Today’s editorial is very much to the point.

This article is from the May 7 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit http://smh.com.au/digitaledition.

THE Productivity Commission has brought an outsider’s view, and some much-needed clarity, to the debate over teaching. That debate has centred on the need to improve the quality of teaching in Australia, and on how that might be achieved. It is an important subject, but it can quickly bog down in statements of astonishing woolliness and imprecision. That may be inevitable. The skill of a good teacher is hard to define, and harder to measure. Teachers are at once stage performers, scholars, orators and psychologists – and other trades besides. Which degree of emphasis on which skill fits any given moment in a classroom is a matter of fine judgment. What works now to compel a class’s attention may not work next week, or even in five minutes’ time. Some teachers master all this apparently by instinct, and raise the aspirations and standards of all their pupils. Others cannot. To those in their separate classes the difference is obvious. But defining and measuring it are another matter.

The commission’s report on Australia’s schools workforce is largely free of wool. It notes that the supply of teachers is complicated by declining levels of pay. Average salaries in education are 7 per cent above the average for all industries; in 1994 they were 14 per cent higher. With pay, status has also declined. The result is a decline in the quality – measured in literacy and numeracy – of those beginning teacher training.

In government schools, salary scales reward length of service up to a point, but not quality. Professional collegiality has produced a reluctance – relinquished only recently, and not very far – to accept what is widespread elsewhere, that better teachers should be paid more.

The commission rightly sweeps such obstacles to progress aside. As well as improving quality, it sees higher pay as a way to attract extra teachers to subjects where there is a shortage (mathematics and science) just as teachers may now be induced to teach at disadvantaged or remote schools with wage supplements. And it recommends principals be given the power to dismiss teachers who are not succeeding. In that it parallels the NSW government’s recent move to devolve much more power to individual schools and their principals.

It may be hard to define good teaching with scientific exactitude, but school communities know who their good teachers are. Parents know. Students know. Let them be consulted. Let the power to reward that essential skill be given to those who can identify it.

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald