Is it right to label high achieving students as ‘nerds’? No.

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In Australia, students sit exams at the end of Year 12. These exams are different in each state but they are all used to calculate an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) for those students who intend to apply to university. This is a number from 0.00 to 99.95 and it is meant to give a student’s relative position in the Year 7 cohort to which they belonged. In other words, an ATAR of 80 places you in the top 20% of that group. Due to the fact that some lower achieving students don’t complete Year 12 or don’t apply to university, the average ATAR is around 70.

Many universities offer teaching degrees. There is no quota system in Australia and teaching degrees are relatively cheap to run, offering a revenue source to the universities. This has led to mushrooming numbers of education students which, in turn, has resulted in an oversupply of teachers – although this is somewhat distorted by subject area. It has also led to low admissions standards. In Victoria this year the average ATAR on entry to a teacher education course was 57.35 with some students gaining places with a rank as low as 30.

James Merlino, education minister for the Victorian Labor government has therefore made the perfectly sensible decision to insist on a minimum ATAR for entry into teaching of 70. In other words, teacher education students will be required to be in the top 30% of the general population in terms of academic performance. Given our current levels of oversupply, with many teachers struggling on short-term contracts, this seems like a great idea and I commend it.

I am less convinced by the plan to test students’ ‘problem solving, leadership and empathy skills’. There is no such thing as a general skill of problem solving and while some personality tests might have validity if used in a low threat, low stakes way, if used for admissions purposes they can and will be thoroughly gamed by participants.

Yet it is the ATAR plan that has ruffled the most feathers. Stephen Elder, the Executive Director of Catholic Education Melbourne remarked that, ‘Nerds don’t necessarily make good teachers.

I am shocked that anyone involved in education would say such a thing, let alone someone so senior.

Academic achievement is often seen as not cool and this leads to a cultural war in which teachers are front-line troops. Labeling kids as ‘nerds’ sends precisely the wrong message. Yes, some students have reclaimed the term – a bit like the gay community have with the word ‘queer’ – but it is still pejorative when used by others to describe a person or group. We know what the school yard complaint that, ‘she’s such a nerd!’ means and it’s not pleasant. If I heard a student say this then there would be trouble. Some synonyms that Google offers for ‘nerd’ include; ‘bore’, ‘dork’, ‘dweeb’, ‘loser’.

Stephen Elder should retract his use of this label and instead explain why he wants a continued oversupply of lower achieving teacher.



3 thoughts on “Is it right to label high achieving students as ‘nerds’? No.

  1. Mike says:

    Yup, I’m a bit less sanguine than I used to be about ATAR entry levels for education courses. Sure, in some areas (early childhood, for instance) an academic background is perhaps less important than some other characteristics, but given the oversupply as you say, a cutoff makes sense these days for teaching at primary and secondary level. I’m always interested in these stories about people with a 30 ATAR getting into education courses…is that actually the cutoff for the course, or the minimum which would allow someone to enter the course if they qualified for all the absurd exemptions/leg-ups which have proliferated in that area over the past thirty years or so?

    Anyway, a thoroughly silly statement from Mr. Elder.

  2. Stan says:

    According to this

    Last years median ATAR was 78 so 70 still lets in more than half the population. It’s not exactly screening for nerds only or to put a positive spin on it they are not requiring entrants to be amongst the high achievers.

    Ontario, Canada has a similar issue with universities making good money out of running teaching courses without worrying about whether there are jobs for graduates. We are exporting graduates to the UK as there is no work for many here.

    You would think the demand for teachers would be pretty easy to measure. Most are employed by the state so the statistics on those retiring and leaving should be available. Entrants into the school system for the most part are known about 5 years prior to starting school so the future student population shouldn’t be hard to predict.

    Maybe an oversupply of teachers is handy in negotiations with unions but other than that increasing the requirements until you are just exceeding the demand for teachers would seem to be quite possible.

    It would be interesting to know if Elder’s comment was off the cough stupidity (we all do that) or a written response that he had actually thought through.

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