Teacher education is notoriously ineffective — despite no less than 39 national and 41 state reviews conducted between 1979 and 2005, and more since. The latest failed attempt to fix up teacher education is described in excruciating detail by a recent Fairfax report.

The Teach Next program was announced by the prime minister in 2010 as the way to turn 450 mid-career professionals into secondary maths and science teachers. The grand total, after two intakes: 14. States and territories other than Victoria and the ACT either pulled out or did not start in the first place. NSW gave up after just two eligible candidates turned up. There will be one last attempt, in the vain hope that better advertising will do the trick.

The only really surprising thing about this debacle is that anyone thought it wouldn’t happen. In all the talk about “teacher quality” and getting more able people into teacher education and the teaching profession, it is rare to hear anyone mention the obvious fact: bright school-leavers and graduates have better options elsewhere.

Instead, universities, teacher organisations and ministers of education talk endlessly about “lifting entry standards”. They could certainly do with a lift. Some cut-offs this year were in the 40s, which means future teachers coming from the bottom half of the year 12 cohort.

In the face of that problem governments have turned to “alternative pathways” such as Teach Next, which of course run into the same problem. The only difference is that its graduates instead of school-leavers who say “no thanks”.

The way out of this problem — in fact, the only way out — is a serious lift in teacher pay and conditions. Which is why governments keep talking about entry requirements.

Australia has around a quarter of a million teachers. Teacher salaries swallow up 60% or more of state education budgets. Teacher organisations have been trying for 50 years or more to get their employers to pay more, but neither state nor federal governments have been able or willing to do so. Teacher salaries, status and entry standards remain as low as ever, perhaps even worse.

The other way of looking at it is that governments already spend plenty. Per pupil expenditure has increased around two-and-a-half times in the 50 years to 2003. The problem is not the amount but the way it’s spent, perhaps particularly on ever-lower limits to class sizes.

One recent US calculation found that if average class sizes increased by just five (and remember that most classes are smaller than the allowable maximum) every teacher could get a 34% pay rise, which is about the order of magnitude required.

Now it’s the unions rather than the governments that baulk. “Class sizes” and “teacher permanency” are sacrosanct. Even discussion of “trade-offs”, and the possibility the right trade-offs might make life better for everyone, is off limits.

In the upshot no one is willing to do what needs to be done to make teaching a more attractive option, and that is one reason why teacher education doesn’t work: it can’t get enough able candidates. The other is that it does a bad job with the ones it has, and it, too, is unable or unwilling to solve the problem of resources.

The impasse in teacher education is particularly disheartening because teacher educators have at last figured out how to do a good job. Two Victorian-based pilot programs, Melbourne University’s MTeach and Teach for Australia (TFA), a souped-up version of Teach Next, are working. They have concentrated on fixing the key weakness in teacher ed: it doesn’t teach people how to teach. The common element in the MTeach and TFA is high-quality in-school ‘clinical supervision’ over extended periods to help people get the hang of a job that is a lot harder than it looks.

But then the catch: both programs are expensive. The funds needed to scale up from pilot to national implementation could come from either government or from seriously improved resource use. That would include rationalising Australia’s 400-plus teacher education courses in favour of high-quality net-based programs, and shifting academic time from research to clinical supervision. Neither is in prospect.

The fundamental problem is not that the usual interests groups are doing what interest groups do, but the lack of a public agency with the backing of all nine governments to knock heads together. One sign of our chances of getting it: Gonski recommended a new “national funding body” to take charge of distributing all government money to schools on the basis of need. It was the first of his proposals to get the states’ veto. Think federation, and railway gauges.

*Dean Ashenden has been a consultant to many state and national education agencies. His involvement in teacher education includes stints as a teachers college student, a demonstration teacher, and a teacher educator.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated “one recent US calculation found that if average class sizes increased by just five … every teacher could get a 3% pay rise”. It should have said 34%.

Peter Fray

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