As Minister Clare pushes ITE reforms, some experts say they miss the mark

As Minister Clare pushes ITE reforms, some experts say they miss the mark

On Thursday July 7, Professor Mark Scott – who led the Teacher Education Expert Panel – released a report titled: ‘Strong Beginnings: Report of the Teacher Education Expert Panel’, which set out 14 recommendations to revamp Initial Teacher Education in Australia’s universities.

The recommendations were emphasised across four domains – strengthening ITE programs to deliver confident, effective beginning teachers; strengthening the link between performance and funding of ITE programs; improving the quality of practical experiences in teaching; and improving access to postgraduate ITE for mid-career entrants.  

Universities’ progress in equipping teachers with the skills they need will be closely monitored by a ‘Teacher Education Quality Assurance Board’ that Professor Scott says will have “real teeth” to enforce the desired changes.

And the stakes are indeed high. Universities who fail to equip teachers with the skills they need to manage a classroom can lose accreditation and the right to offer initial teacher education programs, Professor Scott noted.

Federal Education Minister Jason Clare insists the reforms are about making sure all beginner teachers begin their first day feeling confident, prepared, and supported.

“A lot of teachers tell me they did not feel like they were prepared for the classroom when they finished university … This report is about fixing that.”

Australia’s largest trainer of teachers, the Australian Catholic University, welcomed the report and its recommendations, with ACU Executive Dean of Education and Arts Professor Mary Ryan saying it “speaks to the importance of ensuring robust, effective, and accountable ITE programs across all providers”.

Professor Ryan also lauded the report’s focus on four core content learning areas for ITE students – the brain and learning, effective pedagogical practices, classroom management, and responsive teaching, saying these are already reflected in ACU’s evidence-based teaching programs.

“Preservice teachers need to know how diverse students learn and how to meet their needs, have the deep knowledge and practical skillset to teach, support and assess them, and have the confidence to create and maintain learning-rich, safe, culturally responsive and engaging classroom environments – something our ITE students learn in real and simulated environments,” she said.

However, as the ink begins to dry on these sweeping reforms, other prominent voices in education are warning that the proposed changes to ITE are “a politicisation of higher education” and a “manufactured crisis”.

‘A politicisation of higher education’

Debra Hayes, Professor of Education and Equity and Head of School at the University of Sydney’s School of Education and Social Work, said the report contains “misrepresentation and an absurd overreach”.

“I only wish that any of our ministers in the states or territories could understand what it is that new teachers need,” Professor Hayes wrote in an op-ed published in the Sydney Morning Herald,

“And why single out teacher education? Will there be a politically appointed panel sometime soon to tell us about what should be in medical or engineering degrees? This report is a politicisation of higher education.”

Professor Hayes went on to write that 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 report continues a decades-long focus on external regulation and mandated content, while disregarding the expertise of teacher educators,” she wrote.

“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.”

Professor Hayes says the report also “manufactures a crisis” about the quality of initial teacher education (ITE) by claiming new teachers are underprepared to teach in several key areas.

She said while many of the report’s recommendations rest upon this assumption, “the evidence used to support this claim has not been accurately cited.”

Professor Hayes pointed to a four-year Australian research project, Studying the Effectiveness of Teacher Education – a survey of more than 5,000 graduate teachers and 1,000 principals – which found graduate teacher respondents felt prepared by existing ITE programs and effective as beginning teachers in all nine reported areas of teachers’ work.

“However, they said they were better prepared in some areas than others. And here’s where the real focus should be. How do we make sure when teachers start to teach they are equally prepared across all areas?” she wrote.

“The panel’s report mandates four core areas for initial teacher education: the brain and learning, effective pedagogical practices including how to teach numeracy and literacy, classroom management and responsive teaching. Is there a teacher education program in the country that does not already have these in its core curriculum? Of course not.”

‘The report doesn’t even try to fix the real challenge’

Professor Donna Pendergast is a Dean of Education, Chair of the Queensland Council of Deans of Education, a program accreditation panellist and chairperson. Prior to this, she was Dean and Head of School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University.

She says the report “doesn’t even try to fix the real challenge” of Australia’s worsening teacher workforce shortages, and questions the need for ITE programs to specify core content.

“The question of what is core has been narrowed to four areas that appear, frankly, to be incontestable and likely already to feature in ITE programs in the country,” Professor Pendergast wrote in EduResearch Matters.

“It will be the necessary changes to standards that will take the time and the task of making visible the core content for compliance assurances, and the relative volume of learning and level of prescription that is yet to be defined that will undoubtedly cause consternation for the implementation of the core content recommendations.”

Professor Pendergast wrote that the question of what is to be removed from programs is already “sounding around the nation”.

“Adding more means something has to go. The loss of agility and likelihood of sameness is thus concerning, cookie cutter education programs seem to be the antithesis of what we need to ensure we attract and graduate a diverse teacher workforce,” she wrote.

“Importantly, refinements in ITE do not solve the problem of workforce shortages in classrooms today. “

Proposal for core curriculum understandable

Professor Barney Dalgarno, Executive Dean at the University of Canberra and a member of the NSW Council of Deans, has been researching learning technology as an enabler of student engagement and success, the adoption of learning technologies in higher education and the affordances of polysynchronous and virtual learning environments.

He says while some argue the proposal for a core curriculum is a slight overreach in terms of prescriptiveness of accreditation standards, he understands the rationale behind it.

“Clearly this proposal came about as a result of the perception of some stakeholder groups that ITE providers needed to update their programs to incorporate teaching practices supported by emerging evidence,” Professor Dalgarno wrote in MCERA following the release of the report.

“At the University of Canberra, we have in recent years revised our courses to incorporate current research on the brain and associated learning processes, evidence-based teaching practice and establishment of positive learning environments. We are confident that we’ll be able to demonstrate alignment to the Core Curriculum within our course accreditation processes.”

Professor Dalgarno said he was pleased to see an acknowledgement that the ways in which the content is integrated into programs and delivered needs to take account of the local contextual needs of each cohort.

“I am also supportive of increased transparency for prospective students about the characteristics and performance of our courses, noting that the inclusion of explanatory text and contextual information to avoid misinterpretation will be important.”