Teach for Oz

Noel Pearson’s Cape York Institute has gotten some media attention recently for its proposal to establish a ‘Teach for Australia’ program, under which talented university graduates would work in disadvantaged schools for a couple of years, before going on to other careers. As they put it:

In the UK, the Teach First program targets top new graduates from universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, provides them with 6 weeks training, and then places them in hard-to-staff schools in disadvantaged areas. The graduates typically teach for 2 years only before embarking on their careers as lawyers, doctors or other professions. The program has become highly sought-after not only because it allows graduates to make a more direct contribution to their communities, but because it is now recognised by blue-chip companies and firms as an outstanding developmental experience. Consequently, being part of Teach First is a significant asset on a graduate’s resume.

Similarly, the Teach For America program targets students graduating from the top US colleges and young professions. It provides the recruits with 5 weeks of training and then places them in disadvantaged schools. Like the UK program, Teach For America is highly sought after. Last year, 19,000 applications were received resulting in 2,500 new Corps members. Eighty percent were new graduates and 20 percent were young professionals. The Teach For America brand provides recognition that a participant is a top graduate with significant leadership and communication skills.

The notion of encouraging high-fliers to teach just for a few years (with only a few months’ training) will strike many as pretty radical. But the proposal cites research on Teach for America that suggests these teachers outperform other starting teachers, and even the more sanguine evidence (eg. work by Jonah Rockoff and coauthors) has Teach for America teachers being no worse. There’s also a less quantifiable benefit that flows from having the next generation of Australian leaders spend time directly confronting disadvantage.

At a time when we’re not exactly spoiled for new ideas in Indigenous education, this one just might be worth experimenting with.

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16 Responses to Teach for Oz

  1. Harry says:

    An aspect of this proposal that I like is that it opens up the idea is that people can move easily into and out of teaching. My impression is that graduates are increasingly interested in pursuing multiple careers and teaching does not accommodate this preference very well. Once you’ve had 5-10 years experience as a teacher, what other careers can you move sideways into?

    One possible spin-off of programs like Teach First and Teach for America is that some of those teachers return for a second go later in life, as they make one of several career switches. In other words, increased teacher mobility could increase the size of the potential teacher labour force. Just speculation – I’d be interested if anyone has tested the idea?

  2. Andrew, it’s not a criticism of you, but calling the idea of getting the best and brightest as teachers ‘radical’ is a sad reflection on the state of affairs today. I was an informal ‘teach first’ person which is to say that I wanted to teach for two or three years for the experience and because it was a Good Thing to do and then I wanted to move on. Doing a whole year of a Grad Dip to get the opportunity was pretty farcical. I made sure to do it on the minimum amount of time commitment I could give it – I worked full time and ‘studied’ full time. In fact the Grad Dip I did was a complete joke. It consisted of three subjects – the psychology of education, the philosophy of education and the sociology of education. (This is course design by word association).

    It was the only course I took at uni where I made a rule never to go to lectures and just to minimise my involvement. It was easy to pass on what I’d guess was about three or four week’s work. The exception was of course prac teaching which was very useful and one would always provide that support and quite a bit else besides to anyone trying to learn to teach.

    But as kids and teachers already know, and as econometrics is confirming, university learning on the subject of how to teach doesn’t help much compared with practical experience and whether one’s personality melds well with the job.

    Sad that we’ve encrusted it all with largely unaccountable credentialism. And we even have proposals to extend the credentials to Masters! By all means resource teachers to do a Masters if that’s what they want. It would be valuable. But requiring them to? Ridiculous.

  3. conrad says:

    “to teach just for a few years”

    I imagine a few years to most people is really a lot of time (probably even moreso for your talented 18 year old looking forward to a great career in something else).

  4. Bring Back CL's blog says:

    I confirm Nick’s observations on the grad Dip ed.

    It is the only course I have ever hated at Uni.

    By comparison Accounting was brilliant.

    The DpiEd was a waste of time dominated by leftwingers and in some cases very poor research.

    Practical teaching is much better but even there it can be visibly improved.

  5. Patrick says:

    I think it is a great idea but, in agreement I think with everyone else here, I don’t see any reason to restrict it to grads. Why not get just about anyone with some decent level of achievement a shot? Surely maths might be more interesting being taught by experienced engineers? My calculus was taught by a Russian nuclear physicist whose off the cuff familiarity with ballistics always made lessons more interesting!

  6. Robert says:

    If this had existed two years ago, I’d have applied. In fact, I did some research into the UK and US programs.

    The only problem is that law and history/politics degrees don’t fit easily into the courses they desperately need teachers for. Maths or science? No worries. In fact, I’m pretty sure you can do Teach First in the UK on secondment from Deloittes — two years as a teacher, then a guaranteed job in business. That’s the kind of partnership that will really let these programs take off.

  7. Dale Bailey says:

    As a university lecturer, I am aware that many students, especially those substantially funding themselves through university, are concerned at getting out and getting a job to repay their HECS debts. Also, in a competitive job market they might perceive that not applying for jobs on graduation would let their fellow graduates get a head-start and experience on them. I wonder if an added incentive might be to wipe out a year of HECS debt for each year of teaching they do?

  8. Tanya says:

    Folks, it is worth reading through the submission. For instance, they aren’t looking at requiring a GD, but instead will do 8 weeks intensive training and the program will initially focus on primary ed and therefore will require more general knowledge.

    It’s a good proposal but there are quite a few holes. Pearson seems so intent on pointing out that just about everyone is an incompetent idiot that he fails to consider major issues like how Australia’s very remote, often third-world-like communities do not at all compare the much more densely populated, ‘connected UK and US. A posting to the Yorkshire Dales or Detroit isn’t quite the same as a posting to Arakun. Getting a talented (probably partnered, probably with kids) experienced teacher or even a fancy pants recent grad to move to these communities is very difficult at any salary level. Where would your partner work? Are you going to send your kids to the one and only school in the area?

    And why would anyone do it with just about no job security?: i.e. performance is assessed at the end of 12 months. That’s good until you think about how people do plan for the future. So should they take the assessment period back to the, say, 6 months? How on earth are serious advances meant to be made in such a difficult environment?

    It’s a good idea but as per usual with the very-capable Pearson, a little toning down of the rhetoric and a bit more thought would be helpful.

  9. Patrick says:

    I know quite a few very very fancy-pants grads (ie first-class honours lawyers, bankers, etc) who actually did programs like the Australian youth aid abroad or whatever it is program, helping in Africa and Tonga, amongst other places further away than Arukun.

    Also, I would have thought that job security was besides the point – you are only there for two years surely only gross incompetence would get you sacked?

    Worrying that you won’t get a response reminds me of the fun Tim Blair had with the Howard-era-trend of whinging lefty hacks writing about the ‘cold uncaring country’ Howard had fashioned. TB just pointed out in response the consistent increase in giving over the Howard years to record levels (surely mainly due to the economy, but still effectively refuting the imbecilic argument).

  10. conrad says:

    Actually, on Tanya’s point about holes in the proposal, isn’t it also the case that some of these remote communities use a pidgeon English that is quite hard to understand? If that’s the case, I imagine that the amount of time you would need to spend before a benefit could be obtained would be much more depending on how long it takes to be able to understand the local dialect well.

  11. Tanya says:

    Patrick, as I read the proposal, they are looking for results beyond the merely adequate. They are also reappoint on an annual – not two-yearly – basis.

    My concern is about renewal after one year, specifically, that assessment occurs at the end of the first year. It’s for very good reasons that Teach for America (BTW, a surprisingly under-studied program) is a two year program. The combination of the difficult task and short time line may unnecessarily restrict the amount of highly-capable applicants. Annual reviews after the first two years would be fine.

    Re the location issues, well, this program isn’t really the Aussie domestic Peace Corps. A posting to some of these communities isn’t quite as groovy as a South Pacific island: that sounds pathetic but it is the psychology of the situation …. especially when combined with kind of achievement requirements that really are not there for recent-graduate postings to the south Pacific. However, I wonder if the location plus the initial short assessment period is more of an impediment for the senior “Fellows” that they are looking to recruit. After all, as the proposal states, the placement of graduates is completely contingent on the recruitment and placement of the Fellows.

    Conrad, creole is somewhat of a concern* but I’d predict that wide-spread cognitive impairment and social issues (i.e. attendance) will present greater challenges. One of the interesting aspects of this proposal is that it involves folk from Macquarie who developed a literacy program called MULTILIT that has been tested in indigenous communities. Let’s hope that the combination of pedagogical reform and highly capable teachers

    * You’ve reminded me of the day that I arrived at a community in WA years ago. A bunch of the local kids turned up to check out the newby. At the fastest speaking pace that you can imagine, they asked “You from over east? Come by skinny dog truck? Wanna kangaroo with me?” After a comparatively slow translation by fellow easterner, I was able to reply with “yes, I caught the Greyhound bus from Queensland and no, I don’t think any of us are ready for ‘marriage’ quite yet”.

  12. Tanya says:

    Patrick, can you provide a link to those stats on philanthropic giving? My understanding is there is very little longitudinal data on giving in Australia. There is some 1997 and 2005 data but there problems associated with collection methods, reliability, and extraordinary factors like the Tsunami and it doesn’t cover the pre-Howard years. It would be great if we had data that included not simply amounts and receiving organizations but also income, social background, voting behaviour, and opinions of the state and federal government’s performance in areas to which they do and do not donate.

  13. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Tanya the data you want doesn’t exist (AFAIK). The ATO does report at an aggregate level the amount of philantropy that is claimed for tax purposes.

  14. Tanya says:

    Thanks, Sinclair. The situation is as I thought.

  15. David says:

    As a medical student, I think it would be wonderful if there was a program that allowed me to teach for 2 years after graduating. I wonder though that given there is clear research that Masters degrees do not add value, whether or not Grad Diplomas have any evidence base to support their significance as a barrier to teaching.

  16. Verdurous says:

    Great to see focus on improved indigenous education.

    3 comments though:

    a) focus on new grads may be misplaced. In medicine, it is very easy to convince uni applicants to sign-up for indentured time in remote areas after completion. The carrot is either monetary or the promise of preferential Uni place offer.

    This can lead to the least experienced doctors working in the most under-resourced and isolated locations. They are often single and at the age of looking for a partner – which can be a challenge given their locations. Disgruntled to say the least. I fear a similar problem with teaching grads. A medical degree is the start of the learning process, not the end. Perhaps true of teaching.

    b) as a human rights issue, don’t theses students deserve to be taught by someone from their own background. Perhaps these wads of dollar notes might be better spent strengthening and expanding programs such as Queensland’s RATEP program.
    http://www.ratep.jcu.edu.au/ . Surely this will help outcomes and attendance. Not to mention cultural revitilisation.

    c) David (above) – Time better spent healing people mate. There’s plenty of remote work around.

    d) Noel Pearson is loved by the blue bloods, but from where I’m standing (remote, indigenous community) he’s viewed very poorly indeed. I suspect (and hope) he’ll disappear into the shadows with the change of government.

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