Opinion: It’s time we supported our teachers

by Henry Grossek11 Feb 2016

In an alarming report, Learning First, an Australian educational research group, found that our teenage students are falling even further behind their counterparts in reading, mathematics and science according to the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test scores.

The Weekend Australian (6-7/2/16) revealed the findings of the report, showing Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Canadian students’ PISA results are leaving our students in their wake.  In signalling the need for urgent reform, Learning First CEO, Dr Ben Jensen, called for a radical overhaul of our professional learning approach to training graduate teachers on the job.

Dr Jensen sees merit in adopting the professional learning approaches used by cities and nations that outperform us on PISA results. That would appear to make considerable sense. After all, improving student learning outcomes is the primary goal of all schools and slipping behind internationally in student achievement is good cause for alarm. Better train our teachers and leaders and student improvement should follow. If only it was that easy!

To start with funding in education would need to be increased significantly to enable our graduate teachers to enjoy the level of personal mentoring and supervision that their peers enjoy in Shanghai.

We would have to invest significantly more money in teachers’ salaries simply to enable mentor teachers to have the non-teaching time to do their mentoring and for the graduate teachers to be time released to meet with their mentors and attend training programs. It’s worth remembering that our teachers spend approximately eight more hours per week in face-to-face teaching. 

Great idea as it is, I don’t hold much hope for it happening any time soon. After all, most of the Gonski funding has disappeared into the ether on the one hand, and having the public support the notion of teachers spending less time in front of their classrooms is a moot point at best.

On the question of funding, Australia retains the unenviable reputation of being one of the lowest funding per student countries in the OECD – and has been for years. An argument too often peddled by politicians is that it’s not the amount of money that is spent but how it is spent that really counts.

Whilst there is some truth to that argument, overwhelmingly the amount spent really matters. Furthermore, it is no comfort to Victorians to know that we are cellar dwellers amongst Australian states and territories on spending in school education.

Professor Bruce Baker, Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA, in a comprehensive review of the high-quality empirical evidence on whether, and how, money matters in education concluded unambiguously that it most certainly did. On three important measures Baker drew the same conclusion.

Firstly, on average, aggregate measures of per-pupil spending are associated with improved or higher student outcomes.

Secondly, schooling resources that cost money, including smaller class sizes, additional supports, early childhood programs and a more competitive teacher compensation (permitting schools and districts to recruit and retain a higher-quality teacher workforce), are positively associated with student outcomes.

Thirdly, state finance reforms do matter – whilst money alone is not the answer, sustained improvements to the level and distribution of funding across local public school districts can lead to improvements in the level and distribution of student outcomes.

The obvious implication for us is that loitering near the foot of the OECD table of money spent per student on education is not in our national interest.

The Learning First report also shows that family income has a bigger impact on academic performance in Australia than in most other developed countries. In effect students from low-income backgrounds are not getting the education they deserve. That ought to be a cause for shame.

After all, our politicians are quick to point out that we are the “fair go” country when it suits them.

The closest we get to acknowledgement of this problem is to invoke the “choice” model of education. That is, parents have the right to choose the best school for their child and tout the virtues of our mix of private and public schools, with our private schools enjoying a level of tax-payer funding unlike that in most other developed countries.

There is ample evidence to suggest that we are heading down the path of school segregation based largely on the wealth and beliefs of parents and academic achievement of students. In a country in which our leaders pride themselves on our multiplicity of cultures, this could well be a dark cloud.

Of course, the zeal with which some commentators focus on the PISA and NAPLAN test scores to box our teaching profession around the ears, completely ignores the dangers of focusing our comparatively scarce resources more and more in trying to catch up to Shanghai, Singapore, Honk Kong and the like, in mathematics, reading and science.

We have no idea of the level to which student achievement in all those other important curriculum areas may be dropping as a consequence. Why? Simply put, we don’t measure them in the way that we do for mathematics and reading. One could suggest that a state of ignorance is bliss, but for how long?

Then we read that teachers will soon be trained to detect and report potential teen jihadists in their classrooms under an anti-radicalisation plan.

Little wonder then that school leaders and teachers feel completely overwhelmed and are drifting away – tugged in every direction, chronically under-resourced, being expected to address all manner of social issues and produce the top-performing students internationally.
 
 
Henry Grossek is the principal of Berwick Lodge Primary School Melbourne, Victoria
 

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