Teacher in front of class via Pexles.com
Teacher in front of class via Pexles.com

Peter Williams: Do we value teachers?

Peter Williams 24/05/2021

OPINION: One of the themes of the ACT party education policy put forward over the weekend is taking our teachers to a higher level, and then making sure the best teachers are well rewarded for being top performers. 

The sad fact is that New Zealand's educational achievement is falling. We know that because New Zealand kids are surveyed in international testing systems like Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and New Zealand is dropping down the list. 

In other words, our achievement relative to kids in other countries is dropping. And according to the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), when achievement rises, the national economy improves as well. So you would think a primary focus of any government would be education and working quickly to ensure that educational standards rise. But I really wonder if that is the case in New Zealand? 

For instance, and the ACT party highlighted this over the weekend, how can your child at primary school be taught maths by someone who did not pass maths at NCEA level 2? Think about that. Teachers in primary schools are themselves so lacking in maths knowledge and ability they couldn’t pass the subject in year 12. Is that really what we want? Of course not, so setting higher standards for teachers in their ongoing professional development to ensure they are maths competent at least to NCEA level 2 should not be that much of a challenge should it? Apparently it is.

How much do we value education in this country? And how much do we value teachers? Are we giving them an appropriate Warrant of Fitness check through the registration process at the Teaching Council each year? I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised but these days it seems the most important thing you have to do to keep your registration is show that you have been doing some courses in either Maori language or culture - or preferably both. 

But there are no standards or requirements for you to show improved standards or even competence in any other subject areas. Don’t you find that strange? Do we have the wrong priorities? 

Yes, some teaching of Tikanga Maori is important, but in a joined-up world, it’s the skills of English literacy, maths and science which are the most important. And that’s where New Zealand children have been slipping down the international league tables. 

Is David Seymour right? Do teachers need to be examined more rigorously on their subject knowledge, particularly in the basic subjects? Especially in maths? And is the annual teaching council registration process more or less a box-ticking exercise? Can underperforming teachers get away with ongoing underperformance? 

ACT made two big announcements on education over the weekend, and the one on improving teacher quality and performance was the most important of them. But David Seymour and his education spokesman Chris Baillie also came up with the idea of this bonus pool for high-quality teachers, known as the Teaching Excellence Reward Fund (TERF). ACT says put $250 million aside for principals to give bonus payments to those teachers who are the classroom stars. If you have a teacher able to make, say, another $15,000 a year through high-quality achievement in the classroom then the chances of recruiting somebody with an honours degree in maths to be a school teacher instead of something else are higher. 

I see immediately the unions and the principals federations are pushing back against it. I heard the head of the primary school principals federation Perry Rush say this morning that teaching is collaborative, not competitive. Which to me is just a complete cop-out, not to say disingenuous. The only way for teachers to get paid more is to leave the classroom and go into management roles. And how are those management roles decided? Through competition for them. 

He also maintained that teachers don’t want performance pay. Really? Has he asked them? I just don’t get why teachers are so implacably opposed to paying the best performers more. It happens in most other workplaces - except of course those controlled by unions. 

So as a teacher, or a former teacher, or a future teacher, or if you’re a school student or one who recently left school, or if you’re a parent of school-age kids, would you like to see bonus payments be made available to teachers? If we all agree that a high-performing education sector is vital for the ongoing success of New Zealand - and we do agree on that don’t we? Then why shouldn’t the best performers be paid more?

And as for teaching being collaborative, not competitive, well maybe Mr Rush should be reminded that the All Blacks are a collaborative outfit as well, everyone has to be a team player. But is Same Cane paid more than George Bridge or Shannon Frizzell? You bet he is. Is that a problem? No, because that’s life.

Teachers should remember lots of teams have their best players being paid more.

Listen to Peter Williams every weekday morning from 9am on Magic Talk.