Can the U.S. learn from Australia’s high bar for new teachers?

A major ongoing fight in the U.S. is how to make the teaching profession less a clock-in, clock-out job and more like the high-paid, high-demand career of a lawyer or doctor. Unions and teachers argue better pay will elevate the profession. Politicians and advocates want to put more scrutiny on teachers and end tenure, arguing that no other profession offers protection for life.

Australians have moved beyond these bitter debates to take action, and the country’s treatment of teachers shows what compromises between the two sides might look like here.

In Australia, professionalizing teaching has been at the heart of a number of reforms. Teachers can rise to many different levels without having to leave the classroom for administrative jobs, an idea that’s gaining traction in the U.S. Mentor and head teachers who take on more responsibilities are common in Australian schools, for instance. They work with younger teachers and get paid more to do so.

Most recently, Australians have also made it tougher to become a teacher in the first place. Teachers no longer earn their accreditation – or certification as we call it – once they complete a teacher preparation program. Instead, they must provide documentation from their first year of teaching to prove that they meet national teaching standards in knowledge, practice and commitment and that they have met or are working to meet self-set professional goals. They must go through this procedure every five years to maintain their accreditation. If they fail to do so, or have not met the standards, any school that continues to employ them will be fined.

It’s worth noting that American advocates are also pushing to better evaluate how new teachers perform in the classroom before awarding their certification. Twenty-eight states have either adopted or are considering adopting the Teacher Performance Assessment, which requires students in teaching programs to supply a 10- to 15-minute video of themselves teaching along with lesson plans, reflection essays and proof of student learning, as a certification requirement for teaching candidates. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has argued for a tougher exam for would-be-teachers as well, using the bar exam for lawyers as an example.

The bar in Australia is higher, though. All new teachers must prove themselves throughout their entire first year of teaching before they’re formally accepted into the profession. Some Australia states, including New South Wales, where Sydney is located, have had this requirement for new teachers for a decade now. Some older teachers in a Sydney suburb, who have worked as mentor teachers with newcomers, told me they see it as a largely positive law. Not only does it force teachers to work hard to improve, they say, it’s also helped to make teaching feel more legitimately like profession such as engineering or law.


POSTED BY ON February 20, 2014

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Bruce William Smith

This reads like a sound approach to deepening the professionalization of teaching, more moderate than either Ms. Weingarten’s implausible lawyer analogy (no money exists to pay teachers like American lawyers, so why should they want to invest so much in preparing for a middling-paying profession?) or the counterproductive Teach For America ideal of enthusiastic, ill-trained amateurism. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, which has researched this issue, has said that in every country, teaching is a middle class profession drawing from students who are generally in the cognitive middle of their university classes, and it’s unreasonable to try to fill three percent of the world’s employment places (which is the share of jobs teaching takes up in the developed world) by drawing from the top one percent of students; and this Australian approach, an adaptation of Singapore’s, which I have been trying to promote in the United States (where education pundits are generally blissfully ignorant of what happens outside our borders), appears likely to actually work.

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