Changes to teaching degrees are no guarantee of success for kids

A report has recommended an overhaul of the way teacher education courses are accredited, but will that translate to success in the classroom? AAP

The Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report released today has much to live up to. After all, there have been a couple of dozen reports into teacher education over the past three decades. Is this one better, bigger, different?

The advisory group’s task was to investigate how teacher education in Australia could be improved, given the crucial role a quality teacher plays in achieving high student outcomes.

Their recommendations, which the government has substantially agreed to, all make for sensible reading, though many have been made before. A lot of them are “to do” tasks, which have been assigned to the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership.

Overhaul course accreditation

The first “to do” task is an overhaul of teacher education course accreditation processes and requirements. Teacher education accreditation already involves three different agencies: TEQSA, the federal agency which oversees accreditation of all university courses, AITSL, which provides national guidelines on the accreditation of teacher education courses, and each state and territory’s own teacher education accreditation agency.

The recommendation is not, unfortunately, an overhaul of this complicated, cumbersome and disconnected triumvirate, although it is suggested that TEQSA and AITSL could talk more. In fact, the report seemed keen to add a fourth regulatory body to the mix, but the government has decided not to accept that particular recommendation. And so, the “overhaul” is focused on AITSL providing further guidelines to their existing guidelines.

To achieve full course accreditation universities will have to prove their graduates have a positive impact on student learning, and that their employers are happy with them.

A key new guideline will be the requirement that all primary school teachers have a specialist subject, preferably maths, science or a language other than English. They need not teach this subject exclusively, but rather, be an expert in the school for others to consult.

No mention is made of specialists in the arts, health or other humanities, which seems remiss. However, Recommendation 17 is that all primary and secondary teachers should be teachers of literacy, which will require substantial reworking of some secondary education degrees.

Identify best practice approaches for teacher candidate selection

ATARs, or university entrance scores, will not be used as the only indicator of suitability for the teaching profession. AITSL has been charged with finding a better selection method.

The argument is made that academic competence alone is not sufficient to identify a good teacher. In the past, personality tests, interviews and essays have been offered as possible measures of suitability, so these will presumably be in the mix of what AITSL investigates.

However, while teacher education courses will not necessarily set minimum ATAR scores for entry, the government will require them to make their selection processes transparent. The aim of this is to instill public confidence in the quality of teacher candidates. Perhaps this transparency requirement in itself may prompt teacher education faculties to raise their ATAR entrance scores – if, of course, their universities are prepared to wear the subsequent drop in revenue.

Not requiring an ATAR still leaves the sticky problem of ensuring that teachers have good personal literacy and numeracy skills. To address this, from 2016, all graduating teacher education students will be required to pass a compulsory literacy and numeracy test.

This online test will check they know their “principle” from their “principal” and their “would ofs” from their “would haves”. While this is excellent news for all who despair of errors in the class newsletter, it won’t necessarily mean those teachers will be any better at teaching reading and writing.

As I have argued before, our children need teachers not copy editors. It will take more than a multiple-choice grammar test for teachers to build the literacy teaching skills the report identifies as missing in many graduates.

The importance of practical experience

The report claims, as have hundreds of studies before it, pre-service teachers need time in classrooms, with good supervising teachers, doing work that is connected to their university learning.

Currently, teaching students’ time in schools is decreasing, there aren’t enough “good” supervising teachers willing to take pre-service teachers and increasing workloads and decreasing face-to-face time in universities make partnerships with schools ever more challenging.

If this report can reverse each of those situations, teacher educators all over the country will be cheering.

A national assessment framework for class readiness

The report recommends both a “rigorous” assessment of class readiness before graduation, and quality mentoring and induction upon employment. The former is already well underway. The latter costs money that employers need to cough up.

The Graduate Standards for teaching, developed by AITSL, provide a detailed description of what a teacher needs to know and do in the classroom in order to graduate. Most teacher education institutions already use these as their assessment framework.

The report recognises good work is happening in teacher education faculties around the country, and the government has directed AITSL to collect these examples of best practice.

A research focus on teacher education

Perhaps the most encouraging part of the report is the recognition that teacher education needs to be researched. But research costs money and there is no mention of any funding in the government’s response to the report. Let’s hope AITSL Chair John Hattie managed to secure some funding when he was handed the “to do” list.

So, will teacher education courses change as a result of this report?

Probably.

Will student outcomes improve as a result of this report?

Hard to say, but hopefully there’ll be some real research funding attached to these recommendations and we can find out for sure.

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