'No evidence' to suggest beginner teachers are unprepared

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, AITSL’s Initial Teacher Education: Data report 2019, published in December last year, 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 initial teacher education (ITE) reporting that their qualifications have prepared them for employment.

Still, such claims that new teachers are unprepared for the classroom persist, leading some to blame declining student outcomes on perceived poor teacher quality and dealing a hurtful blow to a profession labouring under massive pressure both in and outside the classroom.

Deeply concerned about these claims, four experienced educators – each of whom have been intimately involved in supporting new teachers in their careers – set out to look at what the research actually says about this controversial claim.

The experts – Professor Linda Graham and Associate Professor Sonia White from the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, senior lecturer Kathy Cologon from the Department of Educational Studies at Macquarie University and Professor Robert Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia – shared their findings in a blog post published in the Australian Association for Research in Education.

“Be surprised, we found no evidence that beginning teachers in Australia are unprepared for the classroom or that they are bad at behaviour management,” they wrote.

“We believe extensive reforms have been made to Initial Teacher Education in Australia to ‘improve’ teacher quality without any evidence to support the claim that beginning teachers are less competent than experienced teachers”.

Their research, carried out in Australian schools, found that most beginning teachers in fact engaged in higher levels of emotional support than their more experienced colleagues, and for most, behaviour management is not a problem.

‘Beginning teachers really do cut it’

The four experts pointed to the 2014 Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report, which they say “formalised” the claim that graduate teachers were unprepared for the classroom.

Universities and some state governments undertook a series of measures in response to the accreditation requirements, including mapping course content to the Australian Professional Standards for Teaching and tweaking graduates’ eligibility requirements before they could teach in government schools.

The four academics said that while none of these measures are bad, in and of themselves, the problem is that these interventions into university teacher education have come “without any supporting empirical evidence that beginning teachers are less competent than their more experienced colleagues”.

In their paper, published in Teaching and Teacher Education last week, the researchers compared the CLASS scores of beginning teachers (0-3 years’ experience) and experienced teachers (more than 3 years’ experience) and found no significant differences between the groups.

“We used the CLASS system in our study investigating the development of severely disruptive behaviour of students because we were interested in learning the contribution made by the quality of teaching,” they explained.

“In the very first year of this six-year longitudinal study, we noticed three standout teachers who were all in their early 20s and wrote about it in the AARE EduResearch Matters blog”.

That’s also when they decided to ask how many years our teacher participants had been teaching in our research interviews because they were interested to see whether the excellent practice they were seeing bore out over time with a much larger number of participants.

“Six years later, we can finally reveal: yes, it does and no, those three early career teachers were not an anomaly,” they wrote.

“Beginning teachers really do cut it”.

The researchers then broke the experienced teacher category into two (4-5 years and more than 5 years) and compared the CLASS scores of teachers in these groups with beginning teachers (0-3 years’ experience).

“This time there were significant differences with the 4-5 year experience group achieving significantly lower quality in three dimensions: Productivity, Instructional Learning Formats, and Negative Climate,” they said.

“Importantly, there were very few participants in the 4-5 year experience group”.

The researchers said that while these findings do align with the possibility of a post three-year decline for some teachers, the findings should be interpreted with caution as extreme outliers can have a disproportionate influence on group means.

What’s the upshot?

The researchers followed more than 200 students over six years and very few of their teachers declined participation. Their length of teacher experience ranged from 3 weeks to 38 years.

“Basically, beginning teachers performed just as well as, or better than, teachers with more years of experience, regardless of the groups we compared them with,” the researchers said.

The researchers said that while all research is impacted by self-selection to some degree, in this study that was mitigated by their relationship with and presence in seven participating schools and the longitudinal nature of our project.

“We found no evidence that beginning teachers were unprepared for the classroom or that they are bad at behaviour management,” they wrote.

“In fact, we found that most beginning teachers engaged in higher levels of emotional support than their more experienced colleagues. And behaviour management was the second highest scoring dimension of the 10 dimensions measured by the CLASS”.

The researchers said this evidence is good news for beginning teachers who “must have been feeling pretty bruised in recent years”, and good news for preservice teachers who are “scaling an increasing number of hurdles to prove their worth”.

“It is also good news for teacher educators who work incredibly hard under enormous pressure to continually revise and refine their content and to support their students to do well,” they wrote.

“Rather than implementing any more graduation hurdles designed to ‘vet’ entry to the profession or further destabilising university teacher education, governments need to look at the evidence and turn instead to finding better ways of directing support to all teachers and provide intelligently targeted, quality professional learning to those who need it”.