As the federal election campaign rolls on, both major parties have said they want to boost the quality of the teaching profession.
In an interview with The West Australian newspaper last week, shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek said she wanted to lift entry requirements for initial teacher education and increase pay for skilled teachers who stay in the classroom.
Meanwhile, the Acting Minister for Education, Stuart Robert, has promised to raise the quality of initial teacher education and fund more opportunities for mid-career professionals to retrain as teachers.
While there are exceptional teachers across Australia, politicians are right to worry about lifting the status and expertise of the profession.
Teaching quality is the most important in-school factor that affects student learning. And Australia has significant room for improvement. OECD assessments show that Australia lags well behind the top-performing education systems in terms of the proportion of students who excel. And more than two in five Australian students fall short of benchmark proficiency in maths, reading, and science.
Whoever is sworn in as federal education minister after the election should do three things to lift the quality of teaching in Australia.
First, the minister should act to make teaching a more attractive profession for high-achievers.
Teachers who have a strong academic record are likely to be more effective in the classroom. Grattan Institute research shows that a higher-achieving teacher workforce would give the typical Australian student an extra six-to-12 months of learning by Year 9, possibly much more.
But in Australia, far fewer high achievers choose teaching today than they did 30 years ago. Demand from high achievers for teaching fell by a third over the past decade – more than for any other undergraduate field of study. Only 3 per cent of high achievers now choose teaching for their undergraduate studies, compared to 19 per cent for science, 14 per cent for health, and 9 per cent for engineering.
To help turn this around, the Federal Government should work with the states to establish a scholarship program that provides $10,000 a year cash-in-hand to high-achieving students (with ATARs of 80 or above) who choose to go into teaching.
Second, the federal minister should work with the states to improve the career path for our top teachers, to better recognise, reward, and deploy teaching expertise in schools.
Two new permanent positions should be created – Master Teacher and Instructional Specialist.
Instructional Specialists – paid $40,000 more than the highest standard pay rate for classroom teachers – would work closely with other teachers in their schools to set the standard for excellent practice.
Master Teachers – paid $80,000 more than the highest standard pay rate – would support teachers across multiple schools, to ensure the best available evidence on effective practice is adopted in all classrooms.
Along with higher pay, teachers in these new positions should be given substantial new responsibilities to guide the professional development of their colleagues, through classroom observation, coaching, and feedback.
These reforms to the career path would help retain our best teachers in the profession.
They would also help attract more high achievers to become teachers in the first place, overcoming the reasonable worry that high achievers have about low pay at the peak of a teaching career.
The third thing the federal education minister should do is make clear to his or her own government, as well as to the states and territories, that teachers need to be supported with the time and conditions they need to be well-prepared when they step into the classroom each day.
It is not enough for governments to declare bold aspirations for schooling and then expect over-stretched teachers to magically deliver. But that is exactly what is happening. A 2021 Grattan Institute survey of 5,000 teachers across the country found that more than 90 per cent believe they don’t have enough time to properly prepare for great teaching – the most important part of their job.
Politicians seem to expect teachers to solve any number of complex social problems. At the same time, teachers are expected to do too many things that don’t require teaching expertise – from yard duty to facilitating extra-curriculum activities.
The Federal Government, with the states, should investigate new ways of organising the wider workforce in schools – including the growing number of administrative staff and teaching assistants – so teachers have more time to focus on quality classroom practice.
If we want our children to succeed at school, they must get quality teaching in every classroom. This means attracting the right people to the profession, developing their expertise, and establishing the conditions for teachers to succeed.
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