Better student teachers wont fix our education system

teachersVictoria has just joined NSW in putting more stringent requirement on those wishing to study teaching at University with a view to getting better graduates. The Victorian Education Minister said: “We want the best and brightest young people to dream of becoming a teacher, and to know that being a teacher requires academic excellence.” Ah, the Finland solution. We have a problem so we’ll do what Finland did, or maybe just part of it and hope that works.

And it’s quite true that one of the strengths of the Finnish system is that they insist on high qualifications for their teachers and that teaching is a highly respected profession. But there are some problems.

The first is that you can’t just cherry pick bits out of the Finnish system; as I’ve said in the past, you need a plan. That’s what the Finns did, they had a comprehensive plan of which teacher quality was an important plank – but it was not the whole thing by any means.

Once you attract these more qualified people to university, you need to have a job for them when they graduate; you need to have a career path; you need them to be appropriately paid; you need enough support staff so that they can spend time teaching not photocopying; you need to let them organise their own day; and so on. The Finnish system does all that it doesn’t just say that you need good marks it builds respect for teachers into the system – it respects what teachers do, and gives them the resources to do it to the best of their considerable abilities.

You need a comprehensive plan and you need to stick with it, for decades.

You also have to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve. Sure getting better qualified teachers across the board is important. But right now it’s probably even more important to get teachers in pivotal areas like high school maths and science – where the shortage of qualified teachers isn’t just bad, it’s horrifying.

Raising the university entrance levels should mean you have somewhat cleverer teacher candidates: It might reduce the over-supply of primary school teachers. But you also have to have a way of attracting those people with higher ATARs to the job. Unless you’re one of the diminishing group of people for whom a vocation trumps a wish to pay off a mortgage in your lifetime, you’re not going to jump into teaching. This is especially true if you have a good ATAR and are good at a STEM subject – you’re in demand in the corporate world and have to make very real life choices in choosing a teaching job over Google. You see why a holistic plan is required?

The corollary of needing a plan is you need to stop blaming the teachers as if they are the whole of the problem. There are some bad teachers (just as there are some bad accountants and some bad politicians), raising teacher quality is essential, getting more STEM teachers is pivotal. That’s all true. But simply banging on about teacher quality is simplistic: The whole system is broken and doing things that attack one part of that simply wont fix it.

Raising ATARs to push for better qualified candidates is not a bad thing. It’s certainly better than aiming for candidates who sit near the bottom third of high school-leavers.  But we need more than that, and we need politicians to stop pretending that changing teacher standards alone can fix our education system.

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