Governments reform agendas determine which aspects of teacher education to improve. Katina Curtis/AAP

Political meddling in teacher education needs to stop

In our series, Better Teachers, we’ll explore how to improve teacher education in Australia. We’ll look at what the evidence says on a range of themes including how to raise the status of the profession and measure and improve teacher quality.

Teacher education is a highly scrutinised area. Australia, for example, has had a steady stream of reviews over the past 25 years.

These reviews usually examine the available research literature (mostly as it is filtered through reports by think-tanks and various multinationals and global organisations) and set up mechanisms for sampling professional, political and public opinions about teacher education. They aim to find out what is wrong with it and how to fix it.

For the most part, the recommendations from these reviews, for a range of reasons including resourcing, changes in government, lack of professional and political will, are not put into action.

Misuse of research

A manufactured narrative that teacher education is failing, often drawing on a “distortion and misuse of research”, is being increasingly used to inform various reform agendas.

In this way, teacher education is constructed as a “policy problem”, with governments determining the aspects of teacher education to improve. Teacher quality can then be controlled and managed in policy terms through the reform agendas.

As a result, we now have an unreasonable amount of attention on entry into teacher education, entrants’ literacy and numeracy capabilities, whether they have a unit of study in X or Y in their teacher education programs (X or Y being the latest political focus) and so on. All of this focuses accountability at the point of entry into teacher education and on the content of the programs.

Even with national standards focusing on how teacher education should be accountable – for me, that is by the quality of the teachers graduating from teacher education – states and territories have added their own “elaborations”. These are usually additional requirements for entry and/or content.

What we need is an evidence-based discussion about improving teacher education. At the moment, I do not believe that is happening.

Why are we not talking more about an evidence-based approach to improving teacher education?

There are reasons for that – large research grants are not usually available for investigating teacher education, so many teacher education researchers investigate their own programs. As a result, the field is characterised by isolated, often unrelated and small-scale investigations.

A lot of the research in the US, and increasingly in England and Wales, for example, has been aimed at comparing different routes into teaching. These countries are directing resources to various “alternative” pathways into teaching that reduce the involvement of, or bypass, teacher education in universities.

In teacher education, we are asked “What works?”, but we ask “for whom?”, “in what contexts?”, “under what conditions?” and “for what purposes?”. Because graduates are prepared for diverse settings throughout Australia, no one “best practice” model of teacher education will work.

Research has confirmed for some time that learning teaching is ongoing; it is not linear and finite. Beginning teachers are prepared as new teachers and their professional knowledge, practice and engagement grows, is challenged, added to, modified and so on, as they progress through their professional careers. Therefore, evidence is needed about effective preparation for beginning teaching in a range of settings.

What do we know about the effectiveness of teacher education?

In the first large-scale longitudinal investigation of teacher education and beginning teaching in Australia, graduate teachers said they felt prepared by their teacher education program, and principals rated them as more effective than they judged themselves.

But there were areas where the graduates felt less prepared and effective. These included: classroom management, assessment and reporting, and meeting the learning needs of culturally, linguistically and socio-economically diverse learners.

These findings provide some guidance on issues that need consideration in teacher education practice.

But we should not respond to this by simply adding to the list of required content in teacher education programs.

The two dynamic factors found across all data sources to have the greatest bearing on perceptions of preparedness and effectiveness were employment and workplace context.

Those who were employed on an ongoing, permanent basis felt that they were better prepared and more effective in comparison to those in casual or contract positions. Graduate teacher perceptions were also influenced by the support available in their school.

Let’s revolutionise teacher education in a new hybrid space

It is these dimensions that help us think more carefully about teacher education practice and policy beyond the pursuit of so-called “best practice models”.

We cannot divorce teacher preparation from employment and induction. We need to re-conceptualise teacher education as a collective responsibility of universities, schools, systems and communities within a newly created real or imagined hybrid space. This has the potential to revolutionise learning teaching.

Read more articles in the series