Make better use of our best teachers

by Peter Goss

Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Sunday 31 March

Dear NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell,

Congratulations on the government’s re-election. Among your many tasks over the next four years, may I suggest the most important is to create dedicated roles for expert teachers, starting with the next enterprise bargaining agreement with the NSW Teachers’ Federation.

These expert teacher roles would make all teachers more effective, lifting student results for generations to come.

Long-term reform takes political courage. The new roles won’t immediately help with your
day-to-day job of overseeing 3000 schools and planning for 170 school building projects. But they are essential to achieving the long-term goal of turning pockets of excellence into a system of excellence.

You have one big political advantage: Labor’s education spokesman, Jihad Dib, agrees with you on the broad strategic directions of school education, even if his specific priorities differ. This gives NSW a level of stability within which to test and implement big ideas.

And implementation is key. Neither top-down policy nor bottom-up experimentation will deliver the system-wide changes that are needed. Investing in expertise offers a different path. Teachers like learning from other teachers, and it’s vital they learn from experts so that their practices are based on evidence about what works best in the classroom.

Expert teachers know the common misunderstandings that students face in each discipline, and how to overcome them. They know the best ways to move students from basic skills such as memorisation to higher-order skills such as critical thinking. They understand the evidence base, and how to apply it in practice.

But we rarely give expert teachers the task of helping other teachers improve: the school workforce has a very flat structure.

You’re already on to this challenge. About 100 NSW classroom teachers now get paid more as “Highly Accomplished” or “Lead” Teachers (HALTs). This is a fantastic start, but NSW needs 50 times as many.

And it is not enough to certify an expert teacher as a HALT, if their day job stays the same. For expert teachers to have maximum impact, their role needs to be strategically designed – and backed by the school principal.

Grattan Institute’s 2016 report Circuit Breaker argued for new “expert” and “master” teacher roles within and across schools. A mid-sized primary school might have two or three expert teachers.

Secondary schools would have more. Their day job would be to coach their colleagues and give personalised feedback, focused on a specific subject such as maths, science or English.

Master teachers would work across clusters of schools, setting high standards for pedagogical practice and building the next generation of expert teachers.

Current NSW workplace agreements lack these roles. Programs that employ instructional leaders – such as Early Action for Success – rely on workarounds to offer the right pay and conditions. And programs chop and change with the political winds.

Some high-performing education systems have learnt these lessons. Singapore and Shanghai, in particular, have Master Teacher and Expert Teacher career pathways along similar lines to our proposal.

NSW can’t just import a model from overseas. It should create its own, starting with the once-every-four-years enterprise bargaining process scheduled for later this year. The pitch to the union is higher pay for the expert teachers, and higher status for the whole profession.

Accept the challenge, minister. Make dedicated roles for expert teachers part of your legacy.