Educational Policy on the Run: Teacher effectiveness, university cut-offs, and educational research

An opinion piece by Herbert W. Marsh, Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology, University of Western Sydney


NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell and Minister of Education Adrian Piccoli apparently want higher cut-offs for entry into university teaching program. However, this may move to “lock out of the classroom” potentially good teachers who did not perform well in their own HSC.

Ensuring teacher quality is important, but the suggestion of using HSC results and Australian Tertiary University Rank (ATR) scores as the sole determiner of future teaching ability is crude, misguided, and should trigger concern across the University sector.

Rather than making teaching programs inaccessible for under-performing school leavers, students with modest ATARs could be offered entry into arts-based education programs.

A 3-year Bachelor of Arts in Education (BA-Ed) with a lower cut-off would not include the expensive practicum component of education programs where students practice teaching in schools.

The Arts program would therefore not qualify students to teach in NSW, but it would provide them with a solid educational foundation and training, suitable for many other jobs outside of classroom teaching.

For those with their heart set on becoming a teacher, the program would also provide the opportunity to provide their ability before transitioning into a focused Bachelor of Education (B-Ed) or a postgraduate teaching program.

By also offering a 4 or 5-year Teacher Education degree that includes the necessary postgraduate and practicum component, universities could increase cut-offs in-line with government recommendations – thereby catering for the students who performed well in the HSC with a fast-track into their teaching careers.

By offering these two types of teaching programs, universities could satisfy the Government’s recommendation of increasing ATAR cutoffs, whilst also ensuring that the classroom doors are not permanently locked to other students who may not have had the same opportunities or advantages during their own schooling.

This compromise should be acceptable to all stakeholders. Surely, if logic prevails, a student’s performance at the end of two or three years study in a university-level BA-Ed course would be a better determiner of their abilities than their high school performance?

A more radical alternative would be to move the entire teaching profession to graduate entry only. This would mean that entry into Graduate Schools of Education would be based on success in an undergraduate degree rather than ATAR scores, and would have the added benefit of raising the status of the teaching profession in the eyes of the public, politicians, and students who want to become teachers.

To provide an international example, Finland is consistently one of the highest scoring countries on international comparisons such as those conducted by the OECD. Indeed, they do have very high cut-offs for entry into teacher education programs. However, this is the result of supply and demand because the teaching profession is so highly valued in Finland.

In Finland, the teaching profession is held in very high accord – in marked contrast to perceptions of ‘teacher bashing’ in Australia that undermine teacher morale and discourage the best students from pursuing a career in teaching.

I note that my proposal presented here is not unique. Some universities already offer alternatives that have some (or even all) of the flexibility and advantages of my proposal.

A serious limitation of all proposals offered to date by the government, the NSW Institute of Teaching, the NSW Teachers Federation and myself is that there is almost no solid, ‘gold standard’ research to back up any of the proposals.

There is little evidence to support the supposition that high school student scoring 80 on the ATAR will make better teachers than those scoring 70 or even 60. There is also little evidence the teachers with better/higher qualifications or more teaching experience are better teachers.

Differences between countries on OECD rankings based on standardized test scores might be useful, but there is no easy way to say what causes these differences; picking out isolated characteristics (e.g., large class sizes in high-scoring Asian countries where there are fewer classroom management issues) is naïve and counter-productive.

Even evidence that ‘good’ schools make a difference is weak. For example, the UK has perhaps the longest history and best data for measuring school effectiveness in relation to test scores based on a national curriculum, and translating these into league tables.

Although there are huge differences between schools in unadjusted test scores, these are primarily due to pre-existing differences. With increasingly sophisticated value-added models, the percentage of variance in student test scores attributable to the schools is a paltry 5%, and is likely to fall further with more appropriate control for socio-economic status and measurement error.

Most research into effective schools and teachers has focused on test scores, but some of the most important criteria are self-beliefs, motivation, engagement, self-regulation, and aspirations – areas in which good schools and teachers are likely to have a larger effect than on standardised test scores.

If any of the proponents of sweeping policy changes – or even the status quo – for teaching standards and schools are serious about improving education, than policy needs to be informed by good research. New policies should be tested in carefully designed pilot studies to test their effectiveness, before being introduced across the system.

Can you imagine the public outcry that would result if sweeping new medical procedures were introduced without first being shown to be effective by solid research evidence?

Why do educational policy makers not feel the same imperative to provide research evidence for new initiatives?


21 March 2013

Contact: Danielle Roddick, Senior Media Officer

By submitting a comment you acknowledge you agree with the Terms and Conditions.