The Next Steps report prepared by the Quality Initial Teacher Education review panel was finally released last week after a three month wait. It hits the mark nicely in many respects. It covers some familiar territory: the status of the teaching profession, attracting highly capable candidates, better practical placements as part of ITE, and improved early career experience. These things are no less important than they have ever been and need ongoing attention and improvement.

What distinguishes this report from its many predecessors is that it addresses the issue that previous reviews have dodged – how to ensure universities and other ITE providers are accountable for the quality of their courses.

Ideally, universities could be trusted to provide the highest level of academic quality, and to be self-regulating. Student demand for particular courses, and employment rates of their graduates, would reflect the quality of the courses. There would be a virtuous cycle.

However, this is not currently the situation in Australian ITE. Education faculties are operating largely autonomously and, for various historical reasons, are not consistently providing pre-service teachers with the knowledge and skills required for the classrooms of today, let alone the classrooms of tomorrow. There is a lack of priority placed on evidence-based pedagogy and content knowledge in all curriculum areas and other key aspects of teaching such as behaviour management.

While the principle of academic freedom is important, and one which is generally defensible, there is a limit to the application of this principle in teacher education. Louisa Moats puts this well:

“While the academic freedom that professors often invoke has a place in teacher education, its claim is not as absolute as it may be in the humanities. Professional preparation programs have a responsibility to teach a defined body of knowledge, skills, and abilities that are based on the best research in the field. This is no less important in reading than it is in medicine or law.”

If teaching is a profession, then its qualification must become a professional qualification.

Amendments were made to the ITE accreditation standards in late 2019 with respect to the teaching of literacy, namely ITE courses were required to (a) include course content that gives pre-service teachers the knowledge and skills to teach phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension explicitly and systematically, and (b) substantially increase the minimum time spent on literacy in undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. The Next Steps report recommends further elaborations of these standards and expanding them to other ITE curriculum areas.

The review panel is firmly of the view that ITE course content on reading must be evidence-based and include phonics instruction. But with graduates and employers expressing dissatisfaction with the preparation of teachers in ITE courses on a range of essential skills, including reading instruction as recently as last year, despite the existence of accreditation standards, it’s clear that simply having the standards is not enough to guarantee quality. When the 2019 amendments to the literacy content in the accreditation standards were endorsed and published, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) also published highly detailed guidelines to help universities and accreditation panels implement them. Yet it is easy to find examples of ITE courses that still do not meet a generous let alone a rigorous interpretation of the standards for literacy content. Sadly, the standards will have to be enforced, with consequences for failure to meet them.

The persistent intransigence of most ITE providers (primarily universities) against voluntarily improving their courses demands intervention that hits them where it really hurts – their revenue. The Next Steps report recommends creating a link between ITE quality and funding in two ways:

  1. a market-driven approach — transparent, comprehensive publication of quality indicators, which will lead to increased enrolments in better courses, and therefore more revenue
  2. a regulatory carrot and stick approach – providing additional government funding for ITE providers that demonstrate they meet the regulated, required standards, and allocation of Commonwealth Supported Places (ie. subsidies for students) away from those that don’t.

The first of these actions is undeniably essential. The Next Steps report states “The Expert Panel has found it difficult to obtain any publicly available data or information regarding the quality of ITE programs”. If this is the case for the eminent and powerful review panel, how can a prospective ITE student make an informed decision about the course that is most likely to give them a good qualification and preparation to teach?

For the second action, Next Steps recommends the establishment of an oversight body to advise the government on the benchmarks for quality, and contingent allocation of funding and Commonwealth Supported Places. Just after the Next Steps report was released it was announced by the acting federal education minister that Mark Scott, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney, had been appointed to chair a panel with this remit. Mr Scott’s appointment ought to raise some eyebrows. Is the CEO of a university, one of whose key roles and responsibilities includes protecting his own institution’s revenue, really the best person to advise the government on decisions about the quality and funding of his and other institutions, especially if funding is competitive? 

This leads to an issue that is not addressed in the Next Steps report: the qualifications and expertise of the state-based accreditation panels to preside over judgements about whether courses meet the standards. In the case of literacy content, there is reason to question whether the standards for explicit, systematic and evidence-based reading instruction are being applied in the way they are intended, with several of the chairs of accreditation panels being frequent and open critics of the need for explicit, systematic reading instruction based on scientific research.

On top of this, ITE providers can make unlimited attempts to have their courses accredited. The recommendation of Next Steps to place a cap on the number of times a failing Teaching Performance Assessment (TPA) can be resubmitted for endorsement should also apply to applications for accreditation.

A couple of other recommendations in the report deserve mention. One is to establish a Centre for Excellence that would conduct research on teacher education and deliver ITE. The intent seems to be to provide an evidence-informed, best-practice exemplar ITE program that would influence other providers to follow suit. The recently created Institute of Teaching in England is named as a model for this recommendation.

I would give somewhere between cautious and enthusiastic support to almost all of the recommendations and findings in the Next Steps report, some of which were part of my submission and some which were not. However, one that I strongly suggest that they reconsider is the Quality Teaching Model and associated Quality Teaching Rounds. The Quality Teaching Model / Rounds have been in play in school education for about twenty years but until recently there had never been any experimental research that evaluated its impact on students’ academic outcomes. All of the research was on whether teachers got better at using the model. Thanks to the Paul Ramsay Foundation, a randomised control trial with student achievement as the outcome measure was conducted, and the findings published in 2021. Contrary to the description in Next Steps, the results for student achievement were weak at best. Greg Ashman has written about the research here. Given that the Quality Teaching Model does not have an empirical or scientific evidence base (again, contrary to the description in Next Steps), and has not been updated in almost 20 years (the Framework/Classroom Practice Guide cited in the 2021 study was published in 2003 and has no references to support the model as being effective for learning), these recent research findings on Quality Teaching Rounds are not surprising. The Quality Teaching Model’s unproven premises and its lack of supporting evidence are at odds with the review panel’s positive regard for pedagogies with good experimental evidence and informed by cognitive science. The Quality Teaching Model and Rounds should be investigated much more deeply before adopting them as a central plank of ITE.

The QITE review panel was appointed by the federal education minister Alan Tudge in May 2021 and his public comments indicate that he asked them to come up with a set of strong and actionable recommendations that would create the conditions for universities to meet the standards that ITE students, and the children they go on to teach, have every right to expect. The separation of governance (state) and funding (federal and students) for ITE makes this a difficult job, but the panel has presented some ideas that might just work as long as there is judicious selection of the people and organisations charged with enacting them.

An edited version of this article was published as ‘Unis must enforce standards with serious consequences‘ in The Weekend Australian 5-6 March 2022.