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Education Minister Jason Clare in parliament.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Teaching degrees are set for a major overhaul, but this is not what the profession needs

Last August, the federal government set up an expert panel to look at teacher education in Australia.

In part, this was born out of education ministers’ concerns about the shortage of teachers around Australia and the need to “ensure graduating teachers are better prepared for the classroom”.

The panel, led by Sydney University vice-chancellor Mark Scott (who also chairs The Conversation’s board), released a discussion paper in March. The final report was released on Thursday night.

Education Minister Jason Clare supports teachers but says they need to be “better prepared” before they enter a classroom.

Teaching is a tough and complex job and this is all about making sure they are better prepared from day one.

Teachers certainly need more support to do their jobs. But this report recommends more oversight and regulation, which will not help the profession.

Read more: A new review into how teachers are educated should acknowledge they learn throughout their careers (not just at the start)

What’s in the report?

The Strong Beginnings report makes 14 recommendations. These include establishing “core content” for teaching degrees, or “what every teacher should know”. Universities will have to include this content in their programs if they are to retain their accreditation.

It recommends a new “quality assurance board” to oversee the changes, and public reporting on who universities accept into their teaching programs, whether those students stick to their studies and whether they get a job afterwards.

The panel also proposes “modest financial incentives” to encourage universities to make “genuine and successful efforts” to improve their teacher education programs.

And it recommends more structure around practical experience, mentoring and support for those who decide to decide to swap careers to teaching.

We do need improvements

The panel and I agree on one thing: improvements across the education sector are needed if we are to meet the goals of the 2019 Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration. Here, all Australian education ministers agreed on a vision “for a world class education system that encourages and supports every student to be the very best they can be”.

But this report falls short. It continues a decades-long focus on external regulation and mandated content, while disregarding the expertise of teacher educators. It also fails to address the structural and systemic issues - such as inequitable resourcing of schools, excessive administrative burden on teachers, and devaluing of the profession - which have led to teacher shortages and falling standards.

Some recommendations have merit

Some recommendations have merit: boosting practical experience through system-wide placement agreements, increasing investment in practical experience, and giving professional recognition to teachers supervising education students. These proposals acknowledge graduates are shaped by the whole education system, not just content absorbed while studying.

Some recommendations are benign: improved mid-career pathways and flexible learning for post-graduate students from other fields makes sense, particularly given dire teacher shortages that are worsening attrition, not only among beginning teachers.

But the panel adopts the now all-too-familiar approach of increasing layers of regulation and telling teacher educators how to do their jobs.

Mandated core content

The first two recommendations mandate four areas of core content for universities to “add to” their initial teacher education programs:

  1. the brain and learning, or content that provides teachers with an understanding of why specific practices work

  2. effective pedagogical (or teaching) practices

  3. classroom management, or how to foster positive learning environments

  4. responsive teaching, to ensure teachers teach in ways that are culturally and contextually appropriate.

But this is a double up. This content is already required by the existing accreditation process. It’s also already examined by universities including through teaching performance assessments required of final year students. This was an outcome of a review of initial teacher education in 2014.

How students learn, effective pedagogy, classroom management, and culturally and contextually responsive teaching are central to all teacher education programs in Australia.

A surprising level of detail

What is most astonishing about the proposed core content is the level of detail provided by the panel, outlining what must be included in initial teacher education programs to meet new performance standards from the accreditation body, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership.

Here we see a level of government input into teaching degrees which would never be tolerated for medical, nursing, law or engineering programs. The content proposed is not widely agreed in the sector, either. The emphasis on “brain science” assumes a straightforward link between laboratory-based scientific evidence and its practical application in the classroom.

The 115 submissions to the panel’s discussion paper have been made public for the first time on Friday morning. This has left little time to check the panel’s claim that “stakeholders broadly supported both the core content and formalising it [via accreditation]”.

However, the University of Sydney School of Education and Social Work submission queries the reliability and trustworthiness of the evidence underpinning the proposed core content, expressing concern about “the way the evidence base itself was constructed”.

This specification of core content comes from the Australian Education Research Organisation (a government created, independent education evidence body). It has no particular expertise in research on teacher education. The approach taken is narrow and overlooks swathes of high quality research, as detailed in the University of Sydney submission.

What’s missed in education debates – which invariably pitch teaching practices against each other – is that what matters most is the underlying quality of the teaching. The report assumes new graduate teachers deliver poor teaching and their university education is to blame. This premise has been challenged by recent studies, which show new teachers teach just as well as those with years of experience.

Read more: Our study found new teachers perform just as well in the classroom as their more experienced colleagues

We will need proper evaluation

The new regulations recommended by the panel treat teacher educators as if they aren’t already motivated to improve the student experience and outcomes, understand and incorporate the latest educational research, or engage in good practice. The assumption seems to be that providers will not “improve” unless incentivised financially by the panel’s recommended “transition” and “excellence” funds.

This is nonsense. Current systems of regulation and accountability mean providers are constantly required to demonstrate improvement. Teacher educators could in fact do more to refine their programs if not hamstrung by so much administration.

To be clear, I’m all for reform, having dedicated my academic career to improvements for teachers and students. But in the same way teachers need to be able to focus on teaching and learning (not paperwork), teacher educators need the time and space to do their jobs. And not be hampered by endless reviews and misguided regulation.

At a meeting on Thursday, state, territory and federal education ministers agreed in principle to all the report’s recommendations.

If this is the chosen path to improvement, then proper evaluation of these latest reform efforts is crucial. We can’t afford to arrive a few years down the track without being able to point to what did or didn’t work and why. Producing robust evidence on the impact of these reforms is essential in maintaining a focus on what really matters – better support for teachers and positive outcomes for all Australian students.

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