OPINION: We’re all familiar with the old saying:
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
Given how well this sentence sums up the power of teaching, it is not surprising that teachers have been revered for generations. At the moment we need teachers more than ever – particularly good science teachers. Not only has fishing become more complicated, but so has everything else around it.
We now need to understand the sustainability of fishing and food security generally, not to mention energy security, the health needs of an ageing and expanding population, and other issues such as water, resources, waste, global communications, and infectious diseases.
So one would expect that science teachers would be revered as never before, and people would be lining up to embark on an important career that underpins progress in our society. But the opposite seems to be the case.
We are facing a shortage of top science teachers – especially maths, physics and chemistry teachers – and if nothing is done, things are likely to get worse.
The current status of science teachers
It appears to me science teachers are taking a hammering – and this has to stop.
There has been the sudden realisation that Australia is slipping down the tables in terms of school performance in fundamental subjects like maths. None of the tests are perfect but the trends are clear – Australia is going down while our neighbours in Asia are climbing.
This realisation has led to calls to boost the standing of teaching as a profession, but the opposite is occurring.
First, many teachers are being unjustly blamed for the poorer-than-expected performances of our school children. This culture of blame demoralises the great teachers we do have, and puts off others who may wish to join the profession.
Teachers are also blamed for the fact that a lower proportion of students is studying science. A study from the University of New England found a third of Year 10 students found science boring and 12% thought a better teacher would increase the number of students studying science in Year 11.
Well, each year I see thousands of students enrolling in accounting and I do not believe this is due to the ever-rising skills of inspirational high school accounting teachers. We do face challenges in science but blaming the teachers is too easy an answer.
In addition to the blame game the standing of teaching is now taking another blow. The cut-off entry scores for teaching degrees are falling to an all-time low as universities strive to enrol as many students as possible.
Sadly, these low cut-offs inevitably erode the status of the profession.
Moreover, many of the students drawn into teaching degrees will go into non-science areas where there is already an oversupply of teachers. If these graduates face unemployment, this will further degrade the attractiveness of this important profession.
So what can we do?
The first step is to stop general criticisms of science teaching which belittle the efforts of even our very best teachers. I don’t think the quality is the main issue – the main issue is the shortage which results in non-science teachers having to try to teach science. We should thank them and support them, not criticise them.
The next step is to genuinely boost the status of the profession. There are only a few ideas that I’ve seen for doing this.
Last July, NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli called for an increase in the university entry score for teaching. He was met with a chorus of objections but I think he had a point. It is a sad but inescapable fact that entry cut-offs affect the prestige of a profession.
I don’t believe high school scores like the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) are perfect by any means but low scores send a bad message. Provided there are alternative entry points available for late developers then higher entry scores for school leavers would be a good first step.
But raising the scores alone would at first exacerbate the problem of quantity – there would be a shortage of teachers training in the pipeline. And there already is a shortage. We need to look at why that is.
Maths, physics and chemistry are “vertical” disciplines. You really have to do first year maths to understand second year maths. Once you come off the ladder it is hard to jump back on.
These days a lower proportion of students study maths, physics and chemistry at school, partly because there are so many other options.
What’s more, at university, the undergraduate courses are challenging and in third year maths and physics, for instance, the students are often exceptionally strong. This means that sometimes even students who would make very good physics teachers may be intimidated and drop out. We have a serious attrition problem and universities need to start working on that.
On the recruitment trail
As well as reducing attrition rates we can work harder on recruiting students into careers in teaching.
One idea is to promote alternative routes into the profession – students with PhDs in maths and science could be more often fast-tracked into teaching, perhaps by in-job training involving a short diploma.
Most importantly, however, there simply has to be an incentive for students to embark upon the teaching path. Two traditional incentives in society are financial reward and the prospect of progression.
If there is a shortage of maths and science teachers then salaries should be adjusted upwards, and there should also be a set career path so further education and attainment is continually rewarded by rank and salary.
I recognise that there is concern that differential pay and imperfectly allocated performance pay may damage the collegiate nature of education. I have worried about this issue for many years and have watched with anxiety as such systems spread through the tertiary sector.
There have been challenges but judging by the quality of junior staff being appointed and thriving in my university at least I would have to say that the fears have not been borne out. I encourage other professions to give these processes a try.