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Pyne’s Review Panel: Will it help improve teacher quality?

Do teachers still see teaching as their “life calling”? Newton/Flickr, CC BY-NC

“The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead.” While Aristotle’s axiom is purposefully exaggerated for dramatic effect, modern research confirms that there is indeed an exponential difference between students who encounter passionate, learned and committed educators and those who do not. Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution has estimated that the difference between a good and bad teacher can be as much as a full year’s worth of learning.

The New South Wales Department of Education has produced similar findings. These suggest that students with poor teachers suffer a similar disadvantage to refugees for whom English is not their first language. With the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report showing that Australian students are falling behind in world rankings for basic competency in reading, mathematics and science, it should come as no surprise that teacher quality is a topic of fierce debate.

The announcement by the federal education minister, Christopher Pyne, that Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor Greg Craven will chair an extensive review of teaching training has attracted stiff criticism, especially from the Australian Education Union (AEU). While state and territory education ministers have been discussing plans to raise the required ATAR for teaching degrees to 70, Professor Craven has been a vocal opponent of minimum entry scores. He has claimed that they are “as easy to rig as a bush picnic race meeting”. Pyne has backed Craven, describing ATAR scores as “a blunt instrument”.

Craven’s university enrols students in teaching courses with ATAR scores as low as 50, some of the lowest in the country. This has earned the ire of AEU president Angelo Gavrielatos, who described Craven as “part of the problem, not the solution”. An AEU statement lambasted the review as “fatally flawed”, claiming that:

Minister Pyne says his agenda is teacher quality, but in fact he is undermining standards. He wants to make it easier, not harder to get into teaching degrees.

An entrance score should not define a person or be a permanent barrier to a chosen career. That said, a teacher who achieved low academic results themselves will necessarily find it difficult to nurture high achievers.

While most people can learn how to teach from a textbook, it is very difficult to guide the best students to achieve top results if you have never achieved them yourself. More importantly, to be truly effective a teacher must have an infectious passion for their subject. If they did not excel themselves, it is less likely they will inspire others to excel.

The heart of this debate, however, is not about ATAR scores but the ideology behind the thinking about what makes a quality teacher.

Pyne takes an openly neo-liberal approach to education and has been a vocal critic of the public system. The Abbott government has sought to implement a more market-driven system and has actively encouraged public schools to turn independent.

Craven has also used economic rationalist language to justify his position. Responding to AEU criticisms, he said:

I would say to the unions: if they succeed in restricting entry to teaching amid a high number of retirements then they are advocating a shortage of teachers and massively increased class sizes.

Greg Craven’s Australian Catholic University accepts students with ATARs in the lower ranges. AAP

William Arthur Ward once said:

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.

To ensure Australian students encounter high-quality, passionate teachers, education must be seen not as a profession but a vocation. The best teachers do more than prepare students for tests. They inspire them to grow, encourage them to explore and ignite a passion for learning.

A 1999 report from Leeds University suggested few teachers still see education this way. If Pyne’s review panel does reduce or abandon entry requirements, it is likely more teachers will see their career as an “easy job” rather than a life calling.

A neo-liberal teacher market will doubtless reduce short-term costs for the government and Pyne has used Australia’s slip in world rankings to argue that “more funding does not equate to better outcomes”. Craven has indicated he will not recommend large changes or funding increases, insisting the education system needs only a new coat of paint.

Craven said:

I don’t think it needs a broom to go through it. I think it’s like any house. You can always improve the painting in the bathroom.

Australia does have world-class, passionate educators but sadly many leave due to lack of resources and support. Studies suggest between 25% and 40% of teachers leave within five years. Philip Riley of Monash University has said:

High early-career attrition in teaching is costing Australia billions of dollars in wasted talent, money and training.

If teachers with desire and passion are supported and encouraged to stay in the industry, it could not only improve the quality of the learning experience but ultimately prove more cost-effective too.

The goal of the review board should be to attract the best and brightest into education and to secure the best possible outcome for Australian students. This can only happen if the prestige and respect once associated with teaching is restored along with the resources and support needed to achieve outstanding results.

An economic rationalist position that compromises academic rigour will never achieve this. If Craven’s panel follows base supply-and-demand principles and accepts even the most mediocre teaching candidates, then the derogatory maxim will be proved true: those who can’t do, teach.

Australian students deserve better and can have better but it will require a determined effort to raise, not lower, the quality of our teachers. A neo-liberal teacher market that seeks to lower expectations rather than raise conditions will not achieve the best educational outcomes.

Just over five years ago the noble goals of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians were unveiled. Investing in quality teachers who are passionate about their subject and see education as their calling - and supporting them to stay in the industry – is the only way to ensure Australian students get the best possible learning experience.

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