Pathetic Response by Teach for Australia to Criticisms

Teach for Australia (TFA) has abjectly failed to answer criticisms of the program. Save Our Schools has criticised TFA on several grounds:
• The large majority of its teachers are in marginally disadvantaged schools instead of highly disadvantaged schools;
• Its attrition rate is very much higher than for traditionally-trained early career teachers;
• The high turnover of TFA teachers imposes additional financial and human resource costs on schools and negatively impacts on disadvantaged students;
• It is a very high cost program in comparison with traditional teacher training; and
• There is no substantive evidence that TFA teachers improve student results more than traditionally trained teachers.

TFA’s response to these criticisms reported in Education Review is pathetic. It resorts to assertion, fudges data, cites selective data and relies on an unpublished study by one of its own corporate partners. Its inability to answer the criticisms demonstrates that TFA cannot justify nearly $80 million in taxpayer funding from 2010 to 2021.

TFA claims that “all of its teachers have been placed in disadvantaged schools”. This is contradicted by the conclusion of the evaluation report to the Commonwealth Government:

Placements are mostly below, but not significantly below, the national median based on ICSEA. Placement schools tend to be clustered immediately below the median, rather than in Australia’s most disadvantaged schools. 13% of placements were in schools that are above the national median. This is primarily due to jurisdictions setting eligibility requirements that reference local, rather than national, definitions of disadvantage. This results in inconsistency, and some inequity in which schools receive placements. [p.14]

TFA has not published a current list of schools with TFA placements. However, a 2016 TFA publication (Our Promise: Tackling Educational Disadvantage) contains a list of 96 partner schools and an analysis of the level of disadvantage in each (one special school is assumed to be highly disadvantaged) confirms the conclusion of the recent evaluation report that TFA placements are mostly in marginally disadvantaged schools rather than highly disadvantaged schools.

The median value of the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) used by the My School website to measure the extent of disadvantage and advantage among schools is 1000. Of the 96 partner schools, only 32 (33%) of them had an ICSEA value below 950. These schools are considered as highly disadvantaged. Only 9 (9%) had an ICSEA value below 900 even though there are hundreds of such highly disadvantaged schools with secondary school students in Australia. On the other hand, 17 (18%) of the partner schools had an ICSEA value above the median of 1000, including 3 with an ICSEA value of over 1050 which are considered as relatively advantaged schools. Almost half of the partner schools are marginally disadvantaged schools with 47 (49%) having an ICSEA value between 950 and 1000.

TFA asserts that SOS’s claim that less than 50% of TFA teachers are still teaching after three years of completing their two-year placement (that is, after five years) is based on out-of-date data. However, the data cited by SOS is based on figures provided to Senate Estimates in April. In providing the data, the Department of Education stated that “this data was provided by TFA and is correct as at 15 March 2017” [Answer to Question on Notice No. SQ17-000481, Additional Estimates 2016-2017]. Now, only six months later TFA is claiming that its own figures are incorrect. Incredible!

Despite these figures, TFA continues to assert that the retention of its teachers “is stronger than that achieved by traditional pathways”. However, its own website admits that only 65% of its teachers remain in teaching after three or more years, that is, 35% have left teaching. Even this rate is much higher than for traditionally trained teachers which is estimated at 10-15% within 5 years.

TFA also claims that it “is more cost-effective than traditional pathways”. This is contradicted by an evaluation by the Australian Council for Educational Research that found the cost of TFA is over four times that of traditional teacher training. TFA asserts that an unpublished study by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) found that TFA’s effective costs to the Government are “similar to or lower than those for mainstream pathways”. However, TFA does not provide any cost comparisons and the study does not appear to be published. It does not turn up on a search of the TFA website or a Google search.

There is also a major conflict of interest associated with this study. PwC can hardly be considered a non-interested independent party in relation to TFA. It is intimately associated with TFA. It is a corporate partner of TFA. It is collaborating with TFA on the firm’s 21st Century Minds STEM education accelerator program. One of the TFA board members was a long-term partner of PwC from 1982 to 2009, including four years as chairman of its global board. A senior manager of PwC is a leadership coach for teachers on the TFA programme and was long associated with Teach First, which is the UK equivalent to TFA, before taking up a secondment to PwC in Australia. This close association between PwC and TFA disqualifies PwC as an unbiased observer of TFA.

TFA also claims that its teachers are having a stronger impact on student outcomes than other teachers. In support, it cites the opinions of principals in schools employing TFA teachers. However, the evaluation report found contradictory opinions by principals. In interviews, principals said that TFA and other early-career teachers had similar performance while a survey of principals showed that TFA teachers were better than other early career teachers. However, the evaluation report gives an unwarranted degree of precision to the survey results. Principals were asked to assess TFA and other teachers on a scale of 0-5 on several professional standards and the differences reported amount to a few decimal points. In reality, the survey results show little difference in performance.

Nevertheless, opinion surveys are no substitute for hard data on the impact of TFA teachers on student achievement. One of the major failures of the Commonwealth Government’s decision to fund TFA was not to arrange to collect data on student results to assess progress on the key objective to achieve measurable benefits for students in socially and educationally disadvantaged schools. As a result, there is no substantive evidence that TFA teachers improve student outcomes any more than traditionally trained early-career teachers.

The facts stand that TFA is a very high cost program that is targeting marginally disadvantaged schools instead of highly disadvantaged schools. It has a very high attrition rate that imposes significant financial and human resource costs on the participating schools and disrupts teacher-student relationships and staff cohesion. There is no substantive evidence that TFA teachers improve student results more than traditionally trained teachers. TFA’s response to these criticisms is totally inadequate. It fails to justify its generous funding by the taxpayer.

Trevor Cobbold

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