entry levels for teacher education

It takes more than a great ATAR to make a great teacher

The question of how to encourage the best candidates to become teachers in Australia is complex and requires much more than just standalone measures like mandatory levels of ATARs for teacher education students.

Educators like me welcome debate on educational issues, including this particular conversation around ATARs. We are keen to hear a range of views. However we are also very aware that public conversations often follow the loudest promoters of potential fixes for the woes of education. Unfortunately, many of these are led by bright ideas from political leaders, which are not supported by evidence.

The idea, fielded this week by Shadow Education Minister, Tanya Plibersek, to mandate a cap on places for teacher education courses to only those with minimum ATARs of 80, may sound like a great idea. Already it seems to have gained many supporters. However leaders in the field of teacher education, myself included, see this as yet another of those simplistic quick ‘fix’ ideas. It works well as a media grab for a politician but will do little to help encourage people into a teaching career.

In reality should any government act on Tanya Plibersek’s suggestion only a small percentage of the people who enter teacher education courses would be affected.

Had teacher educators been consulted we could have pointed out that fewer than one-in-four teacher education students who enter our universities are chosen on the basis of their ATAR alone. The landscape has changed and school leavers are exploring many other post-school options, rather than entering a program that prepares them for a vocation immediately after school completion.

According to the latest available statistics from AITSL at the undergraduate level, only 36% of commencing initial teacher education students entered straight from secondary education in 2016, which was a 1% decrease on the previous year. The statistics are not yet officially available, but it looks like this figure may have dropped to around 30% for 2019.

The point is fewer students are entering teacher education programs straight from school, and increasing numbers are entering after completing other careers, travel or after working overseas.

Evidence about what an ATAR can tell us

In 2014, the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report noted research findings that indicate ATAR is a good predictor of success for students entering university with strong secondary school performance, but loses predictive capability for those entering university with lower scores. Many students with average or comparatively low senior secondary results also do well once at university. However while this research suggests that rankings are clearly a very good predictor of performance in engineering, agriculture and science, the relationship is low for education.

On the evidence available to date we cannot definitively show that those with higher ATARs become better teachers. This is not to deter universities from encouraging high achieving school leavers into teaching, however a series of reforms are now in place to complement academic scores for would-be teachers. These reforms signal the importance of non-academic traits such as high-level interpersonal skills as well as high-level literacy and numeracy standards, attributes that are vitally important in teaching quality.

Other things we use to select students for teacher education courses

The push to raise ATARs ignores the range of selection methods that universities use to choose teacher education students with the right mix of academic and personal traits. These include looking at prior experience, interviews or psychometric tests (designed to measure a candidate’s suitability for the role).

It also does not take into account the hurdles that teacher education students must clear prior to graduation. Among other assessments, the literacy and numeracy test for initial teacher education students, and the new Teacher Performance Assessment ensure that teaching students meet the robust national teacher professional standards.

How media reporting of ‘low ATARs’ is misleading

The reporting of students with low ATARs being ‘allowed’ into teacher education is misleading and done without context. A student may be accepted into a university course with a lower ATAR than the published cut-off for a variety of reasons. These include:

  • The student has gained further experience and qualifications that supersede their ATAR, as their ATAR may have been acquired years before their university entry
  • The student has been given special consideration due to personal circumstances (such as the death of a parent) if their low ATAR doesn’t reflect prior academic performance
  • The student is a member of a disadvantaged group, and has been granted access to a pathway course during which they have proven they’re capable of undertaking teacher education.

This does not just happen with students entering teacher education courses. Many university courses take students with lower than the published cut-off ATAR (or with no ATARs) for the above, and other, reasons.

The damage uniformed public debate can inflict

Every outburst of public ATAR outrage further deters potential teachers for applying. This is at a time when applications for teacher education enrolments are plummeting as school student numbers are rising.

In 2018, there was a 7.8% national decline in undergraduate applications for teacher education courses and a national 8.9% drop in undergraduate offers for teacher education courses.

In Victoria, which introduced a minimum Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) of 65 in 2018, 22% fewer undergraduate offers were made in the first round – a situation that is likely to be further impacted as the Victorian minimum ATAR levels for teacher education rise to 70 this year.

This scenario is occurring when it is estimated that another 1612 primary and secondary schools will be required in Australia by 2028 ( based on average school size by sector for 2017 derived from ABS data). In NSW alone the prediction is there will be a 21% increase in student numbers by 2031, which means an extra 269,000 students needing teachers.

This is the conversation we should be having

We should be encouraging more potential teachers if we are to avoid a disastrous situation in the future. This means stemming the drop in teacher student applications and curtailing teacher shortages beyond traditionally hard-to-fill places areas.

We all want to attract and retain the best to teach this nation’s future. Instead of confrontational comments to media, let’s sit down and work out ways we can do this together.

Tania Aspland is a Professor in Teacher Education at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney and Dean, Education Policy and Strategy. She provides high-level advice on teacher education, governance and policy. Tania is President of the Australian Council of Deans of Education and sits on a number of boards for the Australian government. She also works closely with directors and leaders of school education in government, Catholic and the independent sectors. Tania’s research focuses on educational policy, leadership and reform, higher education curriculum and teacher education.

Do we need to raise scores for entry into teacher education courses in Australia?

A fierce debate is raging at the moment in political and education circles about the quality of recruits into teaching courses. Universities claim that university courses can mould pre-service (student) teachers into classroom ready, quality teachers therefore students with lower entry scores should not be excluded.

On the other hand there is a popular political argument that universities need to raise entry levels to teacher education courses in order to lift the quality of teaching in Australia. The idea is if Australia had better teachers we would get better results, especially in international rankings of literacy and numeracy.

Labour’s education spokesperson, Tanya Plibersek, joined the debate recently when she said entry standards for prospective teachers in Australia must be higher than they are currently because we need the cleverest candidates to instruct our children. She proposed incentives to get smarter students into teaching.

Several states, including NSW, are already imposing increased standards for entry to teaching courses, although there remains a lot of resistance from some universities.

I believe to meet the challenges of the future and to attract and retain high quality teachers, it is important for universities to understand pre-service teacher motivation and their development of those important teacher characteristics. So I decided to have a closer look at what is happening with our student teachers: whether higher entry levels make a difference and what effect teacher education courses have on the qualities that would make them ‘classroom ready’, such as self efficacy (that is belief in one’s own ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task), resilience and persistence.

My research shows that entry levels do indeed make a difference. It also shows, perhaps surprisingly, that current teacher education programs do not seem to be influencing the major characteristics important to teachers that recruits bring into the course at entry point.

How attributes and dispositions are currently included in selection criteria

As Plibersek pointed out, entry-level grades into teacher training courses have been on a downward trend since 2006. Data show that high school marks for prospective teaching students have declined over the past 10 years. However during this time there has been an increased interest in the characteristics and attributes, other than entry score to university courses, of successful teachers.

These characteristics are recognised in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers that drive initial teaching education course curriculum planning and policy, and determine whether pre-service (student) teachers and graduates are classroom ready. As well as literacy and numeracy benchmarks pre-service teachers must show they meet seven standards and sub-standards. These standards are underpinned by an emphasis on empathy and ethical dispositions and a set of skills that result from resourcefulness and adroit capacity to motivate students.

Selection criteria into initial teacher education courses now aim to draw upon the most suitable candidates by ascertaining these dispositional attributes. Universities contend that these attributes and dispositions go beyond academic grades and are more important because teaching, like medicine, is considered to be a vocation not merely a profession.

My study

I wanted to look more closely at what was happening with student teachers: whether university study made a difference to their personal attributes and whether their entry scores made a difference to whether they would complete their course or not. We know that a large proportion of pre-service teachers drop out of their courses before completing their qualification for a range of reasons.

My study tracked a cohort of 190 pre-service teachers enrolled in a B.Ed. degree or a Graduate Diploma of Education from their first semester at university through to their final year or when they left or completed the course. I surveyed the undergraduates several times, beginning with a survey at the end of their first semester at university and then every semester till the end of their 3rd year, a year prior to graduating. The post-graduate pre-service teachers were surveyed at the end of the first semester at university.

The surveys assessed a number of goals and character traits, such as the students’ resilience and persistence, as well as their self-efficacy for various aspects of teaching. This was based on the hypothesis that these attributes would change and develop as a result of their university training. Survey results were Rasch analysed and then imputed into structural equation models to examine the links between the survey factors and timely course completion.

As I had records of all students, including those who dropped out or did not complete the course, the characteristics of those who changed courses or dropped out were also analysed and compared to those who completed their degree.

My results show what makes a difference

My results showed no significant differences between undergraduate and post-graduate students’ self-efficacy, resilience and persistence and no significant differences in these characteristics between those who completed their degrees and those who did not.

So teacher education and a student’s experience at university did not influence those important aspects of character that are considered to be highly desirable of quality teachers. Therefore it is important that we do indeed select those who are already focused on achieving their goals and are already persistent.

However those character traits had no effect upon timely degree completion. What mattered as far as timely completion were the student’s grades. Higher grades and goal directedness were the strongest predictors of a timely completion. Post-graduate pre-service teachers were more likely than undergraduates to complete their course and within the undergraduate cohort those specialising in Early Childhood Education were least likely to complete their degree.

So indeed entry scores make a difference in whether a student is likely to successfully complete their teaching degree. Those students with higher scores and those who already have a degree are more likely to complete. Those with lower scores are more likely to drop out.

These findings pose a number of questions in relation to pre-service teacher recruitment and training. For instance: How do we best support and motivate aspiring preservice teachers throughout their degree courses to keep them engaged? What critical personal attributes of preservice teachers ensure that they have the capacity and resilience to complete their degree? Are there contextual factors that impact upon preservice teacher completion rates and how do they vary by specialisation?

More significantly my findings indicate that perhaps prospective teacher recruits need to have higher entry scores than are currently required by some universities, irrespective of other dispositional attributes, if they are to graduate and enter the profession.

Helen Boon is Associate Professor in the College of Arts, Society & Education at James Cook University. She is Head of Curriculum and Pedagogy in Education. She teaches in the areas of educational psychology, special needs and behaviour management.  Helen has a strong research interest in climate change and the intersection of ethics, climate change and adaptation to climate change. Helen initially trained in Chemistry and Physiology and then taught Chemistry and Mathematics for a number of years.  Her preferred research methods are quantitative, including statistical modelling and Rasch modelling. Helen has led a number of projects:  a WIL project with partners from the School of  Medicine, a Collaboration Across Boundaries Project with the School of Public Health, Tropical Medicine and Rehabilitation Sciences,  and an NCCARF funded project with the  School of  Earth and Environmental Sciences and Charles Sturt University.  Helen is currently working on an ARC funded project examining the most effective pedagogies for Indigenous students. Recent publications include a longitudinal study about climate change education and pre-service teacher attitudes and a paper about the dearth of ethics training in preservice teacher programs across Australia.

Helen is reporting on her research at the 2017 AARE conference today.

 2017 AARE  Conference

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