Teaching the Public to Denigrate the Professional Training of Teachers

Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Chloe Baker reports:

“Aspiring teachers who can’t spell or count will no longer graduate, with a new national literacy and numeracy exam being introduced in Australia’s universities. . . . A pilot program will be introduced in August. Student teachers tested as part of the pilot will still graduate even if they flunk the exam. But as of next year, those who fail can expect to look for another vocation.”

More specifically: “Student teachers’ understanding of syntax, grammar and punctuation will be put to the test, with a sample exam paper including problems such as spotting sentences without errors. They will also be asked to find the percentage of funding remaining in an education budget and calculate a student’s marks.”

Baker quotes the following justification for the new tests offered by Education Minister Christopher Pyne:

“’For too long there have been public concerns about the variability in the quality of teaching graduates and in the effectiveness of existing ­programs in preparing new teachers. Testing key aspects of the personal literacy and numeracy skills of aspiring teachers will assist higher education providers, teacher employers and the general public to have absolute confidence in the skills of graduating teachers.”

By the way, Pyne himself has absolutely no experience or expertise in education. He has served in the Australian legislature since 1993, and he has a law degree. So, although he has better credentials than Arne Duncan, who is the only member of President Obama’s cabinet without a graduate degree, actually being an educator is apparently not a criterion for heading the departments of education in either country.

The justification for the new national exam in Australia is ostensibly a report titled Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers, which “found [that] many teaching degrees were mired in theory, lack practical training, and did not equip new teachers with the skills to teach students maths [sic] and science.”

But Baker adds: “However, it rejected calls to introduce minimum university entrance scores for teaching degrees or compulsory postgraduate qualifications for teachers.”

So, the gist of this seems to be that the report did not say that Australian teachers are underqualified—or, more to the point, that they are basically stupid–but, instead, that their training should involve more emphasis on developing skills that they will need to use in the classroom.

Ironically, Baker closes her article with the following details: “The average ATAR (tertiary entrance rank) for education courses in Victoria was 61.9 last year, dropping as low as 40.25. This compares to an ATAR of 98.95 for biomedicine at Melbourne University and 98 for law at Monash University.” So, the implication is, after all, that Australian teachers—or at least education majors are stupid.

But, if Australian graduation rates are at all comparable to those in the U.S., the scores of all education majors will not reflect those of the students who actually complete the degrees. So, the emphasis on the very low scores is very misleading. In addition, the comparisons to the students in bio-medicine and law– to the students in two of the most demanding programs at two of Australia’s most elite universities–are also so narrowly selective as to be meaningless. I am absolutely certain that the scores of students in many—no, in most–other programs, outside of education, at universities across Australia also do not measure up to those scores.

There are two very conspicuous ironies in all of this very persistent denigration of teachers.

First, we do not subject graduates in any other discipline to exit examinations that test such basic knowledge because we assume that anyone who is so grossly underprepared but has somehow managed to graduate will be quickly exposed in the workplace: that is, in every discipline, there are a few individuals who are incompetent, but in no discipline beyond education do we subject the whole population of professionals to such examinations in order to weed out the very few who are incompetent.

Second, I am not sure what the case is in Australia, but here in the U.S., the most vocal denigrators of professionally trained teachers have also been the most vocal advocates of such cheap alternatives as Teach for America—that is, the most vocal advocates of the idea that anyone with a baccalaureate degree in any discipline can be transformed into an excellent teacher with just several brief months of training. The two arguments in tandem are so ridiculously absurd that the fact that they have gained any traction whatsoever—never mind the fact that they have dominated our public discussion of issues related to public education–indicates that the core problem is not that a few teachers may be stupid but, instead, that political reporting and commentary and political awareness among the electorate have become so “dumbed down” that such an absurdity continues to have any legitimacy whatsoever.

By the way, I cannot help but wonder how many members of the Australian legislature would fail the exit examination now being imposed on Australian teachers. Certainly basic literacy and basic math skills are even more essential to those shaping national policy than they are for those teaching a few dozen children for a given year.

I would be willing to bet a month’s pay that some of the members of the U.S. House and Senate would fail such a test.


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