Assessment, Equity, Teaching

Improving the Quality of Teaching in Australia

In the 1960s the prevailing view was that schools and teachers made little difference to student achievement, which was largely predetermined by socio-economic status (SES), family circumstances, and innate ability.  However, research has powerfully refuted that view.

While SES and family background do exert strong influences on student achievement, they are not life sentences. SES is about the opportunity and support, resources, role models, and encouragement available to a student. It’s not about innate ability, potential, or social-biological determinism. The fact is that, while there is a relationship between SES (and family background) and student achievement, poor achievement is spread across the SES spectrum. We have many high achievers in low SES schools. Many low SES students also have strong and supportive family backgrounds.

Extensive meta-analytic work has shown that what each student “brings to the table” accounts for about 50 percent of the variance in student achievement, and a large contributor to this is what students already know and can do, i.e., their prior achievement. Of the school-based factors influencing student learning, the most important is the classroom teacher, accounting for about 30 percent of the variance in achievement.[1] This finding has led to a major international emphasis on improving the quality of teachers and teaching, especially since the 1980s.

A quality teacher in every classroom is the ultimate aim, but how to achieve this is the big question and challenge.

We now have a good understanding of how teacher expertise develops, and we know what effective teaching looks like. However, we also know that teacher quality can vary widely within and across schools. A quality teacher in every classroom is the ultimate aim, but how to achieve this is the big question and challenge.

Developments in Australian Education

Recently in Australia we have seen some significant developments focused on improving the quality of teaching and lifting student achievement. However, in raising student achievement, it is important that we close, not widen, existing gaps between our best and lowest performers. While Australia performs well on international measures of student achievement such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), we have a larger achievement gap than other similar nations, with low SES and Indigenous students clustered towards the bottom; i.e., Australian education is characterised by high quality, low equity, and high social segregation.[2]

Recent and current developments are intended to lift teacher effectiveness and student achievement, and close the achievement gap.

National testing and associated reporting.

In 2008, the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) commenced in Australian schools. Every year, all students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 are assessed in Reading, Writing, Language Conventions (Spelling, Grammar, and Punctuation), and Numeracy.[3] For up to two decades prior to this, some states and territories had been conducting their own testing, but these tests varied and didn’t cover all schools and schooling systems.

For the first time we have a common, national testing regime, which has already highlighted pockets of under (and over) performance and more sharply revealed the landscape of student achievement. This has given schools, educational systems, and parents the ability to compare student achievements against national standards and with other jurisdictions, and teachers and schools are becoming more adept at using achievement data diagnostically. The NAPLAN results for 2010 will enable student growth to be measured and reported; that is, the first cohorts in 2008 will have taken their second series of tests.

Initial resistance to NAPLAN centred on the possible construction of “league tables” (rankings of schools) and the fact that schools might be “named and shamed” because of poor relative performance, leading to an exodus of more able students.  Another concern was narrowing students’ experiences through “teaching to the test”. While some opposition remains (see My School, below), a pleasing feature to date has been the targeting of support for lower performing schools such as the appointment of “teaching and learning coaches” to work with teachers in lifting literacy and numeracy in struggling schools.

The development of a national curriculum.

In Australia education is largely funded through the federal tax system, yet schooling is a state and territorial responsibility – although unlike Canada, we have a federal minister and department for education.  While many have pressed for a common national curriculum for decades, it has been difficult to gain agreement across the eight states and territories and the federal government. However, with the election of the Rudd Labor government in 2007, a K-12 national curriculum was announced for introduction beginning in 2011. States and territories – all Labor at the time – “signed on” for this and other initiatives under new financial arrangements noted below. The national curriculum is being developed by a new body, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).[4] (The keen reader will notice that NAPLAN testing was introduced prior to the new national curriculum.)

New financial relationships.

New relationships have been struck between the federal and state and territory governments through various “partnership” agreements, including Early Childhood Education, Improving Teacher Quality, and Literacy and Numeracy. These commit the state and territory governments to addressing agreed national priorities and targets but also to provide “facilitation” and “reward” payments to fund the process.[5] Significant federal funding has also been provided for school infrastructure and ICT in schools.[6]

The “My School” website.[7]

This website reports NAPLAN results and other school data for every primary and secondary school in Australia.

This has been the most contentious of the recent developments – with strong opposition, particularly from teachers’ unions, but also with strong support from many stakeholders.  The main fear from unions has been about school rankings. While ACARA, which manages My School, does not produce rankings of schools, some in the media have been quick to do so using the data on My School. As a result, teacher unions threatened to ban NAPLAN testing in May 2010, although in the end the tests were held. 

Schools and school systems have been active in highlighting the importance of gaining good NAPLAN results. While some have decried such “teaching to the test”, others have seen it as positive if it results in enhanced literacy and numeracy.

National standards for teachers.

For the first time, national standards have been formulated and released for consultation at Graduate, Proficient, Highly Accomplished, and Lead levels. The federal government has announced national certification of teachers against these standards and national accreditation of teacher education courses. This initiative goes to the heart of improving the quality of teaching in Australian schools. Some backgrounding is necessary.

In 2008, Lawrence Ingvarson, Elizabeth Kleinhenz, and I, from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER),[8] completed a report for the Business Council of Australia (BCA) entitled Teaching Talent – The Best Teachers for Australia’s Classrooms.[9] In that report, we argued that previous attempts to drive improvement in teacher quality and to attract, retain, recognize, and reward accomplished teachers had largely failed. We also said that popular, seemingly simplistic measures such as paying teachers on “merit” or by “results” were also problematic. Pressure and rewards needed to be applied across the key points of leverage in the teacher career cycle.

Present salary and career structures for Australia’s teachers are 19th century artefacts that see teachers’ salaries peak too soon and at too low a level. While salaries for beginning teachers are comparable to other professionals such as dentists, lawyers, and accountants, most teachers proceed along annual incremental salary scales for eight to ten years.  Their salaries then plateau at a time when salaries in other professions are rising steeply for the most able practitioners. More than three-quarters of Australia’s teachers are at the top of such scales, earning Aus $70-75,000 per year.  This is about 1.5 times the salary of a beginning teacher, a differential that is low compared with other professions.  Teachers who continue their professional learning and strive to improve their practice receive no financial reward. Teachers who wish to gain higher salaries are forced to leave the classroom and seek promotion.

Since the 1970s Australian educational systems have tried, unsuccessfully, to devise measures to recognize and reward more able teachers, to induce them to continue their professional learning and stay in the classroom. However the rewards for such schemes have never been sufficient and the measures have never been mainstreamed nor gained much traction.[10]

There has also been activity around developing teaching standards going back several decades, variously involving professional associations of teachers, university academics, educational systems, and state- and territory-based teacher registration authorities. In the main, these standards have lacked suitable assessment and certification procedures and have not been fully integrated into teacher salary and career structures.

We argued for a new, integrated national approach involving national teaching standards and levels of voluntary certification, above the common and mandatory “registration” level, with commensurate financial rewards.


The main features of the approach we advocated include (see Figure 1):

  • Common national standards for graduates of teacher education courses with courses accredited against these standards.
  • Required national certification of Provisionally Registered teachers in the first year of teaching or equivalent.
  • The ability of Registered Teachers to practice anywhere in Australia and earn a salary approximately 1.25 times that of a beginning teacher, rising to 2.00.
  • Registered teachers would retain registration for a period of, say, five years during which time they would need to demonstrate professional learning against the national standards and meet employers’ requirements for appraisal and salary progression.
  • Optional certification at both the Accomplished and Leading Teacher levels, with candidates meeting national standards for each designation. An Accomplished Teacher could earn a salary up to 2.5 that of a beginning teacher, with Leading Teachers earning beyond that.  While Accomplished and Leading Teachers could hold a formal promotion position, such as head of faculty or assistant principal, the standards for these designations would articulate a high level of teaching expertise and strong involvement in working with other teachers through professional learning, mentoring, curriculum development, and so forth.

Once “equilibrium” had been reached in, say, ten years, approximately 60 percent of Australia’s teachers would be Provisionally Registered or Registered. Approximately 30 percent might be Accomplished, and 10 percent could have Leading Teacher status.

Other recommendations arising from our report included:

  • Teachers to be drawn from the top quartile of secondary school graduates and from highly performing people entering teaching from other fields
  • Beginning teachers to receive high quality support and guidance to prepare them for national certification/registration
  • Nationally accredited professional development programs for teachers and school leaders to support a national curriculum and testing regime
  • Salary and career structures to be restructured along the lines above through individual employing authority industrial awards agreed between employers and teachers’ unions to drive and reward higher levels of teacher accomplishment against national standards

What Progress Has Been Made to Date?

Our BCA report and the template represented in Figure 1 have been largely endorsed by subsequent announcements and developments.

A mapping of existing teaching standards has been undertaken and consolidated draft national standards at the Graduate, Proficient (i.e. Registered), Highly Accomplished, and Lead Teacher levels have been released for consultation (note the variations on our original suggested wording).

A new national body, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL, arising out of a previous body called Teaching Australia) has been given responsibility for establishing “rigorous” national professional standards, fostering high quality professional development for teachers and school leaders, and working collaboratively across jurisdictions and with key professional bodies.[11]

Once the consultation stage for the standards has been completed and the standards modified as necessary, attention will turn to the development of the assessment and certification processes for Australia’s 300,000 teachers and accreditation for teacher education courses. To ensure consistency, a truly national approach is advocated – particularly for the optional, higher levels, rather than leaving this to existing state and territory jurisdictions or to employers.

Since there is no common industrial salary agreement for Australia’s teachers, a key issue is whether these national levels of certification will be integrated into teachers’ union agreements in the various jurisdictions and sectors. There is some progress on this front, with the largest employer of teachers, the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Education and Training, introducing a trial of 100 Highly Accomplished teachers in 2010.[12] These teachers are currently receiving a salary “bonus” of $8,000 per year.

Processes for certification need to be rigorous as well as valid and reliable, to prevent the sort of “rubber stamping” that has occurred with prior teacher appraisal systems.

Education systems and employers are naturally nervous about these developments. While all appear to support accreditation of teacher education courses and the certification of teachers at the mandatory Proficient level, some are concerned about the financial effects of a potentially large number of Highly Accomplished and Lead teachers being granted salary increases on achieving certification. Processes for certification need to be rigorous as well as valid and reliable, to prevent the sort of “rubber stamping” that has occurred with prior teacher appraisal systems.

An issue best left to employers is how levels of certification – including for leadership, which are currently being formulated – will mesh with appointment and promotion processes.  It is not feasible to introduce blanket requirements in this regard; for example, some school principals in Australia supervise three teachers, others 200 or more.  Requiring Principal Leadership certification in each case might be inappropriate and counterproductive. Employers will wish to retain flexibility in how they staff their schools.

The role of professional learning in these processes is also important. National testing, curricula, teaching standards, and teacher certification will make it possible to develop and introduce high quality and possibly nationally accredited professional learning courses and resources, to replace the present duplication of effort and uneven quality that results from uneven population density and ability to pay.

A final issue is the perennial question of “who pays?” Full development and implementation of the sort of system we outlined in our report for the BCA will be costly. However there are no cost-neutral solutions to the challenges of lifting teacher quality.


The bottom line is that Australia needs to more effectively attract, train, support, retain, recognize, and reward quality teachers throughout their careers. After a slow start and decades of debate, the pieces of the quality teaching puzzle are now quickly coming together. Increased federal government intervention and financial support, along with state and territory support and compliance, is driving educational change at a scope and pace not seen previously.

The biggest equity issue in Australian education today isn’t computers, new buildings or equipment. It’s the need for each student to have quality teachers and quality teaching in schools supported by effective leadership and professional learning in mutually respectful community contexts

The biggest equity issue in Australian education today isn’t computers, new buildings or equipment. It’s the need for each student to have quality teachers and quality teaching in schools supported by effective leadership and professional learning in mutually respectful community contexts.[13]

Life isn’t fair, but good teaching and good schools are the best means we have of overcoming disadvantage and opening the doors of opportunity for young people.

This paper is based on presentations he made in February 2010 in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Halifax, and Toronto on behalf of the Canadian Council on Learning, whose support is gratefully acknowledged.

EN BREF – L’Australie doit attirer, former, soutenir, retenir, reconnaître et récompenser plus efficacement les enseignantes et les enseignants de qualité pendant toute leur carrière. Après un lent départ et des années de débat, les pièces du casse-tête de l’enseignement de qualité s’assemblent. L’accroissement de l’intervention et du soutien financier du gouvernement fédéral se conjugue à l’appui et à la conformité des états et des territoires pour propulser le changement en éducation à un rythme et une envergure sans précédent. Des examens nationaux communs font déjà ressortir les zones sous-performantes (et surperformantes), traçant plus clairement la carte de réussite des élèves. Après des décennies de discussions et de débats, un programme d’études national de la maternelle à la 12e année sera lancé en 2011. Un site Web baptisé « My School » présente les résultats aux examens et d’autres données pour chaque école primaire et secondaire du pays. Et –  au cœur même de l’amélioration de la qualité d’enseignement en Australie – des normes nationales d’enseignement, liées aux niveaux de rémunération, ont été instaurées, incluant plusieurs paliers d’agrément et le perfectionnement professionnel continu obligatoire.

[1] J. Hattie, Visible Learning (London: Routledge, 2009).

[2] www.aihw.gov.au/closingthegap

[3] www.naplan.edu.au

[4] www.acara.edu.au/default.asp


[6] www.deewr.gov.au/schooling/buildingtheeducationrevolution/Pages/default.aspx; www.deewr.gov.au/schooling/digitaleducationrevolution/Pages/default.aspx

[7] www.myschool.edu.au

[8] www.acer.edu.au

[9] S. Dinham, L. Ingvarson, and E. Kleinhenz, “Investing in Teacher Quality: Doing What Matters Most,” in Teaching Talent: The Best Teachers for Australia’s Classrooms (Melbourne: Business Council of Australia, 2008).  Available at: www.bca.com.au/Content/99520.aspx

[10] L. Ingvarson, “Recognising Accomplished Teachers in Australia: Where Have We Been? Where Are We Heading?” Australian Journal of Education 54, no. 1 (2010): 46-71.

[11] www.aitsl.edu.au/ta/go

[12] www.nswteachers.nsw.edu.au/content.aspx?PageID=218&ItemID=76

[13] S. Dinham, How to Get Your School Moving and Improving: An Evidence-based Approach (Camberwell, Victoria: ACER Press, 2008).

Meet the Expert(s)

Stephen Dinham

Stephen Dinham Ph.D. was most recently Research Director for Teaching, Learning and Leadership at the Australian Council for Educational Research. At the beginning of 2011, he became Chair of Teacher Education at the University of Melbourne sdinham@unimelb.edu.au

Read More

1/5 Free Articles Left

LOGIN Join The Network