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Teach for Australia

By Andrew Leigh - posted Monday, 17 May 2010

Recruiting teachers in an attempt to revitalise local schools, New York City put posters on the subways saying: “You remember your first grade teacher’s name. Who will remember yours?”. So many teachers applied to the program that recruiters were able to take just the top 20 per cent.

Now in its third decade, Teach for America has based its success on two vital truths: there is no more important job than teaching disadvantaged children, and there is a reservoir of idealism among talented university graduates for making a community contribution. At Harvard, more than one in ten undergraduates apply for a position at Teach for America, making it one of the most sought-after jobs on the market.

Starting this year, Teach for Australia (TFA) is attempting to bring the idea downunder. After six weeks of intensive, in-residence summer training at the University of Melbourne, 45 new teachers began work in Victorian schools at the end of January. Over the next few years, the TFA team hopes to roll the program out to other states and territories, including some remote areas.


There is no question that TFA teachers are a bunch of smarty-pants. Inundated with 750 applicants last year, the program was able to apply extraordinarily selective standards. As a result, the average university entrance score of TFA teachers is 97.

But can they teach? Anecdotally, the program has some strong backers. Tony Simpson, principal of Copperfield College in Melbourne’s outer west, describes his TFA teachers as “mindblowingly successful”.

Yet the program’s critics say that the program takes short-cuts to train teachers. If teacher education students wanted to work in a community legal centre with six weeks of legal training, they’d be laughed off by the profession. So why should law students be allowed to enter the classroom without an education degree?

When I put this challenge to founder Melodie Potts-Rosevear, she argued that TFA offered an “employment-based pathway”. “TFA allows select individuals to complete roughly one-third of their degree, and then to combine theory and practice by doing the rest of the degree over the course of the next two years as they are teaching.”

In general, international evidence backs up the TFA model. Independent evaluations of Teach for America (and its UK counterpart, Teach First) have come to the conclusion that such students are at least as effective in the classroom as traditionally-trained teachers. For example, a randomised evaluation carried out by Mathematica Policy Research found that the benefits from having a Teach for America teacher were equivalent to one more month of learning.

Yet the real value of programs like Teach for America comes through the impact it has on the educational system. With about two-thirds of its alumni working in education, Teach for America has started to shape the US education debate. KIPP Schools, a set of charter schools that operate on a model of long days and high educational standards, were founded by two Teach for America alumni. And there are now 26 US elected officials that have direct experience of teaching disadvantaged schools due to their work in Teach for America. Like Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, who worked with poor children in Chicago and Melbourne, these politicians instinctively know the power of a great education to transform lives.


For TFA to succeed in Australia, it will need to ensure it places teachers in the most disadvantaged schools. Sending TFA teachers into affluent schools would be like the Australian Volunteers Abroad program recruiting idealistic youth who want to tackle global poverty - and then sending them to Switzerland.

Another challenge is that because TFA is a new pathway, it runs up against rigid rules that that traditionally determine subject competence. Regardless of how much a person knows about a topic, the current rules say that they cannot teach it if they did not study it at university. This bars the typical economist from teaching maths, and prevents most lawyers from teaching English. Modernising these rules will be critical in getting more talent into the classroom.

Amidst the heat of education policy debates, it’s easy to forget what a hard job teaching can be. If you’ve ever tried to teach just one child how to complete a maths problem, read a book, or catch a ball, you’ll know how much time and effort teaching can take. Multiply that by 25, and you have an idea of the challenges that classroom teachers face every day of their lives. The measure of TFA’s success will be not only in how many new teachers it attracts to the profession, but also its ability to boost student learning, and raise the status of teachers nationwide.

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First published in the Australian Financial Review on April 27, 2010.

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About the Author

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

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