In recent debates about Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) scores we have lost sight of what matters most: the recruitment of high-quality candidates to ensure a strong teaching profession.
Teaching has a recruitment problem much more than a selection problem. Recruitment is about the academic quality of students attracted to a career in teaching. We can introduce all the filters and selection tests we like, such as the basic literacy and numeracy skills test, but they won’t make any difference unless demand from our ablest graduates increases.
What distinguishes countries with high student achievement is the salaries of teachers relative to other professions. Recent OECD studies report that high-performing countries are more likely to focus educational policy directly on recruiting academically successful students.
In 2015, only 42% of teacher education offers were made to Year 12 applicants with an ATAR of at least 70. In several universities the percentage was much lower.
Similar numbers apply to students who applied post-Year 12. We should not be taken in by those who argue that the rising numbers of non-Year 12 entrants obviates the problem.
The proportion of entrants in undergraduate programs with ATAR scores less than 50 doubled over the past three years. Over the past ten years, we have reached a point where almost everyone who applies now finds a place in a teacher education program. Over the same period, Australia’s performance on international tests of student achievements has declined significantly.
It is time to drop the rationalisations and face the fact that we have a problem. We are not doing enough to ensure teaching is an attractive profession that can compete with other professions for our best graduates.
Research shows that the main factors turning potentially good teachers away from teaching are the status and relative salaries.
The recent report of the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) missed the opportunity to address the recruitment problem. With little evidence, it claimed that the main problem was the quality of teacher education courses, not recruitment and the quality of applicants themselves.
It successfully diverted attention away from governments and their responsibility to ensure that teaching can attract enough of our ablest students to meet the demand.
Increase teachers’ pay
Australians must be willing to pay demonstrably accomplished teachers what they are worth. This means that they should be able to attain significantly higher salaries based on professional certification of their expertise.
Teacher salaries in high-achieving countries rise to more than twice the starting salary. In Australia, they only rise to 1.4 times the starting salary.
The second problem is the presumption that universities alone should determine who gains entry to teacher education programs. There has been little consideration of the effects of their low entry standards on our schools and the teaching profession.
Given the current situation, this presumption is no longer tenable, despite the inevitable flag-waving about university autonomy.
Autonomy is not unconditional; it’s a two-way street. Autonomy is what the public gives in return for accountable practices. Universities should be responsive to widespread concern that current selection standards are not in the interests of the public or the teaching profession.
No one is arguing that it is not a good thing to expand opportunities to gain a university education. However, this does not mean that students should be channelled directly into rigorous professional preparation programs like teacher education regardless of prior academic achievement.
What needs to change
A high-quality teacher education program cannot be both an effective preparation for the demands of teaching and a remedial program. The quality of a teacher education program and its graduates depends in considerable part on the academic achievement of students who enter that course.
Ultimately, our governments are responsible for ensuring that teaching offers salaries and conditions that attract sufficient applications from students who can cope with a rigorous professional preparation program.
Our governments need to be accountable for ensuring that teaching can compete with other professions for our ablest students. Our collective responsibility is to hold them to account.
To achieve this, we must require governments to gather evidence annually showing that their teacher quality policies are lifting the academic quality of students entering teacher education programs.
If the present situation were to continue, we should consider diverting funding for teacher education from universities to a national teacher education authority. Its primary responsibilities should be to ensure that:
supply of new teachers matches demand
teacher education services are purchased from accredited providers
funded courses attract sufficient students from the top 70% of the age cohort
teacher education program accreditation is conditional upon evidence that graduates meet specified high standards for professional knowledge and performance.