Teachers at breaking point: why working in SA schools is getting tougher

On November 3, the AEU in conjunction with UniSA launched the report, 'Teachers at breaking point'.

Professor Alan Reid gave an impassioned address at the launch, where he looked at the root causes of the current crisis and what needs to change. Here is a (slightly) abridged version of his address.

My career in education has gone full circle. When I started teaching in South Australia in the 1970s, public schools were emerging from a time when centralised control of the curriculum, and top-down decision-making at school and departmental level dominated. Change was happening because schools were becoming increasingly complex.  

Research was showing that the traditional ways in which schools were organized were no longer meeting the needs of a significant group of students. This led to the realisation that the mainstream academic curriculum had to change; and that teachers had to be involved in the design and planning of this new curriculum to ensure it was tailored to meet the diverse learning needs of their students.   

The then Director-General of Education, Alby Jones had, through his Freedom and Authority memorandum, given schools and teachers more freedom to exercise their professional judgment. His memorandum did not encourage public schools to compete against each other as the recent flirtation with ‘school autonomy’ has done, but rather gave freedom to teachers to collaborate within and across public schools.  

It was based on a firm belief that teachers were professionals with skills and expertise. Since they were closest to the action in classrooms, they were best placed to fashion programs and teaching approaches that suited the students and their learning contexts. The role of the Education Department was to provide human and material resources that would support teachers in their professional work 

The next decade was one of intellectual ferment and excitement. Teachers largely grasped the new freedoms with both hands. In the social science faculty at the school in which I was first appointed, we spent hours after school debating, sharing, innovating, evaluating, and planning. We just loved our work, and as demonstrated by the educational outcomes that were achieved, the students lapped it up too. 

"Driving home from school one night, I remember thinking that there was no other job that I would want to do. This one had more intellectual stimulation and fun than any other occupation I could imagine."
But then, from the late 1980s, things began to change, at first slowly and imperceptibly and then apace. The result of that thirty-year period is encapsulated in this excellent report which documents how teacher professionalism has been eroded, teachers’ work has been intensified and teaching has been turned from a collaborative endeavour into an individual and competitive one.  

Sadly, it seems that education has come full circle. How and why did this happen? 

The rise of neoliberalism 

It is no coincidence that things began to change with the rise of neoliberal economic philosophy in the 1980s – a theory that proposes an unregulated free market, reduction in the size and role of government, and taxation cuts to high income earners which would ‘trickle down’ to the rest by creating more jobs..  

At the heart of neoliberalism lies some particular ways of seeing the world. For example, it encourages us to think of ourselves as consumers exercising choice in our own self-interest, rather than as citizens with an interest in the common good. And it establishes the belief that the private sector is best placed to deliver important public programs and infrastructure, so fanning a mistrust of the public service. 

But neoliberalism does not just function as an economic philosophy. Its dominant assumptions and values have invaded all areas of social policy, including education which is seen as being primarily a tool of micro-economic reform with the role of developing ‘human capital’.  This dominant economic purpose in turn shapes the strategies and policies through which it is pursued. From the late 1980s it spawned the standardising educational agenda. 

In Australia, the standardizing agenda has at least two dominant aspects to it. The first involves transferring private sector approaches to education. Before long education departments were awash with vision and mission statements, key performance indicators, strategic plans, and intrusive forms of accountability mechanisms designed to control teachers and schools in order to achieve the KPIs. 

Within this instrumentalist logic, the need for educational expertise in policy making was seen as unnecessary, and increasingly public servants without educational backgrounds populated departments of education. When ‘expertise’ was needed, external consultants were commissioned from the private sector, invariably producing outcomes that were already pre-determined by their clients. 

 The second aspect is a focus on competition in education, where parents and students are understood to be consumers making choices in a market. The logics of choice and competition have resulted in several negative consequences, but it is the negative impact on teachers that is the focus of this report.  

When parents and students are understood to be consumers, they need data to assist them in making their choices. Enter standardised testing.  Even though NAPLAN and PISA test only a small slice of the curriculum they have become the surrogate arbiters of educational quality. The numbers derived from the test become immutable judgments about the quality of individual schools and education systems. 

"Everyone seems to have a strategy to fix the decline – performance pay, charter schools, more testing, copying the strategies of the ‘successful’ countries, and so on, all with one common element: teachers are blamed."
For example, in South Australia in 2017, McKinsey, an external consultancy company, was engaged to tell the system how to achieve ‘world class’ status over the next ten years. They mixed the South Australian NAPLAN and PISA scores from the previous few years and arrived at the number 482, claiming that we needed to get to 530 to be considered world class. The complexity involved in such work as understanding educational purposes and assessing educational outcomes and progress across the formal and informal curriculum was ignored in favor of boiling that all down into a single number. 

The datafication of education has been widely critiqued and I am not going to reprise those arguments. But it is important to recognize what accompanies this testing regime. Education systems are very sensitive to any shift in position on the league tables that are published on the basis of the test results, and to the public opprobrium that follows any decline in scores or ranking. The response has been to introduce accountability regimes designed to improve test results by setting targets, rewarding success and punishing failure. If improved test results do not follow, the ‘improvement’ strategies are ratcheted up. Slowly, improving standardized test results becomes the raison d’etre of education.  

The combined effects of the standardising agenda are captured comprehensively in this report and are consistent with similar reports in other states and territories:  

1. Teachers are subjected to increased administrative demands and paperwork associated with the accountability requirements and the intrusive top-down initiatives that rain down upon them; 

2. Work intensification leads to rising rates of teacher stress, burn-out, cynicism, disillusionment and resignations; 

3. Teachers’ work is deprofessionalised as ‘experts’ from outside the school establish the goals of schooling, the specific policy interventions to achieve them and the ways to assess them, while school-based educators are charged with the task of implementing it all, and are held responsible for the outcomes; 

4. Teacher morale plummets as their professional expertise is undervalued, as they are excluded from making important decisions about their work, and as they are subject to ongoing criticism about their work based on the simplistic measures described earlier. 

The irony is that since the introduction of the standardising agenda, our test scores have been declining. And yet, every time there is an outcry about the results, rather than questioning the direction of education policy, policy makers simply double down on the agenda!  

This then justifies even more interventionist approaches and so the misery is increased – further lowering morale. During all of this the standardizing agenda itself is never questioned, despite its manifest failures as judged by its own measures!  

There must be another way. 

What can be done? 

I can see light at the end of tunnel. Neoliberal economic theory has been discredited by leading economists for some time, and that skepticism is now mainstream. The philosophy of ‘trickle down’ economics is on its last legs.  

The task is now to challenge the logic of neoliberalism in the social and cultural spheres, and education is an important part of that. As education becomes ever more complex, a new educational narrative is needed – one that rejects the standardising agenda and that restores teacher professionalism. This report provides the hard evidence to justify such a policy turn.  

If we are serious about achieving high quality educational outcomes for all, then we must give teachers back their professional voice and provide them with the resources and the time and space to engage in collaborative curriculum work. In short, we must return to teachers the joy, the intellectual stimulation, the zest, and the fun that should be at the heart of a career in education.