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Teacher Newsmagazine  Volume 21, Number 6, April 2009 

Paths to professional autonomy

Life as a test

By David Denyer

A recent editorial in a Kamloops newspaper on the FSA opened with the phrase, “life is one big test,” from our first breath to our last “when our heart fails the final exam.” Aside from the fact that this statement would have qualified for the deep-thoughts segment of past episodes of Saturday Night Live, this arid, depressing view of existence would appear to lie at the core of those who advocate for test-based accountability.

In pursuing this line of enquiry, Warwick Mansell of the Times Educational Supplement sought to understand why senior policy makers in education assumed that, without a rigorous accountability regime, teachers would become a bunch of self-interested slackers. From the interviews he conducted, he found that they had no evidence that teachers, if left to their own devices, would abandon their students. Instead, they simply assumed this would happen and passed it off as fact. So where do these assumptions (and that is what they are) have their roots?

Much economic theory is based on people being driven by financial incentives, bonuses, and financial rewards that supposedly feed their self-interest. Merit pay, school performance bonuses, and pay-by-results crop up as ideas all too often in education (most recently in the announcements coming from the Obama administration in the USA). The economic model, on which these assumptions are based, dates back, at least to Adam Smith, and maintains that the operation of market forces is simply a reflection of human nature.

Rather than accept this assertion as a given, which has been the case in economics for the last 250 years, what does current research say about people’s motivation and values? New breeds of researchers are making their mark in challenging what have been the accepted theories and doctrines. A number of these people are “crossovers” who have developed expertise in often widely diverse disciplines. One such person is Pete Lunn, a neuroscientist turned economist, who is forging a new direction known as behavioural economics. Behavioural economists are intent upon discovering what people’s motivations truly are. Not unexpectedly, they are far from the selfish/ self-interested stereotype favoured by traditional economics and devotees of free market capitalism.

“The prevailing economic wisdom that people do only what they are paid to do, that our aim is to take what we can and give as little as possible, is not supported by evidence and certainly not by wisdom. It is highly damaging and there is a job to be done to change it.”

In contrast, the behavioural research reveals people’s motivations to be far more complex than conventional economic models suppose. We seek to be treated fairly, respected by our peers, and have security. We take pride in a job well done, and, yes, maximize our own personal success. A visit to any school will confirm the commitment teachers bring to the job. Working countless hours, often in the evenings and weekends and undertaking numerous tasks other than those directly related to the classroom, demonstrate the value teachers place on their work and its importance for our society. They do what they can to counter the impact of deprivation and social exclusion. They wrestle daily with the problems poverty brings; caring for children scarred by family breakdown, inadequate parenting, material and emotional poverty, and neglect. And all this in often resource- and support-deprived conditions, being paid a fraction of their worth, and judged publicly against a misconceived, archaic notion of human nature, which has its roots in an equally archaic economic model that is hundreds of years old. It is clear, given this mind-set, why any form of professional autonomy struggles to survive. How can asserting autonomy, in an environment dominated by a view of human nature as purely self-serving, be seen as anything other than an excuse to avoid being accountable? Accountability, as Warwick Mansell observes, works to shift responsibility for performance away from the student to the teacher. Although commenting on the accountability saturated system in the UK, his critique should give us pause:

“To put it another way, hyper-accountability assumes, implicitly, that pupils have a right to high grades (or at least to perform as well as others have done, given their statistical starting points), and that if they have not received them, the failing is entirely their teacher’s. So, instead of pupils getting the message that their hard work will lead to success, and to take responsibility for their actions, they are given the signal that it is down to the teacher to deliver that achievement for them.

“This thinking, I believe, is doing untold harm to our education system.”

That politicians and policy makers are making far reaching decisions based on assumptions for which there is not a shred of empirical evidence should give us all great concern. Blindly pursuing political opportunism and attachment to ideology generate nothing but social dysfunctionality and threaten the very institutions that are vital to sustaining a democratic society.

David Denyer, assistant director and Teacher editor, BCTF Communications and Campaigns Division.

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