Photo: GPE/Kelley Lynch
Photo: GPE/Kelley Lynch

“Teachers – Being in Control or Being Controlled?”, by Jim Baker.

written by: Jim Baker published 2019-10-30 updated 2019-10-30

The status and role of professional teachers are affected by global efforts to make schools reason and operate like private companies even in some schools systems that may appear untouched by market reform fervour. A publication released last month on the profession addresses, in different contexts, the impact of that ideological climate on education policy.

A  Zurich-based on-line journal for research and debate, “on education” devoted its latest issue to the teaching profession with “Teachers – Being in Control or Being Controlled”. Education International General Secretary David Edwards was asked to contribute an article.

Edwards argues, in “Quality education and professional teachers”, that relationships are an essential element of teaching and that they cannot be replaced by management systems or technology. He puts “safe schools” in that context, writing, “The school community is woven from relationships. Those relationships are between students and students, teachers and teachers, and students and teachers. As a community, it functions best if it is stable, healthy, and safe. In addition to being physically secure, without danger and harassment, it is a safe setting to be what you are, to think freely, to discuss, to be creative, and to draw outside of the lines.”

The complete publication consists of an introductory editorial and six articles. In addition to the piece by David Edwards, they are: 

 “Teacher (in) discretion in international schools” by Adam Poole, which shows how international or “internationalised” schools not subject to reforms, are, nevertheless, affected by them as they function in a competitive environment and are influenced by market pressures as “for-profit” institutions. He writes that, “from a market-driven perspective, aspirant middle-class parents position themselves and their children as customers who are consumers of education.”

Teacher agency and the digital; empowerment or control?” by Barbara Schulte examines the argument that reliance on the internet provides greater equity and quality for education. For example, she scrutinises the argument that on-line education means that rural schools, for example, can benefit from the best teachers despite the fact that it may be difficult and expensive to attract qualitied teachers to those areas. She maintains that, although there are some positive effects of being connected, such practices tend to impose urban education in regions that are fundamentally different. By doing so, they risk diminishing the role of professionals to reading scripts developed elsewhere.

Control of teachers under conditions of low-stakes accountability” by Judith Hangartner, shows how, even in systems that value professional autonomy and do not impose rigid performance evaluations, “New Public Management (NPM)” has an impact.  She argues that NPM policies “travelled around the globe” and combined with local traditions and governance systems. According to Hangartner, this is found not only in the Anglophone world, “but also in Latin American and Asia” where schooling was “turned from a public good into a commodity, which could be individualised, privatised and put into competition”.

Ideological disempowerment of teachers” by Kwok Kuen Tsang, based on a study in Hong Kong, looked at the increase of non-teaching duties and reported a surge of “stress and exhaustion” and that diversions from education made teachers feel “meaningless, frustrated, demoralised… overwhelmed by the non-instructional work”. In addition to administrative burdens, there are also responsibilities for extra-curricular activities, which are a “selling point” to attract more parents and students.

Manifestations of autonomy and control in a devolved schooling system: the case of New Zealand” by Nina Hood, recognises the relative autonomy of the teaching profession in New Zealand, where teachers are considered to be “knowledgeable actors within an education system.” However, she mentions conflicts between those traditions and practices and the influence of the “global educational reform movement (GERM)”. A previous government imposed national standards, which were repealed by the current government, but traces of the earlier approach and attitudes persist.

Although the articles are all about the teaching profession, they examine several subjects, mostly related to school “reform”, and use different country experiences. A common thread emerges, however, that, regardless of whether school systems are centralised or de-centralised, whether teacher autonomy is encouraged or discouraged or even whether systems have been subject to the latest fashions of education reform, there has been a global impact on teaching employment of management thinking and methods.

Given the depth and reach of market dogma and private management approaches to education, the restoration of the status of the teaching profession will require a lot more than tweaking misguided reforms. Making such a profound transformation, which is part of a wider struggle for human dignity and respect, must include massive de-toxification to liberate educators, students, and the mission of education from the myths and rituals of the market.

At the end of his article, David Edwards offers another vision and hope, one that requires sustained commitment and effort. He writes, “It is a struggle for teachers, but also for students, for parents, and for healthy, happy, and democratic societies. And, more than ever, teacher unions recognise that trade unionism does not stop at the water’s edge. It is a global struggle. Ideas, including bad ones, spread rapidly and the profession must respond globally as well as regionally and nationally.”

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.