The large gaps in student achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged schools in Australia are well known. What is less well known is that government teacher policies are compounding the gaps by discriminating against disadvantaged schools in their access to teaching resources. Incredibly, Australia allocates more and better teacher resources to socio-economically advantaged schools than to disadvantaged schools.
Disadvantaged schools in Australia have more students per teacher, more teacher shortages, more teacher absenteeism, more poorly qualified teachers, more teachers teaching out-of-field, more inexperienced teachers, more teacher turnover, more novice teachers and more teachers on short-term contracts than advantaged schools. The gaps rank amongst the largest in the OECD.
These gaps in teaching resources are revealed in a recent OECD report titled Effective Teacher Policies that draws on data from the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The data are the most comprehensive available on the allocation of teaching resources.
Australia is the only OECD country where disadvantaged schools are worse off than advantaged schools on an aggregate of several measures of teacher quantity. It is one of only eight OECD countries out of 35 where disadvantaged schools are not better off than advantaged schools on at least one measure of teacher quantity.
The report shows that most OECD countries provide more teachers in disadvantaged schools than in advantaged schools. Australia is one of only three countries where the number of students per teacher in disadvantaged schools is higher than in advantaged schools and the difference is statistically significant. It is the largest statistically significant gap in the OECD.
Moreover, Australia is one of only five of the 73 countries/economies participating in PISA 2015 where the student-teacher ratio is significantly higher in disadvantaged schools than in advantaged schools – 12.6 students per teacher compared to 11.6. Although this gap appears small, it has a significant impact on the number of teachers available in schools of 500 or more students. Australia’s gap is the third largest of all the countries participating in PISA 2015.
There is also a huge gap in the shortage of teachers between disadvantaged and advantaged schools in Australia. Some 36% of students in disadvantaged schools are in schools whose principal reported a shortage of teaching staff compared to only 6% of students in the most advantaged schools. The difference is the equal fifth largest in the OECD.
Teacher absenteeism is a temporary form of teacher shortage and there is a large gap between disadvantaged and advantaged schools in Australia. Some 21% of students are in schools where the principal reported student learning is hindered by teacher absenteeism compared to only 6% of students in advantaged schools. Australia is one of only four OECD countries where teacher absenteeism is significantly higher in disadvantaged schools than advantaged schools.
Not only does Australia provide more teachers in advantaged schools than disadvantaged schools, it also provides better teachers in advantaged schools. Once again, the gaps are amongst the largest in the OECD.
There are over six times more students in disadvantaged schools than in advantaged schools where the principal reported that the school’s capacity to provide instruction is hindered by inadequately or poorly qualified teaching staff – 32% of students in disadvantaged schools compared to only 5% in advantaged schools. The difference is the equal third largest in the OECD.
There is also more out-of-field teaching in disadvantaged schools than in advantaged schools in Australia. Only 75% of science teachers in disadvantaged schools are trained in all subjects they teach compared to 85% in advantaged schools. Also, 79% of non-science teachers in disadvantaged schools are trained in all the subjects they teach compared to 85% in advantaged schools.
Teachers in disadvantaged schools in Australia are less experienced than those in advantaged schools. Science and non-science teachers in disadvantaged schools have an average of three years less experience than those in advantaged schools. Novice teachers comprise 27% of science teachers in disadvantaged schools compared to 17% in advantaged schools and they comprise 23% of non-science teachers in disadvantaged schools compared to 15% in advantaged schools.
Disadvantaged schools in Australia also experience higher turnover rates among non-science teachers than advantaged schools. The report shows that, on average, non-science teachers in disadvantaged schools spend fewer years in a school compared those in advantaged schools – 8.4 years compared to 9.3 years. There is little difference in the turnover rate for science teachers.
Australia has large achievement gaps in reading, mathematics and science between disadvantaged and advantaged 15-year-old students of about three years of learning. The OECD report shows that differences in the quantity and quality of teachers between disadvantaged and advantaged schools contribute significantly to these achievement gaps.
The report found that teacher shortages, qualifications, experience and turnover are strongly associated with student performance. Countries in which teacher qualifications and experience are significantly better in advantaged schools than in disadvantaged schools tend to have larger achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. There are also larger achievement gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged students in countries where teacher shortages and turnover are higher in disadvantaged than advantaged schools. Australia is a stand-out example on all counts.
The impact of the resource gaps is felt most heavily in the public sector because almost all disadvantaged schools in Australia are public schools. The My School website shows that there are some 2,578 schools in Australia with 40% or more students in the lowest socio-economic status quartile. Of these, 94.8% are public schools and only 3.6% are Catholic schools and 1.6% Independent schools.
Australian governments need to do much more to distribute teaching resources more equitably if progress is to be made in reducing the achievement gaps. It is not just a matter of more teachers for disadvantaged schools. The OECD report says that policies to tackle student disadvantage must include policies to better allocate quality teachers to disadvantaged schools:
“These results imply that most countries could do more to oversee how teachers are allocated to schools. This includes not just monitoring the number of teachers, but also keeping a close eye on their qualifications, experience and effectiveness. Any teacher policy that aims to tackle student disadvantage should strive to allocate quality teachers, and not just more teachers, to underserved students.” [p. 13]
It also says that much more must be done to better support teachers in disadvantaged schools. Teachers must be equipped with the skills needed to work in disadvantaged schools and with an understanding of the social contexts of those schools and their students. Supporting teachers in their most challenging tasks could also help ensure that experienced teachers remain in the profession.
Australian governments must take a much more active role in promoting a more equitable allocation of teacher resources if progress is to be made in reducing the achievement gaps. Governments must increase the number of teachers and the quality of teachers in disadvantaged schools and better support them to remain in these schools.
Trevor Cobbold is National Convenor of Save Our Schools. This article is a summary of an Education Research Paper published on the SOS website.