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10 April 2017

An excellent education

Despite the barriers, it's possible for students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds to catch up. Quality teaching and school leadership is key.

“Recognising, valuing and enhancing the teachers and school leaders with high levels of expertise makes the difference. It’s what works best (Hattie, 2015).”

In Australia, students taught by the highest performing teachers have been found to learn as much in six months as what teachers in lowest performing teachers accomplish in a year (Leigh, 2010).

The ability of a high quality teacher to promote learning is even more pronounced for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian students could be closed in five years by giving all Indigenous Australian students teachers at the top quartile of teacher performance (Leigh, 2010).

School leadership is second only to classroom instruction among all school-related factors that contribute to student learning (Leithwood et al., 2004).

High quality principals have been found to raise student achievement across the school at the same level as effective teachers of an individual class (Helal & Coelli, 2016).

To support teachers and leaders, as a country we need to:

Value teaching as a profession

While the world’s highest achieving school systems make great teaching a priority, Australia is currently heading in the opposite direction.

In Australia, only 40 per cent of teachers believe that teaching is valued by society (ACER, 2014).

“One of the biggest challenges we face in school education is to raise the status of teaching as a career choice, to attract more able-people into teaching and to develop teaching as a knowledge-based profession (Masters, 2015).”

The world’s highest achieving school systems make great teaching a priority, through strategies to develop, reward and retain great teachers and recruit new top talent into teaching (McKinsey & Company, 2010).

Support new teachers to thrive

Beginning teachers can face ‘transition shock’ upon entering the classroom.

“The class is buzzing, busy and decision-laden, and most new teachers say they were not well prepared for the harsh reality of the classroom (Hattie, 2015).”

A mismatch between idealistic motivations and daily classroom realities contributes up to 50 per cent of teachers leaving the profession within five years (Gallant & Riley, 2014).

Teachers working in schools serving disadvantaged communities can face additional challenges.

We need to provide early career teachers with training and support to better prepare them to work in these contexts including early exposure to the classroom, tracking and evaluating student progress and teacher-led professional development (SVA, 2014).

Support student learning

Highly effective teaching involves more than subject specialist knowledge and behaviour management skills.

Highly effective teachers differentiate their practice depending on a student’s capability, provide continuous feedback to their students and reflect on their own practice (Productivity Commission, 2012).

It’s not just what the teacher does with students, but also how they think towards them that influences educational outcomes.

When a teacher has high expectations students tend to meet them, just as students of teachers with low expectations tend to conform. This is particularly true for students from disadvantaged backgrounds (Rubie-Davies, 2015).

Develop teachers as leaders

A high proportion of early career teachers see themselves as future leaders.

This trend does not necessarily translate to a high number of teachers applying for school leadership positions (Gronn, 2007).

To turn ambition into reality, young teachers with leadership aspirations need to receive professional development and tailored career counselling that allows them to make a confident move into leadership roles.

Over 35% of principals report that they received no preparation for their role (OECD, 2014).

A teacher’s progression to school leadership should be supported with preparatory and supportive training.

High performing education systems identify future leaders early in their career so that they can enhance their leadership capabilities through experience in leadership roles and meaningful professional development (McKinsey & Company, 2010).

Find out more

This article is part of a series related to the SBS documentary Testing Teachers. To find out more about Testing Teachers click here.