This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 25 February 2022

The latest review into initial teacher education gets a lot right: teachers need to be paid more, greater investment is required, and the status of the profession must lift.

The review, commissioned by the standing-aside federal education minister Alan Tudge, highlights the fact that high school students see teaching as a low-status career that is not intellectually challenging.

How to lift results in Australian schools?

So what of the review’s proposed solutions? Many of the recommendations are based on the reality that much can be accomplished with more money. But there are lessons from our research at the University of Newcastle’s Teachers and Teaching Research Centre that require no funding at all. In stark contrast to findings of the review, our research reveals that even among students in the top quartile of NAPLAN results, there is strong interest in teaching careers. Policies for improving teacher quality should capitalise on this interest.

Our research also shows those who want to teach are primarily motivated by making a difference. But they want to work in fields where they are treated with respect and paid for what is difficult and demanding work.

In a new book by the University of Sydney’s Nicole Mockler, to be released in June this year, she says the way teachers are represented in the print media explains why we have an issue in attracting and retaining teachers.

Media and policy discourses about the best and brightest reinforce the idea that initial teacher education attracts poor students, doing more damage when it comes to making teaching an attractive career pathway. It is the government’s responsibility to fund the field, not to constantly demean and discourage. The proposed $30,000 a year study incentive and increase in top pay rates to $130,000 is attractive briefly – but we need a system-wide pay increase that acknowledges the complexity of teachers’ work.

Recruiting “better quality” teachers and improving initial teacher education have merit but they are long-term approaches to lifting quality. And measuring “better” based on higher entry and exit standards for pre-service teachers will not guarantee improved student outcomes. Powerful learning of theory and practice will.

The constant call to recruit “better” teachers disrespects the 300,000-strong teacher workforce in Australian classrooms, and only adds to well-documented feelings of being undervalued.

In fact, with about 15,000 pre-service teachers graduating from Australian universities each year, it would take decades for these changes to have impact on a national scale.

One of my main concerns about the report is the recommendation to move from a two-year master’s requirement to a single-year graduate diploma for people switching to teaching mid-career. No one would advocate for halving the length of a post-graduate medicine degree. The intellectual rigour, professionalism and complexity of teaching warrant the current masters and four-year degree programs.

That doesn’t mean we can’t do more to encourage mid-career transfers into teaching, but it must not come at the expense of eroding professionalism. This recommendation is at odds with the proclaimed desire to increase the status of teaching.

Rigorous research into all levels of education is required, and it is encouraging to see the review call for gold-standard randomised controlled trials. Yet in the most recent round of Australian Research Council Discovery project grants (2022), education received less than 1 per cent of approved funds – some $2.5 million of the $258 million allocated.

If we are to meet the education minister’s objectives for Australia to again be among the world’s leading nations in student performance, we must build the capacity of the teachers we currently have by treating them with respect and providing support through professional development that is shown to work. It was reassuring to see our centre’s work on the quality teaching rounds approach to professional development endorsed by the review as a way to ensure students in initial teacher education are equipped to implement evidence-based teaching practices. Notably, it’s one of the less expensive measures shown to have positive effects for teachers and student achievement.

Of course, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the contribution of out-of-school factors in determining student outcomes. Inadequate resources and disadvantage in low-socioeconomic schools play a significant role in students’ poorer results, as has been widely documented as part of the 10-year anniversary of the Gonski Report.

Unlike the lost opportunity of the Gonski Report, it would be wonderful to see the considerable work of this review translated into powerful reforms.

Laureate Professor Jenny Gore is the director of the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre at the University of Newcastle.

This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 25 February 2022