Getting the best people in front of the classroom

by Peter Goss and Julie Sonnemann

Published by the Australian Financial Review, Monday 1 July

Improving school education is an economic imperative as much as a social one. Current teachers need and deserve better support, but the best way to boost student results in the long run is to attract talented young people into teaching and set them up for success in the classroom.

Teaching is both intellectually and emotionally demanding. It’s tough enough to figure out the best way to teach one subject to one student. Tougher still is to do this for a class of 25, each at different stages in their learning and with their own challenges.

Countries whose teachers have strong academic skills tend to do better in international maths and literacy assessments. The countries that do best also ensure that would-be teachers really want to teach, have strong social and emotional skills and practise effective and evidence-based preparation.

Australia’s national report card reads “must do better”. Education is one of the easiest of university courses to get into. About one in ten graduating teachers fail a test designed to show that their literacy and numeracy skills are in the top 30 per cent of the population.

And too many new teachers say they were not taught the capabilities they need to manage a classroom, or the skills to teach evidence-based approaches such as phonics.

We must address both who becomes a teacher and how they are trained.

Strengthening initial teacher education (ITE) is an agreed national priority. But ITE reform has a long history, so education ministers should build on what is already underway rather than starting new.

After a major review in 2014, the Commonwealth government tightened the accreditation requirements for ITE courses, and implemented the national literacy and numeracy test described above. In 2019, a new ‘teaching performance assessment’ is being trialled which requires graduating students to demonstrate they have the practical skills and knowledge to succeed in the classroom.

These are positive steps, but more needs to be done.

In theory, ITE courses that produce poor teaching graduates could lose their accreditation. But this is such a drastic step that many see it as an empty threat. A more realistic sanction would be to halve the Commonwealth-funded places for persistently poor ITE courses.

This would need to be done only once to show that the Canberra is serious about improvement; and those courses could win back their places if they lifted their games. Performance-based funding of ITE courses would be another option, as well as greater transparency on student pass rates and employment outcomes.

The Commonwealth should commission an independent expert review of the progress and effectiveness of the current reforms and the efficacy of other potential incentives and sanctions. But the review should be not be done until 2021, to allow adequate time for the current reforms to be implemented – especially the teacher performance assessment.

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership has been given carriage of the Commonwealth reforms and is focused on support and encouragement. Its role as ‘good cop’ is more likely to succeed if universities know that a ‘bad cop’ will check whether real progress is happening.

The other side of the coin – increasing demand from high achievers to apply to become teachers – also needs more attention.

In the 1980s, many bright women who would previously have gone into teaching gained greater career choice. While this movement was necessary and desirable, it had a side effect of reducing the number of high achievers in teaching. Over the past decade under the demand-driven system entry standards to teaching have continued to decline, and at a rate much faster than other courses.

The blunt reality is that high achievers in Australia rarely see teaching as an attractive option. Only about one in four students offered a place in undergraduate teaching based on their Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) has an ATAR of 80 or more, compared to one in two across all courses.

The low status of teaching in Australia has become a self-reinforcing problem. It doesn’t have to be the case. High-performing countries get many high-achieving students to apply for initial teacher education and then select the most promising candidates on a broader range of attributes. Because teaching is seen as hard to do and prestigious, even  more high achievers are encouraged to apply.

Creating this positive cycle in Australia will require a range of reforms, to the job of teaching itself, and to pay and conditions, plus other initiatives that help to lift the status of teaching. Most of these reforms are state government responsibilities, but the Commonwealth should pay more attention to increasing demand for teaching to complement its reforms designed to improve initial teacher education.

There are no silver bullets in schooling. The full benefits of attracting great people into teaching, preparing them well and supporting them better in the job will not be realised for decades. But with student numbers growing rapidly, it will become ever harder to lift outcomes if we don’t make these changes quickly. There is no time to waste.