The plight of the classroom teacher in a bureaucratising world

This week I spent a few days with fellow secondary school teaching colleagues partaking in professional development sessions, and over this time I got to know them like never before. I’d previously heard their whingeing and gripes in the staff room, but in these few days I had extended discussions with them, and boy did they unload.

Picture two male teachers: around 60 years old, well-meaning, hard-working, but fairly average Joes. They’ve worked their whole careers in state schools and seen the transformation of the kids and the system before their eyes. Their frustrations are many and varied. They strike me as people who would vote for a Trump-like figure because of the changing nature of their society and the system in which they work. It is not the ideology that they care about, it is someone who respects the impact of the elites on the mainstream. For it is management, bureaucrats and politicians, in well-meaning or self-interested career progression actions, that impede, disrupt and frustrate the everyday working lives of the ordinary teacher. These ideas, management practices and procedures lack common sense and respect for the people who implement them, and stink of political correctness, and underneath the PC undercurrent that so influences the school is a weakness to stand up and fight for what needs to be done to make the school run effectively.  I hear from these, and other men just like them, the phrase: “why weren’t we consulted?” “Who made that decision, and on what information?” They feel like they are being managed by people who do not bear the costs of their decisions, who do not have to implement them, and who do not care about their impact on the worker or the student. It is not a shift to Democrat or Republican, Labor or Liberal, that will satisfy these men. It is a move to something different, something not based around the status quo. Because both sides of politics have picked up and run with the status quo, and it is this that these men are fighting against. They are just trying to do their job, and managers and elites make their life much more difficult than it needs to be. It is the legalistic nature of compliance work, the lack of courage in standing up to parents, the overly soft approach to students, the shift to making classroom teachers increasingly responsible for disorganised school students. There is not enough time in the day, and this is not the work they signed up for. Where is the time for teaching great lessons in all of this bureaucracy? And cui bono – who benefits?

I understand their frustration and see the system as reflecting a belief that no harm should be done to anyone, anywhere, at any time. That we should try to mitigate everything. That we should excessively manage risk. Again, it is a symptom of weakness, a lack of character, vision and values in our society. Nassim Taleb sums this up beautifully: the Soviet Harvard fragilitas. They run a society devoid of a guiding philosophy except for harm minimisation, increasing comfort, to be seen to be ‘doing something’. Combine that ideology with a system of distant and central control, weak accountability mechanisms, and inefficient transfer and use of relevant knowledge. In other words, combine the progressive ideology with a bureaucratic, centrally-controlled system and you get the current system with the current gripes. This type of issue is probably applicable across different sectors in the economy.


These men I write about are old school, and boy is it refreshing. They don’t get on board fads. They are focused on their work and what actually helps the student. They are not ‘song and dance’ people – they don’t care about appearing to be a certain way. They just get the job done, and unfortunately, it’s these men that the elites can exploit for their own gain. Like students in classrooms, these men perform everyday acts of resistance. In the case of students and workers, it is the system forcing it’s values and processes on them, and they naturally fight back, in rational ways.

Unfortunately, things will not change, because elites have not learnt the recent lessons that are so palpably on display. They are in a bubble, and it won’t be until we see a crisis or they are put in a system where they are more accountable for their decisions that we will see change. And that is a long way off.


Culture and bad behaviour

In order to discuss culture as a cause of bad behaviour in classrooms, we’d have to be more judgmental about behaviour, have higher standards, and get over the fact that we cannot measure culture. But we don’t want to be more judgmental because we ultimately we have become weak – too empathetic. We do not like to see any pain. We are risk averse, or as Tyler Cowen describes it, we are complacent. We fail to realise that it is challenge, adversity and the presence of stressors that make us grow, not cotton wool. It is judgment that sears into our memory the lesson that we should not disrupt class. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

To have higher standards would mean to ditch relativism, which holds that whatever someone chooses to do is fine. But in relativism we fail to have values, and without values we are rudderless, drifting in a sea of self-expression cum narcissism.

Finally, we have a tendency to try to improve what we can measure, and if we cannot measure, we think we can’t improve it. At least this is how public policy goes. This mindset distracts us from the true causes of problems. The positivist epistemology of objective fact through data and measurement dominates, at the expense of qualitative methods that actually describe human behaviour. One can see how the dominance of positivism and the bureaucrats’ obsession with measurement, and employing consultants who like to measure things, can lead us astray, down the path of standardised testing, for example, or away from the true cause of the problem in our classrooms – our declining culture.


Bad behaviour in the classroom

There’s growing focus on the issue of behaviour in the classroom, with the Grattan Institute’s report  on student engagement and recent articles in the media, such as in The Australian today. This is appropriate, but one thing that is missing is the issue of personal responsibility and parenting. Again, it should be less of a case of ‘what can we [schools, governments] do about it?’ and more of a case of ‘what can the individual and the parent do about it?’. Recall that I consider student disengagement to be rational behaviour, given the culture and incentives in which they live. I also consider that complacency is a key missing ingredient behind the fall in educational attainment.

While it’s true that the school can improve it’s environment by changing the rules of the game that the form the students’ incentives to which they respond, good manners, consideration of others and some self-discipline are important aspects of maturity, and can be developed without action from the school. Therefore, the parental/individual and school/government responses need to come from a shift in cultural attitudes, and indeed, it seems that the current malaise stems from a cultural deficit. Currently, narcissism, complacency and distraction rule the day while perspective and wisdom often flounder. Similarly, teachers’ standards have dropped, a reflection of broader society. Of course, this stems from the loss of judgementalism that has occurred in recent decades, which, we should acknowledge, has had some emancipatory benefits.  Ideally that would not come at the expense of manners, but perhaps that is asking too much.

Empathy in public policy increases risk

Paul Bloom thinks we use too much empathy in policy decisions and not enough reason. Taking a person in particularly difficult circumstances and explaining how a policy will affect them – in order to create empathy with that person to ultimately garner or dissuade support for a particular policy – is damaging, according to Bloom. Here’s one way it is damaging in education. If we empathise with the poor, struggling student during a debate over school funding, we will be extremely hesistant to vote for cutting education funding. How could you? Do you not care about the disadvantaged? But if we continue to increase funding, in order to attempt to help this student, or at least not be seen to be dismissive of his/her needs, what we end up with is a government budget increasingly geared towards education spending. And it is hard to cut such spending. If this occurs across other domains, such as welfare and health, what we get is a government budget dedicated increasingly towards recurrent spending on social programs that cannot be cut. The budget is now geared such that the government is a quasi-insurance agency, offering risk management services to those in need. The budget has less room for discretionary spending for projects of need at a particular time, rendering it under-resourced when we may actually need to fund discretionary spending to get us through a crisis.

Such is the argument by Tyler Cowen in his latest book, The Complacent Class. He worries that by moving the government to act as an insurer, we diminish its ability to play a proactive and helpful role during a crisis. This is but one way that empathy and, frankly, weakness, on our parts has led us astray and risked our prosperity going forward. Our budgets and systems should be robust to negative shocks, but at the moment we are heading down a path of fragility. We need to broaden our view of public policy making, and fight this shift towards empathy as public policy. We have gotten weak, underpinned by a focus on victimhood instead of empowerment and reason. We need to rebalance our focus.

The present ideological climate

Part of the reason this blog has not yet ventured into the weeds of education policy is that there is a bigger fight to be won. If you consider politics for a moment, what you see is only the tip of the iceberg. The real stuff that matters is the ideological climate, particularly that within the major institutions. (Of course, on election day that goes out the door, as we saw with Donald Trump, but on a day to day basis, politicians seems particularly constrained by the ideological climate.) That ideological climate is like the submerged part of the iceberg – it’s not so apparent, but it’s powerful. It controls what those in power – even conservatives – can do. And right now, a progressive ideology dominates the media, the education establishment and the chattering class. There is little prospect for shifting from the status quo to something more dynamic without influencing this group. The 2014 Federal Budget, while somewhat botched in execution, received excessive derision. It is a case study in the difficulty of delivering needed reforms. It showed that any cut to any sort of entitlement is seen as bad, regardless of whether it should be in place. The recent penalty rates decision by the Fair Work Commission was meekly defended – and only after some time – by the Coalition government. If they cannot fight for a small cut to an obsolete set of penalty rates, there is little hope for significant reform in education. The Coalition should be philosophically on board education reform and penalty rate cuts. They know it would be effective, and therefore don’t exactly need huge support from policy wonks designing possible systems (though it’s useful to have one on the shelf when needed!). Really, the problem is that they cannot pull the trigger. They need an appropriate intellectual climate to allow them to do so without excessive political cost. Therefore, this blog is aiming not at the weeds, but at the 7/8 of the iceberg that influence the 1/8 that we see everyday.

Right now, a reform movement featuring freedom and choice is almost non-existent, it seems. The progressive status quo based on excessive compassion and empathy with those less fortunate is handicapping progress. This is not to say that we shouldn’t improve the situation of those struggling. Let’s not confuse means with ends. I’m arguing for different means to achieve similar outcomes (although, I am probably less optimistic about true egalitarianism and equity, which dominates the education establishment in Australia).  Anyway, the current direction is not conducive to reform, and the intellectual climate needs to be improved.

But more importantly, there needs to be genuine innovation. The extent to which it may happen here is limited by regulation, but it may be that a new way of educating comes along that forces the government’s hand. I honestly think that this will be more effective than trying to win the battle of ideas. I think humans are more geared to a socialistic tendency than a capitalistic one (the only reason capitalism continues to fight is that it works), which limits the extent to which the education establishment would relinquish control. So, it is down to the entrepreneurs. Until I’m in a position to do that, I will continue to blog.



The curse of the successful student

Consider the student for whom school is easy. He succeeds at everything he does, he never has conflict that he needs to resolve, he doesn’t know what it is like to be lost. It is possible for this student to go through his schooling without having to do the work of becoming an individual. The world around him caters so perfectly to his strengths that he can just go along with it and not have to do any hard work on his identity.

Skip forward to when he’s 23. He’s just finished university, and he’s making decisions about his life: what should he do for work, what type of person does he want to be, what is he into? It’s quite possible that such a person has a long journey  of self-discovery ahead, for he has not had to start it until now.

Compare this person to the person for whom schooling and adolescence were difficult. He had conflict throughout his teen years, he had to build a different identity and find what worked for him. He built a foundation a lot earlier than the successful student, and failed earlier too, which means he built stronger resilience. He can thus take more risks and become more truly free in his adult years. If the successful student finally attains such a state, it will be years later.

The successful student is likely to have a quarter-life crisis, a moment of realisation that he does not know who he is, has no foundation and has to start living more consciously. Or he may drift along, searching and not knowing that it was his conformist and successful years in high school that had stunted his development.

The biggest mistake in policy discussion – part 2

Yesterday I mentioned one of the big mistakes – confusing means and ends. Today, it is confusing the positive with the normative. Many argue for how education should be (normative), while clashing with people who consider how education actually is (positive). Of course, there should be interaction between the two. Indeed, a lack of balance is often the main issue, where one perspective crowds out the other. Positive analysis can draw accusations of heartlessness and self-interest, which is similar to those in part 1 who consider that some people favour elitism when they argue against certain interventions aimed at boosting the lower achieving. Much of education ideology seems to be normative in thinking, aiming for values like equity and inclusion. I’m not against these values, and they have their place, but it doesn’t seem to be balanced by positive arguments to provide grounding and perspective. When positive analysis tries to enter into the debate, people can interpret your analysis as meaning you are in another camp with respect to values. Perhaps, to some extent, you are. But it is a mistake to jump to this conclusion. Perhaps these concepts should be taught at school…

The biggest mistake in policy discussion – part 1

One of the biggest mistakes when discussing policy is confusing means with ends. Often, people may agree on the end goal, but disagree on how to get there. This can lead to people saying: ‘why do you hate children?’ or ‘why do you hate the poor?’ when, in fact, the other person simply doesn’t believe that aiming directly at a goal is what is best for achieving it. For example, implementing certain teacher training or accreditation course and certificates. This is likely to turn into a compliance activity, with only minor improvements in teaching. When someone argues against certifications, they’re probably not against people being qualified and capable. It is just that they disagree with the means of achieving that goal. Compliance through certification does not equal a qualified teacher who is held properly accountable. Modern compliance is the inevitable consequence of a large system with diffuse and distant accountability mechanisms. A more natural accountability mechanism would be school choice, local control, and free entry into the market for teachers and schools. These means of achieving accountability are not direct means, but nonetheless should be more effective than compliance. Or teaching students to love a subject as a way of getting them to perform well in the final exam. This is much more effective for education than rote learning and teaching to the test. But for that statement to be entirely true, the students have to believe it too. And this is where we need to think about the incentives they face and the information they are given.

Socioeconomic status and education

The overwhelming focus of the teaching industry seems to be on equity – providing extra support for those in need to provide ‘fairness’ in education. While this is well-meaning, it is a questionable practice. Consider that certain poor groups (Jewish, Chinese, Japanese) in America rose out of poverty in the Twentieth Century, while others did not fair as well (the Irish, Ulster Scots, black Americans). Therefore, it does not follow that poverty is the major hurdle to be overcome, and that more funding is the solution. The common element in the groups that did emerge from poverty was a strong work ethic and a high value placed on education. The solution must come from within.

Critiquing vs building in education

It’s easier to tear something down than build it. Yet in schools we tend to focus on critiquing the work of others, and not on creating things of value. Ultimately, the adult world cares what value you can create. So, imagine if we spent more time in classrooms on building things – websites, businesses, experiences, relationships. How would that change our world?