Millions wasted in education? That’s not what the evidence says

There’s lots of “problems” to be fixed in education, but what does the evidence say? Teacher image from

Over recent years we have seen a wave of angst about Australia’s school education.

The complex issue of teacher quality is, of course, part of the equation, but state governments are also concerned that too many people are being allowed to study education leading to an oversupply of graduates.

The dots are perhaps too easily joined here – governments now see raising university entry scores as a way to deal with oversupply, the problem of lifting the status of the profession and lifting quality all at the same time.

After all, it’s easy to assume that lifting entry scores would be a solution when courses that are hard to get into (like medicine) are highly respected and those that have lower cut-offs, (like teaching) are less so.

But there are plenty of questions left here and a closer look at the evidence is needed.

Does making a degree more exclusive drive respect or vice-versa? And what might be the unintended consequences of mandating higher entry standards?

What oversupply?

We need to examine the numbers to see if there is actually an oversupply of teaching graduates.

A recent article in The Australian reported the extremely poor employment outcomes for teachers, claiming that “about 90% of teachers graduating university in NSW and Queensland fail to find a job.”

But it is difficult to understand the evidence base for this which is entirely contradicted by Graduate Careers Australia data.

According to GCA, 74.9% of initial teacher education graduates in 2012 were employed full-time and 20.7% part-time.

Full-time employment rates for the last four years have been within 2% of the national average and the combined full and part-time rates are 4-5% above the national average.

One possible objection is that this data doesn’t prove they are working specifically as teachers. However, in 2011, 81.5% of the full-time graduates said that their qualification was a “formal requirement of the job” and a further 9.8% said it was “important” which would surely imply that they are employed as teachers.

Data from Charles Sturt University for 2012 shows that 62% of graduates were employed as school teachers, 71% were employed as education professionals and 84% had jobs where a teaching degree was directly relevant (CSU Internal Analysis of GCA Graduate returns, based on job title).

This does not look like a system where there is a massive oversupply of graduates.

Dubious links

It is also dubious that entry standards are key in determining respect for professions.

Medicine has lengthy and very expensive training, including intensive postgraduate training even after a five or six year undergraduate degree. Salaries also drive esteem and medicine commands significantly higher pay than teaching as careers develop, particularly for specialists.

It is not yet clear that governments are willing to significantly raise teachers’ salaries.

There is also little evidence of a causal relationship between entry score and success as a teacher. In their submission to the NSW “Great Teaching, Inspired Learning” review, the NSW Deans of Education said:

It should be noted that the arguably most rigorous of all reviews ever done on teacher education in Australia, and likely in the world, the Australian Government’s Top of the Class (House of Representatives, 2007), spent much time examining the issue of entry scores and ended up providing strong advice that it was largely a fruitless exercise and that the time and effort should be put into ensuring that, whatever the entry score, the required output was achieved through the suitability of the program itself.

Finally, what might be unintended consequences of raising the entry bar for teacher education?

It is well known that students from regional schools tend to achieve relatively less well than metropolitan counterparts and unreasonably lifting entry standards is likely to discriminate against them.

We also know that it is extraordinarily difficult to persuade graduates to move from capital cities to regional areas. We are still dealing with a shortage of doctors in rural and regional areas and the same factors that created that crisis, has the potential to trigger an equivalent problem in teacher availability.

Evidence needed

We currently seem to have a political debate on teacher quality that is outrunning the evidence.

Before we commit to sweeping changes to teacher education, it is very important we draw breath, take a cool look at the evidence and ask what is in the community’s best interest.