Thursday, August 9, 2012

Why We’re Never Satisfied With Teachers

A primary school student at the Bridge Learning Campus reads to his teacher at the school (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
by Dr Stephen Dinham, Chair of Teacher Education and Director of Learning and Teaching at University of Melbourne, The Conversation:

This piece was co-authored by Catherine Lomas and Stephen Dinham. Catherine Lomas is a freelance researcher and writer. Stephen Dinham is Professor of Education at the University of Melbourne.
Concern about teacher competence has been around for several decades.

Recently, there has been a concerted push by state and federal governments to enact policies to improve “teacher quality”. Meeting last week, state and federal education ministers agreed that all teachers will have to undergo annual performance reviews.

Others have suggested teacher education is the area needing most improvement, and lifting university entrance scores or establishing other barriers to a teaching degree is the answer.

“Teacher quality”, the favoured term in all of this talk, represents a a push to create not just competent teachers but great teachers - defined variously as those who are highly qualified, highly effective or highly accomplished.

Interestingly though, other professions do not find themselves similarly pressed for greatness. You can see this easily when you search on the internet for “improving teacher quality” (it gets around 3,180 results).

While there are barely any results for “improving doctor quality”, “improving plumber quality” or “improving lawyer quality”.

And yet many see outstanding teaching practice as a vital policy area. Indeed so strident are the claims that teaching must not just be competent but superlative that it can be difficult to step back and ask why the profession is regarded as “broken” in the first place. And, further, why “good” is just not good enough when it comes to teaching.

The hidden issue of gender

While those who say the teaching profession needs to be fixed claim a variety of supporting evidence for action, there is one important factor that does not make it into public debates - the influence of gender stereotypes.

The assumption is often that men are regarded as more competent than women. When we judge women’s performance, the expected standard is lower than that expected of men. Women are not judged as equal in competence to men unless their performance is exceptional and well above the male norm.

These shifting standards apply not only to women when compared to men but to any stigmatised group compared to a group regarded as more competent. Research has proven this empirically.

And when women are seen as not competent when compared to men, jobs which are dominated by women are seen as requiring less skill than “male jobs”. Work that is performed mainly by women is then regarded as low skill and is accordingly undervalued and underpaid.

To most, a skilled trade is being a plumber or electrician, but not a hairdresser. Not only are women’s jobs undervalued, but they are given less status in society and so are more often the subjects of complaints.

Teaching stereotypes

Teaching is a highly feminised profession and becoming more so. That women do teaching makes it immediately prey to suspicions that the work is low level - on a par with childcare - and probably not being performed well. That entry into teaching requires a university education does not prove that practitioners are competent.

Even opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne has publicly described a teaching degree as an “easy option”. After all, we “go easy on ladies” and probably let them through even though they have not done very well; that, or the courses are not very taxing or high level.

Obsession with teacher inquiries

Unease that degrees graduating large numbers of women must be, by their nature, not up to scratch is manifested by the sheer number of inquiries there have been into teacher education programs.

In Australia there has been, on average, one major state or national inquiry into teacher education every year for the past 30 years. No other program of professional preparation has been thought to warrant such scrutiny.

Looked at dispassionately, these concerns look to be irrational. These low level degrees, so the thinking goes, carries on to the next stage, where we expect the average level of teaching is bound to be insufficient. What is good enough when done by a woman is, well, really just not good enough.

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