Teachers and test score trends

An interesting letter in today’s SMH responds to our study.

A STUDY has shown that the literacy and numeracy skills of Australian children are no better than they were 40 years ago (“Grades worse than in 1960s”, February 11). One of its authors, Andrew Leigh, suggested on ABC radio that the quality of teaching was to blame. Angelo Gavrielatos of the Australian Education Union disagreed, arguing that teachers “strive to achieve the highest possible standards” when they walk into a classroom. Well, that’s not the point, is it? Of course they do.

The problem arises when teachers are ill-equipped to nurture excellence in others because they cannot provide excellence themselves. You can’t teach what you don’t know.

I have recently left the profession after teaching German, English, Latin and history in Melbourne and Sydney for 24 years. I taught in the private system, my children attended state schools. The problem is the same everywhere, and it is getting worse.

My degree is from a German university, and from the beginning I was astonished by the limited training given to Australian teachers. English teachers who can’t spell and who have no idea about the structure of the language they teach, and history teachers without any foreign language skills, are increasingly the norm rather than the exception. I leave comments about the dangers of poorly trained science teachers who conduct laboratory experiments to others. Every school is careful not to talk about the near misses.

The root of the problem is pay. Pay is closely linked to social standing, and we do not value teachers.

Teaching is, according to people’s perception, what you do if you don’t make it anywhere else. Consequently bright people with class, ability and options look elsewhere for a career.

And so our schools are increasingly populated by teachers who are not very bright, well-educated or even well-mannered.

Foul language, oafish behaviour and professional ignorance fill the staff rooms and classrooms of even our most expensive private schools.

What can such people teach our young generation? The answer is disquieting.

How do we fix it? Demand a higher level of professional competence from teachers. Pay them a lot better. Social standing will follow, and then better candidates will choose the profession. It will take time, it will take money, it will take political courage, but our children are worth it.

Karin Wiese Lane Cove

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22 Responses to Teachers and test score trends

  1. Andrew, One aspect of our school privatisation debate last year that did not generate much discussion was my proposal to let schools set their own fees. Do you think teaching would have slipped so far relative to other professions if all schools could charge fees?

  2. derrida derider says:

    Andrew N, yes it would because the same forces on teachers’ wages would operate unchanged – perhaps even be intensified. Private schools would be just as keen to keep their wage costs down as governments, and there would be even less countervailing union pressure.

    If “those who can’t do, teach”, then our economy and society has changed to give much bigger rewards to the doers. It’s not so much that teaching is less attractive in absolute terms to the capable, but that other opportunities are so much better.

  3. DD – I agree with the proposition that as other attractive jobs became more readily available teaching would have declined as a choice, regardless of salaries.

    However, I am not convinced that the problem would be as dire as it is now with a privatised system. The government has used its power as the major employer to hold down wages below what the public was probably willing to pay (revealed preference in the case of private schools, all those surveys saying people are willing to pay more tax for more education spending).

    Private schools compete with each other partly on perceived quality of teaching, and would pay to get better staff, whereas competition between government schools for staff is weak to non-existent. In NSW, they are still fighting over whether schools should get any say in who joins their staff.

    So I think a privatised system would have leveraged in additional private investment, and let to higher average salaries.

  4. Andrew Leigh says:

    AN, it seems unlikely to me that this could have offset it by much. At an aggregate level, the median voter does set teacher salaries. My concern is that voters are not particularly well informed about the tradeoff between class size and teacher salaries.

  5. AL – Though the median voter is not likely to be as concerned by other people’s kids as his/her own, and may not trust governments to apply extra tax to schools (an old social democratic problem). We’ve seen from our private school experience that many parents will pay thousands a year to educate their kids, even though much of that goes to making up for their lost subsidy rather than adding to total education spending.

  6. Damien Eldridge says:

    In fact, the median voter theorem may not even apply here. When people vote, they are voting on a whole bundle of issues. As such, preferences are likely to be over multiple dimensions, not just one. Thus, even if you could find an ordering of proposed teacher salaries over which every voter had single peaked preferences, the other conditrions required for the median voter theorem may not apply. Of course, maybe the conditions underlying the theorem are sufficient but not necessary (I don’t know whether or not this is the case), in which case it might still hold. But it is unlikely to be guarranteed to hold.

  7. NPOV says:

    How have other countries around the world avoided the same problem? Have those with “more” privatised education systems done better?

  8. Damien Eldridge says:

    I guess that should be: “— even if you can find an ordering of teachers salaries over which all voters have single peaked preferences for some specified combination of all other policies —“.

  9. Damien Eldridge says:

    Let me try that again, in order to get the excerpt from my original comment correct.

    I guess that should be: “— even if you could find an ordering of proposed teacher salaries over which every voter had single peaked preferences for some specified combination of all other policies —“.

  10. NPOV -I don’t think there is a good overseas example of schools, but the US higher education system is interesting. The US public school system(s) could most generously be described as patchy, but their higher ed system leads the world. One relies on bureaucracy, the other (though receiving hefty subsidy as well) also enjoyed substantial fee-setting power and offers competitive salaries.

  11. NPOV says:

    So the phenomenon of stagnant literacy/numeracy standards exists across the developed world? I thought Finland had been doing pretty well.

  12. I don’t know about stagnant across the world, but Australia does relatively well in the internationally comparable tests, despite decline over time here and, more importantly, many people being disadvantaged by their literacy and numeracy shortcomings.

    While Andrew L’s research is very important in showing the failure of school policy over the last few decades, the crucial issue is not whether we are better or worse than in the past, but whether or not school leavers are well-equipped for the present and likely future.

  13. NPOV says:

    Hmmm…”Australia does relatively well in the internationally comparable tests”, but we have a “failure of school policy over the last few decades”?

    I’ll assume you really meant “Difficulties with certain areas of school policy” 🙂

  14. Teachers should DEFINITELY be paid more.

  15. Steve says:

    Andrew, was your survey peer-reviewed?

  16. Andrew Leigh says:

    Steve, it hasn’t yet been reviewed, though we’ll submit it to a journal soon. Standard practice in economics is to often publicly release studies before they appear in print (this is partly a response to very long journal lag times). I’m aware that other disciplines (eg. medicine) operate differently.

  17. Steve says:

    Hi Andrew
    That may be standard practice but it is disheartening to observe how the report was released to the media without proper scrutiny from other academic spheres. Were you aware that the media would, as the media does, eliminate the nuances and much of the important details and present the findings using arcane and questionable data in a dumbed-down manner which then becomes a finger-pointing exercise against the usual suspects, with teacher unions being one? Was this the intention? Was there a political imperative? The findings in this 47 page report were seamlessly and quickly transformed in the wider community via the media as hard social fact.
    Looking at just page 34 in the report, it remains contentious that reading instruction shifted holus-bolus to “whole language” in the 1970s. In my experience as an adult literacy teacher of 20 years experience who was initially schooled in the 1960s and 1970s by teachers young and old and trained as a teacher in the 1980s (Sydney CAE initially and later on at UTS), I was required to unpack and test multiple methodologies on a range of learners. I and my present colleagues are only too aware of how the media has polarized and misinformed the public of the debate via right-wing newspaper columnists including some with vested interests – grammar did not disappear and phonemic awareness has always been taught; teacher training in the 1970s and 80s emphasized all approaches. Teachers used a combination of strategies then, as they do now.
    I welcome your comments.

  18. Patrick says:

    I welcome your comments.

    Here’s two.
    with teacher unions being one – and a good one they are. Everyone seems to agree that
    – schools could do better,
    – competition universally improves results, and
    – there is not a lot of competition in schools.

    The only competition that interests any teacher union I have heard of is governments competing to pay higher salaries for lower hours.

    grammar did not disappear – This may be true, if and only if it never existed. However, my parents apparently learnt it; I assume then that it disappeared between their time and mine.

    teacher training in the 1970s and 80s emphasized all approaches – maybe that’s the problem!

    ~ ~ ~ ~
    Meanwhile, grist for Andrew’s mill (sand for Steve’s, I fear):

    In Feeling the Florida Heat? (ungated version) a paper sponsored by the Urban Institute, Rouse et al. look at what happened at failing schools.

    First, that the test scores of the students in the public schools improved when vouchers gave the schools better incentives to perform. Second, at least some of the improvement comes from changes in how students are taught.

    It is not true that “nothing can be done to improve the schools.” Incentives matter.

    Notice that Florida’s program worked even though the program was very weak. It offered vouchers only to students in the worst schools and only after those schools received F grades in multiple years. The vouchers were relatively small and could not be topped up.

    (via Alex Tabarrok of the always-excellent marginal revolution, the only economics blog I prefer to Andrew’s. It would be a closer match if Andrew’s blog didn’t have the most primitive comments system I am aware of)

  19. Steve says:

    >teacher training in the 1970s and 80s emphasized all approaches – maybe that’s the problem!
    Not at all Patrick and you have clearly fallen into the pot with others who believe that there is orthodoxy to end all orthodoxies in regards to initial literacy instruction. Let me guess, phonics??!!
    The teacher training I refer to required one to be competent in using all approaches and be analytical in practice. Thus, what worked brilliantly with one beginning reader was a dead loss with others and one had to vary their strategies according to need. I have encountered adult literacy students in their 50s,60s and 70s who could decode but couldn’t in any sense, “read.” Decoding isn’t reading. I suggest you have a read of Frank Smith’s “Reading” and brush up a bit more as I can tell that you are viewing the issue through an economist’s prism rather than that of a literacy specialist.
    But anyway, I have gleaned from the answers and references you have provided that this was never about objective research but just another gasp at forwarding a right-wing agenda in relation to education a la Kevin Donnelly style. It’s a furphy to put the report into the public domain without external academic scrutiny and then hide behind the excuse of “standard procedure.” I wouldn’t waste your time putting it into any journal – it’s all out there to see.
    Many adults (but not all as the reasons people leave school without adequate literacy skills are extremely diverse) enrol in literacy classes (and older Australians in not one but all THREE ABS national adult literacy surveys show up as having lower literacy skills overall than younger ones ) because they were subjected to the rigours of intra-class competition and testing which you dogmatically believe is the panacea to poor schooling so I’d be careful with your liberal use of the term “Everyone” when saying that competition improves results. There are many things that make up a good school – the actual social and economic condition of a school’s catchments matter immensely. A voucher system is not going to put schools on a level playing field. It won’t cure childhood illness and broken schooling, unstable home lives, illiterate parents, itinerant lifestyles ( Australia has a legion of lowly-educated fruit-picking families reslting in kids being moved 2-3 times a year), Asperger’s syndrome and all the other variables which schools have absolutely no control over. One fight which you ignore is that teacher unions struggle to get adequate resources to address these inequalities. Likewise, as a teacher, if money was what motivated me I wouldn’t have chosen teaching.
    . I also learnt long after my schooling “formal grammar” which enabled me to be able to understand the teaching styles used in SE Asian language academies and field students’ questions. Time and time again, those with the best knowledge of grammar weren’t the most competent students. Grammar doesn’t make one a good writer. We have a huge number of published writers aged 20-50 in Australia and I doubt many (any?) learnt grammar. In fact, we have many more professional writers now than we had in the 1950s or 1960s. One can be a whizz at identifying all the parts of speech but still be hopeless at putting together a great text just as naming the parts of car won’t make you a good mechanic.

    By the way guys, and be honest here, who actually funded this “research?”

  20. Steve says:

    Whoops, an oversight! I just read at the foot of page 1 that it was the now defunct DEST under the auspices of Julie ‘Vouchers-and-Performance-Pay’ Bishop who funded you to provide the news she was looking for. It all makes perfect sense.

  21. Steve says:

    sorry, could resist having a go at this other assertion of yours:

    competition universally improves results


    By that logic:

    Competing tabloid TV shows, Today Tonight and A Current Affair are thus involved in a race to the top rather than a rather to the bottom, right?

    War, the ultimate contest between nations and groups produces the best outcome, right?

    We should send two fire brigades to every fire and allocate half the fire to each brigade. The brigade which puts out their ‘half’ first gets a cash bonus.

    If doctors were given performance pay based on the number of patients they save from the undertakers, we’d all live longer.

    Wealthy private schools which still get public funds (and can refuse to enrol students whom they regard as undesirable) are easily put on a level playing field against less well-off government schools via vouchers.

  22. Patrick says:

    Whoa, Steve, I’m not Andrew!! He and I are poles apart!

    Note also you aren’t exactly a lesson in sincerity.

    Shorter Steve: I have no idea whether vouchers work or not, but dammit they don’t fix Everything so to hell with them!

    An attitude reflective of my earlier comment:
    The only competition that interests any teacher union I have heard of is governments competing to pay higher salaries for lower hours.

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