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Striking teachers ignore economic realities

In September, an estimated 280,000 students and their parents were badly disrupted by the strike action of the members of the Post Primary Teachers’ Union (PPTA).

About 16,000 teachers went on strike, affecting 450 intermediate and secondary schools.

The protest was part of a planned programme of industrial action taken by the PPTA over stalled pay negotiations with the Education Ministry.

Eight rolling strikes were scheduled up to Christmas as well as further action next year.

In addition, teachers have been told to refuse to attend all meetings after 5 pm, including staff meetings, parent interviews, and student tutorials.

At the heart of the PPTA’s complaint is the failure of the Government to agree to their demand for 4% pay increase – the annual rate of pay increase that they have enjoyed for the last three years.

In addition teachers are asking for 1% percent increase in the employer’s contribution to their KiwiSaver accounts, a laptop each, and class sizes capped at 30 pupils for general classes, or 24 in ‘hazardous’ classes like woodwork or science.

In response, the Ministry offered 1.5% pay increase this year, with a further 1% next year, but that offer was rejected.

Facts Ignored

The PPTA’s demands appear to completely ignore the fact that the global recession is causing the whole country to tighten its belt. National, like Governments around the world, is being forced to reduce the cost of the public service.

In the UK, public servants earning more than $40,000 are facing a two-year wage freeze, with performance-related pay for civil servants cut by two thirds. In Italy, public sector wages have been frozen. In Ireland, public service salaries, including those of doctors, nurses, and teachers have been cut by 15%.

According to the Education Ministry, between March 2000 and March 2010, the average pay of secondary teachers (including salaries and allowances) increased by 45% almost double the rate of the public service as a whole, from $47,764 to $71,110. Over the same period, primary teachers’ overall pay increased by 52% from $45,936 to $68,535.

This compares to the average New Zealand wage of $49,875.

Protest action has not been confined to secondary teachers. The New Zealand Educational Institute (the primary teachers’ union), is embroiled in a battle against the implementation of national standards, a new system of assessment designed to improve achievement outcomes by introducing better accountability for children’s progress in reading, writing and mathematics.

Revealing Study

The familiar themes of teacher union protests including demands for pay increases based on experience and qualifications, the need for lower class sizes, and a rejection of any official measure of performance outcomes, have recently been challenged by a major study commissioned by the Los Angeles Times.

The study is based on longitudinal data from 700,000 school students and 35,000 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the US. Being an inner city school district, the challenges facing teachers is significant, with many students falling into an ‘at-risk’ category: 84% of the students are identified as coming from poor families, with 40% from families where neither parent completed high school; 76% of students identified as Hispanic, and 9% as African-American.

The results show that many important criteria, long regarded as crucial to teacher success, have little effect on student outcomes.

“More experienced or better educated teachers are no more effective in the classroom than inexperienced teachers with only undergraduate diplomas,” the study said.

It also showed that the quality of teaching has a far greater impact on student performance than factors such as class size or socio-economic background. Nor is the classroom “magic” that makes a student learn necessarily connected to measures that are traditionally valued in the education system such as years of experience and higher qualifications.

Lessons for New Zealand

New Zealand could learn many lessons from the information being published by the Los Angeles Times.

Firstly, implementing national standards is a very worthwhile exercise since standardised tests are an important indicator of student achievement. While they do not tell the whole story, they are indicative of teaching success and will enable parents and teachers to identify students who are in danger of falling behind.

Secondly, if the union movement was genuinely committed to improving educational standards, they would work with the Education Ministry to devise a pay system that better rewarded high performing teachers, in order to create a real incentive to attract and retain New Zealand’s best teaching professionals. Such a performance-based system would also send a strong message to those who are harming students and are not suited to teaching to look for a different career.

Thirdly, many New Zealanders who would make great teachers are locked out of the profession because of stringent qualification and training requirements.

In light of the longitudinal research, which said, “More experienced or better educated teachers are no more effective in the classroom than inexperienced teachers with only undergraduate diplomas, why not change the requirements so that such good people could become teachers?”

Dr Muriel Newman is director of the New Zealand Centre for Political Research, a web-based forum at www.nzcpr.com

The above is an edited version. For full text, visit the Forum’s website. Readers may post their comments online at www.indiannewslink.co.nz

Email: editor@indiannewslink.co.nz

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