Australia’s most advantaged want their children to have great teachers - but don’t want them to be great teachers
The Learning Press EXCLUSIVE
Wannabe teachers all over the country are currently signing up for exams to prove that their English and maths skills put them top of the class.
They are required to achieve scores placing them in the top 30 per cent of graduates nationally - in mandatory tests designed to raise the status of a profession with a serious image problem.
Reports of low teacher training entry standards and a sliding ranking in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment mean our teachers are walking around with ‘kick me’ pinned to their backs.
Yet just this week, science teacher Rick Johnson was judged one of the world’s best educators for his work inspiring students at a lowly public school west of Perth.
That’s top ten in the world - a finalist in the prestigious $1 million Global Teaching Prize.
And there are many more like him beavering away in Australian schools, quietly changing the lives of children for the better.
So how do we elevate and reward those people? And how do we attract more of them into a profession devalued by Australia’s sliding international reputation for school education?
Donna Pendergast, head of Griffith University School of Education and Professional Studies, says the literacy and numeracy exams are a good start - even if they are a PR exercise.
“The tests are really about building confidence in the general public that the students are drawn from the top 30 per cent in their population - and that’s what they are designed to do.
“It’s about building confidence, therefore it’s about perception.
“Anything that can be used as a capability to build a profession is helpful.
“Does it mean that the students graduating with the tests are any different to those graduating two years ago?
“Probably not, but it is an indicator to show they have met a certain standard and so we can confidently say that.”
Professor Greg Craven of the Australian Catholic University (ACU) agrees.
“These new tests provide a good quality assurance that all preservice teachers are within the top 30 per cent of the population in numeracy and literacy when they graduate," he said.
Some of the blame for teacher status has been levelled at training courses such as those offered by the ACU, which have been found to routinely admit students with Australian Tertiary Admissions Rankings (ATARs) below minimum course entry requirements.
While NSW now requires all teacher training applicants to achieve a minimum of three band 5 results (80 per cent) in their higher school certificate, there are no such stipulations in other states.
Professor Craven is a vocal advocate of relaxing university admissions to allow greater numbers of Australians to achieve university qualifications.
But his support for admitting teaching students with lower ATAR and equivalent qualifications has put him at odds with colleagues.
Professor David Andrich of the University of Western Australia said: “Greg Craven says about students relative to their ATAR scores that ‘it’s not how they come in, it’s how they go out’.
“What does that mean? You’re going to take young people with an ATAR of 45 who schools haven’t been able to educate to a high standard, but in your 3 or 4 years will be able to make up for what they have not learned in school, and then learn the normal requirements of a degree on top of that?
“Schools are very complex places these days - teachers need a wide range of skills and resources to deal with academic knowledge and all the social demands of the children.
“The job requires being alert, creative, sensitive and flexible, as well as knowledgeable in the content areas, so being a good learner is an important capacity for being a good teacher.
“A high ATAR is evidence of being able to learn content and is a proxy on the potential of being able to learn all the other factors associated with the demands of teaching.
“Of course, there will be students who are good at learning content and would not be good teachers, and that should be identified in the teacher education program.
“However, it will be difficult to be a good teacher if you are not a good learner of content.”
The Australian Education Union is just as vocal in advocating higher entry standards for teaching courses.
Federal president Corenna Haythorpe said: “Teaching courses should be about turning high achieving students into high performing teachers, not helping students who struggled at school learn the basics before they enter the classroom.
“Research by the Australian Council for Educational Research clearly showed high-achieving school systems focused on minimum entry standards to teaching courses.
“High-performing school systems such as Singapore recruit all teachers from the top 30 per cent of academic achievers and we need to be doing the same.
“Academic ability is not the only thing that makes a good teacher, but we need to recognise that stronger academic performers are more likely to make effective teachers.
“If we want to have high quality teachers in our schools we need to select the best graduates for teaching courses, ensure that courses are rigorous, and give beginning teachers support and professional development when they begin in the classroom.”
Ms Haythorpe describes the new literacy and numeracy tests as “a band-aid solution to the problem that universities have been allowed to set the bar too low to enter a teaching degree.”
Her sentiments are echoed by the Save our Schools action group, whose spokesman Trevor Cobbold describes them as a “pointless exercise” which will have “little effect on the quality of teaching”.
Mr Cobbold sees ATAR scores as a simplistic way of measuring a student’s suitability for teaching, pointing out that Finnish trainee teachers are screened on qualities such as perseverance, ability to motivate others, passion for children and organisational and communications skills.
He argues the content of Australian teaching courses is “highly variable” and universities should be more accountable for quality.
“Successful education systems overseas demand high standards of teaching training - for example, Finland requires teachers to have a Master’s degree.”
There is no shortage of famous high achievers lining up to spell out how vital the job of teaching is and how it should be afforded higher status.
The PM himself said in his National Science Awards address last year: “I suspect most of us here in this room have had their lives changed by a great teacher. I certainly have.
“Those great teachers change people's lives and in doing so they can change the destiny of a nation.
“They are at the very fulcrum of destiny, changing lives at their most impressionable, at the time when you can ensure that somebody's real potential can be maximised.”
Yet the most advantaged people in Australia are the ones whose children look to careers away from education.
Professor Andrich says of recruiting students with high ATARs: “The glamour is in all the other areas much more than it is in teaching - for example commerce or law or medicine are much more high profile.
“These are the job opportunities outside of teaching that are seen as more attractive.
“For many people teaching is not the first option. For people from high socio-economic backgrounds it seems to be even less of a first option because they have exposure to a whole range of professions.”
He suggests a scholarship scheme, akin to the Fulbright and Rhodes awards, might help draw candidates into under-subscribed areas of teaching.
“A directive incentive, particularly with the relatively high HECS loan fees these days, is to have scholarships that pay at least the HECS, and even maybe a stipend during studies,” he said.
“For that scholarship and no debt, maybe the student needs to commit to teach for the number of years that they receive support.
“Teaching is in competition with other courses and if we think the best candidates are not coming into it for whatever reason, a scholarship system would be an incentive.”
Professor Pendergast agrees, but sees a scholarship scheme appealing to a particular demographic.
“Any of those kinds of incentives, opportunities to focus in certain areas rather than others to shape the workforce, are wise strategies,” she said.
“Many trainee teachers are first in family to go to university so they look at education as something they know about, it’s part of their experience to date so it’s within their range of possibility.
“And so by the very nature that many of them are first in family and they see education as transformative, you can assume many won’t come from particularly wealthy backgrounds - so any financial incentive is going to be of help.”
The average starting salary for an Australian primary teacher is $53,000 - that’s ten percent above the OECD average, $8,000 more than a newly qualified vet and $6,000 more than the average salary of a Finnish teacher who has been in the profession for some years.
But despite this, Trevor Cobbold sees salary as a key disincentive for high-flyers considering teaching careers because, he says, there is limited potential for wage growth.
“Teacher salaries are too low to attract high achieving graduates,” he said.
“OECD data show that teacher salaries in high-achieving countries increase to more than double the starting salary.
“In Australia, they only rise to 1.4 times the starting salary. Governments must be prepared to pay much higher salaries for teachers who demonstrate expertise.”
While higher salaries and higher ATARs may help raise the status of teaching, creating a valued and motivated workforce is ultimately about treating educators as professionals.
In Finland, where annual salaries are relatively ordinary, where classroom teaching time is significantly shorter and where professional development is highly valued, teaching is the most coveted of all careers.
Just a week ago, the education director of the OECD, Andreas Schleicher, delivered a withering assessment of our inability to foster teachers’ passion and creativity within a stifling national curriculum with limited scope for professional development.
"[Australia] more or less defines teachers by the number of hours that [they] teach in front of students," he told Fairfax Media.
"We treat teachers as interchangeable widgets on the frontline - they are just there to implement prefabricated knowledge.
"There really is a complete lack of intellectual attractiveness to the teaching profession once you have that very industrial work organisation behind you."
Donna Pendergast agrees.
“More and more we pin down the work of teachers and define it so that their identity is less and less about being an educator and bringing together all their capabilities and more and more about meeting certain requirements being measured through our high stakes testing - and being expected to account for that,” she said.
“It starts to diminish that professional independence.”
In other words, you can’t have rock star teachers if you give them no room to perform.