OPINION: Teachers not at fault for falling standards

IT seems that right now school education is a growing topic of public debate and interest. 

Recent announcements by both the federal and NSW state governments indicate concern with the quality of those entering the teaching profession.

To this end the federal government has released a four-point plan to “introduce more rigorous standards in education degrees”, including a screening process, a literacy and numeracy test to ensure teachers are in the top 30per cent in terms of skills and a review of the quality of instruction provided by universities. 

This was hard on the heels of the NSW government announcement, which aims to dictate the minimum entry requirements for education students.

Students who will be admitted as teachers must achieve at least 80per cent in three year 12 subjects (band 5) including English.

Candidates will also have to pass a literacy and numeracy test specific to their subject before the end of their degree.

This implies that the universities are somehow the cause of any perceived performance issues around school teachers, that they have lowered the standards for teachers.

But it fails to recognise that the majority of new university students don’t enter with an ATAR score straight from year 12.

Life experiences might prove far more relevant to a commitment to teaching than scoring three band 5s. Further, it’s great politics to blame teachers and their university education when the real problems actually sit  with the government. 

For example, there is very little discussion about the work environment of teachers, the lack of career progression and the limited resourcing of ongoing teacher development. 

Perhaps, the relative lack of interest in a teaching career among high ATAR achievers is a function of perceived career prospects.

Recent national data is not consistent with the lowering ATAR argument, in that across all offers to education degrees across Australia in 2012, 72per cent of the 120,000 students offered a place had an ATAR score of 70 or greater. The majority (51per cent) had an ATAR score of 80 or higher.

Universities could help inform this debate by publishing this type of information for all degree programs, including the median ATAR score.

Another  issue is teacher career development and retention. While the dollar-figure spent is not publicly available, feedback from teachers leads us to conclude it is a very small investment by all tiers of government.

There is no point increasing entry standards if  ongoing  teacher development is under done.

Symptomatic of this is the attrition rate among teachers. This is directly acknowledged in responses to the NSW government reforms, where they state: “There was widespread support in contributions for the need to provide better support for beginning teachers. The difficulties faced by new teachers in contemporary schools, and the perceptions of relatively high attrition rates amongst teachers in their formative years, were amongst the reasons advanced for a more focused approach to supporting new teachers.”

Quality teaching is about impact on student learning and engagement. This is increasingly difficult when you have a class of 20 to 30 students with a spread of capacities.

What is required is a greater investment in supporting teachers and tailored development programs.

As the Dean of Education at Melbourne University recently put it: “Traditionally teachers have been trained to teach a 10-year-old the curriculum for a 10-year-old, so they teach to the middle of the class, but there are kids at the bottom who might be at the level of a seven-year-old and kids at the top who might be on par with a 15-year-old. So how does the teacher set about building a program that could meet the needs of individual learners?” 

Under this scenario, both ends of the class will tune out. These  issues need to be addressed.

Finally, there seems to be a missing link in the whole debate and that’s the role of parents. As Paul Keating famously said – government’s don’t raise children, parents do. The role of the family environment is critical in encouraging children to embrace their education. 

We can have the best quality teachers in our schools, but if parents aren’t reinforcing learning outcomes, ensuring a commitment to learning outside the class, then it is doubtful much would change.

It takes a team effort to keep kids in school and aiming to achieve. The current approach of both tiers of government places responsibility on the shoulders of just the teachers.

There is so much more to it, but it doesn’t have the same political cache. 

Scott Holmes is professor of public policy and Sam Bright a research officer at the University of Newcastle. In lieu of payment for this fortnightly column, the Herald will make a donation to the Heal For Life Foundation.

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