Later this month, the federal government’s Teacher Education Expert Panel will hand down what promises to be the most consequential in a long line of teacher education reviews. Within education policy, reviews into teacher preparation have been all-too-familiar, including several reviews over just the past 10 years.
First, the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) found that teacher training was inconsistent in its quality, and emphasised that greater regulation of the sector was needed. More recently, the Quality Initial Teacher Education (QITE) review reiterated these conclusions, while encouraging a more diverse talent pool of new teachers and the need for better approaches to provide quality assurance to improve the sector’s performance.
And that’s been followed by the current review, led by the Panel. Its broad remit covers what trainee teachers should learn, how to combine the theory and practice of teacher preparation, and how the sector can better monitor performance standards.
Of course, some may say that the last thing the sector needs is yet another review. By Professor Bill Louden’s count — writing 15 years ago — there already had been 101 government inquiries into Australian teacher education in the years from 1979 to 2007. Yet despite the near-constant review of the sector, teacher training has persistently been graded poorly.
For many gradate teachers, the training curriculum has felt too distant from the work of the classroom. And the process of being secured and supported for a preservice placement has been inconsistent at best. The result is that too many Australian teachers haven’t been as classroom-ready as they could be.
And the data suggest we are not doing as well as other countries on this front, either. When compared to the international average, while Australian graduate teachers say they cover more than enough content in their studies, they still don’t report feeling as prepared as in other countries at graduation. This shows teacher training has a quality, but not necessarily a quantity, problem.
Nonetheless, and despite the poor historical track record from some teacher education reviews, there’s reason to believe this time will be different, with enthusiasm for a better path forward for three reasons.
First, teachers could soon learn more about learning — which will help make graduates better informed about the human brain and how to make teaching aligned with science. This is an important step in further progressing the professionalism of teaching. While it’s true there’s an art to teaching, the presence of a growing evidence base about effective practice means there’s also a considerable science to it also.
The profession hasn’t always valued this scientific evidence base as much as it could — fearing that it compromises the craft and professional experience teachers have built up over their careers. But this is a false distinction. Today, high-quality teaching is best defined as a sophisticated translation of the science of learning into the practice of teaching.
Second, by placing greater emphasis on the role of time spent practicing in the classroom, graduate teachers will be more confident and competent for early career development. Research shows that teachers in high-quality practical placements can graduate at as effective a level as a third-year teacher. It also points to strong evidence that the relative supportiveness of schools and mentor teachers goes a long way to determining how well new teachers start their careers.
Some in the sector will fear that additional emphasis on time practicing teaching in the classroom will come at the expense of time spent studying theory. But this is misplaced — as there is now overwhelming evidence that the amount of time spent on general theory about teaching courses makes little difference to graduate teachers’ preparedness. Instead, early and effective time that puts into practice what is learned in the study of teaching is crucial to starting off on the right foot.
And, third, teaching students could be given better information about the quality of the training being provided. A wide range of education systems — especially in the United States — have prioritised robust performance monitoring of teacher preparation providers and programs. It’s also meant that policymakers have shifted their emphasis away from heavy-handed approaches in regulating training providers and instead helped inform teachers and employers to make smarter decisions for study and entering the field.
As a result — and through the transparent communication of valued and reliable information — this allows for the market to work in ensuring high-quality teacher preparation.
While it’s true that defining differences in the quality of teacher training programs isn’t easy (and some will object to it), the international progress on this front shows that it is possible and worth doing.
Policymakers have rightly always given teacher preparation a prominent place in their agenda — but rarely have they been able to meaningfully improve it.
The government will soon have its chance to leave a mark in shaping the profession and improving the preparation of the next generations of teachers.
Glenn Fahey is program director in education policy at the Centre for Independent Studies, a Sydney-based public policy think tank.
Photo by Yan Krukau.