Policy Dominoes

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
3 March, 2023

The most effective policy ideas are not always the most glamourous.

In education, there are so many problems that, even having decided on a policy programme, the challenges faced by a Minister in getting it implemented are daunting.

A reform-minded Minister might consider teachers’ career structure. At the moment, teachers are paid based entirely on their length of service. The quality of their performance has nothing to do with it. But any attempt to introduce performance measures into teachers’ remuneration will meet with trenchant opposition from teachers’ unions.

Such a Minister might also want to address the ideology that has led to our catastrophic failure in literacy and numeracy. But how to do that, when that ideology permeates the school education sector, from the teaching profession to teacher training providers, right up to the Ministry of Education?

My advice to an incoming Minister is to look for small policy interventions that lead to a domino effect of positive change.

I would start with the Standards for the Teaching Profession. The Standards describe the capabilities a new teacher must demonstrate to be granted a practising certificate by the Teaching Council.

The current standards highlight commitment to the partnership model of the Treaty, professional relationships, student wellbeing, inclusion, empathy and safety. But they place far too little direct emphasis on effective teaching.

New Standards should require teachers to have a working knowledge of the science of human learning.  To get their certificates, teachers should have to pass an examination to prove their understanding of learning science and to satisfy an expert observer that they can apply it in the classroom.

This reform would force teacher training institutions to place more emphasis on effective pedagogy than they do. Their reputations would suffer if their graduates could not meet the criteria for registration.

With Standards like that, the pernicious orthodoxy that holds our compulsory school system in a death grip would soon begin to shift. We’d have a cadre of young, well-prepared teachers leading the charge. Soon enough, everyone would want a piece of their success.

The only problem is, the Standards for the Teaching Profession don’t make for gripping election policy. Professional standards just aren’t that glamourous.

Fortunately, there’s another important reform that is much more likely to get voters’ attention. As well as new teaching standards, we need a new curriculum. More about that next time.

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