13/12/2008

Recruiting, Training, Retaining and Rewarding the Best and Brightest

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:40 am

So, in no particular order, a bunch of suggestions for developing a teaching force to transform education in Queensland. As with the broader suggestions outlined yesterday, these are a suite and should be considered together. Many of those points from yesterday are also very relevant to the issue of attracting and retaining teachers, particularly the ones on class size, support for students with special needs and in relation to classroom behaviour, curricular stability and the massive reduction of paperwork.

Clearly, entry into teacher education courses is a matter of supply and demand: the much-lamented low entry scores1 are purely a result of relatively low demand for the courses, for a variety of reasons. Of course, in a simplistic world it would be possible to just change the entry scores by fiat, but all that would do is kill off the Schools and Faculties of Education and exacerbate the already critical and growing teacher shortage. The only long term solution to raising entry scores is making people want to study teaching and become teachers.

  1. No more of this non-permanent contract nonsense. We know that about half of all new teachers leave the profession in the first 5 years, but is that surprising when they are hired on one-year contracts with no job certainty? The frustration caused by this practice is enormous. There is also excellent research to show that teachers are much more effective both within themselves as teachers and in school communities when they stay for longer periods. So whatever it takes in terms of better Human Resource management to deal with maternity leaves and study leaves and other issues, it’s essential that beginning teachers are offered real, substantive jobs in schools, where they can put down some professional roots and start to build the relationships that are the key to teaching.
  2. Raise the profile and prestige of teaching as a career in the community. There are a number of facets of doing this, but having politicians avoid crapping on teachers from on high whenever it suits their short term political goals would be a nice start. If community leaders (which, heaven help us, include politicians) went out of their way to praise good teachers, to recognise the importance of education to the community and to honour the work teachers do, that would have a huge effect on students’ perceptions of the teaching profession and desire to enter it.
  3. Develop a really workable career progression path within the classroom. I don’t think salaries in absolute terms are such an important motivator – and they may be more important in changing community perceptions of the teaching profession than in actually retaining teachers – but most teaching career structures top out in terms of increments for training and experience at 10 years after graduation. That means that by age 35, with potentially 30 years left in the profession, most teachers are already at the top of the scale, with no financial incentive to undergo further education and training or to keep improving their practice. The only way to earn more is to move out of the classroom, so the ‘best and brightest’ we worked so hard to get in there move out. Keeping the best teachers in the classroom is crucial.
  4. Offer real incentives to teachers for postgraduate study. Returning to university to complete a Masters or PhD helps teachers to look at their practice in new ways, and refreshes their understanding of the issues, so incentives and support for further study can help retain and improve good teachers. Develop professional development Master of Education courses available to all teachers, for which they are given time off from teaching to study full time, and which lead to salary increases.
  5. Develop professional development (PD) programs that are planned, on-going, relevant and have an appropriate balance of theory and practice. Meet both the teachers’ perceived needs (what they know they need) and unperceived needs (what they need but don’t know about). Avoid PD that is only about the latest brainwave from the department or some paper-shuffling nonsense, and focus on the knowledge and skills – and their theoretical underpinnings – that teachers need in order to teach.
  6. Resist the dumbing down of the teaching profession. Many people, including some teachers, call for a very ‘practical’ teacher education program, by which they mean lots of content knowledge background and then simply putting teachers into existing schools to learn how to teach in an apprenticeship model. These same people tend to decry the role of theory. But that kind of teacher education leads only to the perpetuation of the existing models of teaching… and that’s what we’re trying to revolutionise. So teacher education programs need to be professional education programs that equip teachers with the theoretical knowledge to make informed judgements about their practice and the various issues they encounter. In addition, the ‘best and brightest’ students will be those who are interested in ideas and in discussing ideas.
  7. If students’ results must be used as a way of measuring teacher performance, then get sophisticated about it, not simplistic. I’ve talked briefly here before about ‘value-added’ measures of school performance, which measure the change in student results rather than the absolute value. That’s a much fairer way, and avoids punishing the students and teachers in poorer areas of the state simply for being poor. In relation to this:
  8. Find really sophisticated ways of measuring and understanding teacher performance. If teacher performance is really important, then we need to put in the money and other resources needed to measure it right. Student test results are one tiny facet, and rely on a wide variety of factors other than teacher skill. What about the teacher’s ability to develop really engaging learning experiences, to fire up the students and get them motivated and interested? What about the quality of the discussions in the classroom, or the number of labs and other important activities a teacher conducts? What about creative, thoughtful integration of ICTs in teaching, and links with other subjects? What about educating students to be good global citizens?2 To reward good performance we need to understand what good performance is and have really credible ways of measuring it.
  9. Develop credible paths for teachers to retrain for different levels of education and for different subject areas. Recognise that this is not simple. In particular, there is a shortage of secondary teachers in some fields, and an excess of primary teachers in the Brisbane area. While primary and secondary teaching are different callings with different talents, some primary teachers could be retrained for junior secondary school teaching in subject areas where they have strong backgrounds, freeing up trained secondary teachers for the shortage areas.
  10. Rather than a one year Graduate Diploma in Education for students with an existing degree, move to a two year Master of Teaching program. One year is too little time to develop as a teacher. The M.Teach. would not be the same as the research or coursework Master of Education, but would be a high level professional qualification, well informed with theory as well as with extensive practice teaching time across the two years.

No doubt there are plenty more, but this is probably enough to be going on with…

Oh, and find gags for the morons who keep telling everyone around them that teachers work 8:30-3:30, 40 weeks a year. ;)

  1. In some ways I’m less than convinced entry scores are a good measure anyway: teaching is as much about personality and attitude and approach to life as it is about ability to achieve at the highest levels academically, and there’s no test for that. Teachers need to be smart, but not necessarily geniuses. They need to be good people, and that’s a much higher standard.
  2. Some of these are probably seen as falling into the ‘woolly thinking, too PC, not the way it was when I were a lad’ basket, but if they’re properly understood it is actually these kinds of facets of good teaching that lead to high academic success.

(and dealing with the others)

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:30 am

I actually don’t think there’s a huge problem with really bad teachers in the Queensland school system. Like any profession there’ll be a few, and education is a field where it’s possible to be badly unsuited to the profession due to personality and attitude. I think the perception that the main problem with the system is bad teachers (protected by the union, of course, is the claim) is simply wrong. There are a few fantastic teachers, many, many good teachers, quite a lot of average teachers and a few bad ones.

A couple of issues do mean that good teachers sometimes deliver bad teaching.

One is burnout: some teachers started out idealistic and positive but for whatever personal and professional reasons, and through whatever deficiencies of ‘the system’ and the school where they teach, are just fried now. They’ve had enough and are hanging on because they don’t see any good alternatives, and they’re doing the minimum required work and failing to inspire their students. There need to be paths out of the profession for these people, and into other jobs where their skills can be used.

Another is the fact that, due to already existing teacher shortages, many teachers are teaching outside the subject areas they were trained to teach. In science in particular, at all levels, teachers who are really not comfortable even with the science content knowledge, let alone with the nature of science and what it takes to teach science effectively, are teaching science because there’s no-one else to do so. Teacher education does make a difference, too – I have taught quite a lot of maths, not because I trained to but because I was needed and because the assumption was that a physics teacher understands maths. I do – but I was never trained in the methods of teaching maths, and honestly I don’t think I was ever a particularly good or inspiring maths teacher, although I’m a good teacher in ‘my’ fields.

The solution to teachers teaching out of field is complex, but the steps in the ‘Recruiting…’ post above are the same kinds of things that will address this issue.

And yes, there are some bad teachers – ones who abuse students in various ways, or just don’t care about students and teaching. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not in the union’s interest to have these people in the profession, so although the union has a legal and moral obligation to protect its members, I think everyone recognises that there are some teachers – a very small number – who simply need to be removed from the classroom as quickly as possible. Of course, it will be easier to get that done if there are good teachers to take their place…

Three Clarifications

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:29 am

In relation to yesterday’s post, three quick points:

  1. I’m definitely talking about a massive re-investment in education with massively more money spent. You can’t get to class sizes of 15 and all the support services I was talking about by carving up the same size pie differently. If Queensland is serious about education it needs to put its money where its mouth is in a very big way.
  2. The 13 points I listed are a linked suite, and don’t really make sense if you take them one by one. You can’t pick and choose just some elements and still have it meet the intended goals. In particular, adding the external exams but without the curricular stability1 and support and the ability for kids to repeat grades, and the kinds of changes for teachers to be outlined today, would actually make the situation worse rather than better. So please look at the set of proposals as a unit.
  3. Having said that, I also know that there are alternative approaches on some of the issues. I said, for example, that integration of kids with special needs in mainstream classes had been tried and failed. That’s not really true: the promise when it was proposed was always that these kids would be brought in with massive support, teacher aides, budgets for needed equipment, support for teachers with planning alternative activities and so on, but the reality was that the kids with special needs were simply dumped in mainstream classrooms and all the extra challenges dumped on already busy teachers. So rather than reverse the integration and put kids with special needs back in special classes and schools, trying out the integration properly, the way it was meant to be, with proper support, would be another very attractive approach.

  1. My Biology teacher education colleague Kim mentioned that science is moving so fast in biology that there needs to be some flexibility within my 10 year stable curriculum plan to allow the new science to be taught. I think that’s not too hard to achieve, even with a pretty clear and prescriptive syllabus. I also think that in Chemistry and Physics, although knowledge is developing fast, not a lot of that makes it into the school level curriculum. Maybe it should to a greater extent. I still think a clearer, more detailed, fixed syllabus for a longer period would yield better educational outcomes, but agree that addenda to just change specific content as science (and other fields) advance are a useful addition to the scheme.