Teacher quality: getting it right

Professor Stephen Dinham is Chair of Teacher Education in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and President-elect of the Australian College of Educators (ACE). This article is an excerpt from his ACE Phillip Hughes oration, delivered on 28 February.

The quality teaching movement is in danger of being hijacked.

When teaching was first recognised as the biggest in-school influence on student achievement, I hoped this would lead to significant focus on and investment in teachers’ professional learning. However it is apparent that rather than regarding teachers as our most precious asset they are now being seen as our biggest problem when students fail to learn or reach the standards we have set for them.

Despite the fact that, overall, Australia still performs well on international measures of student achievement, there has been a growing chorus of ill-informed half-baked solutions to the ‘problem’ of teacher quality.

These top down simplistic measures based upon misunderstanding of the field, and in some cases ideology and prejudice, have included: sacking the ‘bottom’ 5% of teachers; paying teachers by ‘results’; punishing and rewarding schools on the basis of ‘performance’; giving principals more autonomy and power to hire and fire; bonus pay for ‘top’ teachers; allowing non-educators to become principals, and so forth. At the same time, we have seen substantial cuts to state education budgets including in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. In essence, the message is ‘do better with less, or else’. 

The popular solution of looking to Asian ‘education powerhouses’ for inspiration is also not particularly helpful. A fixation with the performance of other countries represents the worst form of cultural cringe. We need to recognise and build on the strengths we have rather than attempting to ‘cherry pick’ what appear to be recipes for success from vastly different contexts.

Yet to some extent the concern is valid - there are signs of slippage and the equity gap remains an issue. Results of recent Year 4 international assessment are also of concern. Why do our students appear to be ‘behind’ in the primary years, yet do ‘better’ in the secondary years? These phenomena need investigation, not invective and panic.

We need to be cognisant of decades of empirical work rather than dismissive. We need to stop looking for quick fix solutions which have been found wanting elsewhere. Education as a whole is performing much better than both the corporate sector and governments which criticise it.

Instead of short-term, faddish proposals, we should be focussing on policies that support our teachers to grow and learn. We need ongoing effective professional learning for teachers and systems that allow teachers to be recognised and rewarded when they upgrade their skills. We need educational leaders that are taught how to be true leaders of learning, and supported in their roles.

We also need the best people coming into the profession. Currently, there are too many instances of school leavers with low ATARs entering undergraduate teaching degrees. In some cases, universities appear to be cashing in on the uncapping of undergraduate degrees and filling teaching degrees to the brim, lowering quality as they do and adding to waiting lists for employment.

This has two effects: not only do we have less able people becoming teachers, but the esteem in which society holds the profession is lowered. This, in turn, puts high achievers off studying teaching in the first place. Far too many able students are told they are ‘too bright’ for teaching.

One way of overcoming this is to move teacher education to the graduate level, as we have done at the University of Melbourne with our Master of Teaching. In our experience, lifting the quality of the course has, in turn, raised the quality of our candidates. High achievers are attracted to a challenge; all our Master of Teaching candidates are graduates, and many of them are career changers. Their average age is 27, and their average GPA from their previous studies is around distinction level.

Another area requiring urgent attention is salary and career structures for teachers, which peak too soon and at too low a level. We need to integrate the new Australian standards for teachers with assessment and accreditation processes and industrial awards to provide incentive, guidance, reward and recognition to teachers who continue their professional learning and improve their performance.

Finally, we need to build on the national teacher quality initiatives introduced from 2007, which have been substantial and significant. However there are signs that progress is stalling with push back and politicking. Education is constitutionally a state and territory responsibility yet funded substantially through the Commonwealth tax system, making agreement and commitment challenging. Australia has a population similar in size to Florida yet is bedevilled by wasteful duplication, mistrust, competition, and in some cases petty jealousies.

We have much to be proud of in Australian education and we need to be prepared to recognise, understand and build upon that foundation. The profession needs to speak up, with one voice, and use evidence to question proposed remedies to the perceived problems of teachers, teaching and schools.