Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Australian teachers getting dumber

Teachers are not as smart as they were 20 years ago, an Australian-first study concludes in a finding that will reinforce concerns over declining classroom standards. An analysis of literacy and numeracy tests confirms the standard of student teachers has fallen substantially and that dwindling numbers of the nation's brightest students are choosing teaching as a career.

The academic calibre of teachers has been shown to have a direct effect on students' results, with US research finding that a shift to smarter teachers raises student performance. The Australian study by economists Andrew Leigh and Chris Ryan from the Australian National University finds the failure of teachers' pay to keep pace with other professions and the fact that teachers are not paid on merit are key factors in the decline of standards.

The biggest change has been in the number of smart women becoming teachers. The study says the academic achievement of women entering teaching has declined substantially. While 11 per cent of women who scored in the top 25 per cent of literacy and numeracy tests in 1983 chose to become a teacher, this had dropped to 6 per cent in 2003. The average woman entering teaching in 1983 was in the top 30 per cent of test results and this dropped to the top 49 per cent by 2003. Overall, in 1983 the average teaching student was drawn from the top 26 per cent of the nation's students but this had widened to the top 39 per cent by 2003.

Dr Leigh said using literacy and numeracy tests was the best proxy available for assessing teachers' academic abilities. "Academic results aren't everything in a teacher; we all know good teachers who aren't academic," Dr Leigh said. "But if all else is equal, you'd rather have the people standing at the front of the classroom being the ones who did well in literacy and numeracy tests. If they do very badly on these tests, it's hard to see how they can teach children the same things."

Dr Leigh said teaching had lost its status as one of the best paying careers for women. While 49 per cent of female university graduates became teachers in the 1960s, by the 1990s only 12 per cent chose it as a career. The rise in salaries of high-ability women in alternative occupations is believed to account for about one-quarter of the decline in teacher quality. The study says that over the 20-year period, the average starting salary of a teacher fell in real terms and compared to other professions. Teachers' pay fell 4 per cent for women and 13 per cent for men in real terms but relative to graduates entering other professions, starting teachers' pay fell 11 per cent for women and 17 per cent for men.

The study suggests that the solution lies in introducing merit-based pay for teachers, which would be more cost effective than across-the-board pay rises to make teaching a more attractive career. Dr Leigh said that the rest of the labour market paid according to ability and was further away from uniform pay schedules than ever before. "Governments have grasped that when it comes to paying senior public servants. They created SES (Senior Executive Service) because government had to compete with businesses for the best management talent and they understood what businesses were doing had an impact on government," he said. "We haven't grasped the same parallel with teaching."

National president of the Australian Education Union Pat Byrne said women had less scope for careers 20 or 25 years ago, when teaching was one of the best paid jobs open to women. Ms Byrne said the answer was to raise teachers salaries across the board rather than introduce merit-based pay.


Muslim fear of femininity again

A Melbourne Muslim girl condemned by Islamic leaders for entering a beauty pageant has defied protests to be shortlisted for the Victorian final. Ayten Ahmet, 16, advanced to the top 26 of Miss Teen Australia yesterday despite an outcry from Victoria's senior Muslims. The Year 11 student said she entered the pageant to fulfil her modelling ambition, and was surprised by the objections. Parents Salih and Sarah Ahmet said their daughter was a typical teenager, and her faith was irrelevant to the contest.

Miss Ahmet, from Craigieburn, beat hundreds of hopefuls at an open casting session at Federation Square. A spokesman for Melbourne cleric Sheik Mohammed Omran last week branded the competition, which involves swimsuit parades, as a "slur on Islam". And Victorian Islamic leader Yasser Soliman said the contest did not conform with the teachings of the Koran.

Ms Ahmet, who plans to combine modelling with an accounting degree, said the criticism was disappointing and unnecessary. "I thought it would be good experience and an opportunity to have a bit of fun," she said. "The cameras are something I love."

Sherene Hassan, executive committee member of the Islamic Council of Victoria, said Sheik Omran's comments were unfair. "He is entitled to his opinion, but people should be aware he does not represent the mainstream Muslim community," she said. Ms Hassan said she felt beauty contests were exploitative, but she supported Ms Ahmet's right to make her own choice. Ms Hassan said she never judged women by the clothes they wore.

Mr Ahmet said the family respected their religion, but his daughter was entitled to participate. "We are not flying any flags, we are Australians first and foremost," Mr Ahmet said. "We live in a democracy, we respect the religion as well, and they are good kids and come from a good upbringing."

Two girls from next month's Victorian final will go on to the national final. The winner will represent us at Miss Teen World. Miss Teen Australia Victorian manager Carley Downward said she was surprised by the uproar.


Now it's a radiology scandal in Queensland public hospitals

Peter Beattie's major health promise of the election campaign - a new $700 million children's hospital - has been marred by a fresh scandal affecting thousands of patients. Mr Beattie yesterday said a re-elected Labor Government would build a new 400-bed children's hospital next to the existing Mater Children's, with most of the services now offered by the Royal Children's Hospital to move to the new facility from 2011.

But the announcement has been overshadowed by news that a prominent doctor who starred in Government advertising on plans to fix Queensland's ailing health system has now turned whistleblower, exposing deep flaws in the state's radiology services. Royal Australian College of Radiologists president Liz Kenny has revealed thousands of X-rays, ultrasounds, MRI and CT scans ordered for public hospital patients are never seen or assessed by a radiologist. Dr Kenny, who works for Queensland Health, has told The Courier-Mail that critical radiology workforce shortages mean thousands of X-ray results are only seen by GPs, most of whom are untrained at assessing and diagnosing the results. The situation means patients are at risk of having conditions, such as cancers, tumours or fractures left undiagnosed.

The revelations about the state of the hospital system threatens to derail Labor's so-far trouble-free election campaign. Coalition health spokesman Bruce Flegg said the situation was putting lives at risk. "With these sorts of numbers going through you are going to miss things that cost people their lives," he said.

Health Minister Stephen Robertson said there was an international shortage of specialists, especially radiologists. "But through the $1 billion worth of salary improvements, Queensland is now competitive in the recruitment market for radiologists and Queensland Health is working to fill vacant positions," he said.

Dr Kenny said about 500,000 scans were "unreported" at any one time and the extent of those never seen by radiologists only became evident in the past three months. "The magnitude of what is unreported is staggering." Dr Kenny said patients whose scans are not seen by a radiologist did not benefit from their expertise. "It leaves a substantial hole in the management of the patients," she said. Official hospital figures obtained by the Coalition reveal the problem is widespread in both urban and regional areas.

Toowoomba Hospital is the worst in the state with 80 per cent of x-rays and other scans never reported on by a radiologist. Other hospitals which have significant numbers of unreported scans include Gold Coast (56 per cent), Hervey Bay (66 per cent), Royal Brisbane Womans Hospital (49 per cent), Townsville (35 per cent) and Warwick (50 per cent).

A recent survey of 270 Queensland Health radiographers also found 63 per cent plan to resign within six months, a move likely to cause a blowout in waiting times for routine X-rays by Christmas. "With the staffing levels already under pressure, this reduction in professional numbers will result in significant cutbacks in all services, such as x-rays, breast screening and diagnostic imaging for cancer at the majority of Queensland public hospitals," he said. One radiographer said: "We just don't have the people to help all those trapped on the waiting lists."


Hate speech trial now underway in Australia

Is it hate speech to quote what the Koran says? The State of Victoria seems to think it is

It is impossible to vilify Islam without also vilifying Muslims, because the two are indistinguishable, the Victorian Court of Appeal was told yesterday. "If one vilifies Islam, one is by necessary consequence vilifying people who hold that religious belief," Brind Woinarski, QC, told the court. Mr Woinarski was appearing for the Islamic Council of Victoria in the appeal by Christian group Catch the Fire Ministries and pastors Danny Nalliah and Daniel Scot against a finding under Victoria's religious hatred law that they vilified Muslims in 2002. The Racial and Religious Tolerance Act defines vilification as inciting hatred, serious contempt, revulsion or severe ridicule against a person or class of persons.

Cameron Macaulay, for the pastors, argued that the act explicitly confined the prohibition to vilifying persons, not the religion - otherwise it could operate as a law against blasphemy. Instead, it recognised one could hate the idea without hating the person.

Justice Geoffrey Nettle asked Mr Woinarski: "There must be intellectually a distinction between the ideas and those who hold them?" "We don't agree with that," Mr Woinarski said. "But in this case it's an irrelevant distinction, because Muslims and Islam were mishmashed up together." Justice Nettle: "Are you saying it's impossible to incite hatred against a religion without also inciting hatred against people who hold it?" Mr Woinarski: "Yes."

Mr Macaulay said orders by Judge Michael Higgins against the pastors to take out a newspaper advertisement apologising and not to repeat certain teachings were too wide, and beyond his powers under the act. He said it was surprising that the pastors could hold the beliefs but not express them. "They are restrained by law from suggesting or implying a number of things about what in their view the Koran teaches: that it preaches violence and killing, that women are of little value, that the God of Islam, Allah, is not merciful, that there is a practice of 'silent jihad' for spreading Islam, or that the Koran says Allah will remit the sins of martyrs. "Contentious or otherwise, these are opinions about Islam's doctrines and teaching. Statements of this kind are likely to offend and insult Muslims but their feelings are not relevant under the act." Mr Macaulay said the act burdened free speech, contravened international treaties Australia had signed and breached the Australian constitution.

The act, amended in May, has been controversial. Opponents rallied against it outside Parliament earlier this month, and some Christians vowed to make it an issue at the state election. This case has been monitored by Christian and Muslim groups overseas, and at one point Judge Higgins had to assure the Foreign Affairs Department he was not considering jailing the pastors after a flood of emails from America.


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