The problem with the teacher quality debate

“Good Teachers Trump Small Classes: OECD Adviser” screamed a headline in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

This is just the latest article I’ve seen in the ongoing debates around education reform, and yes we all know that teacher quality is extremely important. We know that teacher quality has one of the most significant effects on educational achievement. I’m not disputing that.

The problem I have with focusing on teacher quality is that too often, it’s talked about in isolation and discussions about it don’t take into account the fact that we are just one very important part of a system. The whole system needs to be functioning properly to allow each part to do its job properly.

You can have a great set of wheels on a car, but if the tires are bald you’re heading for trouble.

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I was fortunate to attend Andreas Schleicher‘s talk on  PISA at the University of Sydney Education yesterday. He’s the education adviser to the OECD and was the expert quoted in the Herald’s article.

While his data did not show evidence of smaller class sizes correlating to better academic outcomes it did show some interesting things about teacher quality. There was a correlation between countries investing in teacher quality and achieving higher educational outcomes measured on PISA. Investment in salaries did not make much difference, but investment in giving teachers adequate time to prepare their lessons, and ongoing professional learning throughout their careers did make a difference. Teachers in higher performing countries such as South Korea and Finland both have less face to face teaching hours than we do in Australia. Those countries are not just focused on improved recruitment and training, but on continued systemic support for their teachers.

The NSW government document Great Teaching Inspired Learning is a step in the right direction. It places greater importance on ongoing professional learning for teachers, and on mentoring especially for early career teachers. I think its great that Australian governments are recognising the need to continually build the professionalism of teachers, rather than taking the direction of some other Western Countries who are removing the need to have appropriately qualified teachers in front of students.

However, I am yet to see any talk in Australia of a reduction in face to face teaching hours, to allow us adequate time to do our jobs well. I work between 60-70 hours per week and still find myself unable to do everything required of me in my dual role as an assistant principal and a classroom teacher. More often than not, I find I’m prioritising by choosing what to neglect. A reduced face to face teaching load would be a dream. I’d have time to plan for the individual learning needs of my class, time to reflect on their work and give meaningful feedback, time to plan engaging and authentic learning experiences. I’d have time to collaborate with peers and learn from them. Time, more than anything else, is what I’d like to be given in order to do my job well.

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11 thoughts on “The problem with the teacher quality debate

  1. Nick Beatnik says:

    Well put Corinne. I think all teachers experience the same thing. I started teaching 5 years ago as a graduate with academic awards, with valuable industry experience and a passionate commitment to public schools, I very quickly found that I simply did not have enough time to do my job well. I wanted to prepare engaging, student centred lessons with excellent resources, using the most up to date pedagogy, tailored for the needs of each group of learners, with modified work for students who needed it etc etc. I had the motivation and the skills, but I never had the time. Teaching became a dissapointing downward spiral of letting go of my commitment to excellence, and reluctantly doing the most urgent tasks, deciding what to just ignore, and delivering many lessons with little or no preparation at all. Like my colleagues I resented the constant admin of the compliance regime teachers are subject to, and barely kept up with the increasing demands.
    I want to have a life outside of work so I’m now looking to get out of teaching permanently. Ample preparation time would have made a difference. The fact is that most teachers cannot do their job in the hours they are paid for, it’s not possible. No amount of extra pay will change that. Smaller class sizes wont change that. Although my guess is that we would find smaller class sizes improve the quality of the experience for both teachers and students in a way that is not measured by the numbers game of academic performance.

    • Hi Nick, Thank you for commenting. The frustrations you express here echo my own, although they haven’t driven me to consider changing careers. I believe the choice you are making is quite a common one though, with a lot of teachers opting out of the profession in the first 7 years due to burn out. It’s an issue that governments need to tackle: how do we retain as well as recruit good teachers? Best wishes for what ever you decide to do next.

  2. Great article! Govt has some good ideas but they expect you to complete it on top everything you already do. At my school we were expected to implement personalised learning for over 100 indigenous students. For two years we received no funding towards this. Teachers already had so much to do and then this seemed like an extra add-on. Maybe Gonski brings the necessary changes.

    • Hi Wes, thank you for commenting. Yes, I really support policies like doing PLPs, but it does take a lot of time to do it properly. The expectation that we personalise learning is a good one in my opinion, but it is difficult to do it well in the available time.

  3. Teaching is a labour intensive activity. A position occupied mainly by dedicated professionals like yourself. We need to heed Andeas’ message and work smarter not harder. Regimented class sizes is not an enabler of innovation. We need to look at ways of real collaboration around teaching.

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