ACU (Australian Catholic University)

ACU Alum

Issue 3, Summer 2012

Picking winners and avoiding mug punters


With accusations of ‘toxic teachers’ and calls for minimum entry ATARs, it’s been a turbulent few months in the education debate. ACU Vice-Chancellor Professor Greg Craven addressed the National Press Club in Canberra recently, on quality and selection in Australia’s universities. This is an excerpt.

Journalists can normally be relied upon to pick serious issues to report: chainsaw massacres; the state of undress of Kate Middleton; and the adolescent psychology of Tony Abbott. Lately, however, there has been a troubling shift in standards of relevance.

Improbably, education has become news, and better still, bad news. One cannot open a paper without trawling up some educational controversy. Whether it is the ramifications of Gonski; enraged cardinals thrashing state education ministers over school-funding cuts; or allegations the average teacher has literacy levels that would shame a Neanderthal, education is out there.

Astonishingly, this national testiness defies compelling evidence to the contrary. Australia’s schools are not collapsing, despite minute shifts in NAPLAN scores that no-one understands anyway. Most parents seem to think their children’s teachers work reasonably effectively. We have a world-class university system, with the statistical sprinkling of top one hundred institutions, and graduates highly sought in employment

Compared to worries around the resources boom, the rise of China, climate change and the inexplicable failure of Carlton to make the finals, this all seems fairly propitious.

But for some reason, instead of basking in the reality that we finally send students to university in numbers comparable to our competitors, we agonise about whether they are up to it. Rather than being pleased we have enough teachers to reduce class sizes once rivalling football match attendances, we sneer at the supposed Year 12 scores of student teachers. We wonder aloud how these people get into universities, while hoping the only copy of our own Year 12 results was cremated with Mum.

Most strikingly, these attacks on university education and teacher quality are led by the very state governments responsible for the teaching profession. In New South Wales (NSW), Education Minister Adrian Piccoli is the Savonarola of new teachers, castigating them for everything from weak Year 12 results to an inability to spell, and probably bad haircuts. He and like-minded colleagues thunder at universities for admitting these troglodytes and demand ‘higher standards’.

The obvious difficulty with this is that it is the states themselves who run the schools; set the standards for teachers; employ them, determine their pay rates, approve work practices and arrange promotions. Laying sole blame upon universities for the quality of teaching involves a sidestep that would do credit to an All Blacks halfback or a used car salesman faced with an uncongenial warranty.

So what is going on? Can it really be the case that our teacher workforce is so bad, and responsibility rests not on those who run the system but those who merely supply it?

Picking winners – selection into universities

Apart from money, four things matter to universities: research; teaching; staff and students. When it comes to students, what matters is having enough and keeping them. Good teaching, beer and sleazy social life help.

You would think that selecting students would be a prime focus for universities. But selection always has been the shabby back porch of Australian universities in terms of investment and focus, and it is not hard to see why. In the Year 12 school rankings – whether termed ATARs or whatever - both universities and governments have the perfect excuse not to worry. Just read the numbers, and problem solved; an objective, authoritative, numerical solution, and best of all, one for which universities have neither to pay nor take responsibility.

This was reasonable in the 1920s, when the Year 12 exams actually were specifically designed for university selection of a tiny minority of people. But today, when they have become a general purpose certification of education, they have the fitness for purpose, as sole determiner of university entry, of an egg beater in a bush fire.

The ATAR itself is a term more used than understood. It is not even a school ‘mark’ as aging parents would understand it, let alone a direct reflection of intelligence, like being born Victorian. Rather, the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank is just that: your percentile rank achieved at the end of Year 12, actually calculated on the number of students who entered Year 7.

The problems of the ATAR as an omni-competent tool for university selection are legion. For a start, the thing that correlates most strongly with an ATAR is not subsequent success at university but socio-economic status. Study after study suggests that if your parents are jobless and you live in Campbelltown, your ATAR statistically declines accordingly. Studies are yet to link low socio-economic status with stupidity.

Similar studies show that while ATARS are reasonably good predictors of success at high levels above 80, as soon as you move below this into the middle tiers of achievement - from about 55 on, where most of the action is in terms of expanding university participation - their reliability declines dramatically. So trying to impose life choices on the difference between 65 and 73 is a little like selecting students on hair colour or football team allegiance, but less fun.

Worse, the usefulness of the ATAR declines still further once students have been at university for a year, pointing to a fundamental truth: what really matters is the quality of a student once they have completed their university degree, not when they enter it.

These inherent limitations of the ATAR are profoundly reinforced by the utter lack of transparency of published course cut-offs purportedly based on them. Put simply, university cut-offs are as easy to rig as a bush picnic race meeting.

Students and parents, who see cut-offs as a proxy for course quality, would be astonished by this claim. After all, does not a cut-off at an ATAR of 70 guarantee that at least the vast majority of entrants achieved that rank? It does not. While many universities genuinely set cut-offs reflecting the lowest score normally required for entry, others apply wall-paper mathematics that would have impressed Bernie Madoff to give that impression, while employing a variety of stratagems – going well beyond valid bonuses for disadvantage or special characteristics - to ensure that a large majority of students in a course never approach its cut-off.

So welcome to the ATAR as it really is, the alleged decline of which is the source of so much angst in the education ‘quality’ debate.  Undoubtedly, it is a seriously useful set of numbers guiding university selection. It also is partial, socially insensitive, inherently weak in the middle and lower ranges, blunt, incapable of assimilating relevant factors that are not purely educational, limited as a means of promoting equity and productivity, a classic input rather than an output measure, a waning asset over a student career and almost infinitely manipulable. Other than that, it is perfect.

Selecting teachers – backing a loser

Anxiety over the quality of students selected into university, particularly aspiring teachers, is nothing new. Recently federal politicians of all stripes have been calling for teachers to be allowed into their degrees only if they come in the top 30 per cent of students for literacy or numeracy. That might be a plausible goal except for the fact that students take their last literacy and numeracy tests in Year 9, some three years before they would be undertaking a university degree. Perhaps this could be combined with toddler aptitude assessments.

But for once the uber-regulators are not to be found here in Canberra: rather they dwell in the states. Outbreaks have been sporadically strong in Queensland and Victoria, but the undisputed leader is now New South Wales, with the release of its discussion paper Great Teaching, Inspired Learning.

The NSW paper, with its neo-Maoist slogan title, is the classic of its genre. It canvasses every conceivable barrier to entering teaching, from stipulating secondary school programmes, to narrowly prescribed university curricula, required skill sets, and separate entry and exit tests for university education degrees. Remarkably, given the challenges discussed here, the paper evinces a touching faith in higher ATAR scores as a panacea for new teacher quality. It gives no specific figure, but the magic number around the traps seems to be 70.

The paper’s argument around a minimum teaching ATAR is made in a very particular context. It maintains the uncapping of university places has produced exploding student numbers, with many entrants going into teaching, with inadequate ATARs. Moreover, the paper asserts that as there already is a gross over-supply of teachers in NSW rivalling only the number of politicians in Australia as a whole, ATARs (and other requirements) logically could be increased without any shortfall in supply.

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