High OP scores don’t equal good teachers
EVERY so often - usually when the latest round of Australian NAPLAN testing or its international PISA equivalent publishes worrying downward trends in our kids' school performance - the spotlight falls on teacher-training as the key variable in the education formula.
Usually it's conservative stakeholders - the coalition parties, industry, think-tanks - who take a populist approach and attack universities as nothing more than politically correct shelters for underachievers who shouldn't be let anywhere near our children.
That's why I was surprised Labor's education shadow minister, the normally sensible Tanya Plibersek, produced her own populist sound bite on the weekend.
"Labor wants the best and brightest Australians studying teaching," Plibersek said before urging Australian universities to recruit for teaching degrees from only the top 30 per cent of school leavers. That means students attaining an OP higher than below 10 or an ATAR below 80 would be excluded. If they fail to do so, Plibersek warned, Labor would impose caps on teaching degrees for them.
Well, no one can disagree with wanting the best for our kids: like motherhood, it's the perfect populist defence. But to define potential teacher success as hinging wholly on a university entrant's high school OP or ATAR score is dangerously simplistic.
I agree, however, that a high school student with an OP score of 20 or higher (near the bottom of the 1 to 25 scale) is unlikely to succeed in any university degree. But it's not impossible. With extensive university support, many a mediocre high-schooler has blossomed into a very able graduate. More to the point, the rigours of any degree will weed out those students who, for one reason or another, fall below professional expectations.
Moreover, how many of us know someone who scored an OP 1 or 2, is perhaps brilliant in calculus or physics, yet remains painfully uncommunicative? Being an effective teacher means being an effective and empathetic communicator who can relate to children and parents from very diverse backgrounds.
On that score, the average performing high student who is friendly, patient and cognisant of life's challenges can make a better teacher than the aloof genius.
That's why selection for teacher-training programs should be based not only on OP scores but - as they do for some graduate medical programs to determine bedside manner - on personal interviews to ensure prospective teachers possess appropriate emotional intelligence.
Indeed, 32 years' experience in education has taught me that a teacher's own natural curiosity and a passion for people, knowledge and things are perhaps the most powerful tools in the classroom. When learning, nothing is as infectious as enthusiasm.
But none of that denies the reality that Australian schools, and the kids who attend them, are falling well below their potential. While Australia still sits slightly above the OECD in international PISA rankings, our kids have slipped to 14th in science, 16th in reading, and 25th in mathematics among 72 participating countries. On average, Australian kids are one and a half years behind Singaporean students in science, and more than two years behind in maths.
So what more can we do to raise the effectiveness of teachers in the classroom?
The first is a no-brainer. To make teaching a more desirable profession to enter and remain in, we must pay experienced teachers a salary that reflects that experience and sociocultural value. While beginning teacher salaries in Queensland (around $70,000) are attractive, experienced senior teachers are capped at around $100,000. To earn more, teachers must move out of the classroom and into management. Ideally, higher salaries will bring teachers increased respect from parents and their children.
Secondly, should this respect not emerge, classroom management strategies - what we once called "discipline" - need to be revamped to empower teachers and schools to more easily exclude violent or anti-social kids who require specialist help.
Third, and not unrelated to this, is to grant teachers the power to teach as they see fit, free from the constraints of a strangling bureaucracy so obsessed with reporting that - together with an overcrowded curriculum - reduces actual teaching time.
One of the first lessons taught to student teachers is to cater to children's individual learning styles. What a pity education departments don't cater to teachers' own individual teaching styles.
Last, effective teachers need effective support, be it via the latest technology, more teacher aide hours or a school management willing to stand up for teachers in the face of often unreasonable parents and their unruly kids.
Governments, education departments, parents and children are all best served by letting teachers, the trained professionals, get on with their jobs.
Paul Williams is a lecturer for Griffith University and columnist for The Courier-Mail.