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Best in Class


Best in Class

PUBLISHED IN 'AUSTRALIAN POLITY' - Volume 1 (Number 5), 20 December, 2010. 

Apart from domestic and national security, the two main duties of government are economic growth and social cohesion. Education policy is unique among policy issues because it has such an enormous impact on economic growth as well as social equality and stability. We must get education policy right. It has been a long process to find out what is important in education and what is not. Ideology has obscured rational debate.
However, there is a body of high-quality research that shows which factor has by far the greatest positive influence on student achievement: teacher effectiveness. As shown in a recent overview of research1 in this area by Dr Ben Jensen of the Grattan Institute, it is now proven beyond doubt that it is the teacher that matters most. Some of the most compelling evidence has been presented in Australian research reports. It has been found that teacher quality accounts for up to 55 percent of the variation in learning outcomes.2 A 90th percentile teacher is twice as effective as a teacher in the 10th percentile.3

For many decades, class size was seen as the most important variable. It made intuitive sense that students would benefit from individual teacher attention. But decreasing class size will increase the time teachers can attend to individual students by only a few seconds. Crudely dividing a 45 minute lesson by the number of students will result in 1½ –3 minutes of teacher time per student no matter what policy we have in relation to class size.

Given the choice, a smaller class is better. But class size is a less important statistic because it doesn’t reflect how good education works. Struggling students certainly need individual attention, but good education for the bulk of students mainly depends on effective teachers who are able to inspire and effectively communicate knowledge to a whole class, and competently supervise students’ independent work.

What are the policy implications of this? Dr Jensen suggests five mechanisms to continue to improve teacher effectiveness:

  1. Improve the quality of applicants to the teaching profession
  2. Improve the quality of teachers’ initial education and training
  3. Evaluate and provide feedback to develop teachers once they enter the profession and are working in our schools
  4. Recognise and reward effective teachers
  5. Move on ineffective teachers who have been unable to increase their effectiveness through development programs.

Each of these issues should receive attention, but I believe that the first mechanism (continuing to improve the quality of applicants) and the fifth (moving on unsuitable teachers) to be the most important: finding teachers with natural aptitude, and giving principals the right to remove teachers who don’t perform, must have a greater impact than professional development for an existing pool of teachers.

The vast majority of applicants to the teaching profession and the vast majority of existing teachers are of high quality: our students’ international test results testify to this. However, we cannot afford to be complacent. As described below, some of the present trends are tracking in the wrong direction. We not only need to reverse these trends, but should be always looking for opportunities to improve our standards. The moment we believe that the present system cannot be improved is the moment of the beginning of our decline.

Improving the quality of teacher applicants

The most worrying trend in relation in education is that the average quality of applicants to the teaching profession – at least judged by academic aptitude – has declined significantly in recent decades. The most current evidence of this is the Tertiary Entrance Requirements (TER) for Teacher Education degrees. While some universities continue to attract students with high TERs to their teacher education courses, others have dropped their TER to as low as 56 in order to fill the course numbers. ANU research shows that in 1983, the average person entering teacher education was at the 74th percentile of the aptitude distribution, while by 2003, the average percentile rank of those entering teacher education had fallen to 61.

Academic aptitude is, of course, just one measure of quality in a profession which requires a much broader array of attributes. However, one of the most serious consequences of the education sectors inability to consistently compete for the academically most gifted students is that content knowledge among teachers is sometimes poor. Professor Bill Louden from the University of Western Australia notes that a “very large proportion of students [doing combined education degrees] cannot do grade 5 maths, because they have not learnt maths at school and they became primary teachers because it is something you can do without being any good at maths.”6 The National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy noted that education faculty members “reported that many students lacked the literacy skills required to be effective teachers of reading.”

To turn this situation around is a huge challenge for the education sector and for Australians. The level of attractiveness of teaching relates to multiple factors including salary ranges, career opportunities, and the prestige of the profession. They all need to be addressed over time.

I propose, however, more immediate action to improve recruitment standards and that is to set a higher minimum standard for entry into teacher education courses, even if in the short-term this leads to a smaller intake. This would need to be a coordinated effort between the teaching profession, the universities and the government.

Ideally, the teaching profession would itself raise these standards in conjunction with the universities. They should set a minimum TER of say 75 or 80 for admission. Alternatively, a separate entrance exam should be introduced to assess content knowledge.

An enforced higher TER would, over time, be self-perpetuating: courses with high TERs are seen as more prestigious and therefore encourage further applicants. This, in turn, pushes the TER up. In the short-term, however, enforcing a higher minimum standard would mean that a significant number of places at teaching courses are left vacant. This is where the government would need to be actively involved: to avoid teacher shortages, ameliorating action would be required such as putting in place incentives to enhance retention of existing quality teachers.
In addition to setting higher minimum standards for entry to the teacher education courses, we should provide alternative entry points to teaching with the aim of broadening the pool of potential recruits.

For example, I am proud to have helped establish the Teach for Australia initiative which is a non-profit organisation that targets high-calibre, non-teacher graduates and fast-tracks them into the classroom after an intense 6-week training course. Modelled on successful programs in the US and UK, it targets graduates who have both strong academic results as well as strong leadership and communication skills and places them into disadvantaged schools. The initiative is in its early years, but the early indicators are good with one principal commenting that he felt like he “had won the lottery” to have the Teach for Australia graduates in his classrooms. The strength of the program is that it taps into an exceptionally high quality group of people who otherwise would have not have considered teaching as a destination.

Teach for Australia is just one alternative pathway into teaching that targets high-calibre students. I would like to see a similar style program that targets mid-career people and fast-tracks them into teaching.

A more radical idea that warrants consideration in order to attract a broader pool of people to teaching is the total de-regulation of the teaching profession. That is, give school principals the autonomy to employ whomever they believe is the best for their school, based on their own professional judgement. This would typically result in principals continuing to employ people with a teaching degree, but it would also allow principals to employ candidates who had outstanding attributes for teaching in the absence of a formal degree. The effect of such a move would be to widen the pool of potential recruits, but it would also put market pressure on the quality of teacher education courses to ensure they stayed relevant. Inevitably, new private teacher education courses would establish as competitors to the public universities. This would only be a good thing.

Moving on ineffectual teachers
Constantly improving the quality of applicants to the teaching profession would probably be the most important mechanism for improving school education outcomes. The complement to this is empowering principals to be able to dismiss ineffectual teachers. If we could do these two things, then the quality of the pool of teachers would consistently improve.

Dismissing poor performers is one of the most essential levers for any organisation to improve its performance. Schools are no exception. Dr Jenson shows that Australian students would probably be the world’s highest achievers – beating Finland and Hong Kong – if the bottom 14 per cent of Australian teachers lifted their performance or were simply replaced by better teachers.

Despite this incredible lever to improve school outcomes and change the trajectory of thousands of children, principals have little power to fire underperforming teachers. The Grattan Institute finds that nearly three quarters of Australian lower-secondary teachers report that in their school, teachers “with sustained poor performance are not dismissed.” A Boston Consulting Group study from 2003 found that school principals in Victoria considered that up to 20 per cent of their teachers were “significant under performers”.

The Labor Party has consistently talked about empowering local school principals. It was one of their official policies in the most recent federal election, but on the crucial points of the right to hire teaching staff and especially the right to fire staff, their policy is remarkably thin. It aims to give school leaders and councils responsibility for strategic planning, operations, finances, budgets and “management of the school staffing profile, including support staff, which will involve determining the right mix of staff, recruitment and staff selection”.10 But there is no strong endorsement of the simple principle of principals hiring and firing teachers.

The Labor Government in the ACT has likewise suggested introducing “more” influence over who teachers in their schools.11 But this limited autonomy will be implemented in a small number of schools, and the ACT Government will take a “measured”approach to rolling-out the new system.

Principals right to fire underperformers seems to be a reform that is perpetually discussed but progress is disappointingly slow.

The argument put forward, particularly by teachers unions, is that it is too difficult to determine those teachers that are underperforming. It is certainly the case that the feedback and evaluation mechanisms are often poor (although they are improving in states like Victoria). We certainly a need a fair system for making dismissal decisions, but we should not have to wait another decade to develop one that is reasonable.


The changes that I am proposing are simple in principle: expanding the pool of potential applicants to the teaching profession is not a revolutionary measure; while removing underperforming teachers is what is supposed to occur if practice matched rhetoric.

Despite this, such proposals will be strongly resisted by many established players in the education sector, particularly by powerful teachers’ unions. For unions, the interests of their members is paramount and this extends to protecting the barriers to entry to the profession, and ensuring that it is hard to be removed once becoming a member.

We should listen to the views of unions, but ensure that the interests of children are put first. This means constantly striving to improve the most important lever to improve educational outcomes: the quality of the teacher pool.
There is no reason why Australia should not lead the world in education. Australia is prosperous, egalitarian and stable. The population has the advantage of speaking English and the vast majority lives in growth areas where it is easy to provide first-class education infrastructure. There is a strong tradition of non-government schools as well as quality government schooling. With a few considered reforms to improve the standing of the teaching profession and, Australia would reach the top.

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