Education is a public debate at last
Across much of the English-speaking world, a struggle is raging over control of education. The good news is that politicians, the people we elect to make decisions on our behalf, seem to be winning.
The pattern is remarkably consistent. Governments, both of the Left and the Right, are wresting control back from teachers' organisations. They have realised that education is too important to be left in the hands of teachers.
Julia Gillard, now prime minister of Australia, made her name as a reformist education minister. In that capacity she launched My School, a website that provides access to information on achievement standards in nearly 10,000 Australian schools. (Within hours, the website crashed because it couldn't cope with the demand.)
Needless to say, Australian teachers opposed My School. They raised the bogey - all too familiar here - of “league tables” which would enable parents to compare schools. Nothing seems to terrify teachers' unions more than the thought of parents and taxpayers being given information about how schools are performing.
The launch of My School was preceded by the introduction of national literary and numeracy tests, also vehemently opposed by teachers and academics.
More recently, Ms Gillard took the first step toward introducing performance pay for teachers, another initiative bitterly resisted by teachers' unions. Payment on merit supposedly undermines the sacred principle of “collegiality”, because teachers argue it has the potential to sow discord in the staffroom. Diddums, as Helen Clark might have said.
The parallels with New Zealand are obvious, except that we're several years behind. The arguments are exactly the same here as in Australia. What's noteworthy is that the Australian reforms were instituted by a Labor government, which might normally be expected to take the teachers' side. That Ms Gillard was prepared to bulldoze teacher opposition aside indicates that education reform was seen as too vital to delay any longer, regardless of teachers' protests.
Similar scenarios have been played out elsewhere. In 2001 the United States Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, a critical component of which is standards-based education reform. Sound familiar? It's based on the premise that measurable goals - such as our national standards - can improve outcomes in education.
American teachers fought the changes and continue to oppose attempts to impose greater accountability. A key issue in a recent Chicago teachers' strike was a requirement that schools introduce an evaluation system in which a teacher's rating depends partly on student test scores. But as The New York Times commented in an editorial, teacher evaluation is increasingly popular across the US and is unlikely to be rolled back.
As in Australia, agreement on the need for education reform transcends normal political divides. The Obama Administration supports merit pay, charter schools (another idea that induces apoplexy in teachers' union leaders) and teacher assessment systems.
In Britain, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government passed legislation in 2010 allowing parents, teachers, charities and businesses to set up their own version of charter schools, known as free schools (so called because no fees are charged).
Funded by the taxpayer but outside the control of local authorities, free schools were introduced in the face of almost hysterical opposition from the National Union of Teachers. The NUT also fought the “academies” programme instituted by Tony Blair's Labour government in 2000, under which schools enjoy a high degree of autonomy but remain publicly funded.
“Academies” were an innovative attempt to deal with the problem of entrenched failure within schools with a record of low academic achievement. You'd think the teachers' union would applaud such an initiative, but no; academies were seen as a threat to centralised control of education, which in turn is a threat to union power.
The common theme across all these countries is that governments, dissatisfied not only with performance in the education sector but also the lack of transparency and accountability, are forcing through changes in the face of determined opposition from teachers' organisations which are understandably reluctant to relinquish their power.
Politicians, the representatives of the people, are quite properly reclaiming the right to decide how schools should be run. This ranges from demanding better information for parents (in other words, accountability) to providing options beyond the narrow ones available under the status quo (in other words, choice - the ultimate dirty word in the teachers' union lexicon).
This process is much further advanced elsewhere than in New Zealand, where both National and Labour governments have allowed themselves to be bullied and intimidated by belligerent teachers' organisations. (Remember National's feeble attempt to allow schools a degree of autonomy by introducing bulk funding in the 1990s, and how the initiative was sabotaged by teacher defiance?)
What we are now seeing played out are the opening skirmishes in a battle for the control of education. And while Education Minister Hekia Parata may lack the experience and political skill for such a challenging job (her performance so far has been of the bull-in-a-china-shop variety), she must stand her ground.
Before anyone accuses me of teacher-bashing, I acknowledge that my four children have had some admirable and dedicated teachers to whom I will always be grateful. The problem lies not with individual teachers but with the collectivist mindset of their unions, which have called the shots for so long that they genuinely believe they have the right to determine education policy.
But teachers and academics no longer control the debate and I sense public opinion is shifting. New Zealand is at last having a vigorous public discussion about important education issues.
The response to Fairfax Media's recent release of information about individual school performance has been huge. Parents have had a tiny taste of how things might be in an education sector where schools are no longer, in Ms Parata's words, “a secret society”.