There was much wringing of hands at the continuing decline in Australia’s reading, mathematics and science results revealed by the results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) published last December. Unfortunately, there was little in the way of constructive analysis of the factors behind the declines.
1. Teaching qualifications
Much of the response focused on teaching quality. For example, the Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, said the Government’s first priority was to improve teacher performance in classrooms, the implication being that teachers are to blame for the decline [Belot 2016]. However, while there is always room to improve teaching quality through better pre-service training, professional development and mentoring, etc., it is another thing to argue that teaching quality has declined significantly over the last 10 to 15 years and is a major factor behind the declining results.
There is little concrete evidence of a decline in teaching quality. Data compiled from PISA 2015 and other studies show that Australia has a high quality teaching force by international standards. We must look to other factors to explain the decline in Australia’s PISA results. One is the high proportion of teachers in Australia teaching outside their field of training.
The mix in the qualifications of Australian secondary school teachers has changed significantly since 2007. Data from the Staff in Australia’s Schools (SIAS) surveys show an increase in the professional qualifications of secondary school teachers in fields outside Education, a decline in the proportion holding a degree in Education, but an increase in the proportion with a Graduate Diploma in Education.
The 2007 survey found that 61 per cent of secondary school teachers held a Bachelor or Honours degree in Education, while 43 per cent held a Bachelor or Honours degree in a field other than Education and 34 per cent had a Graduate Diploma in Education [McKenzie et.al. 2008: Tables 4.1 & 4.2]. In 2013, 45 per cent of secondary school teachers held a Bachelor or Honours degree in Education, 52 per cent held a Bachelor or Honours degree in a field other than Education and 39 per cent had a Graduate Diploma in Education [McKenzie et.al. 2014: Tables 4.3 & 4.4]. The shift towards qualifications outside Education is also shown in comparisons of recently qualified teachers and those with five or more years of experience. In 2013, 65 per cent of early career teachers had a degree outside Education compared to 50 per cent of teachers with over five years of experience [Table 4.5].
The proportion of fully certified teachers in Australian schools is very high compared to many OECD countries. For example, in Australia 97 per cent of science teachers are fully qualified compared to 84 per cent in OECD countries [OECD 2016: Table II.2.8]. Australia has the highest percentage of science teachers with a university degree and a major in science in the OECD – 94 per cent compared to the average for the OECD of 74 per cent. Other data from PISA 2015 shows that 95 per cent of Australian teachers are fully qualified compared to the average of 85 per cent across the OECD [OECD 2016: Table II.6.9]. While this proportion has fallen by three percentage points since 2006 [OECD 2016: Table II.6.11], it seems too small a change to have caused the large decline in student results.
However, there are differences in the qualifications of teachers in low SES and high SES schools in Australia which could be a factor in the achievement gaps between these schools. In 2015, 91 per cent of science teachers in low SES schools had a university degree and a major in science compared to 96 per cent in high SES schools [OECD 2016: Table II.2.10]. Ninety per cent of science teachers in rural schools had a university degree and a major in science.
2. Teacher training
There is evidence that teacher education programs with high admissions criteria are more likely to attract more academically capable students [Ingvarson et.al. 2014: xiv]. However, Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) scores for entry into teacher training courses have declined considerably over the past decade. While the top performing education nations such as Finland and South Korea draw their teachers from the top quartile of school leavers or higher, some Australian universities have seen their ATAR entry levels fall to 45 or even lower [Preiss & Butt 2013]. Also, entry scores have varied widely between training courses.
Between 2005 and 2014, there was a significant increase in the proportion of secondary entrants to undergraduate teacher education with an ATAR in the lower bands. The proportion with an ATAR of 60 or lower increased from six per cent in 2005 to 18 per cent in 2014 [AITSL 2016, Appendix Table 18]. The percentage with an ATAR score of 30-50 increased from one to six per cent. In 2014, 958 entrants had an ATAR score of 60 or below and 320 had a score of 30-50.
However, whatever their ATAR score, students still have to pass the teacher education courses before they are accepted into the teaching force. It is possible that the quality of undergraduate teaching courses has declined along with entry standards.
Over many years, there has been widespread concern about the variable quality of pre-service training (for example, Dinham 2013, Maslen 2013). One report found that previous attempts to drive improvement in teacher quality had largely failed [Dinham et.al. 2008]. Surveys of graduate teachers have repeatedly suggested that many pre-service teacher education programs are not effectively preparing individuals for teaching [Productivity Commission 2012]. A recent review found a high degree of variability in the quality of pre-service teacher education in Australia, with examples of excellent practice and significant pockets of poor quality [Craven et.al. 2014]. It also found that the national professional standards for teachers provide a strong foundation for quality assurance and improvement to initial teacher education but are being weakly applied. It made a number of recommendations to improve pre-service training.
None of the many reports on teacher training over the past 15 years clearly demonstrate that the quality of teacher training courses has declined so significantly as to be a key factor contributing to declining student performance. However, it is difficult to assess the quality of teacher training in Australia because reliable and representative data about current practices and outcomes in teacher education is not available and it is not possible to judge the extent of best practice.
Based on available data, our review indicates how little we know about the outcomes of individual teacher education programs in Australia, not only with respect to each other, but internationally. Australia’s teacher education system currently lacks the capacity and the measures to monitor its own performance and, therefore, to promote improvement. There is little evidence that the current accreditation system is having an impact on the quality of teacher education or graduate outcomes. [Ingvarson et.al. 2014: xii]
Clearly, more information is needed about teacher education courses in Australia to assess their effectiveness.
There is no evidence of declining participation in professional development courses or declining quality of courses. The percentage of all teachers and science teachers in Australia who attended a programme of professional development in the three months prior to the PISA 2015 assessments was the 2nd highest in the OECD at 84 and 83 per cent respectively [OECD 2016: Table II.6.17]. These rates were much higher than those for the OECD of 51 and 52 per cent. Participation is similar in low and high SES schools and there are only small differences in participation between rural and town schools and city schools and between public and private schools.
3. Teaching practice
Teaching practice has a major influence on student performance. PISA 2015 shows that in almost all education systems, students score higher in science when teachers explain scientific ideas, discuss student questions or demonstrate an idea more frequently. It also found that students score higher when science teachers adapt lessons to students’ needs and knowledge and provide individual help when a student has difficulties understanding a topic or task [OECD 2016: 228].
Data compiled from PISA 2015 indicates that teaching practice in science in Australia is amongst the best in the OECD. Student questionnaires grouped teaching strategies used by teachers into four approaches: teacher-directed instruction, adaptive instruction, enquiry-based instruction and perceived feedback. Australia was ranked in the top ten countries in the OECD in the first three approaches, including 5th for teacher-directed instruction, and it ranked 13th in providing feedback to students [OECD 2016: Tables II.2.17, II.2.20; II.2.23 & II.2.27]. While there is no time-series data available, Australia’s high ranking on teaching practice suggests that declining teacher quality is not a major factor contributing to declining student performance.
However, there are significant differences in teaching practice between different types of schools. Teacher-directed instruction and adaptive instruction is more commonly used in socio-economically advantaged schools in Australia than in disadvantaged schools [Tables II.2.17 & II.2.23]. The gap in the use of teacher-directed instruction was the 8th largest in the OECD and the gap in the use of adaptive instruction was the 6th largest. There was no significant difference in the use enquiry-based instruction and teachers in low SES schools tend to give more feedback to students than in high SES schools.
There are also significant differences between public and private schools. Private schools tend to make greater use of teacher-directed instruction and adaptive instruction than public schools but there is no significant difference in the use of enquiry-based instruction and feedback to students.
Other research drawing on data from PISA 2009 shows that teachers’ use of structuring and scaffolding strategies, one of the main measures of effective teaching, varies very little across school contexts [Perry et.al. 2016]. It does not vary at all between private and public schools with similar socioeconomic compositions, and it varies only slightly across school SES contexts. Student perceptions of the quality of teacher instruction are very similar whether a student attends a low SES public school or a high SES private school.
4. Classroom environment
Student outcomes are also influenced by the extent to which the classroom environment is conducive to learning. Students do better in classrooms with a positive disciplinary climate. Data from PISA 2015 indicates that the disciplinary climate in science classes in Australia is very poor. Responses to the student questionnaire indicate that the disciplinary climate in Australian schools is the 4th worst in the OECD, behind the Czech Republic, France and Greece, and the 7th worst of the 70 countries participating in PISA [OECD 2016: Table II.3.11]. The disciplinary climate is far worse in disadvantaged than in advantaged schools and the gap is one of the largest in the OECD. It is also significantly worse in rural and town schools than in city schools and in public schools compared to private schools. These gaps are also amongst the largest in the OECD.
However, even in the most advantaged schools and city schools the disciplinary climate is poorer than in many OECD countries. For example, the disciplinary climate in Australia’s most advantaged schools was the 13th lowest of the 35 OECD countries.
In PISA 2015, 40 per cent of students in Australia reported that, in every or most science lessons, students do not listen to the teacher. This was the highest proportion in the OECD except for the Czech Republic. Latvia, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia [OECD 2016: Table II.3.10]. Forty-three per cent of students in Australia reported that there was noise and disorder in every or most science lessons. This was the highest proportion in the OECD, except for France. Twenty-two per cent said that they cannot work well in science lessons. These were among the highest proportions in the OECD.
Evidence from previous PISA assessments in 2009 and 2012 also indicate that the disciplinary climate in Australian classrooms is amongst the worst in the OECD [OECD 2013: Table IV.5.6; OECD 2010: Table IV.4.2]. The data suggest that the disciplinary climate has deteriorated since 2009, although the student responses were for different subjects in each PISA assessment. In 2009, 32 per cent of students reported that students don’t listen to the teacher in every or most reading lessons; 39 per cent said there was noise and disorder in every or most reading lessons; and 18 per cent said that they cannot work well in reading lessons [OECD 2010: Figure IV.4.2]. In 2012, 38 per cent of students said that students don’t listen to the teacher in every or most mathematics lessons; 33 per cent said there was noise and disorder in every or most mathematics lessons; and 18 per cent said that they cannot work well in every or most mathematics lessons [OECD 2013: Figure IV.5.4].
It is difficult to judge the extent to which this apparent deterioration is associated with the decline in results. The OECD statistical analysis found that the disciplinary climate in Australian schools has a moderately significant impact on school results [OECD 2016b: Table II.7.1]. The fact that the level of disruption in classes is high across all types of schools and locations suggests it may be a contributing factor in the decline in results.
On the other hand, classroom disruption may reflect low achievement by students. Far from contributing to the decline in results, disruptive behaviour may be an outcome of increasing learning difficulties which arise from other factors outside and inside schools such as increasing poverty, financial stress and lack of adequate human and material resources in schools. While student disruption affects classroom learning it also reflects lack of progress in learning [Graham 2015, Sullivan et.al. 2014]. Students tend to resort to misbehaviour to compensate or conceal difficulties in learning. A belief that a child’s behaviour is affecting their learning and that of others leads to a focus on behaviour management. However, if the cause is lack of learning progress, behaviour management does not address the underlying problem.
5. Teacher shoratages and out-of-field teaching
Other potential factors affecting the PISA results are teacher shortages in the subjects assessed and a high percentage of teachers teaching outside their field. One-fifth of Australian students attend schools whose principals reported in PISA 2015 that a shortage of teaching staff hinders learning to some extent or a lot [OECD 2016: Table II.6.14].
Data from PISA 2012 show that 25 per cent of students were in schools whose principal reported a significant shortage of mathematics teachers, but was lower than in 2003 when it was 30 per cent [OECD 2012: Table IV.3.37]. The percentage of students in schools with a shortage of science teachers in 2012 was 32 per cent, significantly higher than in 2003 when it was 26 per cent. The percentage of students in schools with a shortage of English teachers was much lower than for mathematics or science teachers. In 2012, 12 per cent of students were in schools where principals reported a shortage of English teachers and it was slightly lower than in 2003. Similar data was not published in PISA 2015.
The Staff in Australia’s Schools 2013 survey reported that many secondary school principals have difficulties in suitably filling staff vacancies across all areas of the curriculum. Eight per cent reported major difficulty in suitably filling staff vacancies during the past 12 months and 27 per cent had moderate difficulty [McKenzie et.al. 2014: 128]. The rates were similar to those in the 2007 and 2010 surveys, so it is difficult to attribute the decline in PISA results to increasing shortages, although the SIAS does not report on shortages by subject area.
The Australian Office of the Chief Scientist has reported data from TIMSS 2011 (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study) that the proportion of schools that have difficulty filling Year 8 maths and science teaching positions is about double the international average. Forty-one per cent of schools reported difficulty finding Year 8 mathematics teachers and 39 per cent for science teachers compared to the international average of 19 per cent [Office of the Chief Scientist 2016].
The PISA and Staff in Australia’s Schools data suggest that a shortage of teachers was not a significant factor in the decline in mathematics and reading results, but could be a contributing factor to the decline in science. In any case, the absolute shortage of teachers should be a major concern, irrespective of the trend over recent years. It suggests considerable scope to improve student performance.
A much larger proportion of public secondary school principals reported major difficulty in recruiting suitable staff than in private schools. Twelve per cent of public school principals said they had major difficulty compared to two per cent in Catholic schools and 0.5 per cent in Independent schools. The 2014 proportions were lower than in 2007 in public and Catholic schools which were 14 and six per cent respectively. There was no change in Independent schools. The proportion of principals reporting moderate difficulty in recruiting suitable staff was significantly lower in 2013 than in 2007 in all school sectors.
Teacher shortages are likely to be a factor in the achievement gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged students. Data from PISA 2015 reveal large differences in teacher shortages between low and high SES schools and between rural and town schools compared to city schools. Australia has the largest gap in the shortage of teachers between disadvantaged and advantaged schools in the OECD and one of the largest of all 70 countries/cities participating in PISA 2015 [OECD 2016: Table II.6.2]. Australia also has the largest gap in the shortage of teachers between town and city schools in the OECD and one of the largest of all countries/cities participating in PISA. The gap in the shortage of teachers between rural and city schools in Australia is also one of the largest in the OECD. Large gaps in teacher shortages in Australia were also reported in PISA 2012 [OECD 2013: Table IV.3.11].
The most common response to teacher shortages is to require teachers to teach outside their field of expertise. In 2013, 39 per cent of public school secondary principals and 36 per cent of Catholic secondary school principals said that they require teachers to teach outside their field of expertise to deal with teacher shortages compared to only 15 per cent in Independent schools [McKenzie et.al. 2014: 129].
A recent report by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) found that 26 per cent of teachers in Years 7-10 in 2013 were teaching subjects in which they had not specialised and 37 per cent of early career teachers in Years 7-10 were teaching out-of-field [Weldon 2016]. About 16 per cent of class groups in Years 7–10 across Australia were being taught by an out-of-field teacher, including 17 per cent of mathematics classes. Specifically, in relation to the subjects in the PISA assessments, 14 per cent of Year 7-10 English teachers, 21 per cent of mathematics teachers, 23 per cent of physics teachers, 18 per cent of chemistry teachers and 14 per cent of biology teachers were out-of-field. This should be a major concern, irrespective of the trend in recent years. It suggests considerable scope to improve student performance.
There were also high percentages of out-of-field teachers across all states, school sectors, socio-economic status groups and school locations. For example, 31 per cent of Years 7-10 teachers in low SES schools were out-of-field compared to 28 per cent in medium SES schools and 22 per cent in high SES schools. Over 40 per cent of teachers in remote area schools were out-of-field, 32 per cent in provincial areas and 24 per cent in metropolitan regions. In regards to school sectors, 26 per cent of Years 7-10 teachers in public and Independent schools, and 29 per cent in Catholic schools were out-of-field. The two states with the lowest PISA results – Tasmania and the Northern Territory – also had the largest percentages of out-of-field teachers – 37 per cent in Tasmania and 40 per cent in the Territory.
The large differences in the percentage of out-of-field teachers in high SES schools and low SES, remote and provincial schools together with the large gap in teacher shortages between these schools are likely to be significant factors in the continuing large achievement gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged students and schools in Australia.
While there is an over-ready tendency to blame teachers in some quarters, there is no conclusive evidence that teaching qualifications, course standards or teaching practice have declined over the past 10-15 years despite the decline in entry standards for teacher training in many universities and the poor quality of some courses. Australian teachers are highly qualified by international standards. PISA 2015 focused on science and the results show that teaching practice in science in Australia is amongst the best in the OECD with teachers using strategies that are strongly associated with higher performance. A high proportion of teachers in Australia participate in professional development and there is no evidence of declining participation or declining quality of courses.
While there is considerable variability in the quality of pre-service teaching courses, there is little evidence of a decline in teacher education courses that could have contributed to the decline in student performance. However, it is difficult to assess the quality of teacher training in Australia because reliable and representative data about current practices and outcomes in teacher education is not available.
Student disruption in Australian classrooms is high by OECD standards across advantaged, disadvantaged, rural, town and city schools and it appears to have worsened over recent years. It could be a factor in the declining results. An OECD statistical analysis attributes it as having a moderately significant impact on student results [OECD 2016: Table II. 7.1 (online)]. However, student behaviour is a complex issue and the extent of poor behaviour may also be a manifestation of factors outside school and low levels of achievement.
The most likely teaching-related factor affecting student performance is the high proportion of teachers who are teaching out-of-field across all states, school sectors, socio-economic status groups and school locations because of shortages of qualified staff. The shortage of mathematics and science teachers is high by international standards, but there is a much lower shortage of English teachers. There was an increase in the shortage of science teachers over the past decade and this may have contributed to the decline in science results, but the shortage of mathematics and English teachers has decreased a little over the period.
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