The manufactured crisis of teacher quality

On World Teachers’ Day, 25 October, the winners of this year’s Queensland College of Teachers Excellence in Teaching Awards will be announced.

Glenala State High School received public accolades in the lead-up to the awards, as the first school to have finalists in every category. There will be more good news for other Queensland teachers when the awards are presented, and school communities around Queensland traditionally extend special thanks to their schools’ teachers and principals on World Teachers’ Day.

It makes a refreshing change from the ongoing denigration of teachers by politicians at all levels of government.

The denigration comes in the form of repeated references to “improving teacher quality” as an education policy priority.

The notion underpins the Queensland Government’s “Great Teachers = Great Results” plan. It was explicit in the joint federal and state “Improving Teacher Quality National Partnership”. It pops up again and again in almost every debate about student outcomes, usually supported by selectively chosen “evidence”.

The insinuation is that current teacher quality is poor, and is entirely “to blame” for student outcomes. Yet there is a distinct lack of evidence for this assertion.

For example, in the Queensland Government’s rhetoric, teachers are said to account for 30 per cent of variance in student achievement, quoting John Hattie’s 2003 research, and therefore the government claims an urgent need for “elevating teaching standards across the board”. Really? What about the other 70 per cent of influences on student achievement, including the educational disadvantage that students bring from their home environment and that were identified in the Gonski schools funding review?

As the AEU has repeatedly pointed out, student characteristics such as ability, attitude and background are much harder for policy makers to be seen to address than the issue of “teacher quality”.

Moreover, one critical issue avoided by the commentators who intentionally or unintentionally malign the entire profession with such generalisations, is the fundamental difference between referring to teachers and teaching. The focus on teachers is a personalised attack on our integrity and professionalism. A shift in focus to teaching would represent a potential opportunity to genuinely engage in a campaign of continuous improvement in practice, supported by much-needed professional development and a collegial community.

Professor Linda Darling-Hammond from the Stanford Graduate School of Education is one of the world’s foremost experts on evaluating teacher effectiveness. She has paid particular attention to what is called value-added test-score ratings, which use standardised test results to evaluate student outcomes and improvements.

The practice has had some devastating effects on the teaching profession in the USA; in an article in Education Week in 2012, Professor Darling-Hammond tells the sobering tale of a teacher in New York City labelled and subsequently pursued by the media as NYC’s “worst teacher”, based on the evidence of such ratings, which have a huge margin of error. The teacher in question taught new immigrant students who spoke no English.

As Professor Darling-Hammond says, the standardised “test scores largely reflect whom a teacher teaches, not how well they teach”.

Many American teachers’ jobs depend on these test scores. The Professor illustrates the absurdity and unfairness of such a system with the example of a 10-year veteran teacher in Houston who was dismissed on the basis of a test-score based rating – after having been voted teacher of the year.

In Australia, the push is on for teachers’ and principals’ pay to depend on test-score based ratings, predicated on a false premise of some imagined crisis in “teacher quality”.

The issue has become like an anti-elephant in the room. It’s not really there, but everyone is talking about it.

Kevin Bates

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 118, No. 7, 4 October 2013, p7