Teacher education reform: Where will all the experts come from?

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Dr Jennifer Buckingham, 20 July 2023

The problems with education in Australia are not new. When the first major Commonwealth government report on school quality (the ‘Karmel report) was published in 1985, there was no testing program for literacy and numeracy but employers were of the view that the basic skill levels of many school leavers were low. The first government literacy and numeracy tests were introduced in NSW in 1989 and thanks to national and international assessments introduced in the past two decades, there has been objective evidence for decades now that an unacceptable number of students are struggling with these fundamental aspects of education. Above the basic level, achievement is mediocre by international standards and has been declining. Fewer students are taking the harder maths and science subjects in senior secondary school. There are concerns that the reading and writing competency of many university students is affecting their ability to achieve academically at this level. These things are all connected and known.

What is relatively new is public recognition in the upper levels of the education machinery of what is at the root of the problem – teaching methods and curricula in schools – and that some methods of teaching and curriculum design are more effective than others. The more effective methods are those based on scientific research of how students learn new knowledge and skills, how they retain and apply them to different tasks and situations, and how they use them to gain more knowledge and skills. Schools were created for the purpose of providing the next generation with the information and capabilities that equip them for human progress and flourishing, and which require time and expertise to teach. Teacher education degrees, by and large, have not prepared teachers to use the effective teaching methods that create expertise.

The education policy agenda in Australia at the moment is the culmination of years of sometimes rancorous debate. People outside the university schools of education – academics, educators, parents – are adamant that teacher education is inadequate primarily because of its disconnect from rigorous research on effective instruction and classroom realities. People in university schools of education are equally adamant that what they provide is high quality. In response to proposals that teaching degrees should include specified content, the defenders of teacher education say, ‘we already do that’ in one breath and ‘don’t tell us what to do’ in the next.

TEEP, NSRA and the Productivity Commission

The recent releases of two major federal government-commissioned reports within days of each other is excellent timing because the issues they are address are inextricably linked. One is the final report of the Teacher Education Expert Panel (TEEP). It was convened to provide recommendations based on findings of an earlier review of teacher education by a different but overlapping expert panel (the Quality Initial Teacher Education report in 2022). The other recent report is a consultation paper for a review of the National School Reform Agreement (NSRA), with yet another expert panel.

In a nutshell, the NSRA is the agreement between the federal government and the states and territories that defines the parameters of how education funding is spent and the expectations of the results it should achieve. The review comes on the heels of a Productivity Commission report looking at whether the current NSRA achieved its aims. Reader, it did not.

The Productivity Commission’s findings were a clanging bell calling everyone in the education system to action. Far too many children in schools are struggling with the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy, and not just those with identified learning challenges or social disadvantages. A large proportion are students for whom there is no good reason that learning to read and do primary school maths should be difficult. It’s hard to imagine how we can effectively tackle the declining rates of senior school students taking advanced maths and hard sciences, and the persistent shortage of maths and science teachers (which are obviously related) without dealing with the problems upstream. Educational underachievement rarely begins in high school.

Even without the benefit of NAPLAN, the 1985 Karmel report had this to say: “A failure to master literacy and numeracy at an early age is likely to produce poor performance. Primary schools should place greater emphasis on ensuring that none of their students progress to the next phase of learning without having acquired adequate learning skills.” Almost 40 years later, when Karmel-era students have become the parents of today’s students, that lesson has still not been learned.

That is not to say that if we take care of primary education, secondary education will look after itself. Far from it. A set of reports on supporting students in secondary school from the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) attest to this. Rather, if we create greater equity by reducing the number of struggling readers and maths-averse students entering secondary school, there is greater capacity in the system to address excellence. And it’s not as if the strategies to achieve these goals are unknown or unrealistic. The Primary Reading Pledge published in 2020 is an evidence-based manual for reducing the number of children who finish primary school without reading proficiency.

The NSRA consultation paper includes improving student outcomes in literacy and numeracy as a focus, describing an approach that involves robust, structured and explicit instruction in literacy and numeracy for all students as the first and most important strategy. Regular use  of valid assessments checks that all students are learning, and identifies students who need extra help before they get too far behind their peers, and those who could benefit from extension. Students in the support category are provided with individually-targeted and timely intervention programs for as long as they need them. If this sounds simple, it isn’t. But it is possible, as long as teachers have the necessary knowledge to implement it.

That’s where the TEEP report comes in. How can schools and systems be expected to meet any targets set by an NSRA for improved outcomes if not all teachers have the knowledge required? No long term improvement is possible without addressing the long standing deficiencies in the way teachers are prepared to teach. There were over a hundred reviews of teacher education before the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) report in 2014 but none have been implemented as diligently. Some of the TEMAG reforms have laid the groundwork for the TEEP recommendations.

The most contentious of the TEEP recommendations, and the most likely to actually have a real impact, is for the inclusion of mandatory course content. Without this course content, the degrees would not be accredited, meaning that graduates could not become registered teachers. The core content framework proposed in the TEEP report draws on cognitive science and psychology research and evidence from rigorous education studies so teachers will better understand and be able to use teaching and classroom management techniques that are effective for all students. That much of this content has been absent from teacher education is mind-boggling, but this is the finding of reviews of course content and the experience of graduate teachers and those currently enrolled.

The obstacles to implementation

Previous attempts to introduce more evidence-based content into teaching degrees have been only marginally successful. A minor amendment to the accreditation standards in 2020 that required the inclusion of evidence-based reading instruction in literacy courses has been openly ignored by most providers. Course descriptions have superficially changed and there is lip-service to the required content but it’s easy to find courses that bear no resemblance to the example outlines published by the Australian Institute for Teaching and Leadership. Negative responses from education academics to the TEEP report, one published within hours of it becoming public, shows that the powers that be in universities have no intention of changing without a fight. The chair of the TEEP panel, Mark Scott, received a swift rebuke from a member of the education faculty of Sydney University, where he is Vice Chancellor.

Having been strongly advised that without an enforcement mechanism their recommendations would remain just that, and it will all have been for nought, the TEEP panel recommended a national oversight board. Presently, teacher education courses are accredited by teacher registration authorities at the state level. Such are the vagaries of a federal system where education is the responsibility of the state. There are sometimes benefits to this (for example, South Australia’s adoption of the Year 1 Phonics Check) but it creates enormous difficulties for reform in teacher education.

Each teacher registration authority appoints accreditation panels which comprise a chair and four to six members who receive training in the process. A great deal rests on the accurate and impartial assessment of the rigour of the courses presented for accreditation. On the basis of courses that have been recently accredited, there are some question marks over this. So the TEEP report recommends a second layer of authority – a national oversight board. What happens if the oversight board disagrees with a state accreditation panel is not described but the idea is that more accountability will lead to better quality and consistency. Again, the result depends on the expertise and integrity of the board. Additional accountability would be in the form of public reporting of various indicators of course quality to allow prospective teachers to choose the better programs and drive competition for students. The indicators proposed will provide only a limited picture of course quality. A good additional piece of information to include would be to require providers to publish the recommended text lists for their courses – this is a very revealing insight into the content.

Enforcement aside, the biggest potential obstacle to implementing the TEEP reforms in the suggested two year time frame, is the expertise in education faculties. In my investigation of the content of literacy courses a few years ago, I found that very few courses were coordinated or taught by people whose research interests and publication records indicated expert knowledge on the scientific evidence base of how children learn to read and effective teaching methods. It seems unlikely that every education faculty will also have a member of staff who is an expert on cognitive science as it applies to learning, memory and instructional design. Institutions able to fulfill this brief right using their education faculty staff now are La Trobe and Australian Catholic University.  If other institutions are lucky, they might find this expertise among their special education lecturers, speech and communication, postgraduate non-ITE courses, or in the psychology faculty, but that’s not a given. The Australian Council of Deans of Education gave qualified support to the proposal for core content in the TEEP discussion paper in April – a position that is apparently not held by many people in their faculties judging from the responses to the final report – but is opposed to including it in the mandatory Teacher Performance Assessments.

A solution

One way to tackle the expertise problem is to diversify the provision of teacher education to utilise experts in the core content outside of the institutions that have denied its necessity. Ever since teacher colleges were amalgamated with universities in 1989, which has not necessarily worked out well, teacher education in Australia has been heavily dominated by the university sector. Almost all students enrol in a standard undergraduate or postgraduate degree – the relatively small number of students in ‘hub’ model providers and Teach For Australia being the main exceptions but these are still mostly delivered through universities. An increasing number of people study online. Drop-out rates are high. In England, initial teacher education is increasingly provided by non-university providers that have been accredited and approved by the Department for Education, often in partnership with schools. These providers have to deliver the core content framework and meet other standards. There is room for greater variety in initial teacher education provision – either complete degrees or specific content – in Australia. With strong content requirements and accountability, there is lower risk of sacrifice to quality, and it would weaken the stranglehold that universities have over teacher education reform.

The TEEP report signals a major shift in thinking about teaching and teacher education. It has caused excitement in some quarters and angst in others. In a speech at The Centre for Independent Studies when he was NSW Education Secretary, Mark Scott said he thought “education needs to be a little bit more like medicine” which has a professional responsibility to follow science and evidence. When similar reforms to those recommended by Scott and the TEEP panel were undertaken in England, some high profile universities threatened to drop their teaching degrees rather than comply, most notably Cambridge. The government was not deterred. If this is going to work here, the state and the federal ministers must not waver when they face resistance.

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