Better teachers not just a university responsibility

21 January 2014

The NSW government has made it clear that we need the very best teachers. As a parent, it is impossible to disagree.

Recent test results show Australia is being outperformed by more and more countries, particularly in East Asia. In mathematics, Australian 15-year-olds have slipped to 17th place from 13th in 2009, and in absolute terms student performance has declined since 2003.

The Gonski Review concluded that excellent teaching at all levels of schooling is by far the single most important factor in achieving improvements in the performance of Australia's schooling system.

Everyone agrees we must improve teacher quality, but there is substantial disagreement on how to go about it. In particular, there has been debate about the nature of teacher education, and the extent to which governments ought to control who can take a degree in teacher education.

Universities must be allowed to fulfil their responsibilities as educators and be held to account by the appropriate accreditors and regulators for the quality of their graduate learning outcomes. At the same time, governments and all other employers of classroom teachers need to take responsibility for ensuring they recruit the most talented teachers, and make the profession rewarding enough to retain them.

We cannot ignore the right, and the responsibility, of any employer - in this state the NSW government and the Catholic and independent school systems - to ensure they employ the best people and manage them appropriately.

The Minister for Education has more buying power than any other individual in NSW. He can decide who is employed as a teacher in NSW without any recourse to universities at all. It's his job to determine the kind of people he thinks should be teaching in our schools, offer them jobs and provide incentives to ensure that good teachers stay there.

To find the best people and to mentor and manage them appropriately is the right and responsibility of any employer. Nobody expects the Commonwealth Bank to employ graduates without taking into account their capability. Why, then, is it somehow considered unreasonable for the NSW Department of Education and Communities to decide the criteria by which they will choose which graduates can join this important profession?

Equally, it is impossible to imagine one of our top law firms hiring graduates without testing their capability and then complaining it is the university sector's fault that they have substandard staff. Quite rightly, they ensure they employ the cream of the crop with the specific skills and personal attributes to succeed as lawyers. No law graduate is guaranteed a job as a solicitor or barrister, yet employment rates suggest their knowledge and skills are highly valued in other fields.

Collaboration between tertiary educators and employer groups is essential, and the university sector must be prepared to respond to the changing needs of all the professions. The standard of teaching degrees is critical, and it is clear that teacher education courses do vary considerably, both in the way they are delivered and in the attributes of the graduates they produce. An employer might reasonably ask whether all graduates are equally employable, and this is why there are now national professional standards for teachers and teacher education institutions that make explicit the elements of high-quality, effective teaching.

But the fact is that many students who graduate with degrees in a particular area do not then pursue the obvious profession. Law graduates work in diverse fields in which their research, analytical and communication skills are valued. Engineers and architects become project managers, and the service sectors are full of people with an education degree lurking on their CVs.

This is because many employers are becoming more interested in a potential employee's demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and adapt and solve complex problems, rather than his or her specific field of study. These are the generalist skills that good teacher education and other university programs develop, and this is why governments need to think carefully about enrolment caps on any particular type of university course. Our universities are no longer producing graduates simply for specific professions, but for jobs and careers across the economy and roles in new service industries that don't yet exist.

If our children can be assured that the NSW government and other employers are choosing the right people in the first place, and performance-managing them where they are not up to scratch, then our children will be the ultimate beneficiaries.

If we are to address shortfalls in teachers with high levels of maths and scientific knowledge, then our schools and universities need to work much more closely to inspire and maintain interest in these fields.

Meanwhile, if our education system delivers graduates with the specific skills required by the professions, but also with strong generalist skills, our graduates will be well equipped to secure rewarding employment in diverse sectors.

Dr Michael Spence is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney.

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