5
Oct
2019

How to improve teaching and lift student performance

by Julie Sonnemann


Published by The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 5 October

It’s tough being a teacher. Stop sniggering – I’m serious.

For one thing, there’s the incessant swipes at your professionalism and worth: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” That sort of thing.

Then there’s the lack of understanding about how complex great teaching is. Diagnosing why a student hasn’t grasped a certain concept, and how to get them to experience that lightbulb moment, is no easy task. It might require revisiting a related topic from six months ago, or two years ago, or a related skill from another subject area.  Great teaching requires deep analytical skills and a sophisticated understanding of the subject matter, how to teach it, and how the mind works.

But there’s a fundamental problem in how teachers in Australia are supported to do their jobs today. Governments of all colours and over many years have left gaping holes in teacher support, stemming from the way the teacher workforce is organised.

Our best teachers are not given the day job of helping other teachers to improve. This means our current teacher workforce is less effective than it should be. It also pushes Australia’s best and brightest young people away from a career in teaching, as shown by a recent Grattan Institute survey of almost 1000 young people with an ATAR of more than 80. And it helps explain why Australian school students are falling behind their overseas peers in international tests on maths, reading and science.

Individual teachers aren’t to blame: they are undervalued and overworked. The real problem is that government policies in Australia place too little value on the development and mastery of teachers’ skills. Until this changes, we cannot claim to truly value teaching expertise.

A new report by the NSW Auditor-General has exposed major flaws in the way the NSW department monitors and ensures teaching quality in schools. Other states are likely to be similar.

A big issue – one the Auditor’s report only touches on lightly – is the lack of key workforce structures to ensure consistent high-quality teaching. In too many schools, it is no one’s day job to demonstrate high-quality teaching in practice or give meaningful feedback to teachers on how to get there.

Education departments offer no shortage of “high-quality teaching” definitions on paper. Teachers can turn to the national teaching standards or multiple frameworks and performance documents used in schools. But these documents are full of intangibles. There are too few specifics. And there is no one in the current workforce structure who has the dedicated time and role to enact them in daily practice to show, for example, why one lesson plan in maths might work better than another.

The best teachers are not sufficiently allocated the time, roles or skills to help other teachers improve. Teachers who have really mastered specific aspects of teaching, say in their subject area, or a specific skill-like assessment, continue to work behind the four walls of their classrooms, with little mandate to drive real improvement more broadly.

To give credit where it’s due, the NSW government has heavily and successfully invested in coaching and mentoring programs targeted at certain schools, particularly in the narrow but vital learning areas of literacy and numeracy. But targeted programs can leave a patchwork quilt of teacher development and improvement.

A much more universal system of teacher development is needed. Coaching and mentoring must be baked into career structures, so that teacher development is not left to chance. Efforts have been made to do this by accrediting outstanding teachers as Highly Accomplished and Leading Teachers (HALTs). But the daily roles of HALTs to help drive teaching quality are often unclear.

Australia needs to learn from the world’s best. In high-performing school systems such as Shanghai and Singapore, an elite cohort of specialist teachers sets the direction for effective practice. They are experts in their subject areas, with deep content knowledge in their domains so they can get specific.

Here’s what Australia should do. First, we should create two new roles for our best teachers, with clearer responsibilities for helping other teachers improve – and with good salaries in recognition of their specialist expertise and extra responsibilities.

New “instructional specialists” would help lead teaching instruction in their own school, splitting their time between teaching students and supporting other teachers. About 5 to 8 per cent of the workforce would become instructional specialists, and they would be paid well: about $40,000 more than the highest rate for standard teachers.

New “master teachers” would work across schools, supporting, developing, and overseeing instructional specialists, so that there is consistency across schools. They are the pedagogical leaders in their subject or area of expertise – not simply generalists in teaching and learning – and would seek to improve teaching practice in their niche area.

Master teachers would be a select elite: only about 0.5 per cent of the workforce. And they would be paid accordingly: about $80,000 more than the top rate for standard teachers.

Recent reforms are moving the NSW education system in the right direction, but they need to go further. By contrast, our reforms have a much greater focus on subject expertise, a new mediating layer of master teachers who are leaders of their subjects at a sub-regional or district level to give greater consistency across schools, and coaching roles are set within career structures to reduce the over-reliance on targeted programs.

A workforce redesign should be a national imperative. It would make teaching more rewarding and respected. It would lift the quality of teaching across the whole workforce.

And it might even make being a teacher a bit easier too.