Putting teachers in their place

 

Rod Chadbourne

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Schools are as good as their teachers. A school's most powerful resource for student development is the quality of its teachers' professional knowledge and skill. There can be no improvement in student learning without an improvement in teacher learning.

In Western Australia, as elsewhere, it is difficult to find anyone who disagrees with these claims. It is equally difficult to find leaders of schools and education systems prepared to demonstrate their support for them by implementing a salary system that pays good teachers what they are really worth. As we all know, what an organisation most values is what it most rewards. In schools, this is not teaching.

Traditionally, teaching has been a flat careerless occupation. Excellent teachers wanting to 'get on' had to 'get out of the classroom'; those wanting to 'move up' the career ladder had to 'move off' into administration. This created a fundamental structural inefficiency: the pay system progressively rewarded those who taught less and less.

During the early 1990s, the Advanced Skills Teacher (AST) classification in Western Australia represented an attempt to address this problem. It offered teachers a three level professional career path in teaching comparable in status to that enjoyed by school administrators. Such an offer, it was hoped, would keep good teachers in the classroom, provide all teachers with an incentive to undertake ongoing professional development, and attract high calibre recruits to the profession.

Unfortunately in Western Australian state schools, the AST initiative ended in disappointment. AST 1 status was given to virtually everyone who applied for it. Teachers cynically regarded it simply as an automatic $1200 pay increment. And the whole process lacked credibility because the selection criteria were weak, the assessment process was even weaker, and AST 2 and 3 were never implemented.

Last year, Western Australia replaced the AST with a new three level career structure for teachers. The third level (L3) involved an extra $6000 above the top of the incremental pay scale. So, the stakes were substantial. Moreover, by all reports, the selection process for L3 positions was far more rigorous than evaluation for AST positions. Over 700 teachers applied, about 320 were shortlisted, and some 230 were finally appointed as L3s. What remains up in the air (at the time of writing - August 1998) is that no one seems to know what the future of L3 will be. Will it be left to die after one year of implementation? If so, teachers' worst fears will be confirmed, namely, that getting better at teaching is not really valued and certainly not to be rewarded.

There is a desperate need in WA for a professional body, such as the newly established Centre for Excellence in Teaching in Fremantle, to take the lead here. What might such an agency do? For a start it could:

1. Develop professional standards of highly accomplished teaching that distinguish exemplary performance from that of novice and experienced teachers. These standards would be far more rigorous and powerful than anything produced so far for the AST and L3 classifications. Furthermore, they would apply equally to government and non government school teachers. Separate sets of standards would be developed for different subject specialisations and different stages of student schooling (eg. early childhood, middle childhood, early adolescence, adolescence and young adulthood). Unlike the AST, these standards would be developed by a group predominantly comprised of expert classroom teachers, not a working party of teacher employer and union representatives.

2. Offer advanced certification to teachers who can demonstrate they have reached standards of highly accomplished teaching.

3. Construct and administer a range of searching assessment tasks to determine whether teachers applying for advanced certification have reached high and rigorous professional standards. These tasks would include the types of tasks used for L3 selection; eg. a range of portfolio exercises, including videos and work samples; a day of oral and written activities at an assessment centre. For each applicant, at least half of the assessors of these tasks would have expertise specific to the subject taught by the applicant (in the case of secondary teachers) and expertise specific to the age level of the students taught by the applicant (in the case of primary and early childhood teachers).

4. Charge teachers, who apply for advanced certification, the cost of the assessment - probably about $500 per teacher.

5. Refuse to place quotas on the number or proportion of applicants who gain advanced certification, but make the standards and assessment high and rigorous.

6. Encourage teacher employers to (a) allow teachers to use their PD allocation as part payment for advanced certification assessment, and (b) pay teachers who succeed in gaining advanced certification a salary allowance of $6000.

All of this is not to deny that other types of reforms are unimportant. For example, David Hargreaves hit the mark in his article The new professionalism which was published in Teaching & Teacher Education in 1994 with his twin propositions, that: 'There is little significant school development without teacher development' and 'There is little significant teacher development without school development'. The problem is, over the past decade, it seems that in Western Australia far more emphasis has been placed on school development than teacher development. Why? Largely and arguably because it's cheaper. What seems to be overlooked in Western Australia, however, is that all the time and energy invested in school restructuring and curriculum reform will make no impact on student learning if the professional expertise teachers is left untouched.

What is the most powerful lever for lifting the quality of teaching within and across schools? So far as I can see, it is a career path in teaching consisting of: professional standards that give teachers direction about what they need to get better at; a credible process of high stakes summative teacher evaluation; and tangible incentives to energise teachers to strive to attain those standards (for more on this see, L. Ingvarson. & R. Chadbourne, Valuing teachers' work: New directions in teacher appraisal. Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research, 1994). When this lever is pulled in schools that have developed as professional learning communities, the momentum for widescale teacher development gathers pace at a noticeable rate.

Last year Western Australia was on the right track with the L3 initiative. But things seems to have come to a standstill. Someone needs to get the train moving again.

Rod Chadbourne, Department of Education Policy and Administrative Studies, Edith Cowan University.

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