School education policy is at a turning point - Grattan Institute

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has big ambitions to ‘modernise’ school education. Among the broad reforms he flagged in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald was a plan to financially reward teaching excellence in the classroom.

The Premier is right to worry about the recognition of teaching expertise.

Governments have long known that teaching quality is the most important in-school driver of student performance. What governments haven’t done yet is put that knowledge into practice to inform how teachers are recruited, developed, remunerated and supported so that they are able to meet the high expectations we rightly have for our schools.

Sustaining effective classroom teaching day in, day out, does not just happen. It requires expert knowledge and skill, as well as substantial time for preparation and practice. Expertise develops gradually, as teachers’ knowledge and classroom proficiency builds. Working with instructional experts and coaches, both inside and outside the classroom, is key.

But for too long, teaching as a profession has failed to find meaningful ways to recognise and deploy teaching expertise. Australia’s best teachers are under-utilised. They are often confined to their own classrooms, or lack the time and support needed to provide professional learning to others. This is a waste of their skills, and a missed opportunity.

Existing efforts to identify expert teachers and help them help others do not go far enough. Coaching programs chop and change, and designated roles in industrial agreements are often under-resourced and rarely subject-specific. A 2019 Grattan Institute survey found that instructional leadership roles in schools today lack the necessary support and credibility, and rarely lead to changes in teaching practice.

The existing teaching career path needs urgent reform.

The NSW government should pay its best teachers more. But the extra money should not simply be a reward for the number of years served or for classroom performance in any one year.

To achieve greater impact, increased pay for expert teachers should come with a significant rewrite of the job description. In our 2020 report Top Teachers, we recommend that two new expert teacher positions be created – instructional specialists and master teachers – with much higher salaries.

These new roles would be designed for expert teachers who can demonstrate exceptional subject-specific knowledge and teaching skills and who take on dedicated responsibilities to work closely with classroom teachers.

Instructional specialists would work within schools to set the standard for good teaching, build teaching capacity, and spread evidence-informed practices. They would help teachers understand not just what to do but how to do it to meet the needs of their students. The responsibility to observe and coach other teachers in their classrooms would be a central requirement. Instructional specialists, limited to about 8 per cent of teachers, would be paid about $150,000 – or about $40,000 more than the highest pay rate for regular classroom teachers in NSW.

New master teachers should be charged with bringing rigor and coherence to professional judgments about best practice in our education system, with responsibility for improving teaching across multiple schools by coordinating professional learning, supporting instructional specialists, and connecting schools with research.

They would be paid $80,000 more than the highest standard pay rate for teachers in NSW – or about $190,000. These positions would be limited to about 1 per cent of teachers – representing the pinnacle of the expert teacher career path.

Grattan Institute’s research shows that a better expert career path for teachers would also attract more high-achieving school-leavers to the profession. These reforms would give the typical Australian student an extra six-to-12 months of learning by Year 9, possibly much more.

School education in Australia is at a turning point. Either we continue to accept stagnating or declining student results, with much hand wringing but no genuine commitment to change, or governments and school leaders do the tough work required to reform schooling, starting with a genuine commitment to building and deploying expertise within the teaching profession.

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economics policy.

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