How to solve Australia's puzzling education conundrum - The Centre for Independent Studies
Donate today!
Your support will help build a better future.
Your Donation at WorkDonate Now

How to solve Australia’s puzzling education conundrum

Although it’s hard to get too excited by yet another review, there is potential for genuine benefits in this week’s announcement by Federal Education Minister, Jason Clare, that a new Teacher Education Expert Panel will review teacher training. 

Building off the Quality Initial Teacher Education Review commissioned by the previous government, the Panel will make recommendations to boost the outcomes of teaching courses, improve new teachers’ practical experience and encourage more people to consider teaching as a mid-career swap. 

One of the most puzzling conundrums in education policy is why the evidence of effective teaching practice is not being translated to the profession.  

A key area of breakdown has been Initial Teacher Education (ITE) at university. Unfortunately, university-based teacher trainers have proven unwilling or unable to improve its quality.  

Too many don’t provide new teachers with grounding in what they need to know and have been misdirected toward advancing fringe academic pursuits rather than preparation of classroom-ready teachers. 

For example, a 2019 study by Dr Jennifer Buckingham and Linda Meek from Multilit concluded that teachers were not being taught the necessary skills to teach reading in the classroom. They argued that most of the early literacy units and prescribed textbooks lacked accurate and detailed information on evidence-based instruction.  

In 70% of the literacy units they reviewed they found “none of the five essential elements of … reading instruction were mentioned in the unit outlines.” 

In addition, a 2021 CIS study of maths ITE programmes found virtually no evidence of consistent coverage of evidence-based teaching practices. Almost without exception, the dominant way teaching is taught is through sociological ideological frameworks, not by a scientific understanding of cognitive processes.  

Teachers simply must have a grasp of the science of how students learn if they are to be effective.  

Unlike many teacher workforce issues, the quality of teacher education at universities is a federal government responsibility. The government needs to send more direct signals — even punitively pulling funding — that ITE providers must give teachers adequate training in evidence-based explicit instruction methods.  

Instead, the approach to date has focused on increasing overall resourcing in the system, and increasing barriers to entry into the profession in the hope that this will raise the quality of teaching. 

This approach has clearly done little to improve the quality of teacher education. While it is important that teachers themselves have basic skills in literacy and numeracy, raising entry standards will not compensate for poor training.  

Smarter teachers won’t make a big difference to student outcomes, if their training is poor. 

Too many teachers graduate without the necessary skills and preparation to teach in a classroom. Against virtually all markers, Australia’s graduate teachers report being less prepared than in similar countries.  

A multi-pronged solution to these problems is necessary. 

First, the new review is right to focus on ways to better regulate teacher training. The emphasis must be on providing quality assurance over ITE providers, not of ITE candidates. 

Second, new teachers need to spend more — and better — time in the classroom during their training. There is little evidence that having them undertake more and longer university degrees contributes to teachers actually being better prepared.  

International research has consistently found that the quality and timing of pre-service teaching practicum is the most critical ingredient to effective teacher preparation. For best results, trainee teachers are in the classroom within their first year of study, are matched with an instructionally effective supervisor, and are in highly supportive schools. 

Importantly, research shows that a new teacher from a high-quality school placement is as effective as a third-year teacher when they graduate.  

Despite this, the placements approach in Australia is typically ad hoc, with limited coordination, and little assurance of success.  

Third, to sustainably bolster the teacher workforce in the long run, it must be diversified. 

Compared to modern workplaces, our teaching profession is fairly homogeneous. A vast majority have taken a school-ITE-school pipeline. While some have dismissed the capacity of mid-career entrants as a source of teacher supply, the data suggest many would like to become a teacher.  

The Quality Initial Teacher Education Review found that around 4 in 10 mid-career professionals would consider becoming a teacher, if there were fewer obstacles in the way.  

Compared to other school systems, relatively few Australian teachers have entered the profession later in life; but those who have, bring with them a range of subject matter and professional expertise. 

For this reason, the new Panel must find ways to effectively reduce barriers to enter the profession. Tentative steps have been taken in this direction, particularly due to Covid teacher shortages, but more could be done.  

The problems with ITE have been compounded by current conditions impacting the teacher workforce — such as historically tight labour markets and a relatively soft incoming teacher pipeline due to low completion of teaching degrees. This makes reform of teacher training even more important.  

It’s welcome that Australia’s education ministers have made progress in identifying critical areas to improve quantity and quality of the teacher workforce. 

It may take some time to see the impact of reforms to teacher training, but it’s a crucial step in arresting Australia’s educational decline. 

Simon Cowan is Research Director, and Glenn Fahey is Director of the Education Program at the Centre for Independent Studies. 

Photo by Arthur Krijgsman