You can’t mess with the messers
Posted on 17:43, July 2nd, 2010 by Lew
Education minister Anne Tolley has tacitly threatened to go nuclear on primary principals who refuse to comply with National Standards directives, or who speak out against them. In a speech to the Principals’ Federation conference in Queenstown today, she said:
Now, there’s an implication here that the minister might retract her “representations” to make sure that the rights of teachers to speak freely are preserved, but there’s nothing to this. Any move to constrain teachers’ views or their expression would immediately draw furious and justified denunciations of the government for politicising and propagandising the education system, such as no liberal political movement could withstand.
In the final analysis she’s 100% correct about the government setting policy and the sector implementing it. By way of remedy, the ministry can take over the running of a school which fails to implement education policies adequately, and Trevor Mallard suggests the ERO has already started heavying truculent schools to set an example to others.
But it is an empty threat. For one thing, you can’t play the bossy schoolmarm with schoolteachers and principals — they wrote the book on it, and know all the tricks of the game, having put up with them from students for their entire professional lives. Not to mention that, as career educators they have far more invested in the quality of their education system than a minister who’s only been in the job two years and could be gone in the next cabinet reshuffle.
More crucially, though, the minister is up against old-fashioned collective action: a heavily unionised workforce which knows it is indispensable and irreplaceable. So what happens if it’s not just one school? What happens if it’s a dozen, or a hundred, or almost all the primary schools in the greater Auckland area, or the schools of two National heartland electorate regions at either end of the country, or as much as 94% of the sector overall?
Later in the speech, Tolley said:
But when push comes to shove, National Standards simply cannot be implemented by fiat. Teachers, directed by principals, are those who must undertake the implementation of the policy. While I cite them reluctantly because I don’t entirely agree, it’s somewhat like what the Randians are saying about Obama’s response to the BP oil spill: no amount of threat or bluster can provide any additional incentive to progress a cleanup whose failure or undue delay will spell a certain end to the company. No matter how you slice it, there are not enough Ministry of Education staff members, non-unionised part-time relievers or teachers who are happy with National Standards as proposed to do the complex and important work of assessing all the students who need to be assessed; cataloguing, moderating and communicating those assessments to parents and the ministry in a coherent manner. This is ignoring the fact that you can’t simply parachute a compliant teacher or apparatchik into an unfamiliar classroom and have them do it with any legitimacy. The teachers who stand up in front of that class of kids day-in and day-out are the only ones who can properly assess them, and they know it.
The sector also knows it’s in the right. Educators’ opposition to National Standards is neither ideological nor capricious, and they have have consistently levelled principled and pragmatic arguments against only the proposed implementation of the policy, backed by the best local and international experts in the field. They support assessment standards in principle, and have repeatedly suggested reasonable alternatives to the proposed implementation. The problem isn’t with their willingness to work with the minister; it’s that the minister isn’t interested in working with the sector.
So ultimately one of two things will happen: one side or the other will compromise sufficiently for the issue to progress, or the minister will be faced either with backing down in abject failure or sacking a significant proportion of the education workforce, with the consequent failure of the policy by default, not to mention a massive outcry from parents who’re forced to take time off work because their kids can’t go to school (and from their bosses, and bank managers, and almost everyone else). There’s no better way to bring the country to its knees.
Tangentially, this situation illustrates a branding risk I’ve been meaning to post on for a while: if you name a policy initiative after your party or some other core bit of your identity, you had better be damned sure you can get it through to full implementation without a hitch, lest its failure tarnish your good brand. Quite apart from any concerns with the policy, his National government has failed to do so with its National Standards. Not only is the policy programme and its attempted implementation against the wishes of the only people who can implement it a catastrophic mistake, but its naming looks like a spectacular failure as well. If it’s not pulled out of the fire soon, in future, all National’s political enemies will have to do to score a point is recount some of the more embarrassing events of this episode and say “these are National’s Standards”. It’s already happening — I’ve seen that very sentence used at Red Alert, for instance, regarding something unrelated to education reform. Instant conversion of a wonkish policy criticism to a gut-level identity observation which will resonate with the folk who just wanted their kids to go to school, those who wanted nothing more than to teach them as best they could, and ultimately the kids themselves. For this reason, my instinct is that the long-term damage to National’s brand and electability on this matter will become too high a price to pay for the perceived win over the sector, and those with a more strategic view of National’s situation will require that the wound be cauterised. Although it’s a backdown, over the long term this will be good for the party. More importantly, it will be good for the country.