2011. Vol.2, No.5, 446-451
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ce.2011.25064
Teacher Education and the Targeting of Disadvantage
Bruce Burnett, Jo Lampert
School of Cultural and Language Studies, Queensland University of Technology,
Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org du. au
Received October 24th, 2011; revised November 23rd, 2011; accepted December 5th, 2011.
This paper outlines the Exceptional Teachers for Disadvantaged Schools (ETDS) project which began in June
2010 with the aim of developing and documenting an Australian university-based teacher education program
specifically focusing on the preparation of high quality teachers for the disadvantaged school sector. ETDS con-
stitutes a novel model of teacher education targeting disadvantaged schooling in that the selection of participat-
ing pre-service teachers has been based on their proven academic performance over the first 2 years of their
4-year Bachelor of Education degree. ETDS has established a modified curriculum that better supports the
on-campus training of this cohort while also targeting the role of field experience within partner disadvantaged
school settings. This paper offers a rationale for the model, unpacks its various phases and provides a justifica-
tion of the mo del’s selection criteria based on high academic ach ievement.
Keywords: Teacher Education, Teacher Quality, Disadvantaged Schools
Concerns about educational disadvantage have taken centre
stage in recent years, with renewed attention on the relationship
between quality teaching and social and economic participation.
While OECD member countries have focused on the links be-
tween poverty and educational outcomes, since 2008 there has
been a discernible change in the Australian government’s em-
phasis toward the promotion of Social Inclusion. While in
terms of education this broad agenda has clearly influenced
several domains of policy in Australia, its impact is most easily
observed in the considerable allocation of funding targeting low
socio-economic status participation (i.e. Higher Education Par-
ticipation and Partnership Program—HEPPP) and targeted
educational reform via the National Partnership Agreements
(i.e. Teacher Quality and Low SES School Communities). In
Australia this offers new and exciting opportunities for reform
to eligible schools.
Inherent in this redistribution of resources is an explicit ra-
tionale that links levels of socio-economic disadvantage with a
student’s educational success, participation and performance.
While educational researchers have long highlighted broad
equity disparities in educational outcomes and attempted to
explain differential effects on dissimilar groups of students
(Bernstein, 1996, Bourdieu, 1991; Connell, White, & Johnson,
1991), various initiatives have explored the underlying reasons
for this gap, including quality teachers, teacher education, and
issues related to social justice. For instance, a distinct tangent of
literature has begun to critique the degree to which homogene-
ous teaching populations are ill prepared to engage with in-
creasingly heterogeneous populations of students (Coch-
ran-Smith & Fries, 2005). Sleeter (2008) writes about the lack
of awareness middle-class teachers have of students who come
from cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds different from
their own and with which they may be unfamiliar and ill pre-
pared to teach.
There are frequent calls for more explicit research focusing
on teacher education programs that better prepare high-quality
teachers who are specifically educated to work in disadvan-
taged schools (HOWARD & ALEMAN, 2008; Rice, 2008).
Rice (2008: p. 1) argues for a need to place more of the “very
best teachers into the most challenging schools”, yet the prob-
lem is not merely one of training more teachers, for disadvan-
taged schools already receive disproportionate numbers of be-
ginning teachers (Connell, 1994; Vickers & Ferfolja, 2006).
Rather, the crisis is one that Grossman and Loeb (2010: p. 245)
argue centers on the common practice of “[p]lacing the least
experienced teachers with the most needy students”.
The lack of quality teachers for low socioeconomic schools
is of international concern with Rotberg (2004: p. 363) defining
the problem as a mandate to get “highly qualified teachers” in
every classroom serving at-risk children and reasonably defin-
ing what such teachers need. The potential social, economic
and educational benefits of placing high-quality teachers in
disadvantaged school settings is highlighted by a wide range of
research that stresses the positive influence of good teachers on
academic performance. Current research suggests that good
teaching outweighs other variables such as class size or compo-
si t i o n ( D a r l i n g- H a m m o n d , 2 0 0 6 ; H an u s h e k , K a in , & Ri v k i n , 2004;
Sanders & Horn, 1994; Sanders & Rivers, 1996). Hattie (2003)
maintains that teachers account for about 30 percent of variance
in student achievement, while Darling-Hammond (2006) sug-
gests that students who have highly effective teachers for three
consecutive years score as much as 50 percentile points higher
on achievement tests than those who have ineffective teachers
for the same amount of time. Recent research into teacher ef-
fectiveness demonstrates that the performance gap between the
best teachers and the worst teachers is far greater than com-
monly supposed with the work of Berliner (1992) for example,
highlighting the importance of pedagogical expertise and how
such knowledge and skills are complex and domain-specific.
Addressing Educational Disadvantage
The terms disadvantaged (Connell, 1994; Darling-Hammond,
2010; Ferfolja, 2008), hard-to-staff (Castro et al., 2010; Dar-
ling-Hammond, 2010) or at-risk schools (Castro et al., 2010;
Darling-Hammond, 2010; Ferfolja, 2008; Ladson-Billings, 2008)
B. BURNETT ET AL. 447
are often used interchangeably. The Exceptional Teachers for
Disadvantaged Schools project (ETDS) has favoured the term
disadvantage in line with current language used in Australian
educational institutions combined with the explicit links be-
tween the low socio-economic status and poor educational out-
comes of the communities which these schools service.
The Exceptional Teachers for Disadvantaged Schools project
is clearly not the first attempt to address the need for quality
teachers in disadvantaged schools. Rather, it builds on previous
work both in Australia and internationally. For instance, the
Australian Disadvantaged Schools project (Connell, 1991) pro-
vided one of the first “compensatory” models of teaching for
disadvantage and was established across Australia in 1974 in
order to specifically address the educational disadvantages
experienced by students from low socio-economic backgrounds.
While disparities in educational outcomes in relation to disad-
vantage have remained a consistent theme over the past decades,
much of the most influential research has examined disadvan-
tage from discrete standpoints. Such perspectives include an
emphasis on literacy/numeracy (Comber, & Kamler, 2004;
Freebody, 1992; Luke, 2004), pedagogy/professional develop-
ment (Hayes et al. 2006; Timperley & Alton-Lee, 2008) and
location/place (Gannon, 2009; Somerville, 2006; Thompson,
2003). In Australia teacher education institutions such as the
University of Western Sydney currently provide an innovative
model of teacher education that links pre-service teachers with
schools that have high refugee populations (Ferfolja, 2008),
while La Trobe University’s Bachelor of Outreach and Com-
munity Education combines a focus on student welfare together
with a teacher education component that meets the require-
ments of secondary school teaching registration in Victoria.
The ETDS project is at present however, the only mainstream
Australian teacher education model that specifically targets
sizeable cohorts of academically high achieving pre-service
teachers with the overt aim of channelling graduates of the
program into disadvantaged schools.
Research outside the Australasian context, from both North
America and the UK point to the challenges of recruiting,
staffing and retaining quality teachers in disadvantaged schools
(Donaldson & Johnson, 2010). In the United States, this is evi-
dent in major reforms seeking to address the difficulties of at-
tracting high quality teachers to “high poverty schools” (Quartz
et al., 2008). Research from the United States has focused on
the dearth of quality teachers for the “neediest” of children and
youth and highlight issues such as novice teachers’ ineffective
teaching practices, “burn-out” and most significantly their lack
of preparedness (McCarthy & Guiney, 2004). In Britain, the
crisis is also well documented, with clear evidence that inexpe-
rienced teachers are actively recruited and channelled into areas
of greatest need (Adams & Tulasiewicz, 2005). In Canada,
similar concerns about teacher education highlight links be-
tween poverty and the achievement gap and the urgent need for
quality research in the area (Levin, 2010). More specifically,
Canadian research highlights the degree to which disadvantage
within urban and rural and remote schools/setngs is contextual
and differs from location to location (McDougall, Gaskell, &
One solution to the shortage of quality teachers in disadvan-
taged schools has been offered by Teach for America (TFA),
which operates as part of America’s National Community Ser-
vice or AmeriCorps. TFA recruits recent college graduates and
professionals and after 5 weeks of intensive training, places
them in low-income community teaching positions for two
years. The TFA model has expanded to seven international
regions including Australia, and while the immediacy inherent
in the model is appealing to some, TFA remains the focus of
considerable debate within the profession in terms of both the
quality of training and the retention of graduates (see for exam-
ple Logan, & Binnie, 2010; Darling-Hammond, 2005, 2006,
2010). The perception that public school teachers fail to meet
the needs of disadvantaged children has been highlighted in the
popular US documentary film Waiting for Superman (2010).
While the film has been both lauded and highly criticised for its
anti-union stance and the call for (private) charter schools
(Ravitch, 2011), the popular sense that better teachers are
needed for the children most at risk is now firmly part of a very
public discourse, one constantly reinforced by Hollywood’s
glorified portrayal of the heroic inner-city teacher as saviour.
The Exceptional Teachers for Disadvantaged
The ETDS project set out to develop, implement and monitor
a customised model of teacher education that responded to a
range of recent demands for quality education in low SES and
disadvantaged schools. Critically, the project moved the focal
point of teacher education for disadvantaged schools from the
“missionary” (Larabee, 2010) or deficit (Comber & Kamler
2004; Flessa, 2007) approaches of the recent past, towards a
position that explicitly centred on notions of academic excel-
lence1. Underpinning the design of the project was the clear
goal of equipping cohorts of high-quality pre-service teachers
with new sets of skills and understandings of disadvantage and
ultimately, encouraging them to select employment in schools
where they could make a real difference.
It was initially envisaged that the ETDS model would con-
tain three distinct stages. First, it would identify the highest
achieving undergraduates studying to be teachers. Second, it
would provide this cohort with a modified curriculum that al-
lowed a much more sophisticated understanding of poverty and
curriculum and pedagogical research associated with educa-
tional disadvantage, and third, it would provide exposure for
these exceptional pre-service teachers to key disadvantaged
urban, regional and remote school settings for their 3rd and 4th
year practicum or field placements. A fourth stage has been
added to the project and will commence in 2012 with the lon-
gitudinal tracking of ETDS participants after they graduate to
ascertain employment destinations, retention data and per-
Despite there being little in the literature that suggests it is
possible to define, select or ascertain “good teachers” for dis-
advantaged schools solely by looking at “attributes” or person-
ality type (Hattie, 2004) the idea that personal attributes to a
large degree predetermine a teacher’s success in a disadvan-
taged school is a commonly voiced sentiment. However as
Kennedy (2010) reminds us, it is tempting to succumb to the
notion that ‘personal qualities’ are the only things that matter
for good teachers. Instead, the ETDS project looks beyond
attributes, believing content knowledge, situational influences,
contextualised and well-theorised understandings, extensive
mentoring and specialised curriculum and pedagogy are sig-
nificant factors in producing great teachers. In the growing
body of knowledge on quality teaching, it would appear that
“good intent” and personal characteristics are not enough. Ex-
1Principals of our participating schools repeatedly ask us not to send them
anyone who “thinks they can save the world”.
B. BURNETT ET AL.
3) How can the partnership between university-based teacher
education and targeted school-based field experience within
disadvantaged schools be improved?
pert teachers need to be well educated, well mentored and well
prepared, especially if they are to stay for any length of time in
While acknowledging the large body of literature focusing on
the attributes of good teachers and teaching (Feiman-Nemser,
2001; Ferfolja, 2008; Hattie, 2003), an essential component of
the ETDS project is the notion that the cohort must begin with
high pre-existing levels of content knowledge. For this reason
high academic achievement is the most important initial crite-
rion for identification of the ETDS cohort. Hence, there is an
assumption that the participants come with strong content
knowledge and are already be equipped with the core English,
Mathematics, Science or other disciplinary skill sets that are
taken as a “given” in excellent teachers. Thus the ETDS pro-
gram is freed from the outset to focus on a modified curriculum
and targeted practicum exposure.
Phases of ETDS
The ETDS model consists of four stages. Data is collected in
each stage and provide a mechanism or “feedback loop” where
the research team learns what works (and does not work) for
preparing teachers to work in disadvantaged settings, and im-
portantly allows for both the research and the model to be ad-
justed. This process is outlined in Figure 1.
Phase 1: Identification of Cohort
ETDS participants are involved in the project during their
3rd and 4th years (the last two years of their degree). Each year
a new cohort of approximately thirty (30) 3rd year Bachelor of
Education (Primary/Elementary and Secondary/High School)
pre-service teachers are identified, interviewed and selected
from the total BEd cohort. While the first iteration of ETDS in
2010 used the students’ GPA or academic achievement as a
selection criterion, the project also seeks to ascertain what at-
tributes and dispositions (additional to academic excellence)
help identify selection. Ensuing cycles will therefore examine
further aspects such as the students’ prior experience with dis-
advantaged communities or their understanding of the cultural
In addition to the operational side of the ETDS project, the
research component focuses on the following questions:
1) What knowledge, skills and dispositions [in addition to
academic excellence] help identify high-quality novice teachers
for disadvantaged schools?
2) How can the knowledge, skills and dispositions of high-
quality pre-service teachers be enhanced and facilitated through
a modified teacher education curriculum targeting disadvan-
taged school settings?
xceptional teachers for disadvantaged schools (phases and feedba ck lo o p). E
B. BURNETT ET AL. 449
and socio-economic factors that impact student educational
Unlike research that targets qualities such as “sense of mis-
sion” (Nieto, 2005) as a prerequisite for teachers working in
disadvantaged settings, ETDS begins primarily with academic
achievement, believing a commitment to social justice is not
necessarily a prerequisite but rather something that can grow
and be enhanced through;
Engagement with a modified cur ri culum.
Positive and reflected experiences on practicum and or with
mentor teachers, and
Through concentrated engagement with selected theory
related to understanding poverty, the dynamics of disad-
vantage and pragmatic forms of social justice.
Researching the experiences of the first cohort we hope our
teacher education program can respond to what some of our
participating Principals have identified as the proliferation of
“missionary teachers” in their schools. In line with current
thought on teacher quality, the ETDS program aims to prepare
teachers to do more than merely provide a caring, supportive
environment for students; it aims as well to provide schools
with teachers who can offer academic excellence in their con-
Phase 2: Modified Curriculum (i.e. Course-Work Theory)
In their 3rd year, and as part of their normal course progres-
sion, participants undertake a socio-cultural foundation unit
where they participate as a separate cohort with a specific focus
on disadvantage and schooling. Where possible and appropriate
the content has been adapted to focus on a theory-based under-
standing of poverty and the dynamics of the low SES schooling
sector (Connell, 1994; Darling-Hammond, 2005; Flessa, 2007).
Students are presented with topics ranging from the identifica-
tion of disadvantage via various Australian Government in-
dexes to skill-based focused discussions of behaviour/class-
room management strategies. On these topics, and others that
arise from year to year, students become familiar with current
practices and policy and regularly engage in informed critique
of current discourses around topics related to disadvantage and
education. Importantly the cohort remains together whilst par-
ticipating in a foundation unit that is part of the students’ BEd
core coursework, and thus does not place additional demands,
nor impact on faculty resourcing. Additional workshops and
advanced seminars are provided to the cohort during their
fourth year by the state education department—Education
Queensland. In 2011, this took the form of the state department
funding full participation at their Smarter-Schools National
Partnerships Schools Teacher Induction Conference 2011
where the ETDS pre-service teachers participated (along with
approximately 200 principals and teachers working in Queen-
sland disadvantaged schools) in a 2-day professional develop-
ment program. In addition, and in response to cohort feedback,
participating school principals and teachers are regularly in-
vited on campus to lead the focused skill-based discussions on
behaviour management, thus contributing the program’s crucial
partnership between teacher training and school-based practice.
Phase 3: Field Experience (i.e. Practicum)
ETDS participants are involved in a normal course progres-
sion in terms of their practicum, however each occurs in a se-
lected/partner disadvantaged school site. ETDS participants
undertake a total of 3 × 20-day field placements (in addition to
a final 20-day Internship) in IRSED (Index of Relative Socio-
economic Disadvantage) identified school locations across
urban, regional or remote locations. Each student is allocated an
experienced participating mentor or supervising teacher over
the course of his or her practicum experience (identified by
their school Principal as experienced, exceptional or “expert”).
While the first iteration of ETDS in 2010 established relation-
ships with 10 IRSED identified schools, each subsequent cycle
will identify additional locations and numerous schools asking
to participate have now approached us. Where possible, par-
ticipating school sites accept a cluster of 4 ETDS pre-service
teachers. This has proved advantageous both in terms of how
the pre-service teachers are able to support each other and the
logistical benefits inherent in a smaller manageable number of
Phase 4: Longitudinal Tracking
The final component of ETDS will begin in 2012 longitudi-
nally tracking graduating participants to determine the impact
and implications of the ETDS model on 1) teacher recruitment
(particularly in relation to the success of the project in channel-
ling graduating ETDS participants into disadvantaged schools);
2) teacher retention (in terms of both ETDS graduates, and of
novice teachers more generally appointed to disadvantaged
schools, and 3) teacher performance. Over 5 years the ETDS
project will have graduated approximately 150 teachers with
distinct training in low SES school settings, other outcomes
consist of new insights related to the attributes of quality teach-
ers for disadvantaged schools; the development of an evidence
based model for teacher education that draws on and expands
current practice and theory in relation to disadvantaged school-
ing, and evidence of the impact and longitudinal effects of the
The ETDS project began in May 2010, by identifying 28 stu-
dents from a total cohort of approximately 600 Bachelor of
Education pre-service teachers. Initial selection was made on
the basis of the students’ outstanding Grade Point Average
(GPA) or academic achievement over the first and second years
of their 4-year Bachelor of Education degree, with special at-
tention paid to their performance in two foundational socio-
cultural units, a demonstrated commitment to the project’s ob-
jectives and requirements of the trial. While each of the stu-
dents was initially identified by GPA, each was also inter-
viewed and a subsequent half-day briefing/workshop was con-
ducted where the participants met for the first time as a group
and much greater detail of the model was provided along with
an explanation of the research component of the project. It was
made clear to the group that there was no compulsion for any
student to participate and it was stressed that they would not be
required to undertake a significant additional study load. A
critical component of the model was that it must operate as part
of a student’s normal course progression. In other words, ETDS
participants would be required to study the same subjects/units
and would undertake the usual number of prescribed Field
Study days in schools, however what set the group apart was
that they would participate as a distinct cohort with an explicit
focus on issues related to disadvantage and poverty. From the
28 students who attended the briefing, only two chose not to
participate in the program; one due to the travelling distance
required to take part in the project (as they were attending a
regional campus), and another who wished to pursue a career
teaching within a particular faith-based educational organisa-
tion. In 2011 the second cohort of ETDS undergraduates were
invited to participate. This new group of 30 pre-service teachers
are in the first stages of the program while the first group are
B. BURNETT ET AL.
now on their final practicum placement. With each new cohort
we add to our knowledge of what works, what the schools want
from graduates, where we may have gaps in our existing pro-
gram and what we can do to support participants to become the
best teachers for the schools that need them most.
As the project commenced we knew that academic achieve-
ment would not be the only thing that mattered in the success of
the ETDS cohort. Though academic excellence was our starting
point and a non-negotiable, the first year of the project has
identified several other variables of significance in determining
how suitable individual members of the cohort are to teaching
in a disadvantaged school, in particular whether they continued
with the project and how well they did on their ETDS practi-
cum. Though, as confirmed by previous research (e.g. Hattie,
2004) we have found little evidence yet that there are particular
‘personality traits’ that are desirable for teachers working in
disadvantaged schools, we are increasing our understanding of
the importance of such factors as 1) a passion for working in
the area of disadvantage; 2) their own backgrounds or experi-
ence either coming from or having previously worked in disad-
vantaged communities; 3) their strong commitment to gaining
employment in disadvantaged schools. These factors will now
be taken into account in the selection of each ETDS cohort.
While analysis of the data over a longer period is required, an
initial reading suggests that the project has been positively re-
ceived by the participating schools, by the pre-service ETDS
cohort, and by the local employing authority—Education
Queensland who are watching the project with keen interest.
While the success of ETDS may be partly due to the process of
selecting an elite group of academic high achievers, it may also
have been significantly influenced by what some within the
group described as “filling a hole” previously missing in their
undergraduate studies and the sense, expressed by one mature
age member as “finally doing something worthwhile with my life”.
As the ETDS project enters its second year we gain knowl-
edge of the complex and at times conflicting discourses around
the preparation of pre-service teachers for some of the most
difficult teaching environments: disadvantaged school class-
rooms. Clearly the most prominent theme to emerge revolves
around how to strike the correct balance between teacher
knowledge, disposition and skills. It is anticipated that the pro-
ject’s success in building teacher capacity will remain contin-
gent on the delicate and evolving relationship between selection
of the cohort, the on-campus theory driven component of the
program and the crucial scaffolded exposure to the field during
practicum. It is envisaged that over the next four years the
ETDS project will continue to provide a productive foundation
for research and professional training for the disadvantaged
schooling sector. ETDS is a teacher education program invest-
ing in new quality teachers for disadvantaged schools. It is
hoped that the initial learnings outlined in this paper can con-
tribute to discussion on how high quality teachers are to be
identified, encouraged and prepared to take up careers in dis-
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