PUBLISHED ON THE DRUM May 7, 2012
The introduction of minimum standards for teacher education courses is urgent.
Entrance scores have collapsed as revealed by a government report on university offers released last week: 6.5 per cent of offers were made to students with an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank of below 50. A further 15 per cent of offers went to students with scores between 50 and 60. It is the lowest of the 10 course categories listed in the report.
The impact of lower academic entrance standards is likely to be felt immediately. If one struggled to successfully complete high school, then he or she is less likely to be able to successfully help others to do so. This is no disrespect to those students, but a statement of the obvious.
Longer term, lower entrance scores damage the prestige of the profession.
This is one of the central problems in school education today.
The trend towards lower standards has been occurring for more than two decades. In 1983, the average new student teacher was in the 74th percentile of the academic aptitude distribution; in 2003, the percentile ranking had fallen to 61. This is an astounding drop in just one generation and there is no indication that it has bottomed out.
Academic aptitude is, of course, just one measure of quality in a profession that requires a broader array of attributes; but it is nevertheless an essential one.
The world’s top performing school education systems such as Finland, Singapore and South Korea consistently recruit from only the top 20-30 per cent of high school leavers. This should be our target in Australia and should be one of our national priorities.
The universities and the profession should be leading this action. The profession should be decrying the drop in entrance standards and insisting that the Universities lift their game. But the lack of professional organisations is part of the problem: teachers are represented industrially by a strong union but there is no custodian of the prestige and standards of the profession.
If the universities fail to take action to reverse the decline, then the government should.
To start, a minimum ATAR score of say 70 should be set and made a condition of Commonwealth funding if there is no indication of voluntary improvements.
Incentives to enhance retention of existing quality teachers may need to be put in place to avoid any short term teacher shortages that may result.
An enforced higher ATAR score would, over time, be self-perpetuating: courses with high ATARs are seen as more prestigious and therefore encourage further applicants. This in turn pushes the ATAR up.
Salaries also need to be examined to ensure they are competitive. Teachers’ starting salaries are among the highest, but they plateau quickly and there is almost no differentiation based on performance. Principals need to be given the power to reward those who are doing well (financially and by more rapid career progression), and dismiss those who are consistently underperforming.
Finally, we should provide alternative entry points to teaching with the aim of broadening the pool of potential recruits. The Teach for Australia initiative (which I helped establish) is one such alternative. It targets top graduates from non-teacher degrees and fast-tracks them into the classroom in disadvantaged schools. It is a small initiative, but is attracting outstanding students who otherwise would not have considered teaching. Other pathways should be explored.
The figures outlined in the Government’s Report on year 12 offers should be a wake-up call for the universities, the teaching profession and the Government. A generation ago, teaching was among the most highly regarded professions and rightly attracted the top students to it.
Today, it is still well regarded, but unfortunately the prestige of teaching has dropped and the academic ability of applicants has declined. Teachers have a profound impact on our society. We need decisive measures to attract the best. And if the profession and the universities won’t act, then the government should.