A view from the edge: Schools as a professional practice

Teaching is nominally a profession, and I don’t disagree with it being called that. However, looking in from the outside as a professional engineer, I see a four major of areas of lack where teaching moves away from best professional practice, and not to its benefit.

  1. Lack of senior professional responsibility
  2. Lack of research and development
  3. Lack of analytics
  4. Lack of focus on potential stars

Senior professional responsibility is the key backbone of most professions. Principal Engineers oversee Senior Engineers oversee Junior Engineers. This way, all work that is produced by the organisation is produced at the level of the Principal Engineer. The responsibility for any product lies with the Principal Engineer, even if large portions of the work is done by others. Management is a separate issue that is sometimes combined, but most often a function performed by others.

In schools, this seems not to take place. Teachers become more experienced, but their ‘span of responsibility’ does not increase. They may move into management if they are so inclined, but that is really the only stream open to them. There are some significant consequences to this. Inexperienced teachers have primary responsibility for their class, without the scope of support and oversight common to other professions. The value of experienced teachers is limited as their experience is unable to span classes to affect a greater level of outcome, and thus their income is unable to progress beyond a certain point. Overall, the outcome for any one student is an progressive averaging of the skill level of the teaching staff, not the reflection of the most capable teachers that it should be.

Research and development is a key driver in the success of the best professional practices. Teaching however, leaves structured R&D to universities to carry out, depending on professional development and informal observation of efficacy to slowly derive advances. This prevents schools from developing specific advantages, and restricts them to the application of general advances that may or may not be appropriate to the particular school. University research also tends to more esoteric and less immediately practical than practice driven R&D.
An area where significant advances can be made is in the automation or simplification of repetitive professional and administrative tasks. These tasks tend to be simple, menial and time consuming, and it is worth he effort required to develop ways of either simplifying or eliminating the need for them to be done. It gives more time for teachers to spend on things they believe are important, and makes their jobs more satisfying.

Analytics are the performance data that allow a practice to measure the effectiveness of its professional operations. You would think that with the testing that goes on there would be a surfeit of this to work with, but it seems simply not to be effectively collected and analyzed beyond the classroom. In some ways I wonder if there is simply a reluctance to really measure and understand the performance of both teachers and students. The idea that this is not measurable put out by teacher’s unions and the like is preposterous – it just takes consistent and directed data collection.

The benefits of consistent collection and analysis of performance data are considerable. It allows a clear view of how effective various efforts and changes are. Has the new literacy program been effective enough to justify the effort it takes? Has it been successfully implemented across all classes, or have some classes underperformed? Has it affected specific students more than others, and if so, why? Does the new teacher who started in grade four this year show promise? Are there areas where they need specific support to improve outcomes? How much difference did it make air-conditioning that classroom? These sort of questions can be answered, and need to be able to be answered if resources are to be allocated optimally.

Focusing on potential stars is critical for a number of reasons, and applies to staff as well as to students. Truly gifted teachers must be identified, developed and given responsibility. The same applies to students.

In the case of staff, exceptional teachers push the boundaries, set new standards and achieve more with their students than expected. Learning from and integrating the way these teachers work allows the school to develop higher standards across the board.

In the case of students, exceptional students are the ones who, properly developed, are able to set new standards in whichever field they end up in. But they must be identified, their particular capabilities stretched and encouraged, and their weaknesses addressed. Society has far more to gain from the promotion of these students than it does to lose from failing to shore up the inadequacies of those who are not academically inclined. Yet buckets of money are poured into those students with ‘special needs’ and those who are most capable of contributing to society in an exceptional way are ignored. I’m not suggesting that efforts should not be made to provide additional help for those with ‘special needs’, merely that it should be a secondary consideration in the larger scheme of things.

None of these issues are particularly difficult to address, except that they require a different way of thinking, and in some cases, the allocation of admittedly sparse resources. The potential for improved outcomes and more effective resource allocation significantly exceeds the required inputs, but they do require commitment and an initial investment to be made.
As noted, this is the view of an outsider looking in. Some of this may well be wrong, other parts may not apply in specific cases. It provides some food for thought and provides some areas to look at for changes in approach.

About Neocolonial

Ideas. Dreams. Collector of alternative perspectives. Engineering. Education. Politics. Photography. Whatever else catches my attention.
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