Teacher quality is one of the hottest education issues around. It seems almost everyone has an opinion on what constitutes a “quality” teacher, how quality can be developed and sustained, and how much impact teacher quality has on student outcomes. Views vary, and disagreement is fierce, particularly concerning how high performing teachers should be identified and rewarded. There is, however, a common thread in the debate; invariably, it’s about school teachers.
Clearly what happens in schools is central to the educational health of the nation. However, to focus attention exclusively here is to reflect an anachronistic view of learning, where primary and secondary schooling are discrete systems, to which practices apply which are not relevant in any other time or place. This is out of step with the rhetoric of an educational process which begins before the first days of child care, and extends to the day we die.
To bring the reality of lifelong learning in Australia into line with discourse, and for Australia to secure a place as a legitimate international leader in the field, the debate about teacher quality needs to be broadened beyond schools into other learning areas - such as higher education.
Universities live by the reputations of their graduates, not least in order to attract foreign students, whose fees are critical to sustaining the industry. Despite years of trying, however, Australia still struggles to compete against the major European, British and American universities. There are probably several reasons for this, but the quality of the teaching staff is one which must be considered. No matter how expert a lecturer may be in his or her field, it isn’t going to help anyone if the message can’t be effectively conveyed to students.
Perhaps once, when universities were less institutionalised and had fewer economic and social imperatives to meet, it was enough for lecturers to simply be there, a rare source of knowledge and ideas, to be interrogated by anxious seekers of wisdom. But thanks to the information revolution, knowledge and ideas are no longer at such a premium. Subject matter is easy to obtain, including the information and opinion held by lecturers, given the constant pressure to publish.
A university education must therefore provide more than an additional avenue through which to access content available elsewhere: assistance in understanding, collating and developing that information is necessary too. This is particularly so given the financial costs of obtaining a degree. For that many thousands of dollars, service, as well as subject matter, is a fair ask.
The first step in guaranteeing that teaching staff in universities are high quality is to ensure they have appropriate training and professional development, both pre- and in-service. Just as school teachers are expected to be trained in how to communicate to students, how to present material in an engaging way, how to cater to a variety of learning styles and preferences, so should university teachers be expected to have learnt skills to get their messages across to learners.
Given that universities themselves are the forums in which these skills are learnt, this should not be logistically difficult to arrange. For example, an amount of basic in-service teacher training could be built into the program of every lecturer during the first year of service. This could be provided by the university’s own faculty of education, or where this is not possible, through distance education or partnerships with other universities near by. Opportunities for renewing or extending skills beyond the first year should also be flexibly available.
To ensure the effectiveness of this approach, the second step would be to establish a registration board for university teaching staff, just as there are boards for school teachers. Where a lecturer wishes to remain eligible to teach, he or she would have to be registered with such a board, and provide evidence of training and preparedness for the job at hand.
The third step in ensuring teacher effectiveness would be to regularly review and assess actual performance; this could feasibly be done on the basis of student outcomes. This is a hotly debated issue where school teachers are concerned, but those factors which make it so problematic in schools are not present in the university context.
For a start, university is not compulsory. There is not the same problem with trying to engage that sullen group of students who feature in almost every high school class, loathing each day as a prison sentence. Further, university students generally choose a course which interests them and to which they have made some degree of personal commitment to undertaking and completing. Even the mildest levels of motivation make the job of the teacher that much easier. And third, university students are generally aware of the substantial financial investment at stake, and will make some effort to ensure they are not saddled with a bill for goods they don’t in the end receive.
All of these factors, which can be so problematic in schools, mean that a much clearer correlation can be drawn between teacher quality and student outcomes in universities.
A less favourable assessment would not have to mean the end of a university career, either. It could simply mean a transfer of duties from being primarily a teacher to primarily a researcher. The beauty of a university environment is that both these options are available, and intellectual expertise would not be wasted. Essentially, though, if a lecturer is drawing a salary as a teacher, it is only reasonable that he or she should be able to teach. Australian learners deserve that, at the very least, and if we make the appropriate investment to ensure we get it right here, Australia might finally manage to consistently compete with the best in the world.