Money can’t buy status: Why Labor’s pitch to improve teaching is tragically misguided

Article published on ABC, Thu 19 May 2022

Amid the cacophony of noise that the 2022 federal election campaign has generated, Labor has tried to respond to alarming teacher shortages and the so-called “disaster” of student test scores by pledging to “pay students who get an ATAR of 80 or over up to $12,000 a year if they decide to study an education degree”. For reference, an ATAR here refers to the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) and the current minimum rank for education degrees is normally around 65-70.

The truth is that most people don’t care about a teachers’ ATAR score. Nor do they care about a teacher’s success in LANTITE (Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education), the “unfair and costly” test introduced at the request of the federal government in 2016 to “assess whether pre-service teachers are prepared for the numeracy (and literacy) demands of their profession”.

Last I checked, parents are mostly interested in their child’s wellbeing and how they are progressing.

I remember hearing Peter Lewis, from the Centre for Responsible Technology, ask on ABC’s The Drum who is driving the fixation on data and numbers: “it’s not the parents — I’m not asking for more data about my kids”. The answer is politicians. This is why throughout Labor’s election campaign, we’ve seen tired policies resurrected — in this case, the nauseating cash splash to entice “high achievers” to enter the profession. What’s next? Perhaps a meat tray for teachers who do an extra playground duty.

The sad reality is that every time a politician claims that schools urgently need the “brightest” to sign up to become teachers, the implication is that our current teachers are the opposite — the dullest. This feeds into the negative public perception that not only are teachers blameworthy and incompetent, but that teaching itself is unintellectual. In fact, a pre-service teacher once told me that because she received a high ATAR rank, she was going to quit her teaching degree and do medicine instead. Teaching, she said, wasn’t “intellectual enough”. (Privately, I questioned her own intellect, given how poorly she understood the rigour involved in teaching well.)

Remember that Albert Camus, after receiving the Nobel Prize, thanked his primary school teacher, Louis Germain, in a letter:

Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened … [Y]our efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.

We will never know if Camus’s teacher was either the “best” or the “brightest”, what he would have scored on an ATAR, or whether he would have passed the LANTITE test. But why would we care about arbitrary numbers when Camus’s teacher was clearly able to impart knowledge to young people in a transformative way? As Helen Vnuk, puts it, “there’s no point in having a huge amount of knowledge unless you’re good at passing that on”.

Yes, we need more people to enter the teaching profession. Yes, we want talented, bright people. But cash incentives do nothing to address the challenges that await teachers on the other side, and which lead to the high attrition rate. With poor infrastructure, low status, increased administrative demands, and a decline in young people’s mental health, it’s clear we need teachers who are not just high achievers on paper, but who have exceptional interpersonal skills, are creative and flexible, brilliant multitaskers, as well as innovative and empathic.

Unsurprisingly, research shows patchy results for incentivising polices like Labor has proposed. For instance, the UK has spent over £1 billion on bursaries to attract people into the teaching profession, but it was reported that “no one knows if they work”. A government study in 2018 revealed that “graduates given bursaries of up to £26,000 to train as teachers were less likely to get jobs in schools than those without bursaries”. Even now in the UK, bursaries aren’t keeping pace with the creep of low pay, long hours, and COVID-19, which have combined to drive out large numbers of teachers from the profession.

Here in Australia, we’ve all met that person who says, “teachers get too many holidays”. By bringing in cash incentives — which over four years could amount to $48,000 — this negative perception will increase. Only this time, they’ll be able to say, “teachers get too many cash bonuses to just get on and do the job”. Could we blame them?

Considering some schools have such bad infrastructure that “students avoid eating or drinking throughout the day so they don’t have to use their school’s ‘absolutely disgraceful’ toilets”, it would be fair to resent taxpayer money being funnelled away from actual schools and into the bank accounts of student teachers. According to Yvonne Hilsz, vice-president of the Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations of New South Wales, “some school toilets don’t have working soap dispensers, the doors don’t lock, they’re dark and they stink from decades [sic] worth of urine soaking into tiling grout”.

The cash incentive idea was first proposed in a 2019 Grattan Institute report. Grattan has also come up with other brilliant ideas in their “Making time for great teaching” guide for principals to combat workload pressure. Choice ideas include: “increasing class sizes to ‘buy’ extra preparation time”, and “shifting some curriculum planning and preparation activities to non-term time” to improve teacher well-being and reduce the risk of burnout. Non-term time?  Isn’t that also called holidays? Difficult to see how forcing teachers to work during their holidays would assist with burnout-related resignations.

Jordana Hunter, Education Program Director at Grattan, says we need to correct the misconception that “teaching is not as intellectually challenging as perhaps an alternative career might be”. This is a great suggestion, but ironically, it’s the Grattan Institute who advocate for learning materials to be provided to teachers to curb their workload. For instance, Grattan’s “Making time for great teaching” guide frames lesson planning and curriculum design as time wasting and “re-inventing the wheel”, suggesting that teachers could “save time if they had high-quality common unit plans, lesson plans and assessments — saving 3 hours a week on average”.

This echoes a growing call from some teachers to take the lesson planning and curriculum design elements out of the teaching role, and instead place this responsibility in the hands of commercialised edu-businesses. However, the danger with this trend is that it implies that the reason for the education system’s failures is that teachers are not able to do what they are ostensibly being paid to do. It makes sense that the edu-business industry would therefore seek to profit from this tragically misguided idea. Illustrating that the edu-businesses have preyed on this growing sentiment, Jane Caro writes that “marketers from the global education industry have spent decades persuading us that public education is ‘failing’ and needs fixing”.

Anna Hogan explains that we’ve seen the commercialisation of education already in the NAPLAN market, in which countless practice tests, online programs, student workbooks, and professional development programs are marketed in a way that “capitalises on the anxieties of schools and teachers”. She therefore warns: “if edu-businesses continue to proliferate like they have in recent years, education has the potential to be monopolised by for-profit agendas”; we must “protect public education and our expertise as deliverers of it”.

Certainly, lesson planning takes time, but most teachers find a healthy balance between creating and refining their own resources, sharing within professional networks, and using an array of educational textbooks or online resources. But, more importantly, most teachers agree with what my first-year teacher colleague recently said to me — lesson planning is one of the most creative and rewarding parts of the job.

If, upon graduation, teachers were no longer expected to have expertise in the design and delivery of quality lesson plans, it is difficult to see how the status of the profession would improve, or how the community could support costly scholarship incentives. Moreover, keeping the “best and brightest” teachers would prove difficult if the most creative and intellectually stimulating aspect of the job was taken away.

Tanya Plibersek wishes to see people competing to get into teaching “like they do to get into medicine or law”. However, teaching does not share the same high status as these professions. In fact, as Scott Klimekwrites, “it’s plausible that the media’s representation of teachers, consistent political criticism, poor teacher compensation, and a public that undervalues teaching may be eroding the perception of teacher’s esteem”.

Jal Mahta, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, puts it even more forcefully: the problem in our schools “is not the people — teachers are working heroically, and students are persevering under highly adverse circumstances. The problem is that they are working within a structure that is working against them.”

If we were to address the low status of teachers in Australia, as well as take proactive steps to alleviate some of the structural pressures that work against teachers, then cash incentives for would-be teachers would be obsolete. Instead, they would enter the profession not only because they perceive it to be highly valued and respected in our society, but because they understand it can be intellectually rigorous, too.

3 thoughts on “Money can’t buy status: Why Labor’s pitch to improve teaching is tragically misguided

  1. Always so good to read your critical thoughts on education, and to hear a clear voice of reason amid all the political rhetoric and point-scoring!


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