Altruistic Teachers also need to pay the Mortgage

Published in The Age, 8th September, 2005.

The feel good 2002 French movie "Etre et Avoir" ("To Have and to Hold") portrayed an affectionate, dedicated teacher lovingly caring for a small group of children in a tiny rural school. The movie had no plot, minimal characterisation and moved at a pace suitable to cure an ADHD child of insomnia. It was nevertheless popular because it reinforced the ideal concept of how we would love our teachers to be: patient, thoughtful and above all child-centred.

This deeply held idea of the altruistic teacher helps us understand why there is such an anathema to the words “education” and “profit” being used in the same sentence. The idea of a teacher motivated by financial gains, with one eye on the class and the other on his bank-balance is not a palatable one. We much prefer our teachers to be altruistic, teaching out of the goodness of their heart and because of their love for children and the welfare of society.

But is this realistic? Of course we want our teachers to have the welfare of their students at heart, and to love learning and teaching, but we must also acknowledge that teachers have to pay the mortgage, bring up families and get ahead materially in life like the rest of us. If we cling to the myth of the purely altruistic teacher, we will never address the most pressing problem facing education today – that of teacher quality. We must face the fact that education is in direct competition with other white-collar industries for skilled labour. At the moment, K-12 education is coming distant last in the race with the IT industry and the finance sector to attracted talent.  

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australia will soon experience a growing shortage of experienced, quality qualified teachers. As the baby boomers retire between 2011 and 2030 there will be a shortage of skilled labour throughout Australia but the education sector be worse off than most. In 2003-04 the education industry employed the highest proportion of mature age workers, with 47% of people employed in this industry aged 45-64 years.”

The teaching profession faces other challenges. It is often viewed as an unglamorous profession and held in poor regard by many because it is poorly paid and candidates don’t need to be particularly gifted to get into the industry. The UAI to get into teaching courses in university is commonly lower than all other degrees except perhaps nursing.

There is one way to meets this challenge but it will require a radical rethink of how K-12 education is managed. Simply put, we need schools which are run on a for-profit basis and which can thereby reward teachers financially for effective innovation and dedication to the task of teaching. Financial incentives need to inserted into the education marketplace to attract, retain, extend and reward talented teachers.

At the moment, a teacher’s salary is set by the award and based entirely on the number of years they have been working in the system. If a teacher wants or needs to earn more they have two options. She can work at a second job such as writing text books or private tutoring outside school hours or she can move to another industry. If she chooses the first option her energies are diverted away from the classroom. In the second scenario, she is lost to the industry all together. There is no mechanism through which she can do her job better and be rewarded financially for it. Imagine a system in which the teacher who needed to earn more went away and prepared his lesson better, marked his essay more diligently, studied each child in his class, analysed their needs and examined every possible avenue he could image to help that child learn – and was then financially rewarded for their improved performance. For profit schools would be highly motived to merit pay for teacher to stay ahead of the competition.

Australia is lagging behind in this area. Edupreneurial companies world wide provide high quality tertiary education, and are starting to explore the K-12 market. Education corporations currently represent 10 percent of the US$740 billion education market in the US. In Sweden 30 percent of independent schools are run by corporations.  In Brazil the largest private sector education provider, Objetivo/UNIP, has 450 franchises and teaches around 500,000 students and an annual turnover of approximately US$400 million.  In Southern Africa, Education Investment Corporation Limited caters for over 300,000 students and is about to be listed on the NASDAQ.

Since high quality teachers are essential to a well run school, for- profit schools will be highly motivated to devise merit-pay schemes to attract, retain and reward excellent teachers. If Australia is no meet the challenge of staffing our schools with outstanding teachers we need to realise that the profit motive and the ideal of the altruistic teacher are not incompatible.


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