My research is looking into how the media discursively constructs ‘the teacher’ in Aotearoa New Zealand; specifically in mainstream media such as newspaper editorials or right-wing blogs, as against alternative media such as teacher-blogs and social media, which confer some degree of control to those represented. At the heart of this is a highly political discursive struggle to define the role of the teacher, and so more broadly, the purposes of education.
The signifier ‘quality teacher’ has become a political tool within Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) policy frameworks. The highly controversial Treasury’s Advice on Lifting Student Achievement in New Zealand: Evidence Brief (2012), stated that class sizes were less important than the quality of teaching, therefore rationalizing that the legal limit on class-sizes could be raised. The government, fortunately, was forced to back down on this. However, what has remained is the reasoned argument within the text:
- A significant proportion of New Zealand students are achieving poorly (Maori, Pasifika and low socio-economic background students)
- Within schools, teachers have the greatest influence on student learning
- The key to improving student outcomes is to ensure consistently high quality teaching for all students, in all schools
The holes in this nice simple argument have been pulled apart by Massey University’s Education Policy Response Group; namely that the evidence simply isn’t there that New Zealand’s minorities are performing badly in comparison to other OECD nations, especially considering New Zealand’s high-levels of inequality, and that “socio-economic background and prior experience of students are the main influences on learning”.
Nevertheless, the rationale has now taken a life of its own; New Zealand teachers are currently of poor-quality, and that this is impacting both the futures of minority students, and the country’s hopes of being economically prosperous down the line.
This rationale works to legitimize the policies of National Standards and Investing in Educational Success, and also future policy directions such as teacher pay and professional development to be linked more directly to National Standards data (see the New Zealand Initiative’s World Class Education?: Why New Zealand must strengthen its teaching profession).
National Standards as a policy was introduced to the public with a populist rhetoric, which was all about holding the school system and teachers to account to the taxpayer and to empower parents by facilitating their “‘voice’ and ‘choice’ in discussions about their children’s educational progress” (O’Neill, 2014). The neoliberal logic is that teachers could not possibly be motivated by professional ethics or an altruistic concern for students. In today’s ‘audit society’, in order to raise the quality of teaching, teachers must be held accountable through the audit systems of New Public Management; the three E’s of ; ‘economy’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘effectiveness’ (Power, 1999).
This logic is prevalent within mainstream media discourse. Mike Hosking’s 2012 editorial piece National Standards hold schools to account presents a common-sense ‘we the people’ rhetorical position: we are all already held to account by data and work in high-competition environments, so why not teachers? Anyone that refuses to be held to account by numbers (equated with truth), are implicitly lazy, incompetent, and over unionized:
They also don’t like it of course because numbers tell the truth. Numbers are the facts and the facts are that in some schools, in some subjects, in some regions, things aren’t what they should be. Where once you could fill the room with enough hot air to bluster your way through it, numbers bust the myths.
One of the great lessons of life is we need to be held to account. Held to account in all areas and aspects of our lives by all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. These figures start to hold our schools and the systems in which we teach our kids to account. That can be no bad thing.
The teacher in mainstream policy and media discourse, therefore, tends to be represented by two extremes (often simultaneously): potential saviour of the economy and/or lazy, incompetent and unaccountable (Taubman, 2009).
The purpose of this research therefore is to explore the potential of alternative media for teachers to take some control over their own representation, which gives them a voice often denied in neoliberalized mainstream media (Couldry, 2010). As Nick Couldry said, in these times of increasing privatization of public spaces, education and broadcasting, voice matters.
Alternative media is therefore defined as oppositional media; a voice which challenges the representations, logics and definitions of the status quo.
As well as blogs such as this one and Kelvin Smythe’s, I want to conceptualize the NZEI’s various media practices such as their website, their magazine Education Aotearoa, and their Stand Up For Kids Facebook group page as alternative media. Such spaces offer vitally important sites for alternative conceptions of what it means to be a teacher and the purposes of education itself going forward.
by Leon Salter, School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, Massey University Wellington
Couldry, N. (2010). Why voice matters : Culture and politics after neoliberalism. London: SAGE.
Education Policy Response Group. (2013). The assessment of teacher quality: An investigation into current issues in evaluating and rewarding teachers. Institute of Education, Massey University
Hosking, M. (2012, September 24). Mike’s Editorial: National Standards hold schools to account. Retrieved from http://www.newstalkzb.co.nz/auckland/opinion/mikes-editorial-24sep2012
Morris, J., & Patterson, R. (2014). World Class Education?: Why New Zealand must strengthen its teaching profession The New Zealand Initiative.
O’Neill, J. (2014). Rationalising national assessment in New Zealand. International Education Journal: Comparative Perspectives, 12(2).
Power, M. (1999). The audit society: Rituals of verification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Taubman, P. M. (2009). Teaching by numbers : deconstructing the discourse of standards and accountability in education. New York; London: Routledge.
The Treasury. (2012). Treasury’s Advice on Lifting Student Achievement in New Zealand: Evidence Brief.