Funding is important – but money alone is not enough

We know Australia’s education system is not currently serving our disadvantaged students as well as it should. Our poorest students are simply not receiving the educational opportunities they deserve, and are entitled to.

Australia’s education system can be categorised as a high quality/low equity. Our socially disadvantaged students, for example, perform worse in reading than those in similar countries like Canada and Finland, but our socially advantaged students perform as well.

Quite rightly, the Gonski Review recommendations tackle this issue head-on, proposing that resources are allocated according to need. In this way, schools working with disadvantaged students will receive the extra funds they require. This is a welcome move, and I join the chorus of people calling for the Government to announce its full response to the review as soon as possible.

Addressing funding is an important step; it should give teachers the resources they need to truly focus on teaching, and help eliminate many of the administrative distractions they currently face. However, as important as it is, addressing education funding is not the sole solution to Australia’s deeply entrenched educational disadvantage.

The next step then, is about preparing teachers and school leaders to meet the challenges of Australia’s heterogeneous school system. Universities like my own need to step up to this challenge, and I firmly believe the best way we can do this is by preparing teachers to meet the individual needs of students.

Teachers will always be confronted with a wide variety of needs in any given class – whether they’re working in a government or an independent school. In fact, NAPLAN results show that only half of any class will be reading at grade level – many students will be reading above their grade level, and many below.

The challenge for teachers, then, is to cater for students throughout the range of development or performance and not to teach to the mid-range of whole class groups. Our focus needs to shift from aiming for average or above scores in national tests, to providing opportunities for growth in every student, so they reach their highest possible educational achievement. Teachers need more that the rhetoric of ‘personalising learning’ to meet this challenge. They need the skills to do it. The simplistic view of teaching is that teachers are passionate information transmitters, but nothing could be further from the truth. Teaching is a complex and challenging task.

Teachers need to be prepared to assess, intervene and evaluate – an approach we call ‘clinical teaching’. Our research shows the most effective teachers question rather than tell; use data to make decisions; collaborate with colleagues in a structured manner and have strong leaders who focus on learning outcomes. They evaluate the impact they make on each student’s learning, and adjust their approaches if necessary.

I believe that, as teacher educators, we need a paradigm shift in thinking. We need to break the apprenticeship model of teacher education, where teaching practices are often simply re-cycled. Instead, universities need strong partnerships with schools and early childhood centres, where a common vision of teaching is shared, and new discoveries inform how all partners do things.

We have invested in a model of teacher education at the University of Melbourne that does just that. In our Master of Teaching, teacher candidates (our word for student teachers) are in schools two days per week from early in their studies, supported by a school-based Teaching Fellow and a University-based Clinical Specialist. We fund half the Teaching Fellow salary, so that they become an important bridge between the learning candidates experience in school, and the learning they experience at university.

This model is working, with 90 per cent of teacher candidates rating themselves as ‘well’ or ‘very well’ prepared for the classroom, compared to a national average of approx. 40 per cent of beginning teachers. Early indications also show the model is starting to inform the practice of school communities.

We believe that ending disadvantage requires teachers who are clinical analysts, who aim to reduce the gap between where each student is and where we want every student to be.

We must transform schools and educate teachers who can indeed close the opportunity gap. Let’s get school funding sorted, so we can start focusing on the really important business of teaching - with the highest expectations for every student.

More information on the clinical model of teaching.