If it's not broken, don't fix it: Experts question Minister's review of teacher training

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On Thursday, Federal Education Minister, Alan Tudge, outlined sweeping reforms to lift perceived declines in Australia’s teacher standards. Within a few hours, educators were already questioning the merits of the plan.

Outlining an ambitious agenda for Australia to regain a place among the world’s education superpowers, Minister Tudge took aim at teacher training, saying every initial teacher education (ITE) course must be assessed and accredited to ensure all courses are high-quality and effective.

Over the years, mainstream media and critics within education circles have claimed that Australia’s beginner teachers are unprepared for the classroom, and struggle with managing students’ behaviour.

However, a report by AITSL refuted the critics, finding that 87% of employers are satisfied with the performance of their teaching graduates. Teaching graduates likewise showed confidence in themselves – with 86% of undergraduates and 81% of post-graduates in ITE reporting that their qualifications have prepared them for employment.

Still, the Minister appears intent on pushing ahead with reforms to teacher training.

“I will be looking for mechanisms to enable school principals and expert teachers to have a greater input over the content and delivery of teacher education courses in a similar way that practitioners and employers are in medicine and law,” Minister Tudge said.

However, some experts have questioned the Minister’s plan to review teacher training.

One of them is Professor Mary Ryan, the Dean of Education at Macquarie University and the President of the NSW Council of Deans of Education.

"Initial Teacher Education should not be a political football," Professor Ryan said told the Media Centre for Education Research Australia (MCERA).

"All ITE programs go through rigorous accreditation processes assessed by panels of teachers, principals and academics, and many practising teachers already contribute to ITE programs”.

Professor Ryan said new graduates have demonstrated through externally endorsed and moderated teaching performance assessments that they can use evidence to inform quality teaching that responds to students’ needs.

"Whilst major changes have occurred in ITE, changes in the structural inequities of our schooling system have not kept pace,” she said.

"Another reform of initial teacher education cannot focus on the same issues as the 100 plus reforms since the 1970s. A focus on how we ensure diversity in our profession and how we teach about, to and for diversity is paramount”.

According to Victoria Whitington, Dean of Programs: Education Futures at the University of South Australia, pre-service teachers are already provided “a rich smorgasbord” of strategies based in research.

"Initial teacher education university providers are very observant of research findings with regard to how they prepare their preservice teachers for their role as highly effective teachers in the field," Associate Professor Whitington said.

"Providers are particularly interested in findings from research that employ accepted scientific methods and show clear learning outcomes for children”.

Dr Katina Zammit is Deputy Dean in the School of Education, Western Sydney University, a NESA ITE accreditation panel chair, and has been involved in the accreditation process for a number of years at the state (with NESA) and national level (with AITSL).

She also questions the merits of a review, saying the process of accreditation is “an extremely rigorous process”.

“As a panel chair, I can vouch for the process,” Dr Zammit said.

“We have to provide evidence that the program covers all Graduate Teacher Standards. We also have to ensure that we are teaching the mandated curriculum areas, covering inclusive education, classroom management, differentiation of learning to meet students’ needs, and many other areas”.

However, others have welcomed the review, pointing out that while plenty of papers are published each year on theories of knowledge, there aren’t nearly as many looking at empirical analyses of classroom or school-level interventions.

“Without evidence, every layer from top to bottom risks getting it wrong and that’s why the recently established Australian Education Research Office has a critically important role to play,” Teach For Australia CEO, Melodie Potts Rosevear, told The Educator.

“That said, there are some building blocks of good practice which we do know work, including strong student relationships and robust, two-way feedback; synthetic phonics in the early years; and a mix of explicit teaching and inquiry-based learning”.

Also proven, says Potts Rosevear, is solid peer coaching and instructional coaching, based on student behaviour and student-produced work, supportive and collaborative schools with effective leadership and initial training and ongoing professional development geared to continuous improvement.

“As Australia rebuilds for short term economic recovery and realigns for long term prosperity post-Covid, let’s remember it starts in the classroom. Lifting educational performance is a critical cornerstone”.