Swap Obstacles for Teachers (Jennifer Buckingham)
The importance of high-quality teachers of maths, science and technology is self-evident and cannot be overstated. Yet there are insufficient numbers of teachers willing and able to teach these subjects, particularly at the senior school level, and their quality is highly variable.
A survey published yesterday by the Australian Council of Deans of Science found that one in five maths teachers did not study maths beyond the first year of university and one in 12 did no university maths at all. Statistics for the junior years of high school are even worse. The Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies estimates that as many as 40 per cent of junior secondary maths teachers may not be suitably qualified to teach the subject.
It is just as bad for the physical sciences. Last year’s survey by the Council of Deans of Science found that one in four physics teachers and one in six chemistry teachers had neither a major nor a minor in their subject. But heads of school science departments believe that teachers need at least a minor in their subject to teach it effectively.
The many unqualified and underqualified teachers in maths and science classrooms across the country are the result of all states finding it difficult to get good teachers in these subjects. This is because there are too many obstacles and disincentives, especially pre-service teacher training and uncompetitive salaries.
A high-calibre maths or science graduate has many options and teaching is not one of the most attractive. To become a schoolteacher they face another year of university to gain a diploma of education, with the attendant loss of income. Young people know the salary prospects are initially good but there are no rewards for hard work and excellence.
For someone already working in a maths or science-based profession who is considering a career change, the disincentives are significant. They too face the prospect of a year’s loss of income, or sacrificing their nights and weekends for two years, to do a diploma of education. On top of that, there are no effective mechanisms to offer highly qualified people a more appropriate salary. An engineer or private-sector scientist entering the teaching service has to accept the same pay rate as all new recruits: not exactly an enticing prospect.
State teacher institutes set and monitor standards based on teaching qualifications and practice. This sounds OK but fails the evidence test. Teacher institutes, departments of education and teacher unions have their priorities upside-down. Their mantra is that a good teacher can teach anything. This is wrong, but it has been accepted wisdom for so long it is difficult to shake.
Growing evidence from the US shows that a good teacher is one who knows their subject. According to this research, the effect of pre-service teacher training is questionable and a masters degree in education adds nothing to student achievement. Content knowledge trumps teaching qualifications every time.
Yet schools in Australia tolerate an art teacher teaching maths, but will not allow a person with a PhD in chemistry to teach science unless they first study Dewey and Foucault. It simply doesn’t add up, intuitively or empirically.
The answer lies in alternative routes to teacher certification for secondary school teachers. This does not mean that teacher training is completely unnecessary but that it could be undertaken in a different way. High-calibre maths and science graduates and career-change professionals could be recruited directly into a school. There could be a short period of intensive teacher training and then a reduced teaching load while they complete the necessary university studies.
Far from diluting standards, school-based training is likely to increase the quality of preparatory teacher education. Each of the numerous state and national reviews and inquiries into teacher education has found serious flaws. Too much education theory and not enough teaching practice is the most frequent source of complaint.
The Australian Secondary Principals Association has described university pre-service teacher education as “extremely poor”, recommending that schools become more central to the process. It is not a matter of lowering the bar but providing alternative ways to reach it.
There is an urgent need for innovative strategies that rely on evidence rather than orthodoxy, and which make teaching a more attractive career choice.
Making it easier for schools to put smart people of good character into classrooms is the first step.