Tanya Plibersek, Australian Labor’s Shadow Minister for Education, has just been reaching out to the media. Plibersek has objected to the low ATAR sufficient for school leavers to gain entry to a teaching degree, and she has threatened that if universities don’t raise the entry standards then Labor may impose a cap on student numbers:

**We [should] choose our teaching students from amongst the top 30 per cent …**

This raises the obvious question: why the top 30 per cent of students? Why not the top 10 per cent? Or the top 1 per cent? If you’re going to dream an impossible dream, you may as well make it a really good one.

Plibersek is angry at the universities, claiming they are over-enrolling and dumbing down their teaching degrees, and of course she is correct. Universities don’t give a damn whether their students learn anything or whether the students have any hope of getting a job at the end, because for decades the Australian government has paid universities to not give a damn. The universities would enrol carrots if they could figure out a way for the carrots to fill in the paperwork.

The corruption of university teaching enrolment, however, has almost nothing to do with the poor quality of school teachers and school teaching. The true culprits are the neoliberal thugs and the left wing loons who, over decades, have destroyed the very notion of education and thus have reduced teaching to a meaningless, hateful and hated profession, so that with rare exceptions the only people who become teachers are those with either little choice or little sense or a masochistically high devotion to civic duty.

If Plibersek wants “teaching to be as well-respected as medicine” then perhaps Labor could stick their neck out and fight for a decent increase in teachers’ wages. Labor could fight for the proper academic control of educational disciplines so that there might be a coherent and deep Australian curriculum for teachers to teach. Labor could fight against teachers’ Sisyphean reporting requirements and against the swamping over-administration of public schools. Labor could promise to stop, entirely, the insane funding of poisonously wealthy private schools. Labor could admit that for decades they have been led by soulless beancounters and clueless education hacks, so as much as anyone they have lost sight of what education is and how a government can demand it.

But no. Plibersek and Labor choose an easy battle, and a stupid, pointless battle.

None of this is to imply that Labor’s opponents are better. Nothing could be worse for education, or anything, than the sadistic, truth-killing Liberal-National psychopaths currently in power.

But we expect better from Labor. Well, no we don’t. But once upon a time we did.

## Update (27/02/19)

Tanya Plibersek has announced a new Labor policy, to offer $40,000 grants for “the best and the brightest” to do teaching degrees, and to go on to teach in public schools. Of course Plibersek’s suggestion that this will attract school duxes and university medal winners into teaching is pure fantasy, but it’s a nanostep in the right direction.

Oh what a pitiful state we must have slumped to in order to be at the point where teacher-bashing is now a sport for all political colours (although to be fair, I stopped listening to the green part of the spectrum after their recent internal “issues” arose). It is an easy game to play and like global warming, talking is easy, doing something that will actually work is going to take more than one term of government and a certain amount of bravery not seen in many years.

And the elephant in the room remains.

Actually there are several elephants, but Teach for Australia and other elephants haven’t been pooping so much lately, so maybe they too will go extinct soon. No, the big elephant here is the assumption that teaching is one set of skills that then miraculously works for any teacher in any school. I’m sure there are great teachers in (insert any range of disciplines that are not Mathematics here) for whom a university education is quite possibly not essential (queue the trolls… now). To assume that someone’s ability to teach is somehow related to their ability to sit a bunch of tests with questionable meaning (see multiple posts elsewhere on this site) is the start of the problem, not the solution.

Back to the wine…

I tend to avoid teacher-bashing, since teachers get plenty of bashing, and they get pretty much all the bashing that should be reserved for education faculties and mathematics departments and politicians and neoliberal think tanks. Whether or not teachers are villains, they are clearly victims.

But I’m not in the mood right now to defend teachers and plenty cannot be defended. A clear majority of Australian mathematics teachers have no idea what they are doing nor why they are doing it, and a good fraction of that majority seem unaware or unperturbed by this. The specific point of my post is that Plibersek’s 30 per cent fantasy, even if it were somehow realised, would do nothing to fix this problem. The general point of my post is that Australian education, and thus Australian society, is completely screwed.

Let us assume for the sake of the argument that I agree with your premise that a lot of Mathematics teachers suck (it is a pretty difficult premise to dispute given sufficient time in any government school). To blame the teachers for this however I think is slightly missing the point. If schools want to insist on filling gaps with non-Mathematicians when more sensible options exist, then be it on their heads (figuratively and otherwise).

Unfortunately, it seems to be the proper Mathematics teachers rather than the management that ends up paying the price.

So sure, make less people qualify as teachers. I have a nagging feeling that teachers, not managers, will be the bigger victims in the short to medium term.

In the long term, we are all either dead or retired.

I am not (in the main) blaming teachers for sucking. As I wrote, teachers are victims; there are powerful forces encouraging, almost requiring, teachers to suck. I do, however, blame teachers with a smug or lazy indifference to whether they suck. Such indifference is endemic.

And we both know a teacher (was a teacher, may not be in the coming year) who tried to call out such indifference. They ended up leaving both the school and the country. I still blame managers. And the VIT, their hands are surely not clean.

There is the other elephant in the room as well…

Namely, encouraging non-mathematicians to train as Mathematics teachers.

It erases the shortage in one sense but creates a lot more problems for a lot more people (students, parents and other teachers as well as their future university lecturers) along the way…

Who is encouraging “non-mathematicians” (not the right term) to train as maths teachers?

Yeah, poor choice of words there…

But you know who. Administrators in university education departments who think (rightly or wrongly) that the shortage of Mathematics teachers in secondary schools can be filled by training more of them, even if their preference was to train as a science/accounting/psychology/music (I’ve seen some really odd ones!) teacher.

There is also a subject (not a course, but a subject) offered at one of the better known universities that you could be forgiven for thinking was suggesting it would qualify someone who did not study Mathematics to the end of school to become qualified to teach it at a junior level.

Make of that what you will.

OK, I see what you mean. I don’t think uni administrators give a damn whether there’s a shortage of maths teachers, much less whether they’re helping with the problem. They’re simply looking for fresh meat. But it comes to the same thing.

To which subject and university are you referring? Of course it is standard to think that teaching junior level maths requires nothing but a vague familiarity with junior level maths, so it’s no surprise that there’s a subject explicitly or implicitly claiming as much. But, I’d still be happy to give the subject a whack.

The one that employed me until 31/December/2018.

I cannot give any written examples of students being pushed in this direction (because the online survey students do to test their suitability was kept from the teaching staff…) but having worked with hundreds of students, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence.

The “subject” was studied by at least one of your (ex) colleagues, so I may ask for its specific title.

CORRECTION: I made some factual errors in previous comments:

1. To choose the “subject” a student (who is now studying at postgraduate level) needs to have studied A Mathematics subject in Year 12 and scored 25 or better (raw?) but can be accepted into the subject by special permission from the course coordinator.

2. The subject only looks at the Victorian curriculum from Years 7 to 9.

Thanks, though I’m not sure you made much of an error. A 25 in Further Maths OR “special permission” is bugger all.

The standard preparation for teaching in a *secondary* school should be a three-year degree followed by a two-year Master of Teaching with appropriate methods based on majors in the first degree. Thus, for people aspiring to be secondary teachers, the ATAR is not important. Instead their entry to a Master of Teaching is based on their performance in their first degree.

The ATAR debate about teaching degrees seems to focus on people aspiring to be primary teachers. However politicians seem to be unaware of this.

There are still issues surrounding who teaches what, but the requirements that I suggested in the first paragraph are at least minimum requirements. It’s up to principals to ensure that well-qualified people are placed in their schools. And this can be difficult.

Schools in rural towns will have difficulty attracting and keeping well-qualified mathematics teachers; even finding accommodation for the new teachers can be difficult. The new federal policy of wiping HECS debt for teachers who choose to work in remote parts of Australia has merit.

Terry, there’s a confusing mix of “is” and “should” in your statement. Bachelors of secondary teaching do seem to exist. Also, rural towns obviously have extra difficulty in getting good mathematics teachers, but that is a secondary issue. The primary issue is there are not enough good mathematics teachers anywhere. The Masters only makes matters worse.

Perhaps some of these issues will disappear when the principles of NAPLAN Numeracy are fully applied. The ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide, and any Mathematics derived from those abilities can be ignored in favour of a bit of basic literacy and a good calculator. Pity the graduates can’t spell even in their own selected subject areas let alone remember yesterday’s lessons. Better just tick boxes.

Dennis, I’m not sure how serious to take your comment. Arithmetic ability and the derived mathematics is already ignored.