Reporting the 'exodus': News coverage of teacher shortage in Australian newspapers
Curtin University, Australia
Many developed countries, including Australia, struggle to recruit and retain adequate numbers of schoolteachers. Over the past decade every Australian state has experienced teacher shortages and, at various times, there has been a national shortfall of qualified teaching staff. This paper considers the reporting of teacher shortage in four metropolitan daily Australian newspapers over a 10-year period. The focus of the analysis is on the newspapers' portrayal of teachers throughout the coverage. The key themes identified were found to be consistent across the four publications. Teachers were frequently portrayed as leaving, or planning to leave, the profession due to dissatisfaction with pay, difficult students and/or excessive workloads. Furthermore, teachers were depicted as low achievers. Teachers' voices were largely absent in the reporting, and the coverage rarely acknowledged the benefits and rewards of teaching as a career. The implications of these findings are discussed and recommendations for journalists and educators outlined.
Despite an increasing body of evidence pointing to teacher concerns about news media coverage, few studies (Cohen, 2010; Hargreaves et al., 2007; Shine, 2015; Shine & O'Donoghue, 2013) have specifically considered how teachers and teaching are portrayed in the news. This paper aims to contribute to this under-researched area by examining the portrayal of teachers in the reporting of teacher shortage in The West Australian, The Age, The Australian and The Courier-Mail newspapers over a 10-year period, from 2004 to 2013. Coverage of teacher shortage is the focus of the study because teacher supply and demand has been one of the most important issues facing the Australian education system over the past decade. Also, teacher attrition has been the subject of significant and sustained news media coverage in Australia and internationally (Plunkett & Dyson, 2011), and is likely to continue to attract a high level of media attention as future shortages have been predicted. According to a report published in The Australian in September 2012, which quoted then Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans, the nation will need an additional 46,000 teachers between 2016 and 2020 (Hare, 2012, p. 25).
The issue was the subject of intense coverage in The West Australian because that state experienced severe staffing shortages over several years. Reports of pending staffing problems started to emerge in 2004 and 2005 and shortages were experienced in 2006. By the start of the 2007 school year the state was dealing with a shortfall of 264 teachers across the government sector. This was reported as a matter of serious concern and it became a highly political issue over several years. The state government later set up a task force to identify solutions, and subsequently announced a pay rise for teachers and created a new 'executive' level for elite teachers. It also launched a campaign to attract teachers from overseas and interstate. The situation improved in 2008 and 2009, with the newspaper reporting in October 2009 that the state faced a potential oversupply of teachers in 2010 due to changes in school entrance ages. However, in 2010 it was reported that Western Australia would need an additional 3000 teachers within four years. Articles published in 2012 and 2013 continued to warn of further teacher shortages, but indicated the problem was confined to the secondary school sector.
Although The Age did not devote as much attention to teacher shortage as The West Australian, it covered the issue in detail over a prolonged period of time. Teacher supply was already a problem in Victoria in 2004 and the state government devised various strategies over 2004 and 2005 to try to attract teachers into difficult to staff schools. In 2006 The Age reported that there was a national teacher shortage and, in 2007, described a "young teacher exodus" (Hogan & Milburn, 2007, p. 20) from the profession. Teacher shortage continued to be in the news as public scool teachers sought a pay increase from the state government. A deal was struck in May 2008, with teachers winning pay rises of up to $10,000 a year. The salary increase did not appear to improve the situation as The Age continued to describe acute and chronic staffing shortages throughout 2009, 2010 and 2011.
The Australian warned of a looming national shortage in 2004 and subsequently published numerous reports on the situations in Western Australia and Victoria. An article in 2010 predicted another nationwide shortage within a few years. The issue then intermittently received attention. The federal government warned of growing student numbers in 2012 while other reports from 2012-2013 described a severe shortage of maths and science teachers across the nation. The lack of maths and science teachers was also the subject of several articles in The Courier-Mail during the early part of the coverage considered. The situation in Queensland appeared to worsen within a few years as the newspaper reported in October 2008 that nine out of 10 public schools in the state did not have enough teachers. In November 2009 it was reported that Australia had a serious and growing teacher shortage problem. The newspaper continued to describe teacher shortages in 2010 and 2011, but at the same time pointed to a lack of job security for teaching graduates.
Around and during this period, as various state governments devised policies to recruit and retain teachers, there was much discussion at the federal level about the need to improve teacher quality and introduce accountability measures for teachers and schools (Dinham, 2013; Thomas, 2011). This began in 2003 under John Howard's Coalition government when the National Council of Ministers of Education commissioned a review that led to the development of the National Framework for Professional Standards of Teaching in November 2003. A focus on teacher quality continued after Kevin Rudd's Labor government was elected in 2007. The following year the states agreed to a five–year National Partnership Agreement on Improving Teacher Quality that led to the publication of the National Professional Standards for Teachers in February 2011. Under Labor, the states also agreed to introduce national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests for school students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 from 2008. As a further accountability measure the federal government, then led by Julia Gillard, made the NAPLAN results for each school publicly available via its MySchool website from 2010 (Shine & O'Donoghue, 2013). Numerous researchers have argued that such accountability measures, combined with the focus on improving teacher quality, have put teachers under increased pressure, intensified their role and affected their morale and enthusiasm for their work (Ball, 2010; Day, 2012; Dinham 2013; Lingard, 2010). Furthermore, news media coverage of these various government policies has been said to exacerbate the situation for teachers (Hattam, Prosser & Brady, 2009; Shine, 2015; Thomas, 2011).
The four newspapers were chosen because they represent a cross-section of the Australian print news sector. The Fairfax-owned Victorian newspaper The Age has a strong tradition as a broadsheet publication (although it was changed to a "compact" format towards the end of the time period considered in this study, in March 2013). The Queensland-based The Courier-Mail, owned by News Ltd, was a broadsheet but switched to a "compact", tabloid-style format in 2006. The broadsheet The Australian is also part of the News Ltd stable but provides a unique national perspective, while The West Australian, owned by Seven West Media, is considered a tabloid/broadsheet hybrid. These four publications were found to have published the highest number of articles about teacher shortage among the Australian mainstream metropolitan daily newspapers during the time period considered. This was ascertained by searching for articles about teacher shortage on the Factiva international news database (http://www.factiva.com) produced by the Dow Jones media company. The focus of this research is on print publications because, in Australia, newspapers have been recognised as the primary source of education news (Snyder, 2008; Thomas, 2006). Most mainstream metropolitan newspapers have dedicated education reporters and news about education is published on an almost daily basis. Furthermore, research indicates that newspapers continue to set the news agenda for radio, television and online media outlets (McCombs, Holbert, Kiousis & Wanta, 2011; Pew Research Centre, 2010). It is worth noting that many of the articles from the latter part of the coverage would have also been published on the newspapers' websites.
The articles analysed were drawn from a Factiva database search for phrases including 'teacher shortage', 'teacher supply' and 'shortage of teachers' from 1 January 2004 to 31 December 2013. In total, 249 articles were identified, with the highest number appearing in The West Australian (123), followed by The Age (64), The Australian (46) and The Courier-Mail (16). Many of the articles were published between 2006 and 2008, when teacher shortages were generally most acute. The situation appeared to ease in Queensland and Western Australia in 2010 and 2011. From 2012 much of the focus of reporting across the newspapers turned to projections of future staffing shortfalls.
To examine the newspapers' portrayal of teachers in the coverage of teacher shortage, a grounded theory approach to analysis was used. Introduced by Glaser and Strauss (1967) and later developed by Strauss and Corbin (1990), grounded theory involves the use of a systematic set of procedures to code data into categories to identify patterns (Weerakkody, 2009). This process allows for the development of inductively derived theory. The coding process involved first reading the collection of teacher shortage articles from each newspaper in its entirety several times. The articles were then examined line-by-line to "define the actions and events" (Charmaz, 2003) within them. The intention was to "interact with and pose questions to the data," as described by Charmaz (2003, p. 258) while at the same time making constant comparisons (Dey, 2004). Building on this process, various patterns and themes were identified, as was change over time. Memos, the "running logs of analytic thinking" (Corbin & Strauss, 2008, p. 108), were also used to explore key concepts and categories emerging from the data, which in turn led to the development of propositions about the newspapers' portrayals of teachers.
As the study was conducted within the interpretivist paradigm it should be evaluated in terms of 'trustworthiness', as opposed to the more positivist criteria of validity and reliability. The components of trustworthiness are credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability (Maykut & Morehouse, 1994). Credibility is enhanced when strategies are put into place that check on the inquiry process and allow for the direct testing of findings and interpretations from the original sources (Merriam, 2009). To this end, the reader can consult the newspaper accounts. Transferability to other contexts (within Australia) has been addressed with the inclusion of publications based in three Australian states. And finally, the development of an 'audit trail' is an accepted strategy for ensuring both dependability and confirmability (Birks & Mills, 2011, p. 38). In this regard, the author has kept detailed records of the analysis.
Numerous reports in The Australian referred to the high numbers of teachers reyiring or quitting. Education commentator and columnist Kevin Donnelly expressed concern about the situation, saying "researchers agree that about 30 per cent of beginning teachers leave the profession after four to five years" (Donnelly, 2008, p. 19). Coverage in The Courier-Mail conveyed a similar message. For example, an article from 2008 reported the results of a survey that found that two out of five new teachers in Queensland's public schools believed they would be doing another job within a decade (Johnstone, 2008b, p. 68). Another article claimed principals were retiring from the school system at the rate of five a month (Johnstone, 2008a, p. 11). In only a few instances were teachers themselves quoted in the coverage that portrayed teachers as leaving the profession. Almost all of the quotes and information came from union officials, politicians, bureaucrats and academics.
Research on teacher attrition in Australia confirms that many teachers are at, or nearing, retirement age (Fetherston & Lummis, 2012), and that around 25 per cent of new teachers will resign from teaching within five years (Australian Primary Principals' Association, 2006). However, teacher attrition is only one of a number of factors that can influence the complex issue of teacher demand and supply. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development a range of variables such as "economic policy, population, education funding, class size, teaching technology, organization of schools, education market mechanisms, partnerships and teacher training and certification" can affect the number of teachers produced and the number required (Santiago, 2002, p. 13). Such was the case in Australia during the teacher shortage of the 2000s. The lack of teachers at that time was influenced by a sharp decline in teacher student numbers during the 1990s, due in part to the recession of the early part of that decade which led to some substantial surpluses in graduate numbers. The shortage was also affected by changes in higher education policy that led to a dramatic reduction in the number of institutions offering teacher training, and was compounded by increased enrolments in schools (Preston, 2000). These factors were not explored in any depth in the coverage of teacher shortage in the Australian newspapers. Nor did the reportage examine why the majority of teachers remain in their teaching positions, or outline strategies to retain teachers, other than increasing pay.
After teachers in Western Australia and Victoria were awarded significant pay rises the coverage did acknowledge that the situation regarding teacher pay had improved. However, overall, the impression was that pay had not increased enough. None of the articles, across the four newspapers, made the claim that teacher salaries overall were high compared to other professions. And while, a number of articles referrred to teacher pay claims, only a handful of stories across the coverage included statistics about teacher salaries.
While it is accurate to say that pay has been identified as significant issue for teachers in the past (Santiago, 2002; Stoel & Thant, 2002), it appears the situation has improved markedly in Australia since the peak of the teacher shortage in 2007-2008. By 2013, starting teachers in most states were earning between $55,000-60,000 a year, making them among the highest paid graduates in Australia (Balasubramanian, 2014). According to the Australian Education Union, mid-level teachers are paid around $70,000 a year and, since 2011, senior teachers in some states have earnt more than $100,000 a year. In consistently presenting teachers as underpaid relative to other professions and rarely publishing details of teacher salaries, the newspapers did not adequately reflect the pay situation for teachers during the latter part of the coverage.
Teachers were also struggling with heavy workloads, according to the coverage. A number of articles made the link between workloads and teacher attrition including one in The West Australian which reported that an Australian Education Union study had found almost half of new teachers in Western Australia planned to leave the profession within five years because of heavy workloads and badly behaved students (King, 2007, p. 9). Another survey, of 1650 teachers, was the subject of an article in The Age that claimed teachers were leaving due to "highly stressful, poor working conditions" (Milburn, 2011, p. 15). A high number of the quotes from teachers about working conditions were taken from survey responses rather than interviews, with a few exceptions, such as article from The Age that quoted two young teachers who had recently left the profession. "It is a job you can never leave and I had enough of the really long hours I worked," one explained. The other said: "I would get to work at 7 am and finish at 10 pm" (Hogan & Milburn, 2007, p. 20).
The newspapers' depiction of teachers as overworked and stressed is consistent with research on how teachers perceive their working environment. In recent years, teachers have reported that abusive students are a significant concern (Day, 2012; Troen & Boles, 2003), and that they struggle to deal with the demands of their job (Day, Stobart, Sammons & Kingston, 2006; Galton & MacBeath, 2008). However, teachers also consistently speak about the joy and satisfaction associated with teaching (Butt et al., 2012; Nunez, Michie & Konkol, 2015). According to Bullough (2008, pp. 20-21), who interviewed 40 teachers, although many complained about an increase in paperwork and pressures, nearly all of them said they "loved teaching and remained as committed to it as when they first started". Similar recent research (Howes & Goodman-Delahunty, 2015, p. 24) involving interviews with Australian teachers found that "personal fulfilment" was the main reason cited for why they chose to stay in their jobs, and that many participants said "they loved teaching, found the work stimulating and felt that they were personally suited to the role".
The sense that teachers appreciated their work did emerge in a few of the articles from the news coverage of teacher shortage. Almost of the reporting of this nature appeared in The Age, in articles in which individual teachers were quoted. One such article, published in the early part of the coverage, in 2004, quoted a new teacher as saying: "I'm having an absolute ball. I couldn't think of anything better to be spending my time doing" (Russell, 2004, p. 6). Another example, from the latter part of the coverage, in 2012, included a lengthy interview with a man who had maintained his enthusiasm for teaching over a 40-year career. "Teaching has changed quite a bit over that long period of time but the one great constant is the students," he was quoted as saying. "They never cease to amaze or challenge me" (Kellahan, 2012, p. 8). The true nature of teaching was probably best expressed in a comment piece written by a former teacher. "Teaching at its best is an exhilarating experience. Those moments when a child suddenly comes to a new understanding and expresses his or her delight, or when students surf a wave of excitement as they experience something fresh and wonderful" he wrote. This, however, was followed by: "Working in schools can be frustrating, exhausting and, at its worst, physically dangerous" (Campbell, 2009, p. 23). Overall, negative comments dominated the reporting, while coverage that conveyed the sense that teachers enjoyed their work was rare.
Numerous researchers (Down, 2012; O'Donoghue & Clark, 2010; Zimmerman & Dibenedetto, 2008) have questioned the validity of government claims relating to teaching standards and have argued that the discourse around teacher quality allows governments to shift the blame for a perceived decline in educational standards from policy makers to teachers themselves. A decline in teacher quality is difficult to prove and the evidence for such an argument is not strong. The reporting of teacher shortage suggested that low entrance scores for university teaching courses had compromised the quality of graduates but the coverage did not provide any information to support that claim. The message that high numbers of students with low ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) scores are entering teaching has continued to be a strong focus of more recent reporting, and was recently investigated by the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group. In reporting its findings the group queried the relevance of such an argument, given that school leavers with a known ATAR comprised just 19.5 per of the total domestic undergraduate commencements in teacher education in 2012 (Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group, 2015, p. 11).
While there is evidence to support the dominant portrayals of teachers in the newspaper coverage as outlined here, the research literature and relevant contextual information reveal there is more to the story than what is being told. The complexity and nuances of teacher working conditions, job satisfaction, recruitment and retention were not recognised in the reporting of teacher shortage. Instead, the issue was politicised and the aim of balance in journalism ostensibly met through the inclusion of government and opposition sources or government and teacher union sources. Aside from the coverage in The Age, the reporting rarely included teacher or principal comments about the rewards and benefits of their job. As Day (2008) has pointed out, most teachers do adapt, survive and stay in the profession. The coverage rarely acknowledged that fact, nor did it attempt to explore why teachers stay.
It may be that the journalists who wrote the articles did try to address the complexities of the issues in their reporting of teacher shortage. The analysis here is confined to what was published, which can differ from what a reporter submits to their editor. For this reason, future related research should include interviews with journalists about their experiences of reporting on education. Additionally, efforts should be made to raise awareness among journalism students, journalists and editors of the tendency to negative and often simplistic reporting of education. Journalism education and newsroom initiatives could also point to the reliance on certain official spokespeople in education, such as politicians and union representatives, and suggest alternative people and groups to approach for interviews. There also needs to be greater recognition among journalists, journalism educators and teacher organisations of the impact of education news media coverage on teachers.
Research has shown teachers themselves are rarely quoted in news coverage (Cohen, 2010; Thomas, 2006). Such was the case in this study. Union officials were generally quoted on behalf of teachers. Given the very high level of union membership among Australian public sector teachers this may be considered appropriate. However, in consistently emphasising the difficult aspects of teaching and arguing for higher pay, union representatives may be contributing to negative perceptions about teaching as a job. This point has been raised in other Australian research that has questioned the value of union contributions to news media coverage about teachers (Keogh & Garrick, 2011; Shine & O'Donoghue, 2013). As journalists will attest, it can be difficult to secure interviews with schoolteachers and principals in Australia because they are generally not able to speak to the media without express permission from their employer. However, as the coverage from The Age shows, it is possible to include teacher perspectives. This study argues that union officials should not replace, but rather complement, teacher voices in the news. The nature of the coverage may be quite different if comments from teachers and principals were the norm, rather than the exception.
There is also a need to consider in more detail the question of who is directing the news media debate on educational issues. This study suggests that official sources, such as politicians, government employees and union representatives are the dominant sources in education news, whereas key stakeholders such as teachers, students and parents are rarely being quoted. The repeated use of certain official spokespeople may be contributing to the negative tone of the coverage and influencing the nature of the coverage, and this needs to be further explored.
In the case of the coverage considered here the few positive statements about teaching were articulated by teachers themselves. Almost all of these were published in The Age. This and other research (Cohen, 2010; Nunez, Michie & Konkol, 2015; Thomas, 2011) argues that teachers should have the opportunity to play a more active role in pubic debates about education. According to Ulmer, (2014, p.10) efforts to expand "individual teacher voice within public discourse" may counter negative presentations in the news media. As previously stated, various bureaucratic measures can hamper journalist and teacher relations, but interviews with teachers and principals do occur and journalists should persist in their efforts to include teacher perspectives. It is also vital that education officials recognise the value in allowing teachers and principals to publicly promote the positive aspects of their job, and adopt a more cooperative, open and proactive approach to dealing with the news media.
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|Author: Dr Kathryn Shine is a lecturer in journalism at Curtin University's Department of Journalism, and the co-author of Schoolteachers in the News (2013). She is a member of the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia and the Western Australian Institute for Education Research.|
Please cite as: Shine, K. (2015). Reporting the 'exodus': News coverage of teacher shortage in Australian newspapers. Issues in Educational Research, 25(4), 501-516. http://www.iier.org.au/iier25/shine.html