Compliance & Competence

When I moved back to Australia, I began working for a school in a system I’d been out of for a decade and barely in before that. I was only a few years out of university when I moved to Japan so I didn’t spend a long period in Australian education. This makes my perspective somewhat unique as I worked in it for long enough to understand it and had a long enough time out of it to notice changes more so than those who experienced them gradually.

What I’m writing here will somewhat overlap a previous post but this will be more general and based on my experiences over the last few years since being back.

“It’s a legal document”

I think most white-collar workers have heard this phrase before. No doubt, blue-collar workers have heard it too. It means of course much more than a statement of fact. What it really means is, “you have to be very careful what you write here.” This applies to a lot of professions but especially so for teachers. This is mainly because teachers are charged with the care of children and a lot can be held against us if something goes wrong.

This is not simply related to a child being hurt or seriously injured at school either. The first time I heard this was after submitting an example report to one of my bosses to check if I was on the right track before doing the rest and requiring a lengthy meeting afterwards. A lot of this was to do with the way I used language and effectively meant that if I didn’t have something nice to say, I couldn’t say it at all. This effectively makes reports useless.

Whether or not a teacher agrees with this is irrelevant because they have to do it. This is related to the legal ramifications that could arise should the student or parent take exception to something you wrote (however accurate), soon or many years after you wrote it. As far as I know, this wasn’t a big problem when I was on the receiving end of reports because I remember receiving some quite negative comments in mine. For the most part, the teachers were right too.

None of the authority figures of course would agree (at least openly), with my opinion here. They would say that it isn’t the case but nonetheless, I was given a lightning lesson in saying a lot without saying anything by my boss and dutifully wrote a whole lot of nothing for the remainder of my short time at that school. I also know that in cases where teachers refuse to comply with demands to change language, that it will be changed for them anyway. 

A person familiar with legalese and bureaucratic writing can read between the lines of these reports and have some idea of what the teacher is struggling to write with any clarity but most people simply won’t bother to read it. I imagine many otherwise sensible people don’t want to risk their intelligence being insulted by admitting they have no idea what was written. And most parents will learn all they need to know from parent teacher interviews where the teacher is more at liberty to be direct. It is a little bit like those clothes the Emperor wears.

If you think I’m not being truthful or even just exaggerating, see if you can find a violent, disruptive and stupid child and find out if any of their reports accurately reflect this.

On the bright side though, reports aren’t really all that important anyway. Despite the best efforts of many parties in education, most students do learn to read, write and do basic arithmetic while at some point in their schooling.

The further problem is not just reports but assessment too. This is another area where compliance trumps any attempt at accuracy of usefulness. A teacher can still make an exam or test of some kind, administer it and use it for assessment. I’m not denying they can do this. The problem is not so much this but what you are required to assess. In the subjects blessed with more clarity such as those with numbers or others where reality still maintains some control, you can still get a fairly clear result. The problem is in other areas such as English where teacher’s are expected not only to improve a child’s literacy but also make sure you are teaching them “texts” and “perspectives” and things like this.

To give a more concrete example, let’s consider something like writing a report. Most people would have done this in school but  I’m sure I’m not alone recalling more time spent writing one than considering what it is. Part of the focus of assessment is a child recognising what a report is and also that there are other ways of writing or “texts” that are not reports. I’m not saying these definitions are unimportant but it is much more important that a child can write a report about tigers than it is for them to tell you what one is.

Another would be reading assessment. I have used many leveled reader systems over the years and I find them particularly useful for early years assessment. I was told explicitly at the school I have been talking about not to use these for assessment. I was told they were just a “monitoring tool” or something like that. I never got a satisfactory reason why and I thought they were the most accurate (though imperfect) tool for assessing a student’s literacy.

These are just two examples and there are many more and because every school and teacher has to make sure they comply with this, this is where a lot of time and the focus goes. Textbook companies must make textbooks that comply with this if they want to sell. I’ve had to totally rethink assessments for entire units because of it. And I would argue what we have to assess isn’t really important at all.

Whether or not I like it though, I must comply with this in order to be considered competent. It doesn’t matter how effective a teacher is at their job (and I’m not saying I’m great), if they don’t comply with what is required, they won’t keep their job.

It also means as already mentioned that an awful lot of time goes into making sure you are complying with what is required because even if you are genuinely bad at your job, if the paperwork checks out, you’re quite safe. I imagine this is now much the same for many professions now.

What is to be done about this? Nothing, really. Every time I’ve tried to talk with people about this, I get blank stares or they agree but go on doing it. I suppose you just have to go along with it.

Assessment and reporting would be much simpler if it was based on common rubrics. You test students against a standard which won’t of course be a perfect measure but it will be close enough. Once you’ve tested them, you grade them on their results. If a student in Year 3 is unable to read at all, you say so clearly. You might even keep them back if they are under performing.

If I had a choice between a determined mother of middling intelligence with only a pad and a pencil and a professionally trained teacher with all the resources of a state education system at their disposal, I would go with the mother. This is not because I think all teachers are terrible. As I’ve written before, I think most teachers are generally competent at their jobs. The problem is simply how much time teachers have to spend dealing with this sort of compliance as well as other more serious problems on a daily basis.

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