Finding a way through the policy maze
Australia’s teacher training is in the spotlight amid worries market driven policy settings aren’t delivering uniform high quality
The policy challenges across Australian teacher education is the subject of the first episode of University of Melbourne’s new monthly podcast series The Policy Shop. Vice chancellor Professor Glyn Davis explores the issue in conversation with the head of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals Judy Crowe, and the university’s director of educational research Professor John Hattie.
Andrew Trounson sets the scene.
New teacher Lauren Mauger says the key to learning to teach is doing it, lots of it.
A high school mathematics teacher now into her third year as a teacher, Ms Mauger from the start had a lot going for her - a strong academic performance at school and a double undergraduate degree in teaching and science. But she says the multiplier effect for her was that thanks to the relationship she built with the school where she did her placement she did more than twice the required teaching time in her final year of study. And now she is on staff at the same school.
“It was an excellent way to integrate into the school and get to know the students and staff and understand how the school works,” says Ms Mauger, who teaches at Mckinnon Secondary College, a government school in Melbourne’s suburban southeast.
She said the required ten-week placement in the final year of her course was the bare minimum a student teacher needs.
But according to a major report by the Commonwealth’s Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) released in February last year, the standard of teacher education is too often below the bare minimum. It said there was significant evidence of system failure in quality assurance. According to TEMAG:
Not all initial teacher education programs are equipping graduates with the content knowledge, evidence-based teaching strategies and skills they need.
Chaired by Australian Catholic University vice chancellor Greg Craven, TEMAG said standards needed to be raised at all teacher education programs. It directly linked boosting standards to tackling Australia’s declining performance on the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment tests in reading and numeracy that are undertaken by 15 years-olds. Since 2009 Australia has fallen from 15th to 19th in mathematics, from 9th to 14th in reading, and from 10th to 16th in science.
Teachers themselves have been among those at the forefront lobbying for change. The Australian Education Union has complained of falling entry standards and called for the introduction of minimum entry standards for undergraduate teaching courses.
“In Australia we have no workforce planning and a system which is producing an oversupply of graduates, but which is unable to fill shortages of teachers in key subjects like maths, science and languages,” Australian Education Union federal president Correna Haythorpe said in a statement last year.
The Commonwealth government promised “swift and decisive action”. In a bid to ensure graduation standards it has introduced literacy and numeracy tests for graduating teachers in 2016. More rigorous course accreditation standards have also been adopted for implementation this year.
Then Education Minister Christopher Pyne said:
It’s not possible to provide young Australians with a first-rate education without a first-rate teacher.
But the Government stopped short of recommendations from TEMAG to give the Commonwealth’s Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership real regulatory powers to enforce standards, which remain the responsibility of state bodies.
In contrast, some other jurisdictions have opted for baring their regulatory teeth. Korea makes public the results of course evaluations, and programs that don’t meet standards risk having limits being put on their student places. Germany too has chosen tighter regulation to as the means to boost quality. Following disappointing PISA scores in 2000 Germany adopted strong state controls over standards. Student teachers are now subject to both entry and exit exams. Germany’s performance has since risen with each PISA result to be either ahead or largely in line with Australia.
TEMAG found there was widespread momentum for change and change is happening. But the question of where that momentum should eventually take us is still unresolved.
There is ongoing debate over how student teachers should be selected for courses and how important course entry standards are compared to exit standards. At the same time there are questions over whether Australia’s market driven-higher education system is part of the problem.
Under the so-called “demand driven” system introduced by the Rudd government, universities can receive as many government supported bachelor degree places as they want. Given university revenues are tied to student numbers, there are concerns that universities have been enrolling and graduating too many teachers simply to maximise economies of scale and cross subsidise other parts of their operations. Along with nursing, teaching is the university sector’s largest professional undergraduate field.
That raises the question over whether subsidised undergraduate teaching places should be capped as a way to lift standards and regulate workforce numbers.
Funding policy flux
However workforce planning has a mixed record and the Abbott Government’s review of the policy endorsed the demand driven system as the best way to match supply and demand. In the meantime the universities themselves have begun pulling back on the number of places being offered for undergraduate teaching courses. Offers peaked in 2013 at 19,259, up 14 per cent from 2009 when the demand driven system was being introduced. But by 2015 offers had fallen back below 2009 levels to 16,042.
Perhaps most importantly, school funding itself remains unresolved. Increasing the time student teachers get to spend in front of classes and increasing ongoing professional development for teachers on the job, have both been identified as important for boosting outcomes, but both will need to be paid for. Yet school-funding policy is in flux in what is an election year.
The Turnbull Government has dumped the Gonski model of needs based funding and is instead seeking to negotiate a new funding agreement with the states that education minister Simon Birmingham has said would include a focus on “the quality of teachers, the engagement of parents, and what is taught in the class room.” Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten however last month committed to delivering on the final two years of the Gonski funding commitments.
Meantime the different state governments are going their own ways. NSW has imposed new minimum entry requirements for school leavers wanting to go straight into teaching courses, using its leverage as the state’s major employer.
School leavers need to have achieved at least 80 per cent or more in three subjects on their Higher School Certificate, including English, if they want to get a job in a State school once they graduate. Victoria is similarly considering minimum entry requirements for school leavers.
In South Australia the state government will make it a requirement that by 2020 all new teachers must have a masters degree, and is providing scholarships for teachers to up-skill. Currently teachers are required to have completed at least a four year undergraduate degree – whether an integrated education degree or a double degree including education – or a two year graduate level professional degree.
The South Australian policy would increase the study time to a minimum of five years. Finland, which consistently performs highly on PISA tests, generally requires teachers to hold a masters degree.
South Australia’s policy presents a policy challenge for the Commonwealth because government subsidised post-graduate places are capped. Any widespread shift to postgraduate training for teachers would require either the Commonwealth to foot the bill by uncapping subsidised places, or students will have to pay full fees. However a shift to a post-graduate only model would be one way of the government rationing teacher-training places.
TEMAG reported concerns that teacher-training courses were teaching theories that aren’t informed by evidence, and contrasted that with high performing countries like Finland and Singapore where teaching is rigorously based on evidence and outcomes.
It also found that there wasn’t enough emphasis on practical teaching experience early enough in courses, and that the quality of placements was highly variable. It said there are concerns that sometimes, supervising teachers are being pressured to pass student teachers.
Work readiness of teachers
In their submissions to TEMAG the various states lined up to complain about the work readiness of teachers. Their concerns echoed a 2013 survey of principals and graduates that highlighted concerns that too many new teachers were inadequately prepared for their jobs.
TEMAG expressed unease – in the absence of a regulatory crack down – with government plans to further deregulate teacher training by allowing TAFEs and private colleges to start offering government places. The Abbott government had proposed extending Commonwealth supported bachelor degree places to non-universities as part of its higher education policy aimed at expanding the system and deregulating student fees. It was defeated in the Senate and has been dropped by the Turnbull government that has yet to release a revised policy.
By far the most public flashpoint in the debate over teacher education is the falling school entry scores of school leavers going straight into teaching degrees. Based on 2015 data, low ATAR students are over represented in offer for teaching degrees, and high ATAR students are under represented. Of the those offers made on the basis of ATAR across all field for education about 6 per cent were made to students with ATARs of 50 or less, but for education it was 12 per cent. At the top end, across all fields, some 26 per cent of offers based on ATARs went to students with ATARs of over 90, but across teaching it was only 5.4 per cent.
A report by the Australian Council for Educational Research found that the best performing OECD countries such as Finland, Canada, Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Chinese Taipei, all recruit teachers from at least the top 30 per cent of school leavers. In Finland for example it said entry to teaching courses was highly selective with 6,600 applicants competing for 600 available places in 2010. However it noted that in Australia less than 50 per cent of school leavers who receive an offer of a teaching degree had an ATAR over 70.
“We’re admitting too many low-performing people into teacher education courses right now,’’ ACER chief executive Professor Geoff Masters told The Australian said last year. “A lot of people end up in teaching because they can’t get into the course of their first or second choice.’
Public confidence in the ATAR system has also been shaken by universities publishing inflated ATAR cut-off scores for courses when many students are being admitted on much lower scores under special entry criteria and bonus scores aimed at addressing disadvantage.
But there are legitimate concerns that ATARs are a blunt tool for selecting student teachers. Research has shown that while a high ATAR is a strong predictor of performance at university, it isn’t a good predictor for students coming in with average or lower scores with many such students doing well at university. Lower ATAR entry scores are also an inevitable consequence of the demand driven system in which undergraduate university places are no longer rationed.
Assessing the applicants
The debate however is arguably a distraction given that only about 20 per cent of university commencements in teaching come in straight from school on the basis of an ATAR anyway.
Nevertheless some worry that if a student hasn’t performed well at school they are unlikely to be suited to going straight into studying teaching. Also, there are concerns that falling ATARs entry levels are undermining the status of teaching and therefore its attraction to high achieving candidates.
In introducing tests for students at the end of their courses the government has chosen put the onus on the skills graduates acquire rather than their school performance before university.
Universities meantime are developing their own selection criteria. The University of Melbourne has developed an online TeacherSelector tool comprising academic and personality tests to gauge a candidate’s aptitude for teaching. The University of Notre Dame uses personal statements and interviews to assess applicants.
Yet the ACER report argues there is no evidence to support the use of personality tests in selecting student teachers and that interviews are “notoriously unreliable.”
According to ACER the real problem in Australia is less about selection and more about recruitment. It says able school leavers are tending to spurn teaching careers because teaching doesn’t attract the status, or at the experienced teacher level, the salaries of other professions.
In 2012 on a visit to Australia, Finnish education policy advisor Pasi Sahlberg said teachers in Finland enjoy a status comparable with doctors, lawyers and engineers.
Amid also the policy flux over teacher training, the experience of Ms Mauger suggests that perhaps the key challenge is to attract passionate and self motivated student teachers, and then provide them with real and ongoing professional support once they are in school and teaching.
Throughout her study Ms Mauger worked hard to immerse herself in the profession by, for example, working in a primary school canteen, doing lots of baby-sitting work and private tutoring. In the end it paid off when her placement school recognised her potential and offered further practical experience and ultimately a job.
It is really up to the university student teacher to go out of their way and get to know how it all work.
Ms Mauger expresses overall satisfaction with her university course but says she felt it put too much emphasis on theory and not enough on the practical experience. “It was all good, but I don’t think there was enough of a focus on what you need to do. University gives you a broad idea of what goes on, but it is the specifics that you have to really learn when you are on placement and have started working at a school,” she says.
So with all that greater practical experience behind her, along with a strong academic background, does she feels confident as a teacher? Ms Mauger laughs, saying it is still too early in her career to say she feels fully confident. But she says the important thing is that she feels supported by the school and colleagues.
“I feel very supported, which is probably key to being able to be a success at a school. Confidence is something I’m still working on. Building that confidence is about always reflecting on what you do and changing things, and that is something you establish over time.”
“Teachers do amazing things. They really do teach the future of our world,” she says.
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