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.
The quality of a classroom teacher is the most important variable to improving learning opportunities for all children that politicians and policymakers can influence.
But with the current demands to prepare everyone for success in the innovation age, and for a globally connected world, there is significant disagreement on how to assess teacher quality.
Previous efforts to assess teacher quality evolved into establishing standards, frameworks, value-added (student test score growth) measures, and stringent admissions requirements to initial teacher education programs – including literacy and numeracy tests for new teachers.
Bureaucratic structures like England’s inspectorate rate and rank teachers and schools in a top-down, punitive and “toxic” approach.
These same policies are gaining traction across Australia following their adoption in the UK and US.
The inspectorate approach has been recently introduced in New South Wales with the rebooting of the state’s Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES) as the Education Standards Authority. Education Minister Adrian Piccoli said the policy will:
… make schools nervous around school registration requirements, and it ought to make teachers nervous around teaching standards.
However, there is little evidence that external accountability and evaluation measures produce better teachers – while gaps between students who are doing well on tests and those who are not are not closing.
Another idea that is taking hold in Australia – one that has been tried elsewhere – is to implement a graduation test of literacy and numeracy for secondary students.
This is a response to the lack of trust in the ability of school leaders to ensure teacher quality for even the most basic skills. But assessments based on these factors reduce teaching’s complex nature to a tick box or a test score.
Skills of the past and skills of the future
Traditional literacy and numeracy skills remain very important. But what were previously known as “soft skills” have been added to the list. These include critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, collaboration, well-being, entrepreneurism, ethics, global-mindedness, cultural competence and digital literacy.
So where are the “new-school” teaching quality approaches now working to incorporate these skills?
The Quality Teaching (QT) process is a research-proven approach to increasing teacher quality.
It allows colleagues to have structured conversations about effective teaching. Teachers work in learning teams and visit one another’s classrooms using the QT protocol. This process is similar to physicians who make “rounds” to each other’s patients and provide consultancies to one another. The recent study of the QT rounds process showed significant improvement in the quality of teaching across the hundreds of classrooms analysed.
The NSW BOSTES has established professional career paths for classroom teachers that are closely aligned with best practices around the world in teacher development.
Teachers use the national standards to provide evidence of their knowledge, skills and dispositions as highly accomplished or lead teachers. This encourages teachers to continue renewal throughout their careers.
Lessons from abroad
Finland emphasises the continuous enhancement of teacher content knowledge, pedagogical prowess and professional development. But it does so with no inspectors or national tests. And teachers are paid to go back to school for their masters degrees.
In Canada, teacher evaluation has not become a regulator-heavy industry of standards, inspectors and tick-boxes. Instead, the Canadian premise is to promote the professional development of teachers through investment in increasing credentials, professional renewal, self-assessment and peer support.
It is that professional renewal that governs the discourse of teacher quality.
Ontario is regarded as one of the most successful areas of Canada in education without national standards and tests.
In the US, new research results show teachers who have earned masters degrees and who continue to pursue professional development targeted at equity and diverse learners can close achievement gaps. These findings support the examples from Finland and Canada.
And there is an increasing emphasis on linking teacher quality to teacher dispositions.
Most previous teacher evaluation systems take into account professionalism, ethics and leadership but fail to integrate caring and role-modelling as vital attributes of a teacher’s role.
Getting it right
So what are some ways to get assessing teaching quality right?
Develop new methodologies to assess the kinds of knowledge, skills and dispositions we want for children and society. Critical thinking is a core skill alongside traditional literacy and numeracy. Assessing it, however, is not as straightforward.
Build models of professional renewal such as those that are working in Canada and Finland. This means investing in teachers adding additional credentials and seeking higher levels of teacher status trough a rigorous evidence-based process.
Infuse teacher education programs with the best research and practice from the learning sciences in lieu of continuing to bolt on new entrance and exit requirements.
Resist inspectorate models that have been proven not to work, do not improve teaching or learning, and de-professionalise the art and science of teaching.
Tackle societal equity issues directly. In an old assessment world, short-sighted policies punish teachers for working in complex and challenging situations where poverty or postindustrial malaise has often set into family realities.
The countries investing in education and the related components of early childhood education, adult education and well-being are reaping the benefits in people who are multi-literate, positive, healthy and engaged citizens.
Recent policies such as the rise of the inspectorate and the use of graduation tests for students and teachers in Australia seem to be taking us back to the old world of external, invalid measures. The assessment of teaching should start with respecting teachers rather than inspecting them.
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