The best and brightest

How to have top-class teachers in schools

Lawrence Ingvarson

As the smoke clears in the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) battle over trainee teacher standards one thing becomes clear: recruitment, not selection, is the issue.

NSW Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli was accused by a university of “shameful elitism” in requiring new teachers appointed to NSW government schools to have attained a high standard of English at year 12. Recent evidence suggests several of our universities might instead be accused of shameful opportunism in their teacher education offers, showing little regard for the public interest or the teaching profession.

In 2015, while 68.5 per cent of all offers for university places were made to year 12 applicants with an ATAR of at least 70, only 42 per cent of teacher education offers were made to year 12 applicants with an ATAR score of at least 70. The number of entrants with ATAR scores less than 50 has more than doubled over the past four years.

Similar numbers apply to students who applied post-year 12. Most non-year 12 applicants also have an ATAR score even if universities do not use these in determining their applications — and the profile of their ATAR scores is even worse.

Like education ministers across the nation, Mr Piccoli has good reason to be concerned about the behaviour of some universities, rationalised as serving the interests of disadvantaged students.

Quite rightly, he is putting the public interest first. State and territory registration bodies seem powerless to do much about this situation, a situation that would be rectified quickly if it were happening to the medical profession.

Minister Piccoli’s responsibility is to ensure that teacher education providers meet the national standards for accrediting teacher education providers. These state that entrants should possess levels of personal literacy and numeracy broadly equivalent to the top 30 per cent of the population. We are a long way below that standard.

In all the flurry about ATAR scores, however, we have lost sight of the real problems.

Australian governments are not doing enough to ensure teaching is an attractive profession that can compete with other professions for our best graduates.

Salaries matter. Salaries and status are the main reasons our ablest students do not choose teaching, despite regarding it as a worthwhile profession, according to a Department funding in 2006. International research shows that what distinguishes high-achieving countries, in terms of student achievement, are teacher salaries at the top of the scale, relative to other professions.

The second problem is the presumption that universities alone should determine who gains entry to teacher education programs, with flag-waving about university autonomy. Autonomy is not unconditional: autonomy, or trust, is what the public gives in return for practices that are in the public interest.

Implicit in the arguments some teacher educators use to justify their low entry standards is that teacher education programs should be remedial programs, or bridging courses. Plans to require basic literacy and numeracy tests after graduation also imply that course time should be spent remedying basic academic deficiencies. Is there any other profession where this line of argument would be accepted or taken seriously?

A remarkable feature of the ATAR debate is what little consideration some universities give to the effects of their low entry standards on our schools and the teaching profession. The arrogance is breathtaking; the thought that they should consult with, or to listen to, the concerns of the teaching profession seems not to arise.

The brutal fact is that high-performing schools are unlikely to shortlist job applicants who come from universities with low entry standards. As a result, we run the risk of creating serious differences in teacher quality across schools serving students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

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 themselves, not recruitment and the quality of applicants.

The TEMAG report successfully diverted attention away from governments and their responsibility to ensure that teaching attracts sufficient numbers of our ablest students to meet the demand.

An argument in currency last year was that universities would lift their entry standards because it would threaten their accreditation status if many of their graduates failed. That argument lost all currency this year. Instead of falling, the proportion of offers to students with ATAR scores lower than 60 rose again in 2016.

Our approach to teacher education is very wasteful compared with countries such as Singapore where the number of entrants accepted into and graduating from teacher education is broadly in balance, where supply and demand are broadly in balance and where most new graduates remain in teaching long-term, unlike in Australia. The primary reason for this is that teaching in Singapore is a high-status profession that offers attractive career paths and working conditions.

Teacher education is too important to be left to the vagaries of university admission policies.

If the present trends in recruitment continue, we should consider diverting funding for teacher education from universities to a national teacher education authority for which the 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 per cent of the age cohort; and teacher education program accreditation is conditional upon evidence that graduates meet specified high standards for professional knowledge and performance.

Lawrence Ingvarson is a Principal Research Fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research. Read this article in full in the latest issue of the Centre for Professional Learning’s journal, JPL. Reading JPL can be counted as Teacher Identified hours for Maintenance of Accreditation