Standards will slide while teacher education is used as a cash cow

Teacher education is typically the largest undergraduate program in most universities and is therefore a cash cow. Cash cow image courtesy of www.shutterstock.com

Despite all the talk about improving the quality of teachers and teaching in Australia, the general downward slide of entry standards to undergraduate teacher training courses continues.

While the top performing education nations such as Finland and South Korea draw their teachers from the the top quartile of school leavers (75th percentile or higher), some Australian universities have set their ATAR entry score for this year at 45 or even lower.

Teacher education is typically the largest undergraduate professional program in most universities and is a significant source of income. Unfortunately, to fill the desired number of places, some universities resort to setting minimum entry scores that are far too low in order to meet student and financial targets. Additionally, when universities experience an overall shortfall in student applications, this “load” is often shifted to teacher education, further driving down entry scores.

This has a number of consequences. Students with higher scores who might otherwise be attracted to teaching feel they are “wasting” their marks if they take on teaching and are in kind deterred. More broadly, lower entry scores reinforce the perceived low status of teachers and teaching.

Meanwhile, those accepted with low scores will find completing their course challenging and teaching itself difficult. If they do manage to complete their course, they may well end up teaching students who are potential “90+” ATAR candidates, something which presents challenges for both teacher and student.

It needs to be recognised that, contrary to popular thinking, entry scores to undergraduate teacher training courses vary widely. While some universities go as low as the 40s, other require ATAR scores of more than 90. This discrepancy is widening, particularly with the entry of some TAFE colleges to teacher education, and cannot be allowed to continue if we are serious about improving the quality of teaching and learning in Australian schools.

It also needs to be recognised that the quality of teacher education courses is also variable. National accreditation of teacher education courses which is currently being introduced needs to address the issue of course quality and in particular the effectiveness of graduating teachers and their impact on student learning.

If we are to continue to offer teaching as an undergraduate qualification - and I don’t think we should for reasons outlined below - we must set minimum acceptable standards for entry and as a general rule draw our candidates from the top quartile.

Many will cite equity issues in that high school students from certain backgrounds and geographic locations experience disadvantage which is reflected in their final ATAR scores. We do need to recognise this and to attract a broadly representative teaching service, but accepting candidates with very low secondary school marks is not the way to do this, particularly if it sets them up for failure.

We need other measures of suitability to teaching to augment ATAR scores.

But I do believe that the days of taking people straight from school, training them as teachers and then sending them back to school, often in the same geographical area from which they have come, is no longer appropriate. Graduate entry teaching degrees are attracting candidates with high undergraduate academic performance who are older, more experienced and have made a mature decision to become a teacher.

It is time the issue of the standard of entrants to teaching was addressed. In fact, it’s overdue. If entry scores to undergraduate programs are allowed to continue to decline there will be a heavy price. All the effort around improving the quality of teachers, the quality of teaching and student achievement in this country will be undermined. The quality of teaching needs to be addressed at each point of leverage but the quality of those entering the profession is a crucial issue.