In our series, Better Teachers, we’ll explore how to improve teacher education in Australia. We’ll look at what the evidence says on a range of themes including how to raise the status of the profession and measure and improve teacher quality.
There are many calls to raise the status of teaching, but few concrete proposals of how it might be done. There are two strategies that could work, given the way they work with other professions.
One is to make entry to initial teacher education more selective. The other is to make membership of the teaching profession more selective.
The reputations of university courses are substantially influenced by the quality of students admitted and, in particular, the minimum Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) with which a student can gain entry.
But the minimum entry scores to many Australian teacher education programs are low. The percentage of offers for courses in teacher education to students with an ATAR above 70 has been dropping significantly, down to 42% in 2015.
At the University of Jyväskylä in Finland there are around 2,000 applicants for fewer than 100 places in teacher education, and there are similar selection ratios in other Finnish universities.
Finland links supply of teacher education places to demand for graduates. And with demand for places in teacher education substantially outstripping the places available, it has produced a highly selective entry. In Finland, it is more difficult to gain a place in teacher education than medicine.
Cut teacher numbers
In Australia, selection is much less stringent, and the position has become worse since the federal government uncapped university places. Some universities increased teacher education places in programs in which places are cheap to provide.
Australia could make teacher education more selective if it reduced the oversupply of graduates for the present market. The New South Wales Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli, has been trying to do this. He has no direct control over universities’ enrolment policies but he is setting entry requirements into teacher education as employment criteria for new graduates in government schools in an effort to influence enrolment policies.
The Victorian government is now seeking to pursue a similar strategy.
Reshape role of paraprofessionals
We could go much further in reducing the number of teachers required by restructuring the workforce in schools. We could do this by increasing the number of paraprofessionals who could undertake work that teachers currently do, but for which their professional skills are not required.
Training courses would need to be developed to prepare the paraprofessionals, with pathways through further study available for those who might later seek to become teachers.
The teaching workforce would then be differentiated much as the nursing workforce has been in recent decades.
Some of the work that nurses used to do is now delegated to nurses aides and other categories of paraprofessionals in nursing. At the top end, university trained professional nurses can undertake some tasks that were once the exclusive province of doctors.
England made such a change in the workforce in schools. It did it during the Blair administration at a time when overall staffing levels in schools were growing, so existing teaching positions were not cut.
Teacher numbers grew more slowly than they would have without the change. The result is that there are now more paraprofessionals than teachers in English primary schools.
The impact of this development in England has been mixed, as a five-year evaluation of the changes has shown.
The evaluation revealed that the presence of paraprofessionals often led to worse outcomes for students, though they did reduce workload and stress and improve job satisfaction for teachers.
The research showed that the lack of benefit for students was a consequence of teachers often giving the paraprofessionals responsibility for individual instruction of the students most in need of support.
The paraprofessionals generally did not have the content knowledge or pedagogical skills for the work assigned to them. Teachers had also not been trained in how best to have paraprofessionals fill a supplemental role. Instead the paraprofessionals were given a replacement role they were not equipped to fill.
The researchers did not propose that paraprofessionals be withdrawn. Instead they drew on their research to write two key books: one to help teachers learn how best to deploy paraprofessionals, Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants, and the other to help paraprofessionals learn how best to fill their role, The Teaching Assistant’s Guide to Effective Interaction.
A randomised control study published in 2014 provided more encouraging evidence of effective use of paraprofessionals.
It showed that a ten-week literacy intervention program with poor readers delivered on a one-to-one basis by trained teaching assistants produced gains equivalent to three months’ additional progress over a year compared with students in the control group who did not receive the intervention.
Australian teachers have a relatively good starting salary, the fourth highest (in $US equivalent purchasing power parity) among the 28 countries for which data is available. It also compares relatively well with starting salaries for other graduates.
But they reach the top of the statutory salary scales in less than 15 years, and the top of the scale is only 1.4 times the starting salary.
We need to have fewer teachers, and to pay them more on scales differentiated by skill and role into “graduate”, “proficient”, “highly accomplished” and “lead” as the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership has proposed. We also need to have more restricted entry into teacher education programs.
The result will be a more skilled and higher status teaching profession and an overall greater impact from the same cost or even a reduction in cost.
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Authors: Barry McGaw, Vice-Chancellor's Fellow, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne