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Teaching standards to fix a ‘crisis’ that doesn’t exist

What is it that we’re trying to fix in teacher education? Teacher image from

The past week has been a tumultuous time for university education faculties. First the NSW government announced minimum entry requirements for teaching degrees, and then the federal government trumped their announcement with their own four-point plan to improve teacher training nation-wide.

Both plans focus on different ways to “fix” teacher training. The NSW proposal puts restrictions on school leavers entering a teaching qualification, and for students to pass a literacy and numeracy test before graduation.

While the federal government focused on aptitude tests for prospective teachers, a nationally consistent approach to school placements, a review of all teaching courses as well as a literacy and numeracy test.

Universities have reacted differently to both plans. The NSW plan was criticised for presuming governments can intervene in setting entry and exit requirements. While the federal government’s proposals were generally felt to be, at least, nationally consistent and to focus on exit, rather than entry, requirements.

However, it is worth stepping outside this increasingly confusing and complicated debate to consider whether we are actually facing an education “crisis” as the politicians would have us believe, and whether we’re currently looking at the right kinds of interventions.

Do we have a crisis?

University education faculties are squeezed between the rock of university access policies and the hard place of teacher quality policies.

It is no coincidence that we have seen falling ATARs in undergraduate teaching degrees at the same time as the uncapping of undergraduate university places.

On the one hand, the federal government is telling universities to accept as many students as they like into undergraduate degrees. And on the other hand, both federal and state governments are criticising education faculties for accepting students with low ATARs.

These conflicting policy goals mean we have seen an increase in the numbers of undergraduate teaching students at some universities, with a looming over-supply issue, particularly in primary teaching.

However, the fact that some universities have allowed some low ATAR students into teaching degrees does not in itself mean there is a crisis in the education system.

In particular, the NSW government’s response seems heavy handed, to say the least; especially when state governments already control who is employed in government schools, and there remains a steady stream of high achieving graduates to choose from.

The top down approach

Governments are attempting to exert more control over teacher education because research shows that teachers are the biggest in-school influence on student achievement.

This finding has led to the current policy focus on “teacher quality”. To address Australia’s sliding performance in international rankings, so the argument goes, we must raise teacher quality.

And so we see policies proposed by federal and state governments that impose various measures to “lift” teacher quality. Invariably, these proposals involve administrative, top-down mechanisms that emphasise compliance.

While these policies are right to focus on supporting teacher quality and attracting the top 30% into teaching (the standard achieved by top education systems), their bureaucratic, standards-driven mechanisms are unlikely to succeed.

The world’s top performing nations take a very different approach to attracting high achievers to teaching. Rather than insisting on conformation to “standards”, high performing countries empower teachers and trust their professional judgement. Most of the top performing countries prepare teachers in a different way – they focus on helping them meet the needs of individual learners and continuously improve the schools they teach in, as well as preparing them with rigorous university training, mostly at the master level.

The damaging debate

Teachers need to be held in high esteem and our public debate needs to reflect this.

Constant debate over how to raise teacher quality has very real and very damaging consequences for how the society views the profession. Every new discussion we have about “teacher quality” chips away at the level of respect given to the teachers.

The irony is that this steady erosion of the profession’s reputation only serves to further deter high achievers from studying teaching.

Teaching has become what my colleague Stephen Dinham refers to as the “battered profession”. Constant headlines about improving teacher quality do nothing to encourage high achievers into the profession.

In an ideal world

Australia’s performance in international education rankings shows that we need to change how we deliver education. This requires new thinking. Unfortunately the policies proposed by the NSW and federal governments, while well-intentioned, do not suggest the paradigm shift needed.

Ultimately, teaching should be self-governing, just like any other profession. The profession itself should evolve a body that controls who gets to teach, like the Australian Psychological Society or the Australian Medical Association does for prospective psychologists or medical professionals.

Richard Elmore from the Harvard Graduate School of Education says a profession is defined by its ability to control who is authorised to practice, control over its body of knowledge and control of the development of its professionals. This body would govern all three areas.

It is my belief that all teachers should also complete master level study before entering the profession, just like teachers do in Finland, which has one of the world’s best education systems. This is not a new suggestion - it was, for example, recommended to the Queensland Government in a 2010 review of teacher education by Brian Caldwell and David Sutton.

In our experience at the University of Melbourne, graduates respond well to the high demands of challenging master level study. Requiring a masters would equip teachers with the skills to maintain their own professional knowledge, keep abreast of research and critically analyse new policies, just like other high qualified professionals.

Finally, we need a salary career structure that matches the professional expectations we set for our teachers.

The teaching profession should be differentiated to recognise different levels of expertise. Salary progression should be attached to the level of expertise and professional competence demonstrated at each step in the professional standards already defined by the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership.

Well-intentioned tinkering

The instinct of Australian politicians seems to be to roll up their sleeves and get stuck into education, with all the best intentions in the world.

However, good intentions are not enough. No other profession is subject to the same level of tinkering and subsequent damaging public debate that teaching endures.

It is time for some radical thinking about education in Australia; it is time for the teachers to take control.

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