader voice, and the value of the profession.

Sometimes, practitioners are consulted, such as in the recent Gonski 2.0 review and the recent review of teacher registration, but rarely are teachers invited to the decision making table. The media is particularly unhelpful, often presenting polarising or critical views of the teaching profession. Rarely, a teacher is invited along. For instance, on Monday’s upcoming Q&A television program, Maths teacher Eddie Woo (who is being marketed as an ‘internet sensation’) has been invited onto the panel as a teacher representative. Perhaps a shift towards listening to teachers is afoot, but it would be nice if the teachers consulted were of the ‘ordinary’ as well as the ‘celebrity’ variety.

Flipping whose voices are sought and heard in education

Flipping the system is in part about amplifying, elevating, and valuing the voices of those actually working in schools. We believe that the power to transform education is within it, not outside it.

Yesterday, Dan Tehan addressed the ACEL national conference and said that everyone went to school so everyone has an opinion on education. He has never received so much advice or so many opinions as in the last month since he became the Australian Education Minister. We would argue that the opinions of those at the whiteboard and in classrooms around our country are expert opinions that should be sought out, and listened to. Our teachers are experts in their subjects, and in teaching and learning, and their opinions about education are informed by their daily work with students and parents. Dylan Wiliam has written that “each teacher has a better idea of what will improve the learning of their students, in their classroom, in the context of what they are teaching them, than anyone else” (2014, p.33). Those working in schools, who prop up the system and are actually responsible for the learning and wellbeing of students in classrooms and schools, have richness of experience and breadth of expertise.

There are some practitioners, including we Editors, who share our thinking via blogs and social media, but we wonder: who is listening? And do those educators sharing their views represent and characterise the system at large and indeed the variability of contexts across Australia’s education landscape?  As Editors, we are aware of our own privilege and limitations.

We have been deliberate about the contributors to the book. It has 27 chapters, 15 of which have authors who are currently teachers or school leaders. We have deliberately structured the book to privilege notions of teacher leadership and democracy. Dr Kevin Lowe, one of our Indigenous authors, pointed out that Aboriginal contributions are often tacked on to the end of books, appearing as an afterthought. He challenged us to think carefully about who we foregrounded. We put the section on teacher voice up front, followed by the section on democratising education.

Below, I briefly describe some examples of chapters from this book that foreground teacher and school leader voice.

Australian teacher and school leader voices

I have written a chapter that draws on the teacher and school leader interviews of my doctoral research around professional identity. It suggests that professional trust is central to building the profession as one which seeks to grow and understand teachers and teaching, as opposed to the often competitive, blame-ridden portrayal. I write in my chapter that “education is not an algorithm but a human endeavour, and one that can be improved through attention to the intricacies of the people operating within the system.”

A chapter from Tomaz Lasic talks about the makerspace in his public school. A chapter from Ben Lewis discusses the program for Indigenous students at his school. Yasodai Selvakumaran shares her experiences of out-of-field teaching. A chapter from principal Rebecca Cody talks about how school leaders have to navigate the dual demands of external accountabilities and the holistic education of their students.

Cameron Malcher discusses education podcasts as a vehicle for ‘talking up’, sharing teacher voice and making education debates public. Drawing on his own experience of podcasting, he illuminates the great potential it possesses to engage the profession in debate and empower teachers.

Academic and international voices about voices

If you were to look through the Table of Contents, you would notice that there are not just teacher voices, but a spread of views, including some scholarly voices and some international perspectives. We don’t think teachers should be speaking alone but speaking with the multiplicity of stakeholders within the education space. This morning Andy Hargreaves talked in his keynote about solidarity, which can be within our contexts and districts, but also across nations and systems. Those chapters in the book written by academics or consultants either include teacher voice, advocate for the presence of teacher voice, or are focused on teacher expertise and experience. Lyn Sharrat’s keynote yesterday was a great example of a researcher whose work keeps her firmly connected in with classrooms and teachers in a range of countries and communities.

In their chapter, Australian academics Anna Hogan and Bob Lingard draw on teacher perceptions via a survey around commercialisation in education. They found that teachers were concerned about a loss of teacher professionalism and personal wellbeing in the commercialised school environment. The teachers in their survey warned that increasing engagement with commercial providers must be balanced against concerns that commercialisation can threaten the holistic development of students the democratic purposes of public schooling.

In a chapter on large-scale assessments, Greg Thompson, David Rutkowski and Sam Sellar argue that there is an absence of teacher voice in interpreting PISA results and they call for educators to engage in dialogue around external testing regimes and their use in informing education.

In a chapter on teacher wellbeing in crisis, Andy Hargreaves, Shaneé Washington and Michael O’Connor claim that “there is no student wellbeing without teacher wellbeing” and acknowledge that teachers struggle to collaborate effectively amidst the frenetic rate of reform in education and ever-increasing workloads and accountabilities.

In his chapter, Gert Biesta argues that policy and subsequent accountabilities have led to a transformation of the role of teacher, in which teachers are undermined and often deprofessionalised by the language of policy and practice. He says that “the idea of teaching as an effective intervention runs the risk of turning students into objects to be intervened upon rather than engaging with them as human beings who are trying to figure out who they are and what this world is they are finding themselves in.” He adds that “the biggest irony is that teachers, in an attempt to liberate themselves from micro-management and top-down control, turn to an approach [such as evidence-based practice] that makes their students into micro-manageable objects of control, rather than seeing them as human subjects whose own agency is at stake.”

Carol Campbell, in her chapter, also frames the purpose of education as developing the betterment of humanity, and we conclude the book by drawing attention to the human aspects of education.

A key thread here is that of considering the human beings within our schools, something that sounds obvious but is often lost in the relentless call for data, evidence, and quantitative measures of learning, leadership, and effectiveness.

Teacher voice: The challenges

Our challenges in representing teacher and school leader voice in this book serve as an example of the challenges our profession faces in speaking out and speaking up. These included that:

  • Ours is only one book, one platform, and so only a limited number of perspectives could be included. As soon as we filled the volume with contributions, we felt that we could fill a second volume, too.
  • A number of teachers and school leaders were invited to contribute but were either too busy or felt too vulnerable to do so. There are real risks to teachers and school leaders in sharing their views publically.
  • Sharing our views is unpaid. Asking teachers to write, blog, or present is asking them to take part in unpaid labour, outside of their day jobs, and to become part of the noise out there, with no guarantee of being listened to.
  • As teachers and school leaders, our service is first and foremost to the students in our schools and it can feel like a misuse of time to pontificate about education outside of our classrooms and schools. We would argue, however, that speaking up and speaking out can be a service to students and education more broadly.

One small step

Our book is a microcosm of what we would like to see more of in education, although we regret not including student voice in the book. It is one drop-in-the-ocean attempt to amplify, elevate and value the voices of teachers and school leaders. We hope that in our Australian context it will lead to politicians and policymakers seeking out the views and expertise of those in schools. Flipping the system in this way is about building networks and flattening hierarchies so that we can all work together for the good of the students in our schools.

References

Netolicky, D. M., Andrews, J. & Paterson, C. (Eds.). (2019). Flip the System Australia: What matters in education. Routledge.

Wiliam, D. (2014). Teacher expertise: Why it matters, and how to get more of it. Ten essays on improving teacher quality. Available from: http://www.claimyourcollege.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Dylan-Wiliam.pdf .

Flipping the flippin’ education system

I have been thrilled in the last couple of weeks to be part of the Flip the System publishing movement. Its inception was the original 2016 book, dreamed up and brought to fruition by Dutch teachers Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber: Flip the System: Changing education from the ground up. In it, a number of contributors discuss the purpose of education. They urge schools and teachers to resist complying with the decrees of policymakers or kowtowing to external accountability measures. Rather, they promote trusting the teaching profession to influence the education system from the bottom up and the inside out. You can see Jelmer speak in his TEDX talk about how he and René conceptualised subverting the system to promote teacher agency and collaboration.

Then, on 29 November 2017, a new book—Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto, edited by Lucy Rycroft-Smith and Jean-Louis Dutaut—was published. This book applies the notion of flipping the system to a UK context, offering a suite of voices intended to elevate teacher professionalism and empower teachers to effect change from within the education system. In this UK volume is a chapter I have co-written with Australian teachers Jon Andrews and Cameron Paterson, entitled ‘Flipping the system: A perspective from Down Under’. Here, we offer a way of thinking about flipping the system from an Australian perspective. That Flip the System UK sold out its first print run in its first night of publication says something about the magnetism of this movement. Editor Lucy Rycroft-Smith has been tweeting some excellent threads about the book from her @honeypisquared Twitter account. These are wonderful précis of the book’s contents, especially for those of us who have yet to receive our print copies of the book.

What these contributions to the Flip the System books so far show, are the commonalities amongst the global community of teachers. The Netherlands, the UK, Australia, and other countries around the world, are all facing reform agendas driven, not by those in classrooms or schools, but by those appointed to governments or catapulted to guru status, or those who might profit from their own reform recommendations (“Look! Education is in crisis. <Insert oft-wheeled-out-reason-for-education-crisis>. Here, buy my silver bullet / snake oil.“).

It was thrilling to have my first book chapter published in the last couple of weeks (hoorah! with more chapters in the long publishing pipeline). Even more exciting was that Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson and I also signed our own book contract for a Flip the System Australia book. In it, we, along with an arsenal of incredible authors, will situate the Australian context within the global milieu, standing on the shoulders of Evers, Kneyber, Rycroft-Smith, Dutaut, and the Flip the System contributors thus far. From an Austraian lens, we and our contributing authors will argue for the wisdom of practitioners and the agency of the teaching profession, and for allowing teachers to take the lead as a trusted and meaningful part of global education conversation, policy, and practice.

So, a book chapter, a book contract, and being part of a global movement to re-professionalise, re-empower, and re-claim teaching? I’m flipping excited!

Educators: Hold the line on voice, autonomy, and trust

Can we hold the line in the face of challenging circumstances?

This week I was thrilled to welcome Professor Pasi Sahlberg to my Western Australian school to talk to our leaders—from coaches and team leaders to Heads of Faculty, senior leadership and the Executive—about school leadership and what high performing education systems do. Pasi’s list covers things about which many of us leading in schools, and researching and writing about education, are concerned: collaboration, learning and wellbeing, trust-based responsibility, continuous improvement, and equity. They are also guiding principles for teachers in classrooms, who use what Pasi calls ‘small data’ every day. In my PhD, which was based around effective school change and transformational professional learning, these were also themes that emerged; in particular, my research surfaced trust, professional collaboration, and continuous improvement through a range of educator-centred experiences.

I am reminded of the chapter I have co-authored in the upcoming Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto book. In it, Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson, and I, cite Sahlberg’s concept of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) and its destructive influence on teacher voice, power, and agency. We argue for a re-professionalising and re-humanising of teaching and education.

I am reminded, too, of my speech to the Australian Council for Educational Leaders conference last year about trusting and supporting teachers. In his new book, FinnishED Leadership: Four big, inexpensive ideas to transform education, Sahlberg supports the autonomy of teachers and schools. He writes:

Strengthen collective autonomy of schools by giving teachers more independence from bureaucracy and simultaneously investing in teamwork in your school. This enhances social capital that is proved to be a critical aspect of building trust within education and enhancing student learning. (p.43)

He notes that the Finnish government spends 30 times more funds on the professional learning and development of educators than on accountability procedures, such as tests and surveys.

We live in a time of compliance and performativity. Australian schools are like tin cans being crushed from the outside-in by a focus on the results external testing (NAPLAN, HSC, WACE, VCE, PIRLS, TIMMS, PISA, the upcoming Phonics Check) and on publicly published league tables and competition-based publications such as the myschool website.

When Pasi spoke to leaders at my school, robust discussion ensued. He challenged us to ask what is within our control, what it is that we can change, what we would do if we could enact our dream for the best way of serving our students, starting tomorrow. He challenged us to question the systemic and regulatory parameters within which we operate, and to hold the line on those things we know will make a difference to our students.

Sahlberg’s work is supported by that of others, such as Michael Fullan’s on the wrong drivers for education reform, and Fullan’s work with Andy Hargreaves on professional capital in their book, Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school, and in the Journal of Professional Capital and Community. The Flip the System movement, too, beginning with Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber’s book Flip the System, brings together and champions the voices of teachers, academics and education experts in order to reclaim the space of education discourse for those working within schools.

So, what can we do in our own contexts? How might we reshape the narrative of education, or advocate for the following?

Less testing

More collaboration

Less accountability

More equity

Less competition

More trust

Performance pay: Don’t do it, Australia

Today the Australian media has reported that the Federal government is going to spend an extra $1.2 billion on education between 2018-2020, but that part of this money will go towards linking teacher pay to performance.

I am writing to urge Australia not to spend precious education budget money on teacher performance pay.

Performance pay initiatives have been experimented with around the world, including in Nashville, New York City, Dallas, North Carolina, Michigan, Israel, England, Kenya and India. See Leigh’s (2013) “The economics and politics of teacher merit pay,” which argues that merit pay negatively impacts teacher collegiality. Hattie, in his 2015 papers on what works and what doesn’t work in education, says that performance pay results in teachers working fewer hours with more stress and less enthusiasm. I agree with his warnings against trying to fix people and systems, and his suggestions that instead that the focus be on growth and collaboration.

Performance pay alienates teachers and is unsupported by evidence. There are those such as Hargreaves and Fullan (in their 2012 Professional capital) who criticise performance pay as demeaning, commodifiying and oversimplifying teaching and education. Until now I have been relieved that Australia has not gone the route of many North American states with teacher evaluation models that score teachers and schools. (I voiced my despair at the New York APPR reforms when they were announced.) Fullan and Quinn (in their 2016 Coherence) note that a policy focus on punitive accountability measures is crude, demotivating and has no chance of working. Wiliam (in his 2014 paper “The formative evaluation of teaching performance”) sees measures of teacher effectiveness as unreliable, noting that when teacher performance measures are linked to job or financial decisions, teachers are unlikely to innovate, tending instead to performance-teach to the evaluation. Also importantly, as Kemmis notes (in his 2010 chapter “What is professional practice?”), the quality of teaching and of teachers is not measurable by tests. So performance pay pits teachers against each other around questionable metrics.

These views are consistent with work around motivation, such as that by Dan Pink, David Rock and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Punishments and rewards don’t improve practice.

Negative drivers of change are ineffective in driving positive transformation. What Australia doesn’t need is to cultivate cultures of fear, competition and compliance in our schools. We need to invest in teachers and in education (a thousand times, yes!), but performance pay which alienates the profession and is ineffective in improving it, is not the way to go. We need collaboration, not compliance and competition. We need initiatives that trust and encourage teachers and principals to grow their practices and their schools. Australian educators need voice, agency and support to improve, not punitive sticks and accountability carrots.

Please, Australia, say ‘no’ to performance pay.

___________________________________

Update: Since publishing this blog post I have written this piece on performance pay for teachers for The Conversation. I was also interviewed on Sydney radio station 2SER about this issue. You can listen here.

On the day I wrote this post, other grass roots education commentators have also reacted to today’s education funding announcements. Here is a list …

Joel Alexander: Merit pay in primary school is about as bad as it gets

Jon Andrews: Cruel optimism – Pay, performance and promises

Greg Ashman: How should Labor respond to the Australian government’s education proposals?

TER podcast with Cameron Malcher and Corinne Campbell: School funding special

On teacher evaluation & the New York APPR reforms: a view from Down Under

There are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits to the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder. ~ Ronald Reagan

NYC skyline, by @debsnet

As part of the Education Transformation Act of 2015, New York State is reforming its Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) and Teacher Effectiveness rating system.

Grant Wiggins in his open letter to Governor Cuomo calls the APPR reforms a “step backward” which disempowers teachers.

NY Middle School Principal Lisa Meade voiced her concerns here and put out the call out to New York educators to respond to the proposed teacher evaluation reforms. Educator Christina Luce added to the conversation in her post, asserting that, while she supports an annual professional reflection and review, the proposed reforms are narrow, punitive and make “an already horrendous evaluation system even worse”.

While I am not a New York educator, I felt compelled to offer a perspective from a different system. My visits with schools and educators last October helped me to learn about how teacher evaluation is approached in New York. While some of the challenges faced were global, shared with Australian schools, some were surprising to me. I wrote various posts documenting my reflections in New York including:

  • My visit to a school in Westchester which opened my eyes to the constraints on New York schools in teacher evaluation;
  • My visit to a school on the Upper East side which reminded me about the need for schools to find teacher evaluation and growth processes appropriate to their context;
  • Meeting Ellie Drago-Serverson at Columbia University to discuss the best environments and practices to facilitate adult learning;
  • Meeting with Charlotte Danielson and Cindy Tocci around effective applications of the Framework for Teaching for teacher growth and evaluation; and
  • Meeting with New York City professional development provider Teaching Matters, an organisation which bases its work in a belief about the capacity of teachers to be leaders and for schools to be vibrant places of distributed leadership.

slice of harlem, by @debsnet

The proposed APPR reforms seem to make an already limited system of scoring even narrower, based on data that I imagine does little to reflect a holistic picture of a teacher, their teaching, and their students’ learning. While the use of these kinds of data for measuring teacher effectiveness have been questioned (see for instance this post and this post by Grant Wiggins), I have instead focused on how these reforms sit with my own beliefs about teacher learning.

Costa and Garmston in this paper talk about safety, but not comfort, being a prerequisite for learning, pointing out that the brain works in such a way that if we do not feel safe, we cannot think and learn. They note that sensory signals entering the brain travel first to the thalamus, then to the amygdala or threat detector, and then to the neocortex where thinking happens. “If threat, fear, pain even in the most minute portions are perceived, neurological and chemical processes occur which prepare the system for survival, not reflection.” While learning often happens in a space of what they call ‘disequilibrium’, or what I call the discomfort zone, there needs to be safety and trust for thinking, reflection and growth to occur. The New York teacher effectiveness system does not seem to allow for a safe environment of learning and growth, but rather opens up the potential for fear and a fight-or-flight response.

This notion of safety-but-disequilibrium is supported by Ellie Drago-Severson’s concept of high-support high-challenge ‘holding environments’ as the optimal environments for adult learning. By Dan Pink’s work on motivation which he notes is extinguished by punitive approaches. By David Rock’s work which shows that carrot-and-stick approaches result in resistance. In reflections by Robert Evans that teachers resist externally imposed change. By the Adaptive Schools foundational concepts of trust and of honouring both the individual and the system.

Upper East Side, NYC, by @debsnet

In light of how the brain works and how thinking and motivation are ignited, the New York teacher evaluation system, current and proposed, doesn’t make sense to me. It is a punitive deficit model which assumes that teachers are underperforming, unprofessional and in need of external measures to bring them up to scratch. In a recent paper, Dylan Wiliam points out that “each teacher has a better idea of what will improve the learning of their students, in their classroom, in the context of what they are teaching them, than anyone else.” Teachers should be trusted to be professionals and given the support, and challenge, to grown on their professional journeys.

My school’s teacher growth model is based on a belief in the capacity of teachers. It is based in a belief that everyone is coachable. That is, that teachers want the best for their students and that they are fully capable, with support, of setting goals, analysing data and improving their practice in ways which most benefit their students.

Wiggins is right when he says these reforms disempower teachers. Surely if we want teachers to get better, it isn’t scoring them we should be primarily concerned with, but growing them. Teachers should receive ongoing support to refine their practice and focus on becoming increasingly better at serving their students’ pastoral and learning needs. I absolutely agree with regular performance check-ins and goal setting work, but I also believe in teachers.

My hope for any school system would be that teachers are given opportunities for growth born out of a belief in their capacities and in their important work with our children, rather than public scorecards based on questionable measures.

New York, I’m thinking of you, your teachers, your school leaders and your students.

NYC, by @debsnet