Altruists, Incentives and Sustainability – thoughts on a recent Economist article on teaching.

‘Teaching ought to be a profession for hardworking altruists who want to improve children’s life prospects. But all too often school systems seem designed to attract mediocre timeservers.’

‘You can find outstanding individuals in the worst school systems. But, as lazy and incompetent teachers get away with slacking, the committed ones often lose motivation. In America and Britain surveys find plummeting morale.’

‘Jaded British teachers on online forums remind each other that it is just a few months till the long summer break-and just a few years till retirement. No wonder so many children struggle to learn: no school can be better than those who work in it.’

‘Finland pays teachers modestly but manages them well; ten graduates apply for each training place. South Korea recruits teachers from the top 5% of school-leavers and promises them fat pay cheques. In both countries teachers are revered-and results are among the world’s best.’

‘When the school’s boss (a Teach for America alumna) offered teachers much higher pay in return for less job security, their union balked.’

Economist February 14th 2015

These extracts from an Economist article titled ‘Those who can’ carry a clear implication which Adam Smith would be proud of. The great man, speaking in the 1770s claims, ‘In modern times, the diligence of publick teachers is more or less corrupted by the circumstances, which render them more or less independent of their success and reputation in particular professions.’ (WoN Oxford, 2008 p 427) In other words make attractive rewards (in particular, financial rewards) dependent on success, and you will attract the competent and ambitious, who will duly create success.   Offer people financial security irrespective of performance and the profession becomes populated with timeservers with low expectations who bunk off school at every opportunity.

This seems to be a misleading oversimplification – at least in the UK and my guess is elsewhere – in the war over teachers’ terms and conditions. The nature of the oversimplification can be seen from a critical ambiguity in the article’s third paragraph. We learn that ‘Jaded British teachers’ are around in numbers. The initial implication, following on from the prior argument is that these are altruistic, hardworking teachers who have become jaded by the fact that their lazy, timeserving colleagues are getting away with sitting in the staffroom all day, not doing their marking and going home early.   However the move at the end of the paragraph suggests instead that the jadedness itself shows that those teachers are part of just that vast mass of lazy timeservers, who are destroying students’ education.

If formerly hardworking and altruistic teachers become jaded and are destroying people’s education, it is important to ask why. But it does not seem clear, even from the evidence cited in the article, that the causes are simply to do with money v security. After all, we are supposed to be talking about altruists. It might well be that people are prepared for a good cause to take a lower salary than they would get elsewhere, and even risk job insecurity. Though it might be an act of human kindness towards altruists to offer them something of the latter, in return for the former, rather than discarding them the moment they cease to be quite so useful.   Again, according to the article, South Korea employs top school graduates and offers them high wages, yet Finland offers lower wages, but in return manages them well. It is not just about money.

For my part, I find it hard to reconcile the overall picture of classrooms populated by time-serving enemies of good teaching, dragging the reputation of the profession down, with my experience of state education over the last thirty years.   What I believe I have witnessed is actually a revolution in the expectations placed on teachers and in their accountability.   How just and reasonable all the accounting may be is another matter, of course. Nevertheless, all schools now have rigorous, demanding (and ever-evolving) management systems that slowly but inexorably put the squeeze on teachers who are failing to meet the current national, and in-school performance criteria. Time-serving teachers cannot exist at classroom level any more.   Along with the persistently disruptive student no school can afford to tolerate them. They will either change their behaviour or be moved on.

If you were to ask the jaded classroom teachers in the UK exactly why they were jaded, my guess is that very few would give as a reason, that their classroom peers were getting the same pay for less work than them.   It would have a lot more to do with the pressure of being under a scrutiny, whose critical gaze constantly finds new areas to criticize and (particularly for older teachers) implicitly rubbishes the energetic and enthusiastic work of their past. It would have much to do with the quality of management in their school, whether it was human and realistic or inhumane and unreasonable or just plain misguided; whether it respected persons or preferred to deploy psychopathic efficiency in the relentless thrust to drive up standards.   For younger teachers, there may be the issue of the exploitation of their energy and idealism in institutions desperate for the rapid real and reputational success that makes schools desirable to parents and potential teacher-recruits.

I would also note, that if there is one thing that colleagues really resent, it is the rapid promotion of those whose talent (they believe) is not obviously greater than theirs, but who have learned the rhetoric of the hour and often seem (they believe) to work less hard thereafter. Jealousy, yes, but there is a point to it. Anyone who has taught in a state school knows that success in the classroom is dependent on a huge number of hidden variables that make performance related pay almost impossible to administer fairly.

Marx has a good line in his Deutsche Ideologie which translates something like: ‘the employers have not only made themselves intolerable to the workers; they have made work itself intolerable’. It seems to me that something of this has happened in teaching in the UK in the last 15 years. A justifiable drive towards a general increase in the quality of classroom teaching and provision for students has rendered the profession unlivable for many. Among that many, I would suggest are not just the timeservers, but also a substantial number of the hard-working altruists, whose hard-work and altruism can, in difficult circumstances, fail to match the absolute demands of the local system. If this were just the voice of jaded old altruists like me – well, I suppose we’re part of the dead wood that needed to be cut away.   But the question of livability affects the dynamic twenty- somethings and thirty-somethings who are already receiving the sort of promotional incentives and TLRs that the Economist is recommending.   The drive towards success and productivity is also experienced as a drive towards early burnout and breakdown.

Finland would appear to be on to something. It’s about how we manage systems of people, not (just) about how we structure financial incentives (refer Michael Sandel’s thought-provoking What Money Can’t Buy). A friend of mine recently visited a well-known and successful academy – a type of institution promoted precisely to circumvent the national terms and conditions for state teachers and allow for performance-related pay incentives (and management prescribed working hours). As he was shown round, my friend noted that there was no staff room. His guide told him that if the staff had a place where they were allowed to talk together freely, there would be a revolution.

Currently I work in a school with a young and dynamic middle management and a young middle-aged senior leadership team. There is, by and large, an excellent working atmosphere, lots of collaborative work, lots of positive support.   There is immense generosity from the staff, who are committed to giving the students the best deal academically.   There is even a place for oldies like me – there on a supply contract.   It seems to me that this is probably about as good as the current system gets.   However, there are, even so, here as well the nagging questions about the sustainability of the system as a whole.   Perhaps these questions are also implied in the Economist article.

Let us suppose that UK schools are like football clubs. Some are in the premier league, some are in lower divisions.   All have their local fan base. The premiership schools naturally attract money, students and ambitious and able recruits. However, the premiership schools, like the football clubs, are successful, in part because they have potential recruits queuing at the door – which makes it much easier to drive up standards and move people on in the unremitting pursuit of excellence. Apparently (according to another article in the same edition of The Economist) the Teach First model (adapted from Teach America) has added to that queue and (arguably) brought rewards to London teaching.

[Caveamus: it is important to note that when Teach First teachers succeed it is probably because they are in premiership contexts with a quality of support that allows their energy, creativity and natural ability to lead, to make up (and more) for their lack of experience. There are also horror stories.]

Following this model, one question is whether all schools in the UK can become premiership schools. Or do the hidden variables of location, social context, the emotional battering from difficult children along with the limited size of pool of hardworking, competent young altruists (let alone available funding) make this unrealistic? It would be interesting to know the statistics of the proportion of supply teachers to regular teachers employed across the country at the moment or how quickly we could actually replace the population of the jaded. It would also be interesting to see what happens to Teach First applications when the wider job market picks up.

Let us suppose that it is possible. We now have a second question. Must we now say that class room teaching, for all but a few energetic geniuses, is (like footballing) a career with a natural fifteen year lifespan, after which you need either to be doing something else, or working in educational senior management?   The sophisticated demands of wider-ranging competence, creativity and flexibility in modern classroom teaching may mean that it is now no country for old men (or women).

Or we could, of course, suggest that the current work-model in schools (as elsewhere in modern working life) may possibly be deranged.   Herein lies a systemic problem, rather than a problem about the behaviour of evil individuals. The voice of Adam Smith comes in here again with a rather different tone:

‘If masters would always listen to the dictates of reason and humanity, they have frequently occasion rather to moderate than to animate the application of many of their workmen. It will be found I believe, in every sort of trade, that the man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly, not only preserves his health the longest, but in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.’ (WoN [Oxford, 2008] p 83).

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