Finally, a game changer for improving teaching in Australia
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Finally, a game changer for improving teaching in Australia

A new review into teacher training could be a game-changer in better preparing new teachers and improving classroom teaching.

Contrary to popular opinion, the greatest crisis impacting the teaching profession is not workload, pay, or staff shortages. It’s that the sector has consistently failed to give teachers the tools to be as effective as possible.

Poor training has unnecessarily harmed the professional abilities of countless teachers and limited the learning outcomes of millions of Australian students.

While trainee teachers are today studying longer — and more theoretical — degrees than ever, they’re less prepared for the classroom than in the past and when compared to similar countries.

A 2021 CIS review of teaching degrees found virtually no courses consistently or clearly provide evidence-based practices. This takes a significant toll on early career teachers, who must overcome these learning gaps and even un-learn the poor practices they are trained in.

Of course, calling out deficits in teacher training is hardly new. There’ve been near-constant reviews of the sector for decades. But last week, the Teacher Education Expert Panel, chaired by Sydney University Vice-Chancellor, Mark Scott, has distinguished itself; promising to genuinely improve this failing sector.

More than any previous review, this one provides a pathway to improving what’s taught to teachers, how they’re taught, and how new teachers are placed into schools.

The sources of perennial teacher training troubles are three-fold.

The first is the challenge of federal-state relations. Part of the problem is that, while federal governments are responsible for regulating the universities that train teachers,  the states define and regulate who can be a teacher — by holding the levers on accreditation, registration, and the like.

Since policy settings depend on a great deal of consensus and coordination, this has long put genuine reform in the too-hard basket.

Second, there’s been a clear market failure in the teacher training sector.

University monopoly providers have no real incentive to ensure the product they’re offering is fit-for-purpose. In many cases, university-based education faculties have been unable or unwilling to provide training that matches the needs of classroom teachers — not least of which, the evidence about effective teaching.

Employers of teachers — in effect, mostly education bureaucracies — have also  failed to use their lever on the demand-side to influence university offerings. The result is that big university and big bureaucracy have been an echo chamber in which each served each the other rather than their consumer: trainee teachers.

Finall, a misguided ideology has trumped evidence in training and practice.

This is because education has traditionally been about human interaction, rather than the study of the human brain — meaning sociology, not science, has informed what teachers do. While this was understandable before we could objectively study the learning brain, it’s no longer defensible.

Yet, for ideological reasons, teachers tend to heavily lean on personal judgment in what they do, rather than looking to data or science. This is because powerful teacher advocacy groups have created an industry out of rejecting evidence-based practice and mistakenly presenting it as infringement on teachers’ right to ‘professional judgment’.

Given these systemic barriers to reforming teacher training, heavy scepticism could be warranted. But there’s reason to be optimistic about the prospects for improvement.

For a start, there’s clear bipartisan — and to a lesser extent, intergovernmental — commitment toward improvement.

It would have been easy for Federal Education Minister, Jason Clare to scrap reform efforts started by his predecessor. But to his great credit, he’s not done so. Now he must keep to task and not fall victim to advocates with a vested interest in protecting the status quo.

In addition, the reform directions presented are no longer ‘pedagogically-agnostic’.

By defining good teaching as teaching that’s scientifically-informed, this will force teacher employers — who hold the demand-side lever — to reflect this in their expectations. To aid this, employers must help teachers to see evidence as supportive, rather than threatening, to improving practice.

And, unlike much of the reform of the past decade, it’s now appropriately focussed on quality assurance of teacher training providers, not of trainee students.

Too much effort has been placed on limiting who can become a teacher — with ongoing debate about university entry standards — rather than holding universities accountable for the training they provide.

Following this through with greater transparency and incentives, aligned with graduate’s classroom-readiness, can create a competitive marketplace that reinforces top performance, rather than excusing it.

It’s true education reform is among Australia’s greatest and most complex policy challenges. But, like many complex problems, the best place to start is at the beginning: with better preparing beginning teachers.

The Teacher Education Expert Panel is well on the way to setting a path to doing this.

Glenn Fahey is program director in education policy at the Centre for Independent Studies.