Something is not right with Australia’s schools
Published by The Age, Tuesday 11 February
Something is not right with Australia’s schools. The performance of our students in international tests in maths, reading and science is in long-term decline. We need a better system to improve teaching.
A key problem is that we do not use our best teachers well. Their deep expertise should be shared to help other teachers develop. Instead, top teachers are either confined to their own classrooms or stretched too thinly, with add-on “instructional leadership” responsibilities on top of their busy day jobs.
A Grattan Institute report released this week, Top teachers: sharing expertise to improve teaching, reveals the results of a survey of 750 teachers, instructional leaders and principals across Australia. The survey findings make for grim reading.
Instructional leaders tell us they have too little time and support to help other teachers improve. Almost half receive no upfront training, and their coaching roles are often very general, without getting specific on how to teach particular subjects well.
Teachers say they value learning from instructional leaders in theory, but in practice their teaching doesn’t change. Some believe the teachers promoted into these positions are mates of the principal rather than the best people for the job. And teachers don’t find instructional leader positions attractive; it’s a lot of extra work for not much extra pay.
No one wins in this situation. Top teachers remain undervalued and underutilised, and other teachers miss out on learning from them. If there is no career path for those who truly master teaching, there are few incentives for teachers to improve.
Our report proposes a bold new career path for expert teachers that would make top teachers responsible for improving teaching. It would create an elite cohort of 2500 master teachers and a cadre of more than 20,000 instructional specialists working in schools over the next 12 years.
The plan draws from two of the best-performing school systems in the world: in Singapore and Shanghai. It would transform school education in Australia, further professionalise teaching and lead to students gaining about 18 months’ extra learning by the time they turn 15.
In our model, master teachers (the top 1 per cent) would be the overall leaders in their subjects, working across schools in a region. They would mentor instructional specialists (limited to 8 per cent of the workforce) who would work within schools to develop other teachers. Their day job would be to improve teaching across the workforce.
This would be a big shift from today. Instructional leadership and professional learning would be much better co-ordinated, resourced and built into the everyday work of teachers.
Every teacher would benefit from more than one hour a week with instructional specialists in their subject area, engaging in coaching, observation and feedback to improve their practice. They would get practical help in their daily routines of lesson planning, selecting materials and diagnosing student needs, making their jobs easier at the same time.
Every instructional specialist would benefit from mentoring by master teachers in their subject. And they would have more voice than they do today, working as part of formal school leadership teams.
Both new positions would have much better pay. Instructional specialists would get up to $140,000 a year (about $40,000 more than the highest standard pay for teachers). Master teachers would get $180,000 a year, putting them on an equal footing with high-performing university graduates in other professions.
Selection into the elite roles would be rigorous. HALT (Highly Accomplished and Lead Teacher) certification would be a prerequisite, and selection panels would include subject experts, rather than just school principals.
The time is right for a big reform of Australia’s teaching workforce. The Gonski 2.0 report highlighted the need for better career paths and better professional learning. Our model achieves both.
And Australian can afford it. There is extra money under Gonski 2.0 flowing into government schools over the next decade. Our model would cost $550 per government school student per year, which is less than the planned increases to government school funding under Gonski 2.0.
Catholic and independent schools should also be part of the initiative, but they should pay for it from their existing resources because most non-government schools have already received significant funding increases over the past decade.
We want our children to go schools where the teachers are supported to improve, and where they can learn from the best in their fields. Current efforts are not enough. We must get serious about a better system for improving teaching – and we should give the best teachers the steering wheel to drive it.