Minister Pyne announces… yet another education review

Federal education minister Christopher Pyne’s recently announced review is thus the latest in a long line of such reviews. Whether it can deliver real change is moot at this stage. What then are the seemingly intractable issues that other reviews have either failed to address or rectify?

It is widely agreed that we need to attract high-quality people to teaching. Teaching is an intellectually demanding profession. We must insist that those who practise in the profession have high academic credentials and suitability for teaching.

All our students, including the best and brightest, need access to high-quality teachers and teaching. A quality teacher in every classroom is the biggest equity issue in Australian education. Effective teaching is the best means we have of overcoming the effects of disadvantage for young Australians.

Concern has been expressed at the widening gap between the entry standards required for undergraduate teacher education courses with new entrants to the field including colleges and schools. The concerns could be obviated to some extent if teacher education courses were configured as exclusively graduate entry. Completion of an undergraduate degree plus additional life experience will prepare candidates more effectively for initial teacher education and for teaching itself.

Just as teacher quality varies, not all teacher education courses are equally effective, despite claims to the contrary. We need to ensure that all teacher education courses have a strong evidence base and can demonstrate their impact on teacher effectiveness and student learning.

All teacher education courses claim to be effective. We need data to support such claims. This requires effective and suitably rigorous processes for the initial and ongoing accreditation of such courses rather than the present practice of assessment of course accreditation documents.

All existing practices in teacher education and in teaching generally need to be questioned from a position of evidence. It is a given that teachers want their students to learn. Anything that promises to aid in the achievement of this end is therefore attractive.

Unfortunately, education is subject to the same sorts of fads and fashions as the rest of society. In the case of teaching, real harm can come from adopting an untested and even damaging strategy. There are too many people trying to sell teacher educators, teachers and schools shiny products that are untested in the workplace. Strict protocols control the introduction of any new drug or treatment in medicine yet educators happily experiment on students – a situation where lives are also at stake – with unproven (or even disproved) methods.

Ineffective teacher education and ineffective teaching represent a significant social and economic cost and loss to the nation. Australia’s performance on various measures of national and international student achievement indicates worrying trends. Effective teacher education, both initial and ongoing professional development, represents the best means we have of reversing such decline.

A particular concern lies with the teaching of mathematics and science. It is an indictment of Australian education that up to a third of secondary students are being taught mathematics and up to one quarter are being taught science by an out-of-field teacher. This is most severe in country, regional and low socio-economic status settings.

We also need primary teachers to be better equipped to teach these subjects. This is something my own university is addressing – with La Trobe, Deakin and Monash universities – through an Office for Learning and Teaching project that includes, among many initiatives designed to improve the teaching of mathematics and science, the attraction and preparation of primary teachers with majors in maths or science teaching.

Australia urgently needs better teacher workforce planning. This should target areas of undersupply such as mathematics, science, languages and special education, while reducing the number of teachers being trained in fields with little prospect of employment.

The oversupply of primary teachers is particularly of concern. The uncapping of undergraduate Commonwealth Supported Places, coupled with the entry to teacher education of various colleges and schools, may well create a pool of teachers who will never teach.

It is timely that teacher education is (once more) put under the spotlight but it must be hoped that the present review committee can engage more meaningfully and powerfully with some of these issues. Its findings and recommendations need to be strongly based upon evidence, just as teacher education needs to be.

The debate is being influenced by too much misinformation. There has been too much blaming teachers for things outside their control, coupled with simplistic measures purported to improve the quality of teachers and the quality of teaching through testing, judging, “fixing” or removing “underperforming” teachers. All teacher education has been painted with the same brush and uniformly criticised.

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