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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Exceptional teachers for disadvantaged schools

Jo Lampert
Bruce Burnett
Dr Jo Lampert and Dr Bruce Burnett are senior lecturers in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology. This article reports on the first year of the Exceptional Teachers for Disadvantaged Schools project, a teacher education approach designed to prepare high quality teachers for low socio-economic schools.

The Exceptional Teachers for Disadvantaged Schools (ETDS) project is an innovative way to prepare high-quality teachers for employment in low-SES schools. The program, based at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), offers a specialised curriculum, designed to equip high-achieving pre-service teachers for work in the schools that need them most.

Selected pre-service teachers at QUT are invited to take part in the trial course, based on their academic performance over the first two years of their four-year Bachelor of Education degree, and on a demonstrated commitment to social justice. These participants undertake a modified version of QUT's B Ed on-campus curriculum. They have their practicum/field experience at one of a range of disadvantaged schools throughout Queensland which have agreed to partner with QUT in the program.

In the past, teacher education for disadvantaged schools has been described as applying a 'missionary' or deficit model (Larabee, 2010; Comber and Kamler, 2004; Flessa, 2007). The principals of schools participating in the ETDS react strongly against such an approach, and have explicitly asked project staff not to send them anyone who 'thinks they can save the world'. The ETDS project has moved well away from such a model, towards a position that is explicitly centred on notions of academic excellence.

The project is now at the end of its first trial year.

The rationale for the ETDS project

Educational researchers have long highlighted broad inequities in education (Bernstein, 1996; Bourdieu, 1991; Connell, White & Johnson, 1991; Darling-Hammond, 2010; Levin, 2010). This concern is reflected in the education policies of OECD member countries, which have drawn attention to the links between poverty and poor educational outcomes. Government policy in Australia emphasises social inclusion, and the Australian Government has allocated considerable funding to promote low-SES students' participation in education.

In recent years, the attention of researchers has focused increasingly on the role of quality teaching in students' academic outcomes. There are frequent calls for teacher education programs that prepare high-quality teachers more effectively to work in disadvantaged schools (Howard & Aleman, 2008; Rice, 2008). Rice (2008, p. 1) argues the need to place more of the 'very best teachers into the most challenging schools'. However, Cochran-Smith and Zeichner (2005) highlight the fact that teacher graduates in the top quartile of academic test scores are far less likely to accept positions in such schools. Those who do accept these positions are retained for much shorter periods of time. Hence, the problem is not merely one of graduating more teachers, for disadvantaged schools already receive disproportionate numbers of beginning teachers (Connell, 1994; Vickers & Ferfolja, 2006). Rather, the crisis centres on the common practice of '[p]lacing the least experienced teachers with the most needy students' (Grossman & Loeb, 2010, p. 22).

Implementation of the pilot

The project was designed to equip cohorts of high-quality pre-service teachers with new sets of skills and understandings of disadvantage and, ultimately, to encourage them to select employment in schools where they could make a real difference.

Program staff identify the highest-achieving students studying to be teachers. These students are then invited to enrol in the ETDS modified curriculum during their 3rd and 4th year practicums or field placements.

The ETDS cohort is offered a targeted 3rd year tutorial in socio-cultural studies, and regular opportunities to participate in professional conferences with experienced teachers. Utilising a 'just-in-time' responsive curriculum cycle, ETDS addresses the needs of the cohort as they arise. Alongside the teaching of crucial theory on issues such as schooling, poverty and disadvantage, ETDS participants are asked to identify areas as they require specialised information or guidance. Students are then offered expert workshops or seminars to address the need, as in a session on behaviour management led by expert principals of National Partnership schools in low socio-economic communities. Sessions are generally scheduled immediately prior to the cohort going on practicum, enabling immediate opportunities to practise new skills and behaviours. Each practicum is followed by an informal debrief session where strategies are discussed. An important element in the ETDS curriculum is that it offers students in-depth experience of teaching in disadvantaged urban and regional school settings, pairing ETDS participants with expert teacher-mentors in schools in which ETDS has nurtured strong and reciprocal relationships.

Baseline data is used to determine students-teachers' initial attitudes, dispositions, academic accomplishments and social history. Throughout the project a series of focus groups and interviews explore participants' perspectives on the extent to which particular interventions, such as workshops and expert mentor sessions, impact on their understanding and practice. Similar data is collected from school-based teacher-supervisors.

Evaluation and future directions for the ETDS project

From 2012 the project staff will commence the longitudinal tracking of ETDS participants after they graduate, to ascertain employment destinations, retention data and performance. Emerging insights will inform the next iteration of the program.

Preliminary data from the pilot group and school-based teacher-supervisors points to three overriding themes or beliefs. These are that quality teachers for disadvantaged schools must have a particular 'passion' for teaching in disadvantaged schools; that knowledge of low-SES contexts is crucial to success; and that, though there might be a set of personal qualities or characteristics (such as resilience) that are desirable for such teachers to possess, high academic achievement is equally important in identifying high-quality teachers for the schools that need them most. A high grade point average has proven a strong measure of success, with principals regularly commending the ability of ETDS students to teach deep knowledge in complex classrooms. Most surprising has been evidence suggesting that a belief in social justice can be taught. Though some of the ETDS pilot cohort began the program with passion for social justice, for others it grew as they gained knowledge, skills and confidence in their ability to make a difference. As these factors have been identified as important, they can be monitored in subsequent cohorts.

The study will culminate in a report to Queensland's Department of Education and Training (DET) that will be made available to policy advisors, principals, teachers and school administrators. Further, work-in-progress will be disseminated in a range of ways throughout the study to professional and research audiences, and annual presentations of research will be made at the Smarter Schools National Partnerships Teacher Conference (Brisbane) and each year at a symposium for key stakeholders.


Cochran-Smith, M., Zeichner, K. M. & American Educational Research Association (2005), Studying Teacher Education: The Report of the AERA Panel on Research and Teacher Education, Washington D. C.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Comber, B. & Kamler, B. (2004), Turn-around pedagogies: Improving the education of at-risk students, Improving Schools, 8(2), 121–131.

Connell, R. W. (1994), Poverty and education, Harvard Educational Review, 64(2), 125–150.

Connell, R. W., White, V. M. & Johnston, K. M. (Eds.) (1991), Running Twice as Hard: The Disadvantaged Schools Program in Australia, Geelong, Vic: Deakin University Press.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2010), Teacher education and the American future, Journal of Teacher Education, 61(1–2), 35–47.

Flessa, J. J. (2007), Poverty and Education: Towards Effective Action: A Review of the Literature, Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Grossman, P. & Loeb, S. (2010), Learning from Multiple Routes, Educational Leadership, 22(8), 22–27.

Howard, T. C. & Aleman, G. R. (2008), Teacher capacity for diverse learners: What do teachers need to know? In M. Cochran-Smith, S. Feiman-Nemser & D. J. McIntyre (Eds.), Handbook of research on teacher education: Enduring questions in changing contexts, New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Labaree, D. (2010), Teach for America and Teacher Ed: Heads They Win, Tails We Lose, Journal of Teacher Education, 61(48), 48–55.

Levin, B. (2010), How to change 5000 schools: A practical and positive approach for leading change at every level, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Education Press.

Rice, S. (2008), Getting good teachers into challenging schools, Curriculum Leadership, 6(14), 1–3.

Vickers, M. & Ferfolja, T. (2006), The Classmates teacher education initiative, Curriculum Leadership, 4(28). 


Subject Headings

Socially disadvantaged
Teacher training
Teaching and learning