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Education degrees not ‘cheap and easy’: Pyne is wrong on teacher training

Opposition Education spokesman Christopher Pyne’s comments to the Sydney Institute this week provoked a new debate on teacher training. Most of the educational community would agree, and have for at least…

Shadow education minister Christopher Pyne’s latest statements on teacher training are counterproductive. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Opposition Education spokesman Christopher Pyne’s comments to the Sydney Institute this week provoked a new debate on teacher training.

Most of the educational community would agree, and have for at least the last decade, that teacher quality is the key to improving educational outcomes. The educational community also tells me quite often, as a teacher educator, that I need to improve our teacher education courses so that our graduates might survive and thrive in the incredibly complex and arduous workplace of schools and classrooms.

There is always room to do better. But Pyne’s comments of “cheap and easy” education degrees attracting poor quality entrants to teacher education are inaccurate and insulting to all of the outstanding young people that I have the pleasure of teaching in both graduate and undergraduate education programs.

Pyne’s statements are also inaccurate because ATAR cut-offs only reveal part of the picture. Politicians of all persuasions have used the outlier minimum ATAR scores rather than considering the mean, median and maximum admission scores. Yet the mean, median and maximum ATARs attracting offers to all of the University of Sydney’s Bachelor of Education degrees in 2012 were, respectively, 84.82, 86.32 and 99.75.

Even with the removal of Federal Government quotas allowing more students to study teacher education, in part to counteract the predicted shortfall in key teacher numbers, the lowest ATAR for admission to the University of Sydney’s teacher education programs was 80.3.

Even when considering the fact that entry scores for other institutions are slightly lower, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) already has a policy response in place. Teacher education courses are accredited on the basis that they will produce graduates that have attained “levels of personal literacy and numeracy…broadly equivalent to those of the top 30 per cent of the population”.

As a panel member for an AITSL accreditation of a teacher education course in Darwin last month, I can assure you that there was rigorous enforcement of the literacy and numeracy standards as well as the full range of program and graduate standards.

Pyne’s comments are also an affront to the entire teaching profession. It is inconceivable that the professions of law and medicine would tolerate being labelled “cheap and easy” with all of the connotations that this brings.

Now that the teaching profession has a national professional body in AITSL and rigorous processes whereby we monitor the standards of our own profession, we no longer need to tolerate these cheap political attacks either.

Ultimately, empty bickering over admissions ranks doesn’t solve the real crux of the problem. Political attacks undermining public trust in universities and their ability to produce high calibre teachers simply fuels the misguided logic that strips these institutions of their crucial funding.

Blaming educators for this situation makes as much sense as blaming the fire on the smoke.

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36 Comments sorted by

  1. Michael Silverton

    logged in via Facebook

    I don't know about primary school teacher education but I have friends and relations who have taken diplomas of education after finishing undergraduate science degrees. According to them the courses are very heavy on philosophy and sociology and very light on providing skills that will help them to become inspiring high school teachers.

    This happened a long time ago and maybe things have changed since. I hope so.

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    1. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email @internode.on.net

      In reply to Michael Silverton

      Just take a look at some of the courses on offer through the various institutions.

      Universally, there is a prinicpal emphasis on theoretical course work with a significant, but less rigourously assessed, component of unpaid school placements. The time and financial commitment is prohibitive if you already have a degree and a job.

      I like the inverse idea of the principle component being a paid apprenticeship with a complimentary commitment of coursework.

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    2. Nicholas Pericolo

      Teacher

      In reply to Michael Silverton

      As a 6 month graduate who found himself in a similar situation I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of the philosophy and sociology after the experience of undergraduate science which was very light on these areas. Given that teaching is an area that is all about beliefs and values and relationships with people is it not important that they are taught and discussed prior to the classroom?

      Also given the vast range of classroom environments it would be difficult to provide many different ideas…

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    3. Tony Loughland

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Michael Silverton

      I can guarantee that the professional experience (prac) components are a key aspect of our courses and are rigorously assesed against the national professional teaching standards (see AITSL link). Part of my argument here was that we have entered an era where there is a national professional body representing the interests of the profession. On the accreditation panels there is one academic, two teachers and tow education bureaucrats. No prizes here for guessing whether practical concerns will prevail over philosophical and/or sociological flights of fancy!

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    4. Tony Loughland

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      I agree that long blocks of unpaid time are a barrier to many students wishing to study education. The unpaid internship has been decreasing in duration of late for this very reason.

      I am just not sure if an apprenticeship is the right answer. Does this run the risk of perpetuating existing teaching practices in a society that is changing so rapidly? When I trained as a teacher in the early 90s I learnt many fundamental skills from my mentors that I retain to this day. I also had to teach myself everything about computers in education, Interactive whiteboards, the WWW. I maintain that I was able to pick up these skills because my Bachelor of Teaching at UTS Kuring-gai set me up as an enquiring professional who could manage their own professional learning.

      Maybe I am wrong and an apprenticeship with the right teacher would have done all of this and more in quicker time.

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    5. Susan McCosker

      Former school teacher

      In reply to Michael Silverton

      My experience (some 10 years ago) was of a reasonable balance of philosophy and practice in the first year of my Graduate Bachelor of Education (a 2 year course no longer offered), but the second year felt like we were filling in time with a heap of nothingness and I felt ill-prepared when I actually began teaching. That said, the two best subjects I did were my curriculum subjects: I felt I learnt more about Music and English (particularly critical analysis) by learning to teach the subjects than I did in my Bachelor of Arts degree!

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    6. Susan McCosker

      Former school teacher

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      Fred Pribac - I am inclined to agree with you. More time spent in the classroom as a student teacher, better training for the teachers who take on students, but still maintain the high level of professional development offered by a Bachelors Degree.
      When my husband did his degree in the 90s it was when he still had the option to study a 3 year BTeach or a 4 year BEd. He couldn't afford another year without an income so chose to do only the three year degree, but at his uni the 4th year involved a whole term's internship at a school. He takes at least one student teacher each year now and marvels how little prac they do and often questions whether they are really ready to teach: they fill the requirements, but the requirements seem too few.

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    7. Mark Harrigan

      PhD Physicist

      In reply to Tony Loughland

      Tony, for what it's worth, a model I would suggest for aspiring teachers might be mentorship rather than apprenticeship.

      The old adage is that you never truly understand something until you have to teach it to others. And a good Mentor can guide you to the essence of a knowledge domain and its useful heuristics, including its effective pedagogy, far faster than almost any other way I know.

      If teachers in the latter years of training and the early years of practice could experience a real mentor program from quality teachers that might improve our system faster than any other way. Who knows, mentorship might even be a way to recognise oustanding teachers and pay them more and mentorship could be assigned based on peer recognistion and a willingness to particpate.

      As for Pyne, he's an ignorant phillistinic poodle, Ignore him

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    8. Andrew Smith

      Education Consultant at Australian & International Education Centre

      In reply to Nicholas Pericolo

      I do not claim to know what goes on in primary/high school classrooms in Australia due to teaching predominantly offshore in English as a Foreign Language with good professional development through peer/expert observations; and corporate training.

      However, when doing course work for M.Ed. 15 years ago in Melbourne with many existing and former teachers I was alarmed at some of the ideas regarding quality, practice and performance.

      Represented best by comments of one who said that whatever went…

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    9. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Michael Silverton

      Susan, I started teaching Primary as a mature age post-grad (12mth course) 25years ago. In 2009 I received a scholarship in order to teach high school Physics. I rang the Uni the day the offer came out and asked about the course - this was at one of Queensland's prestigious universities. I was informed that the course did not cover content but focused on social issues in modern science and scientific ethics - noble and interesting for sure but not really 'upskilling' as such. I then rang the scholarship office and they had received several similar calls that day from other concerned recipients. By the next day, we were notified of an alternative course at a regional uni. This course did indeed cover the content material. My point is that there does seem to be a lot of course material that is political or ideological in nature and this detracts from ther time availble to focus on things like content and practicums.

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  2. Fred Pribac

    logged in via email @internode.on.net

    I wonder if Mr Pyne is positioning himsefl for a tilt at the leadership?

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    1. Tony Loughland

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      Yes, I was thinking the same especially as he has not been the most visible of opposition education spokespersons!

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  3. Nathan Brown

    logged in via Twitter

    What's the ATAR cut off for politicians? Oh, that's right, any fool can get elected, as our politicians constantly prove.

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  4. Charles Lawson

    Law academic

    Before there is too much outrage perhaps some of the original statements from Pyne should be considered to show that they are not necessarily that "inaccurate and insulting". Pyne quotes from published Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations & Roy Morgan Research results that showed, using Pyne's words, "those people who did want to study education were the most likely of all school leavers to rate the 'level of HECS' and 'having confidence in meeting the demands of the course…

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    1. Tony Loughland

      Senior Lecturer in Education at University of Sydney

      In reply to Charles Lawson

      You raise some interesting arguments here Charles. It was a shame that the media or Mr Pyne's advisors chose to lead with the "cheap and easy" tag because the full speech raised some relevant issues for the profession. These issues include the class size question as well as continuing professional learning for teachers. It is great to see these issues debated in public as well as the public conversation about school funding post-Gonski. It's great for a marginalised profession to be noticed for once…

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  5. Annabelle Leve

    Researcher/Educator

    I am teaching a group of first year education students, and it seems to me, by tutorial two, that part of my job is to make very sure that they know that a teaching degree is neither a CHEAP nor an EASY option, because a disparagingly large number already seem to have made it clear that perhaps it will be.
    I would also like to add my support for, and belief in the importance of this so called 'problematic' emphasis on Philosophy, Sociology, and attempts to help the development of critical, reflective life-long learners/teachers. Each of these underpin my own teaching philosophy and practice, and will enrich the teaching and learning experiences of both my next generation teachers, and their students.

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  6. Michael Leonard Furtado

    Doctor at University of Queensland

    Nice article!

    The greatest irony for me, since I share some of his background, is that Pyne rubbished the role of the philosophy and history of education (and this from the product of a Jesuit education, which he shares with several of his conservative colleagues, where justice is intended to underpin every aspect of pedagogy and human development!).

    The future of education, I suspect, will continue to be held a relentless hostage to globalisation, by which I mean economics and the inevitable…

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    1. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      So many teachers are all in favour of the Finnish education system.
      To implement it we would need to deport a large proportion of non-native English speaking students, sack a large proportion of teachers who did achieve equivalent pre-university standards of the Finnish model, and a lot more who have not attained educational levels that would allow them to be employed.
      On reflection, are they still so in favour?

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    2. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      Phillip, the Finnish system is one that is thrown at teachers quite regularly at seminars, staff meetings and Professional Development sessions. Every time I hear it I wonder what are the things around this apparently model system that we aren't being told. I guess it's just flavour of the month to someone high up in the department - having been teaching in Ed Queensland since 1989 I have seen a fair bit of this type of thing - Leading Schools, Outcomes Based Education, Rich Tasks to name but a very tiny few. The feeling I get from my colleagues in this regard ( the Finnish model) is 'here we go again'. Cheers, John :)

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    3. Andrew Smith

      Education Consultant at Australian & International Education Centre

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      Info on Finnish system here http://www.nais.org/publications/ismagazinearticle.cfm?ItemNumber=151216

      "So what exactly is it that makes the Finns so successful in educating kids? Very simply,as the McKinsey Report points out, three factors: “get the best teachers; get the best out of teachers; and step in when pupils start to lag behind.” Examining each of these imperatives dramatizes the Finland success story."

      More about teacher and teaching quality being experts and passionate in subject areas, who can then qualify to teach versus quality of qualifications and certifications.....

      From the writer's perspective what can be learnt (by US) is 1. Get best teachers 2. Ongoing professional development to include performance evaluations e.g. observations 3. Intervention on individual students falling behind.

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    4. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to John Phillip

      You have left out individualised learning, open classrooms, habits of mind, early adopters of technology, language learning labs, computer awareness, cuisenaire rods, new maths, reading for meaning, mastery learning, understanding preceding doing, etc.
      Exhausted with all these concepts teachers go home and have to ask their children how to program their PVR or to use the finer points of their smart phones.
      They then can relax and watch popular programs such as Masterchef where people are put in…

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    5. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to John Phillip

      John and Philip, I am concerned that what started off as a reasonable critique of Pyne has descended into a 'resistant' diatribe that would fit in with much of Pyne's own ideological agenda.

      No policy approach to teaching and learning, even of the supposedly blandest and most apolitical content is devoid of the kind of subtle and not so allegedly obtuse social and cultural constructions that you both appear to despise and artificially dichotomise from practical learning.

      Even technical learning…

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    6. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      Interesting perspective Michael. You state that, in your experience, "it was precisely the focus of the school on the social justice (in terms of gender) aspects of pedagogy that dramatically improved maths and science results at the school." I'd like to know what specific action the school took that led to this progress - ie what form did the response to perceived and identified social justice inequities take place?
      I am not certain that I fit in with Pyne's "own ideological agenda", although…

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  7. Guy Curtis

    Senior Lecturer at School of Psychology and Exercise Science, Murdoch University

    Under differential HECS education is a comparatively cheap degree - much cheaper than science, law, or medicine. Pyne conveniently leaves out of any discussion of differential HECS as a cause of this "cheapness" because it is policy introduced by the former Liberal/National coalition government.

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  8. Philip Dowling

    IT teacher

    Readers might like to consult atar cut-off details for themselves. Both initial and second rounds.
    http://www.uac.edu.au/documents/atar/2012-main-cutoffs.pdf
    http://www.uac.edu.au/documents/atar/2012-late-cutoffs.pdf
    Sydney University's cutoffs for all courses tend to be higher than less prestigious universities.
    To help Tony interpret the figures they mean that that half of the student teachers at arguably Australia's most prestigious university had ATAR's between 80 and 86. An ATAR of 70 would…

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    1. Susan McCosker

      Former school teacher

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      I would be curious to know about the ATAR (or OP in my state) scores of students enrolled at my small, regional university. Currently the cut off is 16 (roughly an ATAR of 65), but there is a high attrition rate, so it would be interesting to know which students also completed the degree.

      http://www.qtac.edu.au/Applying-CurrentYr12/InterstateAdmissions.html

      In regards to bonus payments in relation to extra-curricular work and extra study, I wholeheartedly agree. I am considering going back into teaching when I'm finished with young babies at home, and would cheerfully accept a lower pay to have less non-classroom commitments. But I'm not so sure we can convince either the unions or a lot of teachers to take on such an idea: I mentioned it to my teaching husband a few weeks back, along with the idea of not being able to move up the pay scale until you had demonstrated that your experience had improved your teaching, and he thought I was mad!

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    2. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to Susan McCosker

      Teacher Unions are too ideologically hidebound. They claim to be professional organisations but act more like a militant union. A teacher is a teacher is a teacher is their mindset. A teacher of HSC mathematics and physics gets paid the same as the primary teacher who scraped in with minumum marks.
      It wasn't all that long ago that teaching reading was an ELECTIVE at one teachers' training college.
      One of my child's primary teachers announced that to her year 6 class that she didn't like maths so she wouldn;t spend too much time on it.

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    3. Susan McCosker

      Former school teacher

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      Ironically, I think it's the Teachers Unions who are contributing to the general public's declining attitude towards the teaching profession!

      That's so disappointing about your child's teacher. It's the reason I support a more 'team teaching' approach in primary school. My husband is strong in maths, and one of his teaching partners is strong in literacy, so they get together and do their planning together to make the most of each other's strengths. Team teaching also helps keep each other accountable, at least theoretically.

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    4. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      Phillip, it's not just the teacher's. I had TWO principals (two years apart, at the same school) tell me not to bother teaching my Yr7 class algebra because 'they'd never use it'. It's just one of the factors that inspired my move to secondary maths teaching.
      For all its faults, I think (or at least hope) that the national curriculum will bolster the teaching of maths/science at the primary level.

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    5. Philip Dowling

      IT teacher

      In reply to John Phillip

      John,
      I can understand your concern. I recently worked with a very experienced primary principal. He said that in his experience too many teachers had changed the official curriculum to a "few of my favourite things" as in
      http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/thesoundofmusic/myfavoritethings.htm
      The problem with the national curriculum is that it will not improve educational rigour but dumb it down and spend lots of time on the latest trendy issues.

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  9. Michael Leonard Furtado

    Doctor at University of Queensland

    Thanks for your's, John. The school concerned was All Hallows', Brisbane, where the Principal of longstanding is Dr Leanne Perry. Perry is regarded as the pick of the leadership for non-government schools in Queensland and is often invited to share of her research-based expertise at official, media and conference levels (not always in supposedly demure and contained Catholic contexts).

    From memory of talking with Leanne, the first professional decision made by the school (I was a parent at the…

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  10. Ania Lian

    Lecturer

    It is the objective all all educators to make education easy - this is why we commit so many resources on online learning pedagogy, resource development, and quality units development. So if we managed to get to the stage where a politician says "education is easy", congratulation to us on doing the job right. In the past the study was opaque and students were truly on their own. If the politician says education is cheap this a reflection of the economy. We are not in charge there. But, I hope, universities try our best to make learning affordable. When I studied, education was free.
    Ania Lan, CDU, Darwin

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