Teachers Don't Need Another Shake-Up


As a former teacher I have lingering memories of breaking up the occasional playground squabble — only to be left wondering whether the dispute was about anything important. It all came back recently when the NSW and Commonwealth Governments unveiled what seem to be competing plans for giving teachers a shake-up, hotly followed by a petulant Christopher Pyne who claimed it was his idea all along.

As a squabble it may not last long. After all, politicians can come to furious agreement when it comes to pointing the finger at someone else — and unsurprisingly, teachers are once again in the firing line, now joined by the university staff who train them. Whatever is wrong with schools, it is apparently their fault as well.

There is a lot to like in the NSW and Commonwealth plans to improve (don’t bother with "reform" — we’re over it) teacher training. Trainees should reach certain academic standards (NSW), they should have the right personal attributes (Commonwealth), their practice teaching in schools can be improved (Commonwealth) and they should achieve required levels of literacy and numeracy (both).

There are more than a few holes. NSW is to focus on mentoring — at the very same time it is winding back the current teacher mentor program. Go figure. And we are going to have another review of teacher education. After all, it is only 72 months or so since the last one. Can’t wait for the next one.

Like all new announcements the competing plans have more resonance than reason. They overstate the problems to be solved and understate current efforts to solve them. I’ve worked with university education faculties, including supervising teacher trainees. My lasting impression is of quality and committed young people. Their lecturers are good gatekeepers for the profession of teaching and supervising teachers have a vested interest in making sure the duds don’t get a permanent foothold in schools.

Inevitably the details of current proposals are yet to be revealed. Some will go the way of all thought bubbles. There will be time enough to speculate on the potential silliness of others. I can see a NAPLAN for teachers looming — with all the potential to tip, as it has in some schools, the balance towards repetitive dirge without lasting gains in literacy, numeracy and love of learning.

Perhaps I’m missing something. After all, the finer points of grammar managed to escape me in a 40-year career in teaching and writing — without apparently damaging the life chances of those in my care. And I really hope that any scrutiny of personal attributes will be more than a snapshot. I have visions of some bureaucrat devising a 20 question test for emotional intelligence, with potential teachers needing a perfect score.

We should always try to improve teacher training. Greater consistency of standards will help, so would assured funding for universities. It is devilishly hard to place trainees in schools. All schools should be required to take them, but be properly supported — supervising teachers are currently paid a pittance. But other challenges are being met. Schools are much better at easing new teachers into the profession. Many have productive and enduring links with universities.

But there are two stand-out problems with the recent competing plans. They are policy orphans, separated from other things which impact on teacher quality, professionalism and retention. Like other much-vaunted reforms they won’t work unless other related things also change. Our teachers might end up better equipped — but will enter a profession where they are poorly accommodated, paid well below equivalent professionals, not trusted when it comes to what they teach, how they assess and report.

Along with their schools they will be crudely ranked and they will be variously praised or blamed according to how they fare against spurious and narrow measures, or shape up in the light of the latest education moral panic. They won’t stay. They don’t now.

The second problem is about priorities. Just 12 months ago we were rejoicing in the recommendations of the Gonski Review. At last we had a thorough analysis of why Australia’s relative performance seems to be slipping and why the gap between high and low achievers is widening. Sure it wasn’t going to be easy, but the goodwill towards the recommendations would help any committed government carry the day.

The rest is history. The real prospects for sustainable reform have gone. The Government has repackaged Gonski to suit its own blinkered plans; the Coalition has substantially walked away, as it was always going to do. In our attempts to create better schools for all our kids we are back to constantly recycling the short-term, the spurious and the unproven. I need to be strongly convinced that current proposals about teacher training represent anything different.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.