Fast-tracking teachers will lead to educational disaster? Not quite…

Are teacher fast-tracking programs really all bad? Teacher image from

Reading David Zyngier’s recent article in The Conversation — ominously titled “Can anyone teach? Fast-tracking our children to educational disaster” — one would conclude that Teach for Australia and other fast-track teacher schemes are devoid of any value.

While any education innovation should be subject to critical analysis, an even-handed assessment is what’s really needed. Unfortunately, Dr. Zyngier ends up cherry-picking evidence and selectively quoting studies to paint a dire picture of fast-tracking teacher programs.

These programs, including Teach for Australia, deploy mid-career professionals and high-achieving graduates as teachers in disadvantaged schools. After a rigorous selection process, they receive intensive fifty or more hours-a-week training over six weeks, before commencing teaching in a school and concurrently studying towards a teaching qualification. Teach for Australia is modelled on similar schemes in other countries, which are collectively referred to as Teach for All (TFA).

Though Dr. Zyngier’s piece raised legitimate concerns about the relative retention rate and expense of the program, he ends up giving a distorted picture.

Despite his characterisation, there does exist overwhelmingly positive reports about Teach for Australia. One from the Australian Council for Education Research (ACER) found “every school that has participated in the program would like to continue that association”. Instead of focusing on these, negative reports from the USA about Teach for America were elaborated on at length.

Outside of the US evidence chosen, Dr. Zyngier presented a “recent independent review” by the Centre for Learning, Change and Development, School of Education at Murdoch University as finding:

“Insufficient evidence” to conclude that Teach For All teachers were as effective as their traditionally-prepared peers.

This statement was picked out from the report’s executive summary, twisting the original meaning and oddly ignoring the next sentence which noted:

On balance, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that TFA teachers are systematically less effective in fostering or advancing student learning than their traditionally prepared peers, either novice or experienced. In fact, a majority of the currently available evidence reports an advantage for TFA teachers, particularly in the areas of mathematics and science.

When lines are being selectively quoted in this manner, an author can conjure the conclusions they wish for. In conjunction with ignoring studies that support TFA fast-tracking programs, a picture was built that the evidence for the program is at best ambiguous and at worst damning.

While the piece concentrated extensively on US data, studies concerning the UK fast-tracking scheme, Teach First, went unmentioned. As one of the studies that Zyngier cites in his own article notes, Teach for Australia is much closer in design to the UK program than the US equivalent.

The UK and Australian programs include an extra week of intensive training and they also partner with experienced schools of education in well-respected universities. It is also a requirement of both the Australian and UK TFA schemes that all candidates attain a regular teaching qualification by the end of either the first or second year.

It would seem more sensible then to compare Teach for Australia with the UK Teach First program. But that may have been inconvenient to Dr. Zyngier’s argument, as reports from the English school inspectorate Ofsted have graded the UK fast-tracked teachers “outstanding” and the most recent evaluation from the University of London found the program most likely boosted students grades.

Further claims in the article attempted to discredit fast-tracking schemes by making unsourced claims about the level of support these teachers receive. Zyngier argued that that this lack of support meant many left the program “dispirited and disillusioned.”

But the recent ACER study on Teach for Australia had this to say on associate support:

As was the case in 2010, the majority of associates regarded the support they received in total (from all sources) to be at least adequate and in many cases excellent. Few associates felt the need for any additional support.

There is a debate to be had about Teach for Australia’s relative cost and retention rate, and indeed it is already occurring. If there are legitimate concerns, they should be aired and debated rigorously.

Muddying the water with biased articles does not do justice to the serious debate we need to have about improving our most disadvantaged schools.

This piece was co-authored by Daniel Carr, Secondary School Teacher and Teach for Australia Associate.