New ideas needed for teacher shortage

Years-old debates about teacher salaries and a chronic shortage of talented teachers in Samoa are in desperate need of some new ideas. 

The front page of Monday’s Samoa Observer revealed a looming crisis facing our schools; one which boils down to either a shortage of teachers or a shortage of teachers with ability (“Teachers shortage feared”).

The number of students enrolled in the National University of Samoa’s (N.U.S.) faculty of education plummeted from 200 to ten once entry hurdles were raised to the same level as other foundation-level courses.

The shortfall became so drastic that teaching lecturers were forced to find new research projects to justify their salaries or face being laid off, N.U.S.’s Deputy Vice Chancellor, Peseta Dr. Desmond Lee Hang, revealed.

Peseta dead-on when he diagnosed the problem’s cause: teaching in Samoa is seen as a profession of last resort.

There has been a tendency to view the answer to this problem through a purely economic lens. And while that might be the most important element of education reform it should not stop there. 

Teachers have been rightfully complaining of starting on salaries as low as $17,000 if they don’t hold tertiary qualifications. 

But the Government’s recent attempts to remedy the situation via the nationwide teacher upgrade programme, exposed the limits of what can be achieved in a short period of time. 

The programme was premised on a reasonable sounding quid pro quo: pay rises could be found but only for teachers who attained tertiary qualifications. 

But as is so often the case when Governments bandy about the words “five-year plan”, it has been much too ambitious and exposed new faults of its own. 

With funding of $1 million tala a year - or less than one per cent of the education budget - the plan falling short was probably inevitable. 

Retraining more than one thousand mature age students who already have full-time classroom responsibilities goes beyond merely ambitious policy. 

It is something more equivalent to creating a parallel system of tertiary education system, with an already-employed cohort of students the size of half the students currently enrolled at the National University of Samoa.

But the Government’s upskilling programme has not been without its merits, many of which will be realised in time and in the classroom with more than 300 newly-qualified teachers. 

The programme, though, for all its logistical problems also laid bare the limits of what can be achieved when teachers reported struggling with English and foundation-level mathematics. 

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The problem of teacher quality is not Samoa’s alone.

The education sector’s struggle to recruit the most talented graduates has been ongoing internationally for decades, even among the world’s wealthiest countries.

As early as 2001 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a bloc of the world’s most economically powerful nations, was forecasting a major shortage of qualified teachers.

The United Nations now forecasts a global shortage of some 70 million qualified primary and secondary teachers before the decade is out. 

Australia has been grappling with the steady decline of students’ elementary abilities in reading, mathematics and, especially science since the turn of the millenia.

Teacher quality is at the root of their problems too, as students who score less than 50 per cent in national examinations still able to secure teaching qualifications because of a major shortage in demand.

The handful of nations who have managed to beat the trend of declining teacher quality stand out as exceptions; none of which were achieved quickly or without major changes. 

Finland, Hong Kong and Singapore have all committed to major reorganisations of their education systems that included a mix of new policies, including new funding but also a focus on giving teachers more autonomy and social standing. 

In Samoa, qualified teachers who enter the classroom with a Bachelor’s and on salaries of $28,000 face limited scope for career progression or salary raises. 

Singapore tackled the issue of teacher quality in the mid ‘80s and created an intricate programme of career progression and incentives, including awarding “master teachers” who are recognised for their outstanding performance. 

Finland is often held up as an example of the best education system in the western world. Its teachers’ salaries are not unique but the level of social respect the profession commands is, with teachers consistently ranked second only to doctors. 

The United States, also facing a national teacher shortage, has benefited from the “Teach for America” non-profit, which seeks to poach the most talented students from other prestigious fields, train them quickly and get them into the classroom. The programme’s acceptance rate is just six per cent and it has grown significantly in recent years. 

Resources for education, teachers’ pay and scholarships must be a major part of these reforms. 

And there is much more that Samoa must do on that score.

In 2016, the World Bank found that Samoa dedicated just over 10 per cent of the national budget to education.

Those figures placed us dead last among smaller Pacific nations, the research found, and well behind other nations trying to raise standards, such as Indonesia which have required spending of 20 per cent for decades. 

But money is also a reflection of the amount of importance we place on a position and the respect we pay to it. 

It won’t solve problems on its own. 

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