“Blanket Stigmatisation” and “Battering” of Teachers Must End

Professor Stephen Dinham, Chair of Teacher Education at the University of Melbourne, recently delivered the Phillip Hughes Oration at the Australian College of Education in Canberra on 28 February. He said that the quality teaching movement is in danger of being hijacked by naive, ill-informed, half-baked solutions and that education has become the ‘battered profession’ subjected to ‘blanket stigmatisation’. The following is an abridged version of the oration.

Concerns about teacher competence have been around for decades. In Australia there has been, on average, one major state or national inquiry into teacher education every year for the past 30 years. No other program of professional preparation in Australia has been thought to warrant such scrutiny.

Recently there has been a growing chorus of criticism of teacher education, teachers and school performance. ‘Evidence’ from international surveys and reports has been selectively used both to paint a grim picture of the ‘problem’ and to prescribe remedies. ‘Experts’ from business, government and the field of economics in particular have weighed into the issue of teacher quality with often naive, misinformed ideas and in some cases overt ideological intent.

There is no doubt that there is now a significant emphasis on teacher quality within Australia. However there are growing and worrying signs that the quality teaching movement is in danger of being hijacked.

Initially I was pleased to see the growing focus on teachers and teaching rather than other aspects of education such as school organisation, marketing and management. By recognising teachers as the biggest in-school influence on student achievement I was hoping that 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 individually and collectively.

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, whoever they are, and somehow replacing them with better teachers; paying teachers by ‘results’, however these are determined and measured; punishing and rewarding schools on the basis of ‘performance’; giving principals more autonomy and power to hire and fire; bonus pay for ‘top’ teachers (10%?); raising entry standards for teacher candidates; allowing non-educators to become principals, and so forth. At the same time of course, 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’.

What we do see is a blanket stigmatisation of teachers, principals, teacher educators and education system leaders. There is an assumption in these criticisms, for example, that all teachers, teacher candidates and teacher education courses are equally ineffective. Reality is quite different.

Instead of a collegial opening up of classrooms and professional practice, what follows is a view that because of their importance, we need greater control over and surveillance of teachers. Rather than careful, collaborative planning and constructive, improvement oriented feedback, we see arbitrary, unfocussed, impressionistic teacher ‘assessment’, with an overall demand to lift performance, whilst simultaneously cutting education budgets and removing specialist assistance provided by people such as literacy and numeracy coaches and regional network staff.

The role of professional standards has been twisted by some to be more about standardising, judging and dismissing teachers than developing and recognising them. Rather than being done with and for teachers, many measures advocated and being hastily and poorly implemented in the quest to improve teaching and learning are essentially being done to teachers and without them, almost guaranteeing resistance, minimal compliance and inefficiency.

The biggest equity issue in Australian education is a quality teacher in every classroom. However to achieve this we need to address teacher quality at every key point of leverage. Simplistic, quick fix, populist solutions promulgated by economists, those from the business sector and educational advisers and politicians out of touch with teaching and the extant body of research on teaching and learning, capture the headlines, feed the panic and reinforce misconceptions while providing little guidance or positive substance.

Education has become the ‘battered profession’. On a daily basis we hear damning statements – denigration, verbal abuse, misinformed criticism – about the dire state of education. In the main these statements are made not by educators but by politicians, education bureaucrats, the media, members of the corporate sector and other self-appointed experts.

There are, however real concerns and educators encounter these on a daily basis. Despite our overall performance as a nation on international and national measures of student performance, we can and need to improve. In particular, there is the issue of the impact of disadvantage and inequity on student development and achievement, which is greater than we would like.

There is an on-going need to focus – through evidence – on the nature and impact of our pedagogical practices and the roles that teachers’ preparation and professional learning, professional standards, leadership, and appraisal and development processes can play in improving teaching and learning. However addressing these real concerns is made more difficult by the prevailing climate of criticism.

Critics of education make simplistic pronouncements that are ignorant of decades of research and of the many great things achieved by our teachers and schools. Our accumulated expertise and wisdom in education is totally disregarded, yet when I speak with international colleagues they frequently express admiration for what we have achieved in education. These people look to Australia for leadership, research and guidance while the uninformed urge us to copy Shanghai and the like on the basis of their ‘research’, which usually consists of selectively using statistics from reports completed by others and making flying stage managed visits to schools to discover the ‘secret’ to their success.
Our home grown critics persistently argue that education is ‘broken’ and must be ‘fixed’ and as noted previously, the quality teaching movement, once so promising, appears to have been hijacked. It is hardly surprising that educators have lost self-confidence after years of such treatment.

Unfortunately the quality teaching movement is also being put at risk through the related issues of the widening range of entry standards to teaching, varying quality of teacher education programs and uncapped places for teacher candidates.

Despite all the talk about improving the quality of teachers and teaching in Australia the general downward slide of entry standards to undergraduate teacher training courses continues. 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 for this year fall to 45 or even lower.

Teacher education is typically the largest undergraduate professional program in most universities and is a significant source of income. Unfortunately in some universities, to fill the desired number of places and reach financial targets the result is minimum entry levels that are far too low. Additionally, when universities experience an overall shortfall in student applications, often this ‘load’ is shifted to teacher education against the wishes of education faculties, further driving down entry standards.

This has been exacerbated in recent times with the ‘uncapping’ of undergraduate Commonwealth Supported Places. Some universities have reacted to this ‘free for all’ by greatly expanding their places and offers for teacher candidates, at a time when there is an oversupply of primary teachers

It needs to be recognised that, contrary to popular thinking, entry scores to undergraduate teacher training courses vary widely. While some universities do go as low as the 40s, other require ATARs of over 90. This discrepancy is widening, particularly with the entry of some TAFE and private colleges to teacher education, and cannot be allowed to continue if we are serious about improving the quality of teaching and learning in Australian schools. Universities and other providers must not be permitted however to enrol candidates below 70-75 ATAR or equivalent into undergraduate programs.

It also needs to be recognised that the quality of teacher education courses is also variable. Processes for national accreditation of teacher education courses which are currently being introduced need to address the issue of course quality and in particular the effectiveness of graduating teachers and their impact on student learning. There needs to a rigorous, evidence based process for course accreditation rather than the minimalist competency-based approach that currently predominates.

It is time the issue of the standard of entrants to teaching is addressed. In fact, it’s overdue. If entry requirements to undergraduate programs are allowed to continue to decline there will be a heavy price. All the effort around improving the quality of teachers, the quality of teaching and student achievement in this country will be undermined.

We also need to address the present salary and career structures for teachers, which are inefficient, inconsistent, 19th century industrial artefacts that see teachers’ salaries peak too soon and at too low a level. I have written extensively on the need to integrate the new Australian standards for teachers with authentic, efficient 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.

We are at a crucial point in our development as a country and the national initiatives around enhancing the quality of teaching introduced since 2007 have been substantial and significant. We are at the crossroads and have the opportunity through these initiatives and agreements to take the necessary next steps down the path of ensuring effective professional learning for all teachers and principals and quality teaching for all Australian students.

We need to be cognisant of decades of empirical work in educational research 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 on international standards than many of the corporations and governments that criticise it.

Above all, as a nation we need to recognise education as our most important investment in facilitating personal, social and economic prosperity and not as a cost or a commodity to be purchased by those with the most social and financial capital.

Others are convinced and we have convinced ourselves that there is a crisis in Australian schooling and this has eroded our self-belief and confidence. As a result, we are madly looking around for quick, cheap, simple solutions when what we need is comprehensive evidence-based improvement and action to create a system and career structure for promoting effective teaching and recognising and rewarding effective teachers.

We need to remind ourselves we have much of which to be proud in Australian education and we need to be prepared to recognise, understand and build upon that foundation and not let others undermine and pull it down.

It is time for the profession as a whole to speak up, state what it believes in and to question from a basis of evidence the externally proposed remedies to the perceived problems of teachers, teaching and schools in Australia. If we fail to do this, the outcomes will be neither pleasant nor productive and we can expect to continue to slide down the international student achievement league tables, with resultant negativity feeding upon itself.

The full oration is available from the Australian College of Educators.

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