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Teaching to the tests

Jennifer Buckingham | 13 June 2014

jen-buckingham Whichever way you look at it, the quality of teaching and, by extension, quality of teachers are central to the standard of education provided in our schools. The NSW government's initiatives to elevate the quality of new teachers, including the recent announcement of a compulsory literacy and numeracy exit test, are welcome.

Studies and inquiries have repeatedly found that a large proportion of pre-service teachers do not have strong literacy skills and do not have sufficient knowledge of the structure and meta-linguistic concepts of the English language. In order to teach children well, particularly those who struggle with reading, this knowledge is essential.

Universities have been admitting large numbers of people into teaching degrees who have not been strong students themselves, even though academic aptitude is one of the strongest predictors of teacher effectiveness. Around half of the people going into teaching degrees in 2014 had university entrance scores below 70. By comparison, the highest performing education systems around the world draw all of their teachers from the top 30%, if not the top 10%, of school graduates.

Ideally, universities would control the quality of teachers, but it is financially advantageous for universities to maximise enrolments in teaching degrees. Quality control has therefore become the government's problem. A federal government review of teacher education is currently underway - the latest of dozens of reviews conducted over the last two decades.

State governments do not have the authority to dictate entry standards for universities or prescribe what universities teach. What state governments can do is decide who is eligible to register as a teacher. Universities can admit whomever they want, but if the prospective teacher does not measure up to the registration standards - if they literally do not pass the test - their degree will be almost worthless in NSW.

The NSW government is to be congratulated for taking an important step in the challenge of restoring the status of teachers as highly-educated professionals. The next challenge is to improve the overall quality of teaching degrees. Hopefully this federal government will succeed where so many have previously failed.

Jennifer Buckingham is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.