SCHOOLS: by Mark LopezNews Weekly
How much should we pay teachers who don't deliver?
, September 29, 2007
How can students dodge the pitfalls of a flawed education system? Mark Lopez reports."I don't get paid for results." This was the dismissive reply of a high-school English teacher to a request by a concerned student for extra analytical material.
This was witnessed by a student of mine who was in that teacher's class (but who had had the foresight to contract me as his private tutor from the commencement of the year).
A typical lesson from this teacher involved him briefly talking to the class, seemingly for his own amusement, and then he would tell the students to "Get on with your work". He would then put his feet up and read the newspaper.
The Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union is currently campaigning for this teacher to have a 30 per cent pay rise.
Here is another story from another student. He came to me later in the academic year. Keen to do well at English, he had just dismissed his private tutor. (You can do that in a free market, something you cannot do with an allocated class teacher who does not deliver.)Extra lessons
This student, hungry for knowledge, learned quickly and improved rapidly. Fortunately, he also had a very good teacher who supported him from her end. Close to the exams, she provided beneficial extra lessons on the weekend for those students who were keen, which I encouraged my student to attend. This teacher was not only capable; she genuinely cared about her students.
Under the current system supported by the teachers' unions, she is paid the same as the disappointing teacher mentioned earlier who appears not to give a damn, who knows what he can get away with, and who had the confidence not to seem to care if his students knew it.
Under the current system supported by the teachers' unions, an additional burden is placed on those capable and dedicated teachers who toil harder to overcome the educational damage done to a class of students by a poorly performing teacher at the previous year level.
Under the current system supported by the teachers' unions, those teachers whose performances raise serious issues regarding teacher quality are paid the same as those competent and dedicated teachers who are doing something to ameliorate the problems caused by their under-performing colleagues.
As a private tutor, whose high-school students come from across the state and private systems, I gain a revealing perspective into what is really
going on in a broad range of classrooms.
In addition to hearing what my students have to report and noting how they are treated, I have the opportunity to observe the tasks designed by teachers, to scrutinise the teachers' correctional red ink, and to read the notes that my students diligently take in class.
Consequently, through my students, I have the rare opportunity to observe both what is good about the system and also what the teachers' unions would rather Australian families not consider.
Without a syllabus to guide them, and left to their own devices, an alarming number of teachers have misunderstood the content of their courses, which means they are teaching erroneous interpretations to their students.
For example, in some English classes, Graham Greene's The Quiet American
is taught as an oriental love story, with the novel's central political messages criticising US foreign policy in Indochina during the Cold War being entirely, or almost entirely, overlooked.
Competent teachers as well as other readers familiar with this well-known book would realise that such a mistake severely compromises its educational value.
An uninformed reading of Greene's The Quiet American
by teachers lacking the essential knowledge of the relevant history and politics would lead them to misunderstand the text. The shortcomings of too many teachers in this regard are highlighted by the fact that other teachers do manage to brief themselves adequately.Film texts
Many teachers appear to have the most difficulty when interpreting film texts, an addition to the curriculum favoured by post-modern educationalists eager to expand the variety of texts studied.
Unfortunately, what occurs in too many classes are ungainly attempts to find meaning when there is not really any meaning there, or misunderstandings of straightforward material that would not have happened if the teacher had engaged in some elementary preliminary background research before viewing the film.
During lessons in these classrooms, students wince with disbelief, suppress incredulous giggles, or cringe with empathetic embarrassment as their teacher offers explanations of scenes that are, to put it mildly, goofy.
A memorable example of this problem involved the film Cabaret
, which was on the year 12 curriculum in the late 1990s. Set in Berlin in 1931, the Academy award-winning film celebrated the exuberant live-for-the-moment decadence of the cabaret subculture while critically commenting on the dangers posed by the rise of the Nazism.
In one powerful scene, set in a beer garden, the film demonstrates how the appeals of Nazism could work their magic on an apparently respectable gathering of German folk. However, an old man, perhaps in his nineties, is shown to be immune, refusing to join the chorus of nationalistic singing led by a member of the Hitler Youth.
The film provides no explanation for his dissent, his behaviour simply serving to demonstrate that the appeals of Nazism, although widespread, were not universal.
Many students reported to me that their teachers interpreted this scene differently. They taught their classes that the old man was a veteran of the First World War. He had seen the horrors of war and he knew that the Nazis were headed in that direction. That is why he did not sing.
In the late 1990s, when this text was taught in schools, the veterans of the First World War were aged in their nineties. However, the film Cabaret
was set in 1931, when most veterans would have been aged in their thirties.Incorrect
Intrigued by why so many teachers, a sizeable minority of them, interpreted this scene in the same incorrect fashion, I checked all the relevant study guides, searching for the reason for the pattern. They provided no clues.
What I suspect was the cause was that images of veterans broadcast on television each ANZAC Day created an impression in many teachers' minds of what First World War veterans looked like. They physically resembled that old man in Cabaret
, hence the mistake.
Bear in mind that mistakes such as these in an undergraduate university essay would probably result in a fail.
It should also be noted that these shortfalls do not just come from new teachers fresh from college. Rather, the examples I have presented came from experienced teachers who are already on the highest salary levels, one of whom headed the school's English department.
What is worse is that teachers who have misinterpreted the text often do not realise they have done so. Regarding themselves as the authority, some teachers then penalise students who present well-researched and insightful interpretations that differ from their own (erroneous) interpretation. Put simply, mistaken interpretations by teachers can result in them penalising students who present the right answers.
As a private tutor, aware of the perils these circumstances present to my students, I show them how to dumb down their essays to achieve "A" grades when dealing with teachers with idiosyncratic understandings of the curriculum and closed minds when assessing interpretations that differ from their own.
For example, one of my most successful year 12 students, who received a perfect score of 50/50 for English, deliberately wrote different answers for essays on the same topic, depending on whether the work was assessed internally by her class teacher or externally in the final exams by unseen examiners.
For the internally assessed coursework, she mimicked her teacher's misunderstanding of the topic; but for the final exams, she relied on the notes she received from my lectures. The tactic worked. She is currently studying law.
It should be noted that another of my most successful year 12 students, who also received 50/50 for English, and who is currently studying medicine, did not need to apply this tactic, since he had a competent teacher who recognised and rewarded quality work.
Streetwise students seeking to maximise their chances need to know when to dumb down their work and when not to.
These revelations about shortfalls in teacher quality would confirm the suspicions many students and their families have harboured for a long time. However, to others who unquestioningly trusted the system, these revelations may seem surprising.
While my responsibility as a private tutor is to show my students how to maximise what the education system has to offer while dodging its pitfalls, the custodians of the system have a different responsibility.
Perhaps the teachers' unions should have thought of what they could do to address these issues regarding teacher quality before they launched their industrial campaign.
There are some very capable and dedicated teachers who deserve to be well rewarded, very well rewarded; but to use them as an excuse to justify a wage rise that rewards the worthy along with the unworthy is simply another way of exploiting the worthy, yet again.- Dr Mark Lopez is an educational consultant and the author of The Origins of Multi-culturalism in Australian Politics (Melbourne University Press, 2000).