The proposed overhaul to teacher training will mean better prepared teachers and a greater expectation of training providers. But policymakers should see this as the start — not the end — of reform to the sector.
With education ministers last week committing to the recommendations of the Mark Scott-led Teacher Education Expert Panel, the coming years will potentially see transformative change to initial teacher education. The shakeup provides much-needed improvement to teacher training standards, how training will be monitored, and how practical classroom practice can be prioritised in preparing teachers.
This has been a long time coming and the lack of it has been undermining the education system. Shifting the reform effort so that it targets the quality of teacher training providers, not teaching students, is a refreshing change.
Until recently, rather than raise the quality of the teacher training products on offer, the main response has instead effectively been to blame the customer — by labelling a supposed low calibre of students in teaching degrees as the source of poor teaching standards.
The overhaul will also inevitably cut against some vested interests who have been complacent or complicit in the gradual decline in teaching standards. Already, some university and union commentators have registered their objections. This has ranged from denialism of a problem, rejection of the supposed ‘politicisation’ of solutions, and resorting to the one-size-fits-all claim that the only fix to teacher training is simply to bow to union demands on pay and conditions.
But the opportunity and need for improvement to teacher training is plain to see. For years, data has shown that, compared to similar countries, Australia’s teachers are less prepared for the classroom when they graduate.
Successive reviews — including Centre for Independent Studies analysis of university courses — have found many graduate teachers don’t receive relevant and evidence-based preparation for the classroom. The result is that graduating teachers have often been short-changed in their skills.
Given the need for reform, policymakers must not only commit to endorsing the latest review, but also be ambitious in further driving efforts at improvement. Failing to press ahead over successive years will limit success. With more consistent and high-quality standards, new teachers will more often benefit from the essential knowledge and skills needed to be as effective as possible.
Critical to this is raising the understanding of key scientifically-informed teaching approaches proven to best support students’ learning. But while guidance to universities with ‘core content’ expectations (the ‘must-haves’ in a university course) is welcome, this is not the same as a ‘core curriculum’ (the mandatory set of ‘must-do’s).
Without the right safeguards, policymakers will need to be vigilant that the intended better standards are not left up to interpretation — else providers might, purposefully or inadvertently, simply go on with business-as-usual. Importantly, providers will need not only need to include required content into their degrees, but also take some responsibility in ensuring that graduates are able to practice what they teach.
With improved — and transparent — monitoring of training providers, both potential teachers and employers of teachers will be better informed about performance in the sector. As ever, though, the devil will be in the detail. Policymakers will need to further articulate how performance is defined and how incentives and sanctions are applied.
Rather than rating universities’ performance on inputs (such as whether they admit the right candidates) and outputs (like the completion rate of the students they admit), assessing performance of outcomes will also eventually be needed.
In particular, this means measuring the classroom-readiness and early career effectiveness of graduates. Education systems across the United States have proven that performance monitoring of this kind is not only possible, but highly valued by employers, providers, and teaching students.
And while the goal of reform is to be supportive rather than punitive, policymakers will need to be clear about how sustained underperformance could be dealt with.
In the UK, many underperformers have been shut down, at the same time that high-performers have provided model examples for improvement across the sector. A greater commitment to integrating practical experience in the classroom will also address a major disconnect in the theory and practice of training.
When done well, practical experience can significantly improve the preparedness of new teachers. Research shows that teachers who receive high-quality practical experience during their training can graduate at as effective a level as a third-year teacher.
Yet, this has remained the most inconsistently delivered part of teacher training, and the hardest for policymakers to manage. That’s because there are many hands involved — including host schools, supervising teachers and principals, university trainers and administrators, and regulators. Without a clear assignment of accountability and improved incentives, it could prove challenging to avoid yet more blame-shifting.
Teacher preparation is among the most important opportunities for education reform. Education ministers and the expert panel deserve to be commended on their recent efforts to rectify decades of underperformance. However, the work is not complete. This is the beginning, not the culmination, of reforms for beginning teachers.
Glenn Fahey is program director in education policy at the Centre for Independent Studies.
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