Testing Teachers

The myth of teacher as superhero (and other bad messages) peddled by hit TV series

It makes good cinema to put six bright and passionate teacher recruits into some of the most underserved schools and communities in Australia and follow them around. When the filming is by Screentime (think Underbelly crime drama series, Outback Coroner, Outback ER) it is no wonder the result is highly entertaining and heart-touching.

But we believe the messages about teaching and disadvantaged communities that the recent series on SBS, Testing Teachers, sold to all of its viewers are so bad we have to call them out and unpack them. 

The bad messages

The superhero myth

One of the worst messages this series perpetuates is the teacher as a Hollywood superhero. The Western teacher superhero rescues a lucky few students who live and learn in some of the most remote and poorest regions in Australia. New teachers are positioned as self-less “saviours” whose creativity and perseverance are sufficient to bring about change in apparently “hopeless” conditions.

The program focuses on the first year of 6 ‘cherrypicked’ (narrator’s language) Teach for Australia recruits who are all altruistic high achievers with self-admittedly privileged educational backgrounds. The heroic abilities of these eminently likeable protagonists are demonstrated through the supporting characters of the disruptive, apathetic, traumatised, and bullied students they are able to rescue and turnaround.

The eventual success of these teachers with their students is implied through carefully selected test scores and anecdotal notes. This selective use of quantifiable evaluation methods is a trademark of the brand along with its steadfast refusal to explain the lack of rigour in the evaluation studies.

The documentary does not tell us about the high physical and emotional cost paid by these recruits to maintain this intensity of work in a climate that constantly demands measurable improvements in student performance.

And significantly, what is unsaid but implied is that current teachers and school leaders are clueless or incompetent or unaccountable, that only a few mercenaries dropped in can salvage a system in perpetual chaos and crisis.

Perpetuating stereotypes

The show perpetuates enduring stereotypes about students from poor, Aboriginal and culturally diverse backgrounds. In each episode it selectively engages with uncited research about disadvantaged schools that reinforce deficit narratives about Aboriginal and low-income communities. For example there are descriptions of poor, working-class, disengaged parents and oft-repeated statistics on low attendance of Aboriginal students, as well as alcohol abuse by Aboriginal adults.

These communities are presented to us through a single lens, with no mention of efforts by everyday teachers, schools and communities to overcome systemic neglect and inspire children with a love for learning.

Indeed, with the exception of the student at Tennant Creek, there is little positive recognition for the parents, teachers, and other community members who positively shape the lives of these students.

Normalising the growing gap

These stereotypical representations work to normalise the growing gap in educational and economic opportunity in an increasingly unequal society. In doing so, Testing Teachers renders itself indistinguishable from three decades of ‘Hollywoodised’ documentaries and films about public education which have deflected attention from the structural forces that exacerbate educational disadvantage and inequity.

The program effectively diverts an informed public debate about how to recruit, prepare, employ, and retain the best new teachers.

For our society as a whole, the message is that it is perfectly acceptable for low SES and Aboriginal children and parents to settle for poorly prepared low-cost, fly-in/fly-out teachers from privileged backgrounds. Would you accept untrained educators on short-term contracts, however gifted and talented, to teach your children?

Students just need motivation

For students and their parents in disadvantaged communities, the message is that they should be motivated to learn and achieve, regardless of their learning conditions.

Teaching qualifications and experience are not very important

To the teaching profession at large the message is that only those who were good at ‘doing school’ can teach. Clearly, graduates can teach well without prior preparation in pedagogy, curriculum, or respect and understanding of community, history and people in a school community. Worse still, it is okay to test out whether you want to teach by using the most disadvantaged children.

Selling the Teach for Australia brand as a ‘silver bullet’

Of course Teach for Australia has plenty of money to get the ‘good stories’ out about its program. So it is no surprise that this SBS program fails to present the public with a complete picture about Teach for Australia.

It is an entrepreneurial organisation that provides high-achieving but inexperienced teacher recruits to schools in disadvantaged communities on short-term two-year contracts. While Teach for Australia is relatively new in Australia, it is essentially a clone of a deeply controversial 25-year-old, US organisation Teach for America. The latter has become an elite status symbol in the USA by offering recruits a combined opportunity for paid community service, immediate employability, and resume building. A majority of recruits move on after 2 years into top graduate schools and thereafter into high paid careers in education leadership and policy including within TFA’s own lobbying organisation – Leadership for Excellence and Equity.

The Teach for America model is now in 39 countries around the world and at the forefront of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) which seeks to casualise teachers deprofessionalise the teaching profession and thus, advance the privatisation of public education.

The rise of Teacher for America, et al ignores the increasing body of literature that indicates that young people in Teach for America classrooms actually are more likely to do worse in the long run on academic performance than those in classrooms with properly prepared teachers. In addition, the short-term nature of Teach for Australia, Teach for America, etc. commodifies the teaching profession by providing cheap short-term labour rather than addressing profound social equity issues including racism and health, housing, transportation and adult educational issues that are all part of the issues faced in the schools profiled.

Despite contested claims of effectiveness, its wealthy backers, and a media strategy with seemingly limitless resources, have facilitated the rapid global expansion of the “TFA” brand. Building on the US model, TFA is financed by a powerful global network of corporate players (including Google, Rolls Royce ), venture philanthropists (Gates, Walton, Robertson, and Bezos Foundations), international financial institutions (including Visa and the World Bank) as well as public monies from national/federal and local governments.

What has also helped the brand is a disturbing trend of uncritical media coverage from corporate news media outlets which has been documented by numerous education researchers. In Australia too, Testing Teachers has received favourable coverage from leading Australian news outlets across the ideological spectrum. To begin with, reviewers for SBS, the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald reviewers all failed to notice that TFA is not new in any sense of the word. A little more homework would have also revealed the striking resemblance between TT and other equally well-financed, recent documentaries showcasing the TFA approach e.g. Tough Young Teachers (BBC3 – UK, 2014) and multiple documentaries by US filmmaker Davis Guggenheim .

While the use of language and cultural symbols is contextualised to the viewing audience, the plot or storyline and take-away messages do not vary. The setting is always a disadvantaged/needy/challenging school and within these schools, we are only shown the classrooms with students who are unregulated/disruptive/tricky characters and of course, the superhero teachers.

Missing from this silver bullet solution is the historical context of a profession that is being systematically casualised under the rhetoric of austerity and efficiency. The argument should be that these bright new teachers are able to quickly gain traction in difficult situations and show results better than the ill qualified person who may have been casualised. They do not substitute for a traditionally prepared teacher.

The issue remains why our best new teachers are not seeking jobs in diverse schools throughout the country and why incentives have not been implemented to ensure every child has a highly qualified new teacher.

Media messages matter

Images about teaching and communities matter. This series was indeed entertaining. It may well inspire graduates to join TFA for a short-term teaching stint but will it inspire the kind of long-term commitment needed to provide equal educational opportunity for every Australian child? Undoubtedly, this promotional documentary will help more money to pour in to the TFA coffers (the results TFA is paying for). However the damage the bad messages do to the teaching profession and to Australia’s disadvantaged students and communities is immeasurable.

As educators and educational researchers, we believe we need to call out those bad media messages when we see them.

Nisha Thapliyal is Lecturer, Comparative and International Education at the University of Newcastle. Nisha’s research focuses on education equity, community-based activism and the democratisation of education policymaking. Nisha can be reached at nisha.thapliyal@newcastle.edu.au or on twitter @NishaT4edu

John Fischetti is Professor and Head of School/Dean of Education at the University of Newcastle. John’s research focuses on reframing teacher education, school reform and learner-focussed teaching. John can be reached at john.fischetti@newcastle.edu.au or on twitter @fischettij

Here’s what is wrong with testing teachers and Teach For Australia

Soul-searching and navel gazing into the quality of teaching and teacher education in Australia has been rife lately. There were already concerns about the decline in Australia’s international rankings. Then came the Grattan Report that identified a lack of engagement amongst large numbers of students in Australia’s schools. More recently we have series showing on SBS called Testing Teachers that focuses on a controversial model that proposes to put ‘quality’ teachers into our most disadvantaged schools.

All of this of course is adding to the panic, particularly among politicians, about seeking ‘solutions’ to the ‘crisis’ in teacher quality and teacher education.

Does any of this feel familiar? Such levels of public concern about the state of education in Australia are not uncommon: in fact, there have been more than 30 reports into education in the last few decades. These reports have identified a range of issues that are contributing to the ‘failure’ of Australia’s education system.

In this blog post I will look at two of the most commonly offered solutions as a means of ‘fixing’ teacher education: the ATAR solution and the Teach for Australia solution.

Raise the ATAR solution

The low ATAR requirements for teacher education programs are often cited as a reason for our declining rankings in international measures: the argument is that, as ATARs are demand-based, the low ATAR indicates that the ‘best and brightest’ university entrants are choosing other courses rather than teacher education, and hence students are not benefiting from being taught by the brightest individuals in Australia.

The solution to this is to artificially raise the ATAR, or the requirements for entry into teaching courses, or to cap the number of places available in order to increase demand.

Such arguments generally fail to acknowledge that many students enter teacher education courses via a non-ATAR pathway – but this leads to other possible solutions, like Literacy and Numeracy tests for pre-service teachers, although one must ask why, if pre-service teachers have graduated from Year 12 and completed most of a degree at university, they need to demonstrate literacy and numeracy that must surely have been needed to complete these courses in the first place.

The Teach for Australia solution

Another solution proffered, and the one I want to concentrate more on, is the adoption of programs like Teach for Australia. The TFA program is the one featured by the now running SBS series, Testing Teachers. Since the TFA program started in Australia in 2009 it has received significant amounts of money from the federal government. Teach for Australia is a teacher education program that is modelled on similar programs that already exist in the USA and the UK. The organization sees itself as a ‘remedy for social and educational inequity by employing outstanding individuals’. These outstanding individuals are required to have already completed (or be about to complete) a Bachelor’s degree, with a high credit average. There is particular emphasis on recruiting students from the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines.

The candidates undertake an application process, and if accepted into the Teach For Australia program, they undertake a 13 week training course. This is comprised of 7 weeks online training and 6 weeks face to face training. At the conclusion of the training, these ‘associates’ as they are now called, are placed in an educationally disadvantaged school for a period of two years. During these two years, associates will teach an 80% load, and they will be mentored both in the school and from an educational academic. At the successful conclusion of the 2 year program, they will receive a Masters degree.

Not surprisingly, despite the support of successive Federal Governments, there has been significant criticism of the TFA program from teachers and their unions and from education academics. The Australian Education Union (AEU) has stated that the program is an ‘expensive failure’, and there is certainly evidence that TFA does cost more than the usual teacher education program. The average across Australian institutions for a teacher program is $23 000, whereas TFA (according to 2013 figures) costs approximately $100 000. Whether it is a failure is more challenging to identify, mainly because there is a lack of research into the efficacy of TFA associates.

The Australian Council for Education Research (ACER 2013) identified that the program was successful in recruiting suitable, academically able graduates. After one year, principals considered the teachers to be as effective as other teachers, and perhaps more effective by the end of the second year. The report stops short of saying it is more effective than other approaches to teacher education, and it identifies the high cost of the program and its small scale as potential difficulties in the future.

The Centre for Independent Studies Senior Research Fellow, Jennifer Buckingham, in a comment about Teach For Australia suggests there is little objective data about the educational impact, but goes on to cite TFA’s own report that claims 90% of TFA associates have a greater impact on student achievement than other graduate teachers. Buckingham also cites overseas programs (Teach for America and Teach First) as examples of success, but provides no further details about how such success was measured or who did the measuring. Indeed, the research into TFA’s international cousins is no less problematic. Educational researchers from the US describe Teach for America as a harmful public policy, where teachers from the program provide significantly lower outcomes than certified teachers. Professor of Education at Stanford University, Linda Darling-Hammond, supports this assessment.

The sustainability of the program is also enough to cause concern amongst the teaching profession. According to TFA’s own data, 70% of associates remain in the profession after the two-year program. Further analysis of the data is not available, so it is unclear for how much longer these associates remained teaching. It should be noted that the program is still in its infancy. However, Senate Estimates suggest that less than half of the original cohort of 45, who began in 2010, are still teaching.

We are asking the wrong questions about TFA

Ultimately, these are the wrong questions to be asking about Teach for Australia or even teacher education programs. Few people involved in this space would argue that teachers have a central role to play in the future development and success of Australia. For this reason, we need to adopt the best practices in teacher education, so that the teacher profession is highly motivated, skilled and capable.

The question should not be whether TFA associates are better than traditional teacher graduates – considering the more high-achieving pool that TFA draws from, and the significantly higher levels of support that are provided to TFA associates over the course of their two year placement, a better question is why is there not compelling evidence that associates are significantly better than their colleagues? Considering the extra levels of support and the increased expenditure, surely TFA associates should be outperforming their fellow teachers in all areas.

There is no evidence to suggest that this is the case. Instead, the evidence suggests that, TFA associates are, at best, on par with their colleagues. In this context, then, it is interesting to question why this is the case. It is my argument that, as models of teacher education go, TFA has some valuable practices, but it is not sufficient in and of itself to provide Australia with the quality teachers that it requires. Thirteen weeks of training might be enough to provide associates with a modicum of understanding about teaching and learning, but there is much that is covered in traditional educational programs that would necessarily be excluded. This material is not mere ‘fluff’ to be casually discarded but is central to the practice of developing the knowledge and skills necessary for a teaching career.

Some ‘solutions’ that are not ‘quick fixes’

That is not to say that the TFA program is completely without worth; rather, there are elements to it that are worthy of consideration in more traditional teacher education programs. Instead of searching for ‘quick-fix’ solutions to the quality teacher crisis, (should we even accept that this is the issue, but that is a different blog post) we should invest the extra money into existing teacher education programs and to improve the professional development opportunities for teachers. Most importantly, extra investment should be spent on the time after a teacher enters the profession, as he or she begins to work towards proficient accreditation.

It is estimated that up to 50% of teachers leave teaching within the first five years of full time work. This is often attributed to either the crushing workload faced by teachers or the inability of teachers to find suitable permanent positions. Any solution to the issues facing teaching in Australia needs to address these serious hurdles and TFA does not do this.

Instead, we should be looking for a solution that provides all teachers with support throughout their career, but especially in the first 5 years. While many systems (including TFA, it must be said) provide mentoring and release time for teachers until they attain proficiency, it is true that many teachers leave the profession between their third and fifth year of full time teaching.

Teachers’ workloads have increased rapidly over the last decade. Two such examples are the collection and analysis of data and extra-curricular activities. In addition to the normal yearly and half-yearly examinations, some teachers are now expected to administer, prepare and review NAPLAN, practice NAPLAN, PAT-R, PAT-M, MAI and other tests as deemed necessary by the school. While the data might be valuable to the classroom teacher, it takes valuable time away from the actual teaching and learning. And it is not uncommon for teachers to be expected to ‘volunteer’ for a range of extra-curricular activities like coding clubs and sporting teams and social justice groups, some of which take place during pupil vacation periods or on weekends.

When faced with a workload that is often well in excess of 50 hours per week and the constant attacks on the quality of their work as professionals by some sections of the media and the government, it is hardly surprising that so many teachers leave the profession. Any solution needs to address these matters.

Rather, governments and employers need to work to reduce teacher workloads (80% of the current teaching load would be a good start). Such actions would improve the work-life balance of teachers, and this would help raise the status of the profession, which would in turn increase the desirability of teacher education courses. This is not a quick solution but it would be a sustainable one.

Keith Heggart is a Ph D student at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has previously been a teacher and school leader in Australia and the UK. He is also an organiser for the Independent Education Union. Keith works as a casual academic at Western Sydney University and the University of Technology, Sydney.