Can we raise teaching standards by imposing standards?  

In response to the above question, the answer from most politicians is yes.  In NSW for example, the politics of standards has led to the Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES) being renamed and given greater powers. The newly announced NSW Education Standards Authority will be charged with ‘lifting’ school compliance and teacher quality in an effort to improve students’ results. NSW Education Minister Piccoli stated that the [new] authority ‘ought to make teachers nervous around teaching standards’.

Any potential for this new entity to enact change is immediately called in to question by its very name. A ‘Standards Authority’ sounds very much like a 19th century, carrot and stick approach to school improvement. As John Hattie points out, we love talking about standards and results (usually associated with PISA and TIMMS rankings) but not about building the collaborative expertise of teachers or student performance.

Michael Fullan suggests the all too common focus on standards is a focus on the wrong drivers and it rarely leads to whole of system success. In his 2011 paper (using Australia’s reform efforts as an example),  Michael Fullan points out that accountability depends on standards and punishment. And these have been the core drivers for educational ‘improvement’ despite growing evidence that educational transformation is driven from within.

Like Hattie, Fullan strongly believes capacity building needs to be championed over accountability and standards. When teachers are strongly motivated and are continually improving their knowledge skills, student outcomes continue to improve. And the fastest route to de-motivating teachers is to undermine their professional confidence and capabilities by effectively suggesting they are on notice. The big brother approach to improving schooling only ever leads to short-term gains. A collaborative and internally driven approach to transforming schooling will help to ensure long-term success.

According to Hattie what works best is ‘recognising, valuing and enhancing the teachers and school leaders with high levels of expertise.’ But he goes on to say we risk this if ‘the politics of distraction command the limelight.’

The most effective teachers and systems aren’t the ones motivated by carrots, they are the ones motivated by continuously improving their own learning, their students’ learning and the profession as a whole.




7 thoughts on “Can we raise teaching standards by imposing standards?  

  1. It does not do to be complacent about standards. A couple of years ago I was doing a Dip Ed at Victoria University (Footscay Tech) in Melbourne. I was specialising in Science and Maths. Students of science teaching were not expected to know what causes the phases of the moon. There was a class network building exercise where we were meant to ask around the class and find someone who did know. That should be enough said. It is disgraceful to put people up as science teachers who don’t know the science of Galileo. Most of these students will not get jobs as teachers but even so the low standards permeate the institution and allow low-grade instructors to proliferate, deterring well-qualified students from such courses and from the teaching professsion.

    1. My blog never took the position that standards themselves were useless. I think there is a difference between standards the point you make. I think it’s imperative that any teacher with particularly specialising in math, science and music have a very deep expertise. They need the deep expert knowledge and pedagogical knowledge.

      The standards, if applied incorrectly, can act as a default of what is acceptable. Standards need to be able to broaden not limit judgement on professional competence. As I say in the blog standards by themselves will do nothing to lift teacher performance, what will is teachers learning together and reflecting on their practice.

      1. I am not debating points that you raised so much as wanting to treat your blog as a forum for topics that you raise. Is it good for that?

        I am taking it for granted that you are or have been a teacher but I can see you were not a teacher of maths. “Deep expertise” is a lot to ask! Some teachers will have a very good understanding, but not every kid will be lucky enough to have a very good teacher in every subject every year.

        But everyone could have the best textbook. There could be big pay-back if we put resources into developing good textbooks and making them available cheaply. That is not how it works now. Again I am thinking of maths and drawing on brief experience as a student teacher. Textbooks are not cheap and mutate from year to year, so parents have to buy them new. There are several publishers working the market. The standard is not inspirational. Let some state education department buy the copyright to any decent one, put it on the internet available for anyone in the world to use and build it up, with the help mostly of volunteers but with good editorial management.

        I give two examples of below-par quality from a common year 10 textbook a couple of years ago. The book would have mutated since then but not improved so it is likely that those pieces are still there.
        1. The textbook draws a Venn diagram of the real numbers. It shows rational numbers as being a subset of the real numbers. Another subset is irrationals. There is a large area for numbers neither rational nor irrational. There are no such numbers of course. Rather dopey, misleading, and an opportunity missed to illustrate the complement of a set.
        2. The fact that the gradients of perpendicular lines are the negative reciprocals of each other is presented. An enquiring mind would look for the reason behind
        this interesting fact. Good students could probably find it. The authors present a tedious proof that simply suggests that they do not really know why it is so.

        Could we aim to produce a good enough book that students might want to read on to the next page?

  2. Hi Greg,

    My intro to your blog was this post and I promptly subscribed. I’m in a new position within my school board and feel your blog may contribute to my ongoing learning and leadership.

    You wrote, “The most effective teachers and systems aren’t the ones motivated by carrots, they are the ones motivated by continuously improving their own learning, their students’ learning and the profession as a whole.”

    I’m wondering about the “how” of transitioning teachers from not wanting to continuously improve their learning, from stagnancy. I’m reading Fullan (of course) and appreciating his thoughts and well-documented research, but left questioning….what are the early-in-the-process tangible things leaders do to ‘plant seeds’ of change?


    1. Michelle – welcome to the blog and congratulations on the new position. Great question that doesn’t have a simple answer. The two things I have found that help to do this are about the story you are telling (the narrative) and your modelling of change. The way to change the values is to change teacher practice. You need a coherent story about what you are trying to do and why in today’s world. This will highlight differences between existing practices. The second is to take the opportunity to do your leading differently. Making sure you are collaborative, you are being challenged, you follow through on new ideas, you celebrate success and being open to your own continuous improvement. These might seem simplistic but when done well can be extremely powerful.

  3. Hi Greg
    I read your column in the Saturday 17 Sept 16 Manly Daily.
    My sons do swimming training twice a week.
    Once a month is challenge swim training session where they are timed to see how they improved over the month. Real simple approach to check for improvement.
    I know of no school that wants to test once a month and share the results with the parents- do you?
    It is really simple – teach, test, measure results – the teachers, students and parents would ALL be accountable to the results. No need for Naplan, HSC- just old fashioned test and measure. Why do most public primary schools opt for the mediocre basic 3 tier assessment of “working towards” “meeting expectations” and “exceed goals”. I know our swim coach who only sees the kids twice a week would not see that as acceptable. As parents, how can we make informed decisions about our children’s education when we don’t have meaningful testing? Whether to sit with our children assisting them with reading, maths etc or to offer additional out of school coaching by a professional, or to asking the teacher for more directed homework, whether to change schools.
    Why are the teaching staff so scared of regular testing? I guess that it makes them more accountable and they don’t want that! Especially parents concerned about poor results asking questioned and getting too involved. Maybe they would have to compose tests and mark them. We don’t need teachers with MBA’s or higher degrees just teacher you want to work. What do you think?

    1. Peter – thanks for your comments. They strike at the heart of improving learning and teaching in our schools. I can’t make comment on decades old practice – I’ve been as critical as you are nor do I want to enter into blaming teachers. Expert teachers know that continuous feedback is the best thing they can give in terms of improving student learning. Your analogy places the swimmer at the heart of it – they know the expectations, they know the success criteria and how they are evaluated and when. Much too often in schools, all of this is guess work for the student and the parents. They are not sure of what they are learning, why and how they will be evaluated. As to the assessment process, testing is only one very small part but we cannot reduce all learning and teaching to monthly testing. What we need to do is encourage the continuous feedback loop between teacher, student and the home.

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