School Improvement? How About Teacher/Student Demoralisation?


It’s been one of those weeks when it feels like most of the industrialised world is trying to centralise its grip on state schooling. In the UK, the Guardian featured interviews with Head Teachers who have already begun the heroic task of turning around ‘failing’ schools, only  to be rewarded by being forced to convert to academy status, and thus coming directly under government control.

In the same week, Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of OFSTED (the English schools inspections agency) said that Head Teachers were wrong to complain about all the sorts of stress facing them today. In a speech straight out of Monty Python’s ‘When I were A Lad….’ sketch, he said they didn’t know what stress really was, unless, like his father, they were out of work, or doing 3 jobs at once.

Wilshaw appears adamant that suddenly changing the criteria for judging successful schools – effectively lifting the high jump bar when the athlete has just begun his run-up – should not be a cause of anything but unalloyed joy. The effect of the ever-ratcheting pressure, according to Willshaw’s predecessor, Christine Gilbert, is that the morale of teachers is said to be ‘rock bottom’.

This from a government coalition who, on coming to power, said they were determined to raise the standing of teaching as a profession. They have a funny way of showing it.

Over in the United States – where individual states have long treasured their educational autonomy – Obama’s Secretary of State, Arne Duncan, has caused the fur to fly by nailing his colours to the masts of a national set of Common Core Standards. The need for a common core (what kids are

supposed to have learned in school) is said to be a necessity in order to compete internationally. It’s also cited as the way to ensure better educational equality between rich and poor kids. Now, some intentions behind the move to common standards, not least the recognition that we need to promote high-order thinking skills, are laudable, but you can’t expect a set of common standards to be a magic bullet. As Linda Darling-Hammond pointed out, if you look for evidence of higher-order thinking skills, you won’t find them on multiple-choice test papers. Nor will teachers make the conversion to enquiry and project-based learning approaches, and away from ‘teaching to the test’, without lots of professional development support, and training resources. And trying to encourage teachers to go deeper and wider in their teaching strategies (because that’s what successful nations tend to do) is incompatible with pay linked to test scores. The result is that the US is locked in competition with England for the title of ‘country with the most demoralised teachers’.

I hate to sound cynical, but the real reason behind all this tough talking is less to do with raising standards, and more to do with looking like you’re doing something, politically. There are two simple reasons why politicians and policy makers are doomed to disappointment with these type of get-results-quick policies.

First, we’ve seen umpteen centrally-prescribed initiatives over the years, and hardly any of them achieve the goal of long-term, sustainable improvement. Why? Because, you can centrally prescribe what schools should teach, and what is considered to be an acceptable performance, but unless you address the cultural issues involved in how schools improve their teaching and learning,, you’re not actually getting to the heart of the issue. As Michael Fullan says, “the best intentions of school change efforts are overtaken by school culture by Wednesday”. So, to change hundreds of schools, requires lots of boots on the ground, and a respectful awareness that these issues are complex, and need complex solutions.

Complex, long-term solutions are not what politicians like to hear.


Second, as Yong Zhao pointed out last week, whatever impact such top-down initiatives might have, is infinitesimal compared to the vagaries of fate: masses of evidence exists to show that where, and to whom, you are born, taken with the 4-5 years of pre-school experiences, is the single biggest determinant of educational equality and of social mobility. Another round of teacher-bashing may appease the right-wingers, but if you really want to make a difference, commit massive amounts of time and  money to intervening, as early as possible, in economically disadvantaged families. But that doesn’t play well with the tabloids.

Even countries where, up till now, the PISA assessments have been quite favourable are going for more centralised control-and-command. Australia is inching its way towards a national curriculum, and is becoming more prescriptive in its teaching standards, and expectations.

The tragedy behind this attempt to make schools improve  (OFSTED recently said that all schools should be ‘above average’ – seriously, they did) is that it’s as doomed as attempts to make students pass a test. What we’re left with is a profession who inevitable trigger the same degree of stress that they experience, in their students. Coincidentally, I was sent this week the following ‘guidance’ for an Australian student about to sit her English exam. I was sent it by a concerned father, because his daughter was stressed simply reading what was expected of her:


Do we really believe that demanding that ‘a student selects and uses language forms and features, and structures of texts, according to different purposes audiences and contexts, and describes and explains their effects on meaning’ is going to engender a love of learning? Or do anything other than trigger depression and anxiety in a 15 year-old?

But this is the inevitable consequence of top-down, mechanistic, target/standards-driven government intervention. It might sound like a good, simple intervention in government departments, but way, way down the line, we see the collateral damage: it sucks the joy out of learning. And it sucks the joy out of teaching, too.

I’m all for accountability. Like politicians, I would love there to be a simple gear ratio driving improvement, so that the harder you crank the handle, the better the end result. But, unlike politicians (and ex-Head Teachers like Wilshaw, who ought to know better), I know it’s a bit more complicated than that.

(In my next post, I’ll try and present an alternative way of promoting, and testing, higher-order thinking skills)

One Response to School Improvement? How About Teacher/Student Demoralisation?

  1. ghess1000 says:

    Politicians solutions to education are political, not pedagogical. There is simply no correlation between the crowd-pleasing number crunching that politicians favor and actual learning. But they have to pretend to be doing something, don’t they.

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