Why Australian primary schools need more teacher expertise

This article was published in The Australian Financial Review (paywall) on 10 May 2017.

Ben Jensen and Katie Roberts-Hull

The budget has opened another battle in Australia's 50-year war over school funding, with the federal government proposing a revised Gonski formula to fund schools according to need, and the Labor opposition promising to defend the Catholic sector against cuts. Money matters in school education, but the endless argument obscures two far more important questions: what are we teaching our young people and are we teaching it effectively?

The answers on both are not promising. For more than a decade, Australian students have not only failed to improve in the OECD's PISA tests of 15-year-old's problem-solving ability, they are falling behind students in many other advanced nations. Maths is a particular area of concern. Since 2003, the proportion of Australian maths high performers in PISA has halved, to about one in 10 students. The proportion of low performers, meanwhile, has shot up. They now outnumber high performers two to one.

As alarm over these results has grown, commentators have urged schools to increase the amount of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) teaching in the curriculum. But reforms such as these magnify the problem with our approach to education, especially primary education. We always push for a broader curriculum instead of building expertise in core learning areas.

The challenge for Australia

Australia's primary challenge, shown by Learning First's new report, is how Australia can learn from four high-performing school systems – Finland, Japan, Hong Kong and Shanghai. These very different systems all focus on deepening teachers' subject expertise, right down to the earliest years of schooling.

These systems start with a detailed curriculum that they have generally narrowed over the years. They do this not because they don't believe in broader issues such as STEM, but because they realise that by being more specific on what to teach, teachers can develop much more expertise on how to teach. This approach has implications for all aspects of schooling.

In all four systems primary school teachers specialise, enabling them to develop deep expertise in just one or a few subjects. In Shanghai there are primary school teachers who only teach maths. But even in Finland and Japan, systems that have generalist primary teachers, as Australia does, initial teacher education requires in-depth preparation in one or two subjects. The professional learning teachers do once they are in schools is also more subject-specific, giving them access to subject experts and quality instructional materials. This creates the deep subject expertise that great teaching requires.

Less breadth, more expertise

The Australian approach is one of increasing breadth; we want primary school teachers to teach virtually all subjects and whenever there is a problem, we want them to teach even more. This approach results in serious problems at every step along the teacher development pathway.

First, many teacher education programs have low entry requirements for science, literacy, and maths expertise. Second, these programs often have few rigorous courses in these subjects. Teacher candidates therefore spend minimal time developing subject expertise. Assignments often lack rigour and the bar for course completion is low.

When prospective primary teachers apply for jobs, subject expertise is rarely important in the hiring process. Finally, in the classroom, teachers often lack high-quality instructional materials and knowledgeable coaches to help them develop subject expertise. There are many exceptions to this narrative but overall, we don't emphasise, and therefore don't sufficiently develop, subject expertise for primary school teachers.

Pedagogical content knowledge

The high-performing systems we identified understand that the way we teach young children is more important and more difficult than many people realise. The most effective primary teachers are not just experts on the content of their subjects, they also know the best teaching methods for different age levels, what is known as pedagogical content knowledge.

To teach subtraction to eight-year olds it's not enough to be able to do it yourself. You have to understand, for example, whether it is better to start a lesson with the problem, 13 minus 9 or with 12 minus 3 as children will regularly take different approaches to subtraction depending on which numbers are involved. Teachers have to know all the different strategies children might use to tackle each problem, and immediately know what mistake was made when you see a student's wrong answer and then how to address it.

There is good news. Australian primary teacher education programs are beginning to develop specialist tracks, which presents an opportunity to shift to more rigorous courses in maths, literacy and science. Schools also need to re-organise teachers' professional learning, and perhaps their timetables, to allow them to develop specialised subject expertise.

Australia's primary challenge shows the steps that high-performing systems have taken to scale subject expertise across all schools with tremendous impact on teaching and learning. The report shows what can and cannot be transferred easily to Australia. But any reform must start with an approach that emphasises subject expertise in primary school teaching.

Dr Ben Jensen is CEO, and Katie Roberts-Hull manager, of education consultancy Learning First.