The quality of our teachers is on the education agenda of governments across the world. With the vitally important role a teacher plays in a child's education, it should come as no surprise that training excellent teachers is a top priority for the Coalition government.
The reasons to improve teacher education are clear.
Australia's education performance is falling. According to the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), one-quarter of Australian year 4 students do not meet the minimum standard of reading proficiency, year 4 and 8 students have remained static in mathematics and science performance over the past 16 years while other countries have improved and our overall ranking in 15-year-old attainment is significantly behind nations that were equivalent to us nine years ago. Sadly, our brightest 30-40 per cent of students are falling behind the best in the rest of the world.
The quality of our teaching and quality of our teachers is seen as one of the important, if not most important, determinants affecting education performance. Other factors such as school autonomy, a rigorous curriculum and engaging parents in their child's education also contribute, but what goes on in the classroom, how and what our students are taught probably matters most.
We know this from our own school experiences. A good teacher made a difference. It is also what Australian and international research evidence overwhelmingly tells us.
Andreas Schleicher of the OECD stresses that the "the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers". The McKinsey survey of education systems across 50 countries noted it had "never seen an education system achieve . . . world class status without top talent in its teaching profession." Teachers count in affecting education quality.
And there is evidence that our teacher education system is not up to scratch. We are not attracting the top students into teacher courses as we once did, courses are too theoretical, ideological and faddish, not based on the evidence of what works in teaching important subjects such as literacy. Standards are too low at some education institutions – everyone passes.
Also, there are not enough teachers with the education standards and content knowledge to teach effectively in key areas such as maths and science and even literacy. Only last week a survey by the NSW Mathematical Association revealed a crisis in the classroom on this very issue.
It is not money or smaller classrooms that make a difference because we have increased spending by 44 per cent in the past decade and reduced classroom numbers by 40 per cent. It is the quality of our teacher education training and the way we teach that has impact on student performance.
Certainly, some action has been taken in the past. The Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership was established to improve professional standards for teachers and the Australian government and the states approved $550 million for the five-year National Partnership Agreement on Improving Teacher Quality. Some state governments are taking initiatives in terms of entry standards and employment tests.
However, there is the view the standards are too soft, few teacher courses are not accredited, what happens in the classroom remains unchanged and some universities resist demands for more stringent entry requirements or to change course contents. The COAG Reform Council assessed the milestones in the National Partnership in Teaching Quality as "not strong enough to assess achievement" and more recently concluded that there was too much emphasis on "minor activities" rather than the major areas that make a difference.
We have got to do better. So, to clear the roadblocks to genuine reform I have established the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) to identify the world's best practice in terms of how we teach, the content of teacher courses and the practical aspects of training.
TEMAG has eight members selected for their expertise and experience – four are academic experts, two are practising principals and the rest are involved in teacher education training and employment. Supported by a strong departmental secretariat and additional consultancy services TEMAG will consult widely and report back to me by July this year.
Teacher education quality has been put in the too-hard basket for too long. A quality education system must be underpinned by quality teachers. The profession knows it, parents want it, our students deserve it and the nation needs it.
Christopher Pyne is the federal Minister for Education.