Creating increasing demand for teacher education from high achieving students is an important step in improving outcomes in our schools, as Lawrence Ingvarson explains.
There is a growing body of evidence that the most important in-school influence on student achievement is teachers’ knowledge and skill. To improve student outcomes in Australia we therefore need to increase quality in our supply of teaching graduates, by ensuring that our best and brightest students see teaching as an attractive long-term career, and that they graduate from university as high-quality teachers.
One way to increase demand for teacher education places from high achieving students is to improve the remuneration of highly accomplished teachers. Recent research shows that what distinguishes countries with higher student achievement are the salaries of experienced teachers relative to other professions.
We know from several surveys that our ablest school graduates consider teaching a worthwhile profession, but most decide against it because of its perceived status and the fact that salaries plateau at a low level relative to other professions.
While Australia has maintained reasonably competitive salaries at the entry stage, the Productivity Commission noted in a major 2012 report:
‘increases in teachers’ pay do not appear to have kept pace with those in other professions. Indeed, the evidence is that, since 1995, there has been no increase in the average real salaries of Australia’s more experienced teachers’.
Consequently, the ratio of Australian teachers’ salary to GDP per capita, 1.30, is now among the lowest in OECD countries, where the average is 1.65.
If we are to improve student outcomes we need to invest long term to make the teaching profession as strong and attractive as in countries like Finland and Singapore, where salaries for teachers compare favourably with those in other professions.
Another possible way to increase demand for teacher education places from high achieving students is to limit the supply, by mandating the minimum Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank or ATAR required for entry to a teacher education program. This is an option currently being pursued in NSW, where Education Minister Adrian Piccoli is calling for universities to require applicants for teacher education places to have achieved at least 80 per cent in three Year 12 subjects, including English.
Of course, all students should have the opportunity to undertake tertiary study, but it would be both feasible and appropriate to direct students who want to teach, but have not attained the minimum ATAR for entry to teaching, into other degree programs that enable them to show what they can do, before being eligible to apply for a teacher education place.
Decisions about the quality of entrants to teaching courses affect the wider society and therefore should not belong to universities alone. Education systems, schools, teachers and the public must have a larger say in who enters this critical first stage of the profession.
Besides making teaching a more attractive profession, we also need to raise teaching standards. Other things being equal, teachers with deep understanding of, and confidence in, what they are teaching will be more successful than teachers lacking these qualities.
A teacher’s ability to provide innovative, interesting and intellectually challenging conditions for student learning depends on the depth and breadth of their knowledge about the subject they are teaching. Universities are more likely to supply high-quality graduates if they take seriously the requirement by teacher registration or accreditation bodies that entrants should ‘successfully demonstrate their capacity to engage effectively with a rigorous higher education program and to carry out the intellectual demands of teaching itself’ supply high-quality graduates.
With improved remuneration and higher ATARs for entry we can improve the attractiveness of our teaching courses. With greater rigour in those courses we can increase the quality of teacher graduates – and then we will see improved student outcomes in our schools. ■
This article was published in the Australian Financial Review on 24 March 2013.