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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Getting good teachers into challenging schools

Suzanne Rice
Dr Rice is a Research Fellow at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education

Australia has relatively high levels of education, and our students perform well in international achievement tests, but there is an unacceptable gap between the performance of our best students and our weakest, many of whom are pooled in schools that are hard to staff. While there are undoubtedly some outstanding teachers in hard-to-staff schools, one way to address this achievement gap is to get more of the very best teachers into the most challenging schools, and this has been behind recent calls to give top teachers salary incentives to work in disadvantaged settings. But is money the only answer?

In 2006 I conducted research at the University of Melbourne looking at how Victorian teachers made decisions about where to teach. For the study I surveyed 919 teachers across the State, covering Government, Catholic and Independent sectors. The survey took into account both professional factors (such as the desire for promotion or for a place in an innovative school) and personal factors (such as moving to a school because of a partner’s work commitments). The study contrasted the importance given to these factors by more and less effective teachers to see if they moved towards, stayed in or moved away from a school for different reasons. The results suggest some additional ways in which education systems may be able to get a greater proportion of highly effective teachers working in the most challenging settings.

Identifying the effective teacher

While the measurement of teacher effectiveness is a controversial issue, research in the area does suggest that more effective teachers tend to hold certain attitudes and beliefs. They have confidence in their own teaching ability, and in the power of teaching to make a difference to students’ lives. They are enthusiastic, caring towards students, and they are committed to their own professional improvement.

Based on such findings, the survey included items designed to measure these attitudes and beliefs. Teachers’ answers were added to give them a teacher effectiveness score. Teachers in the top 25 per cent of the group on this score were considered likely to be more effective. Their answers to other parts of the survey were compared to those of teachers in the lowest 25 per cent.

How did the two groups compare?

In choosing where to teach, personal factors such as caring responsibilities were equally important for the most and least effective teachers. But on professional factors, the two groups differed markedly. The most effective teachers placed much more emphasis on the chance to influence the direction of their schools. They sought out promotions, and said that better promotion opportunities would be more likely to hold them in a school. They were also much more likely to say that increased responsibilities and power would hold them in a school, while the least effective teachers tended to say that fewer responsibilities would keep them there. 

The most effective teachers were also learners. They held higher qualifications than the least effective (even controlling for age and experience), were more likely to be currently studying, and were more likely to be involved in a professional association (such as their subject association). Many of them said that better professional development opportunities would attract them to and hold them in a school. Opportunities to learn and build on their pedagogical knowledge were important to them.

The most effective teachers also placed a much greater value on educational innovation as a means to draw them to or keep them in a school. The most effective teachers in the study were significantly more likely than the least effective to say they transferred into their school because they wanted to teach somewhere with a really innovative approach to education: effective primary teachers were twice as likely, and secondary teachers four times as likely, to mention innovativeness as a quality that attracted them to their current school.

So in terms of attracting and keeping effective teachers in challenging schools, money may be one potential solution (although the evidence is very mixed), but there are others. What does my research suggest could be done?

First, systems could attach a greater proportion of senior positions to the schools that are hardest to staff, with appropriate additional funding. Not all effective teachers want to be in leadership positions – some highly effective teachers are happy to remain in the classroom. Overall, however, a strong chance to move into a leadership position will tend to attract more very good teachers into hard-to-staff schools.

Second, attaching HECS scholarships for postgraduate study to positions in the least-favoured schools is likely to attract and retain good teachers. The most effective teachers are undoubtedly committed learners. Offering scholarships for further study could attract some of our better teachers to challenging schools, while providing the benefits of additional expertise and knowledge to the school community.

Third, systems could work to create centres of innovation in some disadvantaged settings, with appropriate additional funds and training, as suggested by Richard Teese. The most effective teachers place a strong value on working somewhere that is breaking new educational ground. Fostering cutting-edge educational practice in hard-to-staff schools is likely to draw and hold some of our most competent teachers there.

Fourth, schools in challenging settings need to ensure they allow good applicants for positions the capacity to negotiate about their roles and responsibilities. The most effective teachers tended to have clear ideas about what they would like to do in a school, so more negotiating power is likely to have a strong appeal for them.

If we are to give all students access to the benefits of a knowledge society, then we need to improve the achievement levels of students in those settings where poverty and accumulated disadvantage can make teaching and learning much more complex. Getting more of our very best teachers into these schools is one important means of reaching this goal.

KLA

Subject Headings

Teaching profession
Teachers' employment
Schools
Equality