coronavirus back to school

You might have heard the news: teachers are leaving the profession in “droves” and “hordes”. That Australia is facing an “education crisis” triggered by a “mass exodus” of teachers of “epidemic proportions”. It certainly got our attention.

A few key figures are repeated endlessly in media coverage — “one in three” teachers leave in the first five years, or is it actually “an estimated 40% of graduates” who quit soon after starting, or “up to half”, or is it that indeed “half quit the classroom in 5 years“?

If you try to follow those statistics back to their source, you find there isn’t one. Despite even some academic literature claiming this issue is “well-established”, there’s no central database tracking the numbers of teachers entering and leaving the teaching profession each year.

So where did these urban myths start? Paul Weldon from the Australian Council of Educational Research, a not-for-profit research organisation, decided to find out. The result is his 2018 paper titled “Early career teacher attrition in Australia: evidence, definition, classification and measurement“, a kind of archaeological dig that followed media and academic references to the teacher “crisis” back to their original sources.

One of the earliest he unearthed was a 2003 submission of anecdotal evidence to a government review, suggesting that the number of teachers leaving within the first five years of teaching was “possibly as high as 25%”, which then made its way into the final report. That was just someone’s hunch, bereft of data, but it soon became a hunch accepted as fact, and like Pinocchio’s nose, it just kept growing bigger over time.

Weldon also found that claims of “a third” or “between 25 and 40%” of teachers leaving within five years are often attributed to a 2005 OECD report “Teachers Matter“, except there’s no specific attrition figure for Australia provided in that report. And the assertion that 50% leave within five years appears to have its origins in a 2014 academic article, which states that “nearly half the graduating teachers” in countries including Australia “fill positions vacated by teachers who have left with less than five years’ experience”. As Weldon points out, “this is not the same as saying that 50% of teachers leave within the first five years”.

But even if there is “no reliable evidence” to support the sensational statistics, as Weldon concludes, our digging into these headlines found there are deep problems: teachers are increasingly over-worked within a profession afflicted with huge systemic issues and nightmarish administrative burdens. That’s the real crisis in teaching — one less colourful to report on — and if large numbers of teachers were leaving, we shouldn’t be surprised.

The real problem with teaching in Australia 

Let’s start with a 2018 report to the NSW Teachers Federation. More than 18,000 members responded to its survey, with 87% of them reporting an increase in work hours in the last five years. It found the average total hours that full-time employed classroom teachers work during term is 55 hours a week (similar numbers are reported nationwide, and the figures are even higher for principals). And yes, teachers do work during school holidays — some as much as 40 hours a week.

Crucially, it found “a very large majority” of teachers reporting that the core business of teaching and learning is hindered by their high workload (89%), by having to provide evidence of compliance with policy requirements (86%), and by new administrative demands (91%). 

In other words, teachers feel they can’t do their job properly because they’re having to spend so much time recording the way they’re doing their job properly.

Workload and hours 

Let’s clear one thing up. The idea that teachers only work from 9am to 3pm and enjoy several luxurious weeks of holidays a year is a myth. Time spent in front of the blackboard (or, more likely these days, the interactive whiteboard) has only ever been one part of the job. Teachers have always worked well past (and before) the school bell, and often over weekends and into their holidays.

But in the last five to 10 years, something’s changed in Australia’s classrooms. Teachers’ workloads have increased significantly, across both primary and secondary schools, and almost all teachers feel this is having a negative effect on their teaching. The Australian Education Union (AEU) says it’s a “key cause of low morale amongst public school teachers”, while a recent study by Bond University found teachers are more depressed and anxious than the average Australian, citing workload as a contributing factor.

Given Australian educational outcomes are in decline, it begs the question: what are teachers being asked to do, and why? Teaching, of course, but also — and increasingly — admin. In NSW, close to 100% of teachers report an increase in administrative requirements and the “collection, analysis and reporting of data” over the last five years, and it’s a similar problem across the country. This might seem like a trivial complaint, but even Adrian Piccoli, former NSW minister for education and now Director of the Gonski Institute for Education, considers administrative burden the “number one problem” for teachers — “they rightly complain that it distracts them from the main game of teaching,” he tells INQ.

As one Melbourne high school teacher put it: “I often find I’m dropping the things that are for the kids, because people aren’t checking my accountability in the classroom — they’re checking my accountability in my reporting schemes and whether or not I’ve documented my curriculum.”

The promise (and demands) of data

Data-driven education has been championed by policymakers for some time. Many teachers agree there’s much to be said for this approach — better assessment of individual students, targeted lessons to suit their abilities and learning styles, evaluation of their progress and making adjustments along the  way — but in practice it often comes at a cost.

Brooke,* a Queensland primary teacher, says this obsession with data can encroach on teaching and learning time. “At my school, we do updates on ‘running records’ every three weeks. So that’s an assessment on a kid’s reading ability — it takes about 10 minutes with each child, and it’s one-on-one. So you’re not teaching during that time. 10 minutes times 25 students — that’s over four hours of classroom time used up. Every three weeks. They want the data so often, and to see the movement so frequently, but the cost is time teaching the actual curriculum. Where are we meant to make that up? And that’s just one element — we’ve got to do the same kind of testing on writing, and speaking and listening.”

While some schools and teachers feel they’re using data effectively, many teachers say it’s pointless because no-one has the time or skills to analyse it. “It sometimes feels like you’re just collecting data for the sake of it,” says Mick,* a Queensland high school teacher in the Catholic sector. “And a lot of that stuff is beyond the skill set of a lot of teachers. Teachers are not data analysts, so I would say that aside from the few that are science teachers or maths teachers, very few would have done statistics courses at uni, or would really know a lot about vigorous data collection, or how to make sure the data is clean and good, or how to interpret that data.”

And even where the data is properly analysed, teachers question its usefulness in the educational setting. “Looking at things like ‘degrees’ and ‘outputs’ and ‘standardised test results’, and then just comparing them across the board and saying ‘these have gone up, or these have gone down,’ … and using those to measure how good a school is at teaching students. The problem with using business accountability measures when talking about schools is that there are just so many factors involved in dealing with human beings,” says Mick.

A class of their own

Teachers are now increasingly expected to formalise their methods for students needing special attention. “Individualised Plans” must be provided for students with learning difficulties, behavioural problems, disadvantaged socioeconomic/personal circumstances, Indigenous identity or medical diagnoses, outlining exactly how the teacher is catering to those particular needs.

Again, most teachers accept that it’s a laudable goal, but point out that in practice it means that instead of writing up one lesson plan, they need to create five or six or 12, depending on how many affected students they have in a class. As one principal puts it to INQ: “Teachers are being asked to provide the sort of one-on-one care you’d expect from a doctor, but they’ve got an entire class of kids to look after”.

Sarah*, a nominally “part-time” primary teacher in NSW who in reality works full-time hours, has nine students on individualised plans in her class, and says these are a big contributor to the unpaid overtime she must do to get her job done. “I get it, really I do. It’s all justifiable when you look at each little thing. But we’re given no extra time to do this. None,” Sarah says. “It’s just yet another seemingly small ask on its own, that is added to the pile of extra things we’re being made to do now, that all together is just impossible to fit in without dropping the ball elsewhere.”

“There’s this work creep,” says Mick. “I know it’s happening in a lot of other professions, but it’s really visible in teaching. I jokingly call it a death by a thousand cuts, like ‘can you do this extra 10 minute thing’ then ‘can you do this extra 10 minute thing’ and then ‘can you do this extra 10 minute thing’. That can add up to two or three hours over the course of a fortnight, but teachers are not given the extra time to do that.”

Accountability, autonomy and morale

“When I first started, you just showed up and taught,” says David,* wearily. He’s been teaching for more than 30 years, and it sounds like he’s had a gutful. “Now, you’ve got to ‘document’ everything, and show ‘evidence’ of your good teaching practice. How do you do that? How do you photograph that you helped a student understand a concept?”

It’s a good question. How does the Department of Education want a teacher to record the moment the penny drops in a child’s mind? And when are they supposed to find the time?

The logistics of recording learning-on-the-go aside, there are some teachers who are sympathetic to the motivation. “In any other profession you would fully expect that people are accountable for what they do,” says Jane,* a public high school teacher in Victoria. “Now, it’s almost as though there has been so much autonomy in the past that you could perhaps say that the pendulum has swung the other way, and people who have already been doing their jobs quite well are finding the burden substantial, but on the other hand there are a lot of other people who haven’t been doing their jobs well for a long time, so this is trying to raise the bar.”

But the accountability and compliance measures in some schools are farcical. Tracey,* a Queensland primary teacher, must record — in writing — that she has checked that a child who needs glasses is indeed wearing his glasses, every day. It’s an exercise that turns arse-covering into an extreme sport.

All in the name of choice

Underpinning this whole phenomenon, according to Rachel Wilson, an education researcher with the University of Sydney, is a neo-liberal push to see schools operate within a market framework. But the devolution of control and increased autonomy to individual schools has also led to the loss of centralised support services, meaning the grunt work of demonstrating quality and improvement falls on the shoulders of teachers and principals, all in the name of “school choice”.

The problem, Wilson says, is it doesn’t seem to work — in Australia or elsewhere in the world. “A large and growing body of educational research evidence suggests that that is not working well,” she says. “Not only have we not seen the returns on the learning that we expected from school markets and school choice, in fact, most of the countries that have shifted to that system in one way or another are seeing a stagnation or decline in learning outcomes, growing inequity and a raft of associated problems.”

School education in Australia is becoming an evermore bureaucratised system, which is asking more of teachers and getting less in return.

*names have been changed

This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two – A day in the life of a teacher.