Friday, August 12, 2022

A comment on teacher shortages

This post will get me into trouble with so many people who will tell me that I don't understand teaching and the dynamics of school education. So I am going to try to write it more as a series of questions or 'alternative propositions', rather than as dogmatic statements of fact. 

But knowing me, I will forget to do that. So as you read this please read anything I say as a proposition not a conclusion. I am a fan of Socratic dialogue where thesis and antithesis produce synthesis. 

So let's start where I am on the safest ground. Simple economic theory of the labour market would suggest that if you have a shortage of labour to do a specified task you need to pay them more. That is the simple explanation in the context of  neoclassical market theory of value. We could be more general and say "reward them more" recognising non-monetary preferences of people such as respect. 

One could even add a wrinkle of the labour theory of value and note that it is no longer possible to convert a non-education degree into a teaching qualification through a one year Dip Ed, a two year Masters degree is now the requirement. So for someone who studies, say, science because that is what they like but at the end of the degree is trying to figure out what to do with it, the idea of getting the extra qualification to teach is seriously unattractive. You would expect a greater life time income to make up for the extra year of unearned input labour.

Both views of value, however, don't mean you necessarily have to increase pay rates over the teaching lifetime, an alternative is to bring forward the remuneration. That is simply more and larger payments to study - what we know better as scholarships. And these scholarships need to potentially be attractive to people already in the workforce. 

This last point is, of course, the reason why some people propose programs that allow peple skilled in a field to come to teaching by a pathway other than a two year Masters degree. Correctly they identify the challenging construct of putting these people to work as teachers before they have learnt how to teach. This, of course, is the challenge of all disciplines that require a skill rather than just knowledge. When do you first put the scalpel in the hand of a person training in medicine? When do you first allow a lawyer to argue a case before a judge? 

This is where the concept of "apprenticeship" comes in, and the expectation that student teachers will go to classrooms and try out their learning. There are serious questions to be asked about how this aspect of teacher education is carried out, and indeed, of how teachers are observed in the practice of teaching throughout their career. 

A recent contribution by some academics who teach teachers has reacted against proposals to fill shortages by getting trainee teachers to do more teaching. They have argued that the teacher training problem won't be sorted until we treat teaching as a profession not a trade. I want to say something as strong as "this is a thoroughly misguided notion", but will attempt to restrain myself and simply apply some analysis.

Firstly, the distinction between a profession and a trade isn't that in the latter you do an "apprenticeship", the major differences are in the depth of knowledge required to apply the skills and, largely as a consequence, the need for ongoing professional development. A related issue then becomes who should teach the discipline. The old dividing line between universities and the colleges (of advanced education or just teachers colleges) is that the teaching staff in Universities are also expected to be active researchers, the teaching is linked to new knowledge. 

There isn't really a clear dividing line between trades and professions, while we can easily identify plasterer as a trade close to one end of the scale and neurosurgeon as close to the other end, a whole host of skilled jobs sit in the middle. Accountants are a good example where the knowledge doesn't change much and it can be argued that changes to accounting standards are as much driven by the need to keep employing accountants as they are by the greater clarity provided to anybody by the resultant different financial statements. 

The article provided a very misleading view in its discussion of law and medicine, saying:

 In professions such as medicine, you develop specialist knowledge and expertise. Or you specialise as a generalist. But in teaching, teachers are largely required to develop expertise in all teaching methods, assessments and all aspects of student health and wellbeing.


We would not assume a high-school legal studies teacher, for example, would be able to become a lawyer without undertaking the appropriate tertiary study. So why do we imagine a lawyer can short-cut the education required to become a legal studies teacher?

Firstly we need to draw distinctions between specialist teachers and general teachers. All high school teachers are expected to be specialist teachers, while most primary school teachers are general teachers - though there may be specialists in language, music or other subjects.  And a review of any secondary teacher education curriculum shows that not all teachers develop expertise in "all teaching methods." 

I care most about the single biggest crisis area which is the teaching of mathematics. 1 in 4 year 8 students are being taught by a teacher whose major qualification was in a field other than maths, and 1 in 10 will never be taught by a qualified maths teacher and 75% will be taught at least once by such a teacher. This is a crisis that will snowball as less and less students finish secondary school with a sufficient level of mathematics to be able to progress to teaching the subject. 

So let's look at the lawyer analogy. Would I assume that a mathematician could walk into a classroom and successfully teach? No. But would I expect a maths teacher to be able to do mathematics? Absolutely. And the so-called short cut really means putting the trained mathematician in a classroom as part of (not instead of) their teacher education.

My suspicion is the problem lies elsewhere - it lies in the success of the teaching profession, and especially their educators, in trying to turn teaching into a profession. Certainly it isn't a "trade", but it may well be better described as a "craft". The word "calling" possibly comes closer. Good teachers try to become better teachers every day.

I had a quick look at the curriculum for the Bachelor of Mathematics Education and the Masters of Education (Secondary) at the University of Wollongong. I struggled to understand the principles of the education subjects in the undergraduate degree, such as the statement in the subject Education Foundations: Introduction to Teacher Education that "You will examine the nature of learning and how using research can improve your teaching practice". Does knowledge in education really advance as quickly as, say, the treatment of cancers? Or do we have a self-serving community of education academics that all got brought into the University system from the college system and to justify their existence are churning out volumes of poor quality research? 

I also struggled with how much education subjects crowded out mathematics or other disciplines in the Bachelor's degree but also the absence of a strand aimed at teaching mathematics in the Masters degree. 

In the comments on the original article people have mentioned that in medicine the education is conducted by practicing doctors. Indeed all the qualifications for specialisation are undertaken by the learned colleges, with instruction by both working doctors and academics. The core of the experience is being a registrar supervised by consultants in a hospital setting (or for GPs by a GP in their practice). Law schools do rely on practicing lawyers who also lecture as a way of providing some instruction, and your average lawyer is expected to start in a law firm closely supervised by a partner. Senior barristers (SCs) are required to be accompanied by a junior barrister on every brief as part of developing the barristers.

That isn't the way teacher education works. Teacher education is taking place in Universities, where teachers are trained by academics who theorise on teaching. As part of the course they are "exposed" to the classroom. The quality of the supervision they receive in those classrooms vary - but one would possibly understand "over worked" teachers using this as a form of relief from face-to-face teaching. They could satisfy their consciences on doing so by saying the student teacher needed to establish their own authority in the classroom, or not have the pressure of the master teacher being in the room. 

But does the surgeon let the student make their first incission while the surgeon is making a cup of tea? Does the silk leave the junior barrister to run the case while they prepare for the next case? Does the partner let the new solicitor provide an advice to a client without reviewing it?

So here is my alternative view. The way to both train better teachers and to improve teacher retention is to get teachers more involved in training teachers, and academics less so. For those Ministers who are scratching around for ways to better remunerate good teachers my suggestion is that you pay teachers who take on students and mentoring more. 

While we are at it, also reduce the workload of teachers being required to develop lesson plans and teaching resources. This is the definition of poor productivity having multiple people producing almost exactly the same goods that could have been produced by one and used by many. Proper textbooks provided by the state would be so much more efficient than the model of resources bought and photocopied. 

I know that teachers were horrified when NSW Minister Mitchell suggested this as developing lesson plans was the part of the job they liked. What we need is teachers who like being in the classroom facilitating learning.

But here is the challenge. The only people the Ministers can turn to for advice are the education academics whose answer will be based on the need for more research and more teacher education (not training). Unions have long promoted the greater professionalisation of the trade they represent, on the basis that higher skills entailed higher pay. 

But this is where reality hits. With an economy where 80% of activity happens in the service industry to get the productivity increase across the economy that will help us lift wages we need to lift productivity in the service industries. For decades education, especially school education, contributed to growing productivity by growing the skill levels of our workforce, largely just by greater retention rates. Productivity needs to come by geting better educational outcomes for less resources. 

A focus on teachers getting better at teaching, not lesson planning or administration, is the key to that. Teachers getting better at teaching has to happen at the workplace, not the University. A related proposition is that teacher education should be returned to the college model, and not be conducted by academics who are also researchers. 

Which would I prefer teaching mathematics, a qualified teacher who hasn't studied mathematics beyond school, or a mathematician who is using quality pre-prepared resources and being mentored and supervised by a teacher? The answer is the latter.  

Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans JWL

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