ATAR scores only part of the picture for teaching

Do teachers’ grades affect how well they can teach? AAP

A common debate has resurfaced over teacher quality and the quality of teacher education in Australia. This time it was started by a leaked draft report into teacher education from the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) which the public can’t expect to see for at least another month. Media reports have all focused on one aspect of the wide-ranging report: teaching students’ ATARs.

A story in The Australian claimed that teacher education providers are

… contributing to the slide in teacher training quality by accepting very low Year 12 marks.

According to the numbers reported in The Australian, 6.7% of students entering teacher education have ATARs in the bottom third (below 60). However, we don’t have enough information to make any further claims about links between teacher education entry standards and the quality of teaching in schools more generally.

Firstly, the reporting does not separate ATARs by teaching specialisation, and that has implications for how these data are read and what they are being taken to mean. Secondly, there is an assumption that someone with a high ATAR score will make a good teacher (and that someone with a lower ATAR will not).

Behind both of these is an assumption that higher ATARs reflect innate intelligence. But they don’t.

What lies behind higher/lower ATAR scores?

ATAR scores are weighted and some secondary school subjects are scaled higher than others. The “hard” sciences (physics/chemistry), mathematics and extension subjects can contribute to higher ATAR scores – if one does well in them. “Softer” practical subjects do not rate as highly and it is quite possible to do exceptionally well in drama or visual arts, for example, but still end up with a low ATAR.

Drama or visual arts may well be that student’s teaching specialisation – so should we deny them entry to the teaching profession, simply because they didn’t do so well at maths? They won’t be teaching it, so do their maths scores matter?

It is also well-known – amongst middle class parents especially – that going to an academically high performing school (and generally one in a high socioeconomic area) will add points to an ATAR simply by being there. The increase is unlikely to be huge, but it could well mean the difference for some.

So did the students with ATARs below 60 entering teacher education in 2013 come from disadvantaged backgrounds and schools that could not add to their scores? Are they planning to specialise in subject areas that tend not to attract higher ATAR weightings? I’d be worried if these students were planning to teach maths or physics but I highly doubt they are.

Conflating ATAR with intelligence

Underpinning this debate is the assumption that higher ATARs indicate higher intelligence and that the “brightest students” will make the best teachers. These claims should not go unchallenged.

Anyone who has spent time in universities can tell you the brightest people do not necessarily make the best teachers. It can be exceptionally hard to break down a skill or concept that comes easily to you in order to teach it to somebody else. It is also extremely hard to understand difficulties in learning if you have never experienced them yourself.

So, what makes a good teacher?

Subject content knowledge is only part of what makes an effective teacher. The ability to understand what piece of the puzzle is presenting barriers to learning, how to scaffold student learning to guide students through those barriers, and how to do it in ways that preserve their self-esteem and enthusiasm are equally important.

Too often in my research I see teachers “teach to the middle” – missing the students who need them the most. Often this is accidental and, sometimes, it’s deliberate.

Students who find school work boring or academic learning difficult can be hard work. Teachers are under pressure to “get through the curriculum” more than ever before and some are not averse to expressing their frustration when some students do not learn as quickly or as easily as others.

The students in my research are not blind to this and they deeply resent it. While many switch off and silently fail, some resort to disruption – with a few of those telling the teacher to get f**ked and/or throwing a chair across the room.

When asked what makes a good teacher, most students will acknowledge the importance of subject content knowledge but more important than that is how the teacher teaches, how the teacher treats them, whether they relate learning to their students’ background and ability, and - most of all - whether they make it fun.