New South Wales Education Minister Adrian Piccoli has announced no teacher will graduate in his state without having successfully completed a literacy (and numeracy) test.
This follows an announcement earlier this year from the Australian Capital Territory’s Education Minister Joy Burch, who has said no teacher will be employed in the ACT without passing a literacy test.
Who is toughest on teachers?
NSW and ACT are probably just preempting the likely recommendations from the federal Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group, due in July, in what appears to be a race to have the toughest stance on teachers.
This race has been on for some time; literacy tests for teachers were on the agenda of the previous Labor government, who commissioned the Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER ) to write the test that NSW and ACT are likely to use.
In pursuing a literacy test for teachers with such gusto, Australia has jumped on a bandwagon already occupied by the UK, where literacy tests were introduced last year, and the US which has had numerous certification tests of literacy and numeracy for many years.
Clearly, all of this is good news for those who write literacy tests - but who else will benefit? What is the purpose of a literacy test for teachers?
An end to embarrassing errors?
Is the test designed to reduce the number of cringeworthy mistakes that occasionally find their way into school newsletters and onto classroom whiteboards?
Teacher education students are as susceptible to linguistic clangers as anybody else in the community. There are a few who defiantly want to be teachers and think they should of gone into teaching earlier, and are hoping not to loose their confidence when they meet the school principle.
There are a number who think apostrophes are an optional extra which they prefer not to take the option on, and an equal number who think apostrophes are a mandatory accompaniment to the letter s.
Of course, they are going to be teachers, so obviously they need to rise above the community clangers and graduate with these common errors sorted out. But surely that doesn’t take a test to achieve - just some sound instruction and explanations of their errors. That should simply be what you get for your (recently increased) fees when you enrol in a four year tertiary degree.
Ensuring content knowledge?
Perhaps the purpose of the test is to ensure that teachers have content knowledge about language, e.g. that they know their phrases from their clauses, or their adverbs from their adjectives
I have strongly argued that English language knowledge is important for teachers - but the importance isn’t in the knowing per se. The importance is in knowing what to do with the language knowledge. Knowing an adjective from an adverb doesn’t make you a better teacher, any more than knowing a socket ratchet from a spanner means you can fix a car.
Our time, energy and resources should be invested in understanding how our teaching degrees can successfully prepare teachers to understand what to do with the children in our classrooms who struggle with reading and writing - rather than testing whether graduates can spot a dependent clause.
Improving learning outcomes in our children?
The political rhetoric certainly claims the purpose of the test is to improve learning outcomes in our children, but disappointment awaits. Literacy learning outcomes won’t improve just because preservice teachers passed an online multiple choice test at some point in their degree.
There are lots of reasons why our underachieving children fail to perform, and improved teacher knowledge about language is a part of an intricate solution. But a literacy test for teachers is no guarantee of improved teacher knowledge about language, and studies have yet to find any relationship between teacher candidate scores and their performance in the classroom
The wrong solution to a complex problem
H.L.Mencken, an American essayist, once wrote
For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
A literacy test for teachers is an example of a clear, simple and wrong answer to the complex problem of a long underachieving tail in Australian classrooms.
The literacy test may be a box for politicians to tick in their competition to show who has the best credentials when it comes to being “serious” about teacher education. But it won’t serve any great purpose beyond that. Which is a shame - because there really is a serious debate to be had about the ways in which we prepare teachers to teach children how to read and write.