BY ELIZABETH FABRI
AUSTRALIAN primary school teachers have a lot to learn from high-performing school systems overseas, according to a new report by national research and policy institute Learning First.
The Australia’s primary challenge: how to lift teacher quality in early school years, report compared Australian education standards to those in Finland, Japan, Hong Kong and Shanghai, and outlined ways the country’s system could improve to boost results.
“Australian students have not improved their achievement on international tests for a decade, and are falling behind students in many other advanced nations,” the report stated.
“In maths, the proportion of high performers in PISA has halved to 11 per cent over the past 14 years, and low performers outnumber high performers two to one.”
The report found academic performance, particularly in the early years, was heavily influenced by a teacher’s deep understanding of the content as well as pedagogical knowledge on how to effectively teach the subject.
“Acquiring both forms of knowledge is more important and more difficult than many people realise,” it said.
“Yet opportunities for Australian teachers to do so, particularly in primary teacher education and primary schools, are scarce.”
Learning First said issues stemmed from “unselective” teacher programs in Australia and the “generally not strong” science, literacy and maths expertise of prospective primary teachers.
“One way for systems to improve teacher subject expertise is to assess candidates and select only those prepared with the greatest knowledge,” it said.
“Initial teacher education programs in Australia are not consistently selective so are not trusted as putting up a high barrier to entry to the profession.”
It said new literacy and numeracy tests for teacher candidates had recently been introduced as a way to raise the bar, setting minimum standards for teachers to ensure the least knowledgeable candidates weren’t in classrooms.
“This is important, yet the minimum standards approach may have two problems: it does not create incentives for development past minimum standards, and it does not provide differentiating information to the system on teacher candidate quality (aside from binary pass or-fail data),” it said.
Early reports however showed that about 5 per cent of teacher candidates who failed these tests, were still entering the classroom with provisional registrations.
It said one strategy that united the four international systems was the opportunity for teachers to develop a deep knowledge in just one or a few subjects.
Attraction to the profession was also a factor, raising the question if teaching was more competitive with higher university entrance scores and better salaries, would it draw in higher quality candidates.
“Major structural changes to how initial teacher education providers are funded and regulated would be necessary in order to create uniformly high admissions requirements in Australia’s relatively deregulated systems of initial teacher education,” it said.