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Educational Policy on the Run: Teacher Effectiveness, University Cut-offs, Class Size and Educational Research March 24, 2013

Posted by christinefjohnston in Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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From  Herbert W. Marsh, Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology

The NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell and Minister of Education Adrian Piccoli apparently want higher cut-offs for entry into university, and may be restricting the number of newly accredited teachers through the NSW Institute of Teachers (Sun-Herald, 3 March 2013, p1, p.5).

At least some universities feel that the proposals are too restrictive, and most universities would be concerned with potential loss of enrolments.

I would like to propose a compromise that would satisfy both sides of this debate. Universities can introduce a 3-year Bachelor of Arts in Education (BA-Ed) as well as a 4- or 5-year degree (Bachelor of Education, Bachelor of Teaching, Master of Teaching, etc.) The BA-Ed could have a lower cut-off than Bed-type courses and include more generic coursework, but importantly would not include the practicum component (where students do practice teaching in schools) and would not qualify students to teach in NSW. Separate cut-offs could be established for the two degrees. This proposal has many advantages:

  • A generic course in education, the 3-year BAEd, is very good training for many jobs other than classroom teaching and already many students who qualify to be teachers do not pursue this option. Indeed, this might make the BAEd MORE attractive to some students who do not want to be classroom teachers and result in increased enrolments overall.
  • Higher cut-offs for the BEd-type courses could be increased, in line with government recommendations. However, performance in the alternative BAEd course could be used as an additional criterion into the BEd. Indeed, performance in a BAEd course at the end of two or three years of study would undoubtedly be a better criterion into a BEd course than high school performance. Because the main difference between the BAEd and BEd is the practicum, this alternative entry would not substantially increase the time to complete a BEd. This alternative entry would mean that potentially good teachers who did not perform well on the HSC would not be locked out of classroom teaching.
  • Finland is consistently one of the highest scoring countries on international comparisons such as those conducted by the OECD. Indeed, they do have very high cut-offs for entry into teacher education programs. However, this is the result of supply and demand because the teaching profession is so highly valued in Finland – as much or more so than other professions that have much higher cut-offs in Australia due to high demand. Interestingly this is due, at least in part, to the esteem accorded to the teaching profession in Finland even though teacher salaries are not particularly high. This is in marked contrast to perceptions of ‘teacher bashing’ in Australia that undermines teacher morale and discourages the best students from pursuing a career in teaching.
  • The full economic cost of the practicum is the most expensive component of the teacher training programs, but arguably the most important for students who want to be classroom teachers. With tighter budgets there is the temptation for universities and schools to under-fund this critical component of the BEd. My proposal would allow universities and schools to actually fund the practicum more appropriately and still reduce the cost of the practicum; BAEd students would not take the practicum. Indeed, there is need to ensure that classroom teachers who take on the demanding role of supervising pre-service teachers have adequate training, recognition, and reward for undertaking this task.
  • A more radical alternative being instituted in some countries (and some other professions in Australia) would be to move the entire teaching profession to graduate entry only. This would mean that entry into Graduate Schools of Education would be based on success in an undergraduate degree rather than ATAR scores, and would have the added benefit of raising the status of the teaching profession in the eyes of the public, politicians, and students who want to become teachers. I note that my proposals presented here are not unique, and some universities already offer alternatives that have some (or even all) of the flexibility and advantages of my proposal.

A serious limitation in proposals offered by the government, the NSW Institute of Teaching, the NSW Teachers Federation, and myself is that there is almost no solid, ‘gold standard’ research to back up any of the proposals.

  • There is little evidence to support the supposition that high school students scoring 80 on the Australian Tertiary University Rank (ATR) will make better teachers than those scoring 70 or even 60.
  • There is not even good evidence the teachers with better/higher qualifications or more teaching experience, are better teachers (Hanushek &Rivkin, 2010;  McBer, 2000).
  • ‘Gold standard’ research shows that smaller class sizes are more effective. However, the differences are small, particularly for class sizes greater than 18 and for high school classes; might not generalise across student/school demographic variables (see Blatchford, et al., 2002); and might not be cost-effective relative to other policy reforms (Yeh, 2009).
  • Differences between countries on OECD rankings based on standardized test scores might be useful, but there is no easy way to say what causes these differences; picking out isolated characteristics (e.g., large class sizes in high-scoring Asian countries where there are fewer classroom management issues) is naïve and counter-productive.
  • Even evidence that ‘good’ schools make a difference is weak. For example, the UK has perhaps the longest history and best data for measuring school effectiveness in relation to test scores based on a national curriculum, and translating these into league tables. Although there are huge differences between schools in unadjusted test scores, these are primarily due to pre-existing differences. With increasingly sophisticated value-added models, the percentage of variance in student test scores attributable to the schools is a paltry 5%, and is likely to fall further with more appropriate control for socioeconomic status and measurement error (see Marsh, et al., 2011; also see Baker et al for related problems on the use of test scores to evaluate teachers).
  • Most research into effective schools and teachers has focused on test scores, but some of the most important criteria are self-beliefs, motivation, engagement, self-regulation, and aspirations (Marsh, 2007) – areas in which good schools and teachers are likely to have a larger effect than on standardised test scores.

If any of the proponents of sweeping policy changes – or even the status quo — for teaching standards and schools are serious about improving education, then policy needs to be informed by good research. New policies should be tested in carefully designed pilot studies to test their effectiveness, before being introduced across the system. Can you imagine the public outcry that would result if sweeping new medical procedures were introduced without first being shown to be effective by solid research evidence? Why do not educational policy makers feel the same imperative to provide research evidence for new initiatives?


Baker, E. L., Barton, P. E., Darling-Hammond, L., Haertel, E., Ladd, H. F., Linn, R. L., Ravitch, D., Rothstein, R., Shavelson, R. J. and Shepard, L. A. (2010), Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers, EPI Briefing Paper no. 278, Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute (http://epi.3cdn.net/b9667271ee6c154195_ t9m6iij8k.pdf).

Blatchford, P., Goldstein, H., Martin, C. & Browne, W (2002): A Study of Class Size Effects in English School Reception Year Classes, British Educational Research Journal, 28:2, 169-185. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01411920120122130

Buddin, R. & Zamarro, G. (2009). Teacher qualifications and student achievement in urban elementary schools.  Journal of Urban Economics, 66, 103-115. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0094119009000291)

Hanushek, E. A. &Rivkin, S. G. (2010). Generalizations about Using Value- Added Measures of Teacher Quality. American Economic Revew, 100, 267-7l.

Harris, D. N. (2009), ‘Would accountability based on teacher value added be smart policy? An examination of the statistical properties and policy alternatives’, Education Finance and Policy, vol. 4, pp. 319–50.

Marsh, H. W. (2007).Self-concept theory, measurement and research into practice: The role of self-concept in educational psychology. Leicester, UK: British Psychological Society.

Marsh, H. W, Nagengast, B., Fletcher, J. & Televantou, I. (2011). Assessing educational effectiveness: policy implications from diverse areas of research. Fiscal Studies, 32, 279–295

McBer, H. (2000). Research into Teacher Effectiveness. UK  Department for Education and Employment.

Rockoff, Jonah E. 2004. “The Impact of Individual Teachers on Student Achievement: Evidence from Panel Data.” American Economic Review, 94(2): 247-252.

Yeh, S. S. (2009) Class size reduction or rapid formative assessment?: A comparison of cost-effectiveness, Educational Research Review, 4, 7-15.  (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1747938X08000389)


Distinguished Professor Herb Marsh is in the Centre for Positive Psychology and Education and the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney

The humble green cucumber: Lessons from inside the classroom March 10, 2013

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Engaging Learning Environments.
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 from Dr Carol Birrel

Often the classroom itself provides unique learning opportunities if, as teachers, we remain alert to the possibilities.

Early in this semester, I walked into one of my classes (most of these students are pre-service teachers and I teach Social Ecology subjects)) to find a Muslim scarfed woman crunching away on a small green cucumber. I laughed at the sight of this delightful new way of eating this delicious morsel, as a healthy snack food, in contrast to my narrow pre-occupation of throwing it into every salad I can lay my hands on. I then had a rant to the class about what a wondrous food these Lebanese cucumbers are and asked who else eats them and how, which led into a bit of a discussion on the shaping of the Australian diet (and hence culture) through these ‘legal’ and vital imports. Next? On to the ‘real’content for the class that day.

 The following week, the same student, right at the beginning of the tutorial, unearthed from her bag, a wad of bread, pickles and of course, Lebanese cucumbers- one for each student and two for the teacher. Her mother had asked her, on hearing the story of the previous week in class, how many students were in the class. On the appointed day, she had arisen very early, picked the cucumbers fresh from the garden, made the bread, added the home preserved pickles, and packed them into neat individualized bundles. I was very touched by this gesture, not only by the generosity of my student’s mother, the care and time and effort she had made in this offering, but also, it felt like a real gift from her culture. It was a very humbling moment.

 As all of us crunched and munched on our superb simple repast, I asked why I had been given two (you can imagine what sort of explanations I had come up with!!). The reply? ‘Because in Lebanon, the person held in highest regard after the mother, is the teacher.’ Another humbling moment. And then, discussion took off with absolutely no prodding or poking. A lively, thoughtful and sometimes emotional sharing of the role of the teacher and student in whatever cultural background that student was from. Personal stories of suppressive relationships in China, harsh physical punishments in Iraq, imposed rote learning of huge tomes of texts in Afghanistan, no space for class discussion in Pakistan. On and on it went, the rolling out of these stories that everyone wanted to tell, even the Australian born students- and the rest of the class sat riveted. As the teacher, I was background, yet an integral part as learner also, to the crucial learning that was taking place spontaneously.

 It reminded me of what the ‘real’ learning is.

 In Social Ecology, we speak about the creation of a ‘learning ecology’, a place where the emphasis is on relationships, on ‘connectivities’ that bind us into a learning community that has breadth as well as depth. The teacher in this model is as much a part of the actual learning as are the students. Gone is the role of teacher as sole holder and purveyor of knowledge to be transmitted onto the blank slate of the passive student. A learning ecology is an interactive and vibrant site. You know when it is happening. You can feel it as an opening up of a space that is authentic and heart-felt. It attempts to give voice in the midst of the overwhelming noise of competing curriculum directives.

It is as delicious as any freshly picked Lebanese cucumber eaten whenever and in whatever circumstances!

Dr Carol Birrell is a lecturer in the School of Education, University of Western Sydney

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