Imagine if we blamed doctors and nurses for the chaos in our hospitals. Instead, we understand the problems are systemic. The lack of staff is about poor workforce planning and untenable conditions and the system itself needs a massive injection of funds. We do not say the nurses are terrible, the doctors are worse and those who lead them have no idea what they are doing.
Yet as our school system crumbles under multiple pressures, and as our workforce abandons teaching in droves, there is absolutely no interrogation of the education system in this country. Nearly every single story is about teacher quality. It’s never about system quality.
Has the NSW government addressed system quality in the latest budget? What’s missing is a serious investment in teachers, who are the cornerstone – the foundation – of our education system. The research is clear – the quality of teaching is the single most important in-school factor impacting student outcomes.
In-school. That’s the key. New research from the University of Newcastle’s Teachers and Teaching Research Centre demonstrates the quality of teaching is, on average, the same in advantaged schools as it is in mid-range schools. In fact, the only significant difference in quality occurs in our lowest socioeconomic schools where inadequate resources, disadvantage and real student poverty play a significant role in students’ poorer educational outcomes.
The root cause of underperformance in our school system is the inequity in our communities. Given the challenges faced by teachers in some schools, their efforts may already be heroic. Our research shows we need to foreground that teaching is intellectually challenging and rewarding work to attract teachers to our schools. And we need to honour the complexity of teaching and provide proper recognition and meaningful support to keep teachers going.
The sustained attack on teachers by politicians and journalists really took off in the late 2000s and has risen constantly over the past 15 years. Analysis of more than 65,000 articles published in the twelve national and capital daily newspapers between 1996 and 2020 revealed that the density of coverage about teachers exceeds other professions. The issue of “teacher quality” featured significantly over that time, culminating with former federal education minister Stuart Robert calling our public school teachers “duds”, based on zero evidence.
The problem with this focus on “teacher quality” is that it links poor performance on tests like NAPLAN and PISA to teachers themselves, rather than to the system in which they practise. It has been used to justify tighter controls on who enters teaching, denigrate teachers and evade difficult questions of equity and funding.
It inappropriately attributes poor student performance to their teachers rather than addressing the basic structural issues of system quality and systemic inequality.
Dominic Perrottet has said he wants to be known as the education premier. He is building more schools and has announced sweeping reforms including adding a year of free pre-kindergarten. Both these moves have been applauded – but where is the workforce planning which delivers these much-needed teachers.
We’re in the midst of a teacher shortage crisis now and there is no clear plan.
Teacher shortages won’t be fixed by the premier’s suggestion of performance pay for teachers. What measure of performance will be used? If it’s a measure of student performance, teachers in advantaged areas will benefit (yet again) and if it’s a measure of student growth, some teachers in disadvantaged schools may benefit.
Evidence for Learning reviewed performance pay programs around the world and found “overall, it is hard to make definitive causal claims about the impact of performance pay on achievement”. The evidence supporting this dated idea is limited and, where it does exist, it shows little-to-no impact.
How can we support teachers and improve teaching and learning? It’s not just pay that union members are striking over next week. Teachers feel undervalued and overworked, and it’s causing them to retire in droves or pursue other career pathways. Our research published this year shows a measurable decline in morale.
Quality Initial Teacher Education Review‘s number one recommendation was to “raise the status of teaching”. Such ambitions are at odds with the wrong-headed focus on ‘teacher quality’ that constantly undervalues teachers and their work. The QITE Expert Panel also encouraged “higher education providers and employers to consider adopting the Quality Teaching Rounds approach to teacher development to ensure ITE students are equipped to implement evidence-based teaching practices when they enter the profession.”
The centre spent years devising an approach called Quality Teaching Rounds and it’s been subjected to successive randomised controlled trials. It works by teachers observing teachers to collaboratively analyse and refine their teaching. It’s cheap and powerful. It improves student achievement, teacher morale and school culture, wherever it happens. It cuts across grades and subject areas and provides benefits to new and experienced teachers alike.
But teachers and teaching alone cannot fix our broken system. We need serious investment in, and a commitment to, addressing the needs of teachers who are desperate for change.
Laureate Professor Jenny Gore is director of the University of Newcastle’s Teachers and Teaching Research Centre.
Associate Professor Nicole Mockler is based in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. Her new book, Constructing Teacher Identities: How the Print Media Define and Represent Teachers and Their Work is out this month.
This opinion piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 23 June 2022