Teaching Quality or Teacher Quality – Framing the debate around education.

Just think about the difference between these two terms:

Teaching Quality

Teacher Quality.

The simple change, from a verb to a noun,  brings with it a massive shift in the way we think about the education system and the work of teachers.

Teaching Quality directs our attention to what teachers DO.  A few years ago in  NSW, we adopted the Quality Teaching Framework, a model of pedagogy which we used to guide our professional development. It included evaluation tools that allowed us to reflect on our practice, identify areas that we were doing and identify those areas in which we could become more effective. It was a tool for learning, that enabled all teachers to develop their practice and improve their teaching quality. The idea of Teaching Quality brings with it the notion that teaching can be learned and can be improved.  It also brings with it the idea of investing in and building a culture of ongoing professional learning.

Teacher Quality directs our attention to who teachers ARE. There is an ongoing debate around this idea in Australia at the moment. Should only our highest achieving high school graduates be allowed to study teaching, or should everyone be given access to a teacher education course?  Does success at school predetermine Teacher Quality?  Read this article in today’s Sydney Morning Herald for a taste of the debate. The term Teacher Quality  focuses us on the TYPE of people who become teachers rather than on investing in their ongoing professional growth.

I find the use of the term Teacher Quality extremely problematic when used to frame debate around education.  Too frequently it is used in a  way that, intentionally or not, denigrates the profession. As I wrote in my post The Problem with the Teacher Quality Debate,  often it puts the entire responsibility for an education system on to the shoulders of its individual teachers and other issues, such as equity, school management, funding, provision of access to professional learning and provision of adequate time to prepare lessons can be conveniently ignored.

A cynic might even believe that conservative governments and commentators,  who are eager to reduce rather than increase public spending,  deliberately use this language to avoid responsibility for dealing with the difficult and complex nature of an education system. The  solution is appealingly easy: recruit a better, higher quality type of person into teaching,  so that we have Quality Teachers and the education system will become one of the world’s best.  When the system doesn’t work, instead of dealing with complexity, we can just blame those other teachers, the one’s who aren’t of quality.

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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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