Deborah Coddington

Deborah Coddington is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Deborah Coddington: Union never learns lesson on incompetent teachers

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Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds shows how to deal with difficult Los Angeles students. Photo / Supplied
Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds shows how to deal with difficult Los Angeles students. Photo / Supplied

Why the fuss over charter schools? Given the hysterical ranting from teacher unions, you'd think we were returning to caning on the backside.

It won't be compulsory for students to attend what are, essentially, alternative choices for parents to state or private schools. A bit like kura kaupapa.

But unions don't like parental choice. They like telling parents what to do. Robin Duff, head of the PPTA, published an opinion piece comparing these evil charter schools with epic failures such as the Pike River mining disaster, the Global Financial Crisis and 12-02-2012 05:30:00the grounding of the container ship Rena.

The commonality is that none are accountable. But charter schools are accountable to parents, something that many state schools are not.

Yes, there is evidence some overseas charter schools have proved to be failures, but that doesn't mean they're all a disaster. Many are the opposite.

In New Zealand, some state schools, too, are monumental failures, but I won't hold my breath for an article from Duff castigating the state schooling system as an ideological disaster. At present the education system (state and private) is failing 20 per cent of our children, who leave unable to read and write, yet the unions will not accept that changes need to be made.

Yet when you think of it, a school is just bricks, wood, lawns, equipment. Isn't what really matters the leadership, plus the ability to recruit and inspire great teachers?

The Government spends more than $4 billion on this country's 7000 teachers, but how do parents sort out the good from the bad? By swapping stories in the carpark?

In 2010, the LA Times examined the performance of 6000 teachers and published the results, even naming the best and the worst. The unions went ballistic.

Reporters obtained seven years' maths and English exam results for third- to fifth-graders and had the Rand Corporation independently analyse them using a value-added approach which controlled outside influences such as family background, poverty, ethnicity, proficiency in English, or previous achievement levels - issues usually blamed for educational failure (in other words, "not the teachers' fault").

The results were astounding, as illustrated by one school in the poorest area of the San Fernando Valley, surrounded by freeways, where it's not unusual for kids to be killed in gang shoot-outs - Broadous Elementary School.

"The difference [in class progress] has almost nothing to do with the size of the class, the students or their parents. It's their teachers," the Times reported.

It really was like Michelle Pfeiffer's rough diamond students in the movie Dangerous Minds.

One important thing to note is that teachers in LA are randomly allocated. The most incompetent are not bunched in poor areas; the best not in the most affluent schools. And the Times survey showed that, despite parents choosing what they saw as the best school for their kids, it was actually "teachers [who] had three times as much influence on students' academic development as the school they attend".

So how are we doing in New Zealand? We have many excellent teachers -nobody disputes that - but we don't know what we don't know because we're not allowed to know. Few teachers referred to the Teachers Council for incompetency are deregistered, and of the ones who slip through, parents are never allowed to know their names, which school they are at, or which subjects they teach.

John Hattie, professor of education at Auckland University, believes excellent teachers can be identified, and emphasis should be put on education policy that develops teacher excellence. But it's easier said than done, because "as teachers, we don't acknowledge excellence ourselves.

"We have allowed the de-professionalising of our profession by allowing the 'anything goes' mentality."

While the PPTA and NZEI remain firmly wedded to collective agreements, it will be difficult to introduce incentives to keep brilliant teachers in the classrooms when they must move into management for higher salaries. In union land, excellent teachers shouldn't get more pay than incompetent colleagues on the same level because that's not fair.

But it's never the teachers' fault when students fail - it's families, lazy kids, the Government, dogs eating homework - and now the unions have got another excuse: charter schools.

- Herald on Sunday

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