Fighting for Equity in Education

The struggle is long but hope is longer

Wide-ranging Report on Improving the Schools Workforce

Sunday November 27, 2011

A wide-ranging report on the schools workforce by the Productivity Commission proposes that governments should make more use of higher pay to attract teachers to hard-to-staff subjects and schools but defer introduction of the national performance bonus scheme for teachers. It also says that education disadvantage is a high priority for school workforce reforms and calls for a comprehensive evaluation of programs that target disadvantaged students.

Other proposals include making two year graduate entry teacher training optional rather than mandatory greater central agency support for school autonomy measures. It calls for more research on schools workforce composition and job design and ways to improve pre-service training, induction and professional development. It also says that there should be more school-level variation in work arrangements.

The report covers a wide range of issues relating to the schools workforce and broader policy matters. It canvasses workforce imbalances, training and professional development, teacher performance and performance-based remuneration, school leadership and autonomy, reducing educational disadvantage, industrial relations and parent engagement.

It is a valuable addition to public discussion of these issues, consolidating much information and perspectives. It notes that many recent reforms do not have a strong evidence base. It says that the development of an evidence-based policy culture and a reliable information and research base is crucial to educational policy formulation and evaluation.

Despite its contribution to public information and debate, there are some significant gaps and flaws in the Commission’s report. These relate primarily to teacher performance pay, school autonomy and equity in education. In particular, it fails to apply its exhortation for evidence-based evaluation to its own analysis of performance pay and school autonomy.

The report is over-optimistic about the potential to design an effective bonus pay system for teachers. This is because it fails to consider the breadth of evidence about performance pay across the public sector more broadly and in the private sector. It ignores major studies which suggest that performance pay tends to motivate types of behaviour which, at best, are not conducive to achieving organisational goals and, at worst, undermine their achievement. Generally, it detracts from building a high performance culture in organisations.

The report’s support for greater school autonomy is more based on faith rather than evidence. It simply notes that the evidence of the impact of school autonomy is mixed but then goes on regardless to support its extension. Greater regard to the international and Australian evidence would have led the Commission to a less cavalier approach.

In its discussion of equity, the Commission fails to review the substantive evidence available on what works to improve the results of disadvantage groups. For example, it ignores an extensive literature on full service schools which extends the concept of the school workforce to include other professions working in schools. Moreover, the report adopts a restrictive interpretation of equity in educational outcomes as meaning that all students should have equal opportunity to realise their educational potential. This causes the Commission to under-estimate the extent of the equity challenge and what needs to be done.

A significant flaw in the report is that it effectively restricts the concept of the school workforce to paid staff in schools. It fails to consider demand and supply issues, training and professional development, remuneration and leadership in relation to system employees. It also fails to consider issues relating to volunteer staff. There is a large volunteer workforce in schools and they play an important role.

Workforce imbalances
The report finds that there are significant shortages of teachers in secondary school subjects such as mathematics, science and technology. About 15 to 25% of teachers are teaching subjects for which they are not qualified. Many of those who teach outside their field are also relatively inexperienced.

There are also shortages of teachers for rural, remote schools and Indigenous schools. There are shortages to teachers who are qualified to teach students with disabilities and other special needs while low socio-economic status schools in urban areas are becoming increasingly difficult to staff.

Teaching out of field of qualifications can have a negative influence on student learning, making it more difficult to maintain, let alone improve, outcomes for students – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It may also lead schools to drop subjects. There has been an apparent narrowing of the subjects offered in some rural and remote schools due to a lack of staff. Teaching out of field may also be a factor contributing to early-career resignations amongst new teachers.

The Commission notes that governments have adopted various measures to reduce teacher shortages, such as recruiting high achieving graduates through Teach for Australia and skilled professionals from other occupations through Teach Next. It says that cost effectiveness is an issue with such programs. It notes that an assessment of the affiliated Teach for America program reported an attrition rate of around 80% in the first three years of teaching. Because these are new initiatives in Australia, there is little evidence to date on their effectiveness.

The Commission says that there is merit in exploring options for more explicit and extensive use of wage differentiation based on areas of shortage, including for particular subjects and hard-to-staff positions in remote area and low socio-economic status schools. It notes a number of practical implementation issues on which it seeks further information.

Improving training and professional development
The report states that the international and local evidence on the effectiveness of different modes of training on teacher quality is equivocal. It says that high priority should be given to building the evidence base in this area through the trialling and evaluation of different modes of delivery, and through better tracking of the impacts of training on the subsequent performance of teachers in the classroom.

However, there is evidence to suggest that the practicum component of pre-service training, together with the induction received by teachers when they first enter the workforce, is important from a teaching quality perspective. There is also evidence from surveys that these aspects of the training process could be improved to enable new teachers to better manage classrooms, perform assessment and reporting tasks, and relate to parents.

The Commission is not convinced that the benefits of the new accreditation requirement to increase the minimum length of graduate courses from one to two years justify the costs involved. It says that the longer training could exacerbate some shortages. It suggests that two year courses be optional rather than mandatory.

The report finds that there is little hard evidence on the effectiveness of professional development activities. It says this is yet another area where better evidence needs to be assembled on what works best and is most cost-effective.

Teacher performance
Many teachers do not receive the feedback and support they need. Around 60% of Australian teachers think that appraisal of their work is largely done to fulfil administrative requirements and has little impact on the way they teach. Around 70% consider that a teacher would not be dismissed in their school for sustained poor performance, and about 90% do not think that they would receive any recognition for improving the quality of their teaching.

The report says that there is much scope to improve teacher performance appraisal. It says that principals and teachers should have a major role in determining how performance management is tailored to the circumstances of their school.

It says that basing teacher appraisal solely on student outcomes is only superficially appealing. It notes that standardised tests such as NAPLAN only cover a subset of subjects and students and most teachers do not instruct in a tested grade or subject. The partial nature of such tests could encourage teachers to focus on improving what is measured (and measurable) even if this comes at the expense of other important aspects of schooling.

This is particularly the case if test results were the sole basis for determining performance based remuneration. There could be an incentive for teachers to avoid certain schools, and shift their efforts to students who are most likely to maximise the teacher’s chances of earning a reward — such as students who are close to a pass mark — at the expense of those who are behind or ahead. It may even reward cheating by giving teachers an incentive to provide students with test questions and answers in advance.

For these reasons, it concludes that measures of student outcomes should, at best, only be used in combination with other evidence. This could include an assessment of the knowledge and skills the teacher has acquired and whether they use classroom practices that are considered to be part of quality teaching.

The Commission says that it does not have sufficient evidence to reach a conclusion on what, if any, further action is warranted to manage teacher under-performance and is seeking further input on the issue.

The report also reviews the use of performance-based remuneration in Australian schools and finds that it is limited. Pay increments are notionally conditional on satisfactory performance, but are rarely withheld in practice. Nevertheless, current increment systems appear to be a cost-effective means of rewarding performance improvements typically observed in new teachers in their first few years of teaching.

It says that advanced-skill teacher positions have merit, but they generally only provide a single higher-paid classification for a relatively small number of more effective teachers. Therefore, the impact on student outcomes is likely to be limited. It says that a performance-based career path with several levels could be more effective, provided that there are stringent selection processes for promoting teachers to available positions, rather than an automatic progression of teachers based on accreditation or qualifications. The Commission is seeking further input on establishing a performance-based career structure.

The report also examines the use of teacher performance bonuses. It concludes that the evidence on their effectiveness is mixed. Some studies have found no impact while others found a positive effect.

In the light of this mixed evidence, the Commission says that there is still much to learn about how to design an effective bonus system and that further research is needed. It proposes that the full-scale implementation of the proposed national bonus scheme be deferred. It says that it would be more useful to fund smaller-scale experiments with performance pay subject to robust evaluation involving randomised trials with control groups of similar schools and teachers.

School autonomy
The extent of school autonomy varies considerably between jurisdictions and school sectors. Several jurisdictions are in the process of exploring and/or introducing greater autonomy for their government schools and the Federal Government has announced a new initiative to extend school autonomy.

The report has only a cursory review of the research evidence on school autonomy, but it does note that the evidence on its impact is mixed. Despite this, the report is generally supportive of a shift to greater school autonomy. It says that it removes an impediment to principals exercising leadership and can potentially lead to improved student outcomes.

The prima facie evidence for school autonomy from Australia is not compelling. Student achievement results from PISA and NAPLAN for Victoria, which has had greater school autonomy than other jurisdictions for a long time, are no better than other states with more centralised systems.

Similarly, the results of private schools, which generally have a higher degree of school autonomy than government schools, are no higher when the different socio-economic composition of the sectors is taken into account. In particular, high fee/high socio-economic status (SES) private schools, which are largely autonomous, do no better than their high SES government school counterparts which have considerably less autonomy.

Reducing education disadvantage
The report says that improving education outcomes for disadvantaged groups – low socio-economic, Indigenous, disability, and remote area students – is a high priority for schools workforce policy. It says that a large body of Australian and international evidence shows that educational disadvantage is associated with these backgrounds. Australia performance on equity is below that of other high performing countries.

Many schools with disadvantaged students report persistent difficulties attracting and retaining sufficient staff with appropriate skills and attributes. This applies not only to general teaching staff, but also school leaders, and specialist and non-teaching support staff, including special education and English as a second language teachers. Staff in disadvantaged schools also tend to have less experience than those in other schools.

Despite a long history of policy attempts to address educational disadvantage, outcomes for disadvantaged groups still fall well below the rest of the student population. While the current reform agenda has added impetus for action, the Commission says that a comprehensive evaluation of current and proposed initiatives is urgently required to determine the most effective combinations for future action.

Trevor Cobbold

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