Gonski is right: We must make better use of our best teachers

by Julie Sonnemann and Peter Goss

Published by ABC News, Friday 4 May

David Gonski’s “2.0” review, released this week, recommends the creation of structured career pathways that value teaching expertise and keep excellent teachers teaching. This would build the capacity of the education system and enhance the status of the profession.

The best way to lift student outcomes is to invest in teaching quality. Yet Australia has not embedded the policies and practical support needed to spread evidence-based teaching practice into every classroom.

New roles for expert teachers could help turn this around.

This longstanding problem partly stems from the culture in our schools. In theory, every teacher is responsible for using evidence to improve his or her teaching. In practice, it’s no-one’s day job.

This arises from a historical approach that allowed each teacher to do their own thing behind a closed classroom door.

It is hard to change culture and behaviour in schools, as in any organisation. But teachers like learning from other teachers, and peer influence motivates change far more successfully than external accountability mechanisms.

How teacher careers work today

Currently, the last day of a teaching career can look a lot like the first: a regular teaching load and similar responsibilities. At present, Australia’s most talented teachers do not have clear career paths.

Some “senior” teachers are given extra responsibilities, but these are often administrative.

Or they are expected to coach other teachers, but not given the time to do it properly: top teachers often carry heavy classroom workloads.

Worse, top teachers are not paid much more than others.

Pay is linked to seniority, and Australia has a very flat pay structure. In 2016, the top salary band was only 1.5 times more than a starting salary, a ratio well below the OECD average.

To keep advancing, our best teachers often leave the classroom, or leave the profession altogether.

The case for new teacher roles

Our 2016 report Circuit Breaker argued for new “master” and “expert” teacher roles to enable the best teachers to lead teaching within and across schools, and be paid more for doing so.

A mid-sized primary school might have two or three expert teachers. Secondary schools would have more.

Their day job would be to share their deep expertise through coaching and personalised feedback to teachers, focused on a specific subject such as maths, science or English.

Master teachers would work across clusters of schools, leading specialist networks of teachers, setting high standards for pedagogical expertise and spreading best practice.

This model works. A recently-evaluated US version delivered large gains in maths. Teachers paired with an excellent teacher-turned-coach significantly improved their classroom teaching, as well as their students’ test scores.

Recognising expertise

Most professions recognise and reward expertise. Teaching should be no different.

High-performing education systems have learnt this lesson. Singapore and Shanghai, in particular, have Master Teacher and Expert Teacher career pathways along similar lines to our proposal. They are responsible for, and assessed on, their development of other teachers. And their teaching loads are reduced to ensure they have the best chance of getting good results.

Some state governments in Australia may say they already use the best teachers’ expertise through coaching and instructional leader programs. But this is different — these positions are outside the normal career path, and are often short-term. Many programs end with the next change of government.

The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, adopted in 2011, are a major advance. They describe the elements of effective teaching as teachers build their expertise. More recently, there have been efforts to better recognise Highly Accomplished and Lead Teachers (HALTs), and early evaluationsshow positive effects. Some state governments have increased pay for HALTs.

But certifying an expert teacher as a HALT is not enough. Their day job needs to be strategically redesigned, recognised in industrial agreements, and backed by school principals on the ground.

Changing industrial agreements is hard

While the Federal Government can provide a nudge, state governments must ultimately take the lead. They are responsible for teacher career structures and negotiating with teacher unions. Most states have started these changes, but all have much further to go.

It is unclear how the unions will respond.

The Australian Education Union’s Gonski submission talks extensively and appropriately about building the capacity of the system, and the benefits of teachers taking ownership for student learning. But it is silent on differentiated career paths for expert teachers, even though some of its state branches have supported the idea in the past.

In our opinion, teacher unions should embrace this opportunity to shift from an industrial model of unionism to a professional one.

Some teachers do have more expertise, and their skills should be recognised through greater responsibilities and more pay. Maintaining a relatively flat teaching pay and career structure impedes efforts to spread highly effective practice.

When teaching fails to improve, it is the kids who suffer. They must be our first priority.