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September.5.2016

NSW Education Standards Authority: is this new authority genuine reform or political spin?

By Nan Bahr and Donna Pendergast

A key recommendation of the recently released Review of the NSW Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES) is a call for “a more risk based approach to the Authority’s regulatory work”.

The BOSTES, renamed in the review as the NSW Education Standards Authority, is the authority that governs school education standards in New South Wales, including standards for curriculum, teaching and assessment, as well as school and teacher registration. So in this context ‘risk’ is an alarming concept. For us it conjured images of failing students with damaged futures in the hands of ill-prepared and incompetent teachers.

It was this mention of risk that made us particularly interested in the review, and what it might mean for us as teacher educators. We make the point here that while the review was written to guide developments in NSW, neighbouring jurisdictions in Queensland, Victoria, Australian Capital Territory and South Australia also will be paying attention. Teacher candidates and teacher graduates are very mobile these days. Changes in NSW will have a ripple effect.

We discovered the review does not suggest NSW students or schools are failing. Indeed the opening comment of the Overview synopsis states “The review found there is confidence in education standards…

So where is the risk? We decided to search for what the panel might conceive as risks. We used backward mapping from the review’s recommendations, to try to infer the risks involved. But first we looked at who was involved and who was consulted in the writing of this review.

The voice of teacher educators is largely missing

The three-member review panel held 105 consultations with organisations and individuals, but only 10 could loosely be thought of as involving teacher educators because of their connection with the Education faculties of universities. However, initial teacher education is not the only exercise of Education faculties, so indeed the connection between these 10 and actual teacher education programs and their design and implementation isn’t at all clear.

The 4,722 survey respondents comprised “principals, teachers, parents and students”. So teacher educators were not represented there either.

The review made 13 recommendations; several of these directly or indirectly affect our work as teacher educators.

The call for clarity and streamlining

The first recommendation is that education standards in NSW need to be reorganised. The argument is this is necessary to provide “greater clarity of regulatory roles and responsibilities and streamlined processes and systems” (p.5). The inference is that such clarity doesn’t exist and that processes are not clear. The regulatory processes are reported as “administratively burdensome”.

As we saw it, this is the first ‘risk’ we uncovered. We’ll call it Risk #1. It is that valuable time will be wasted and complex layers of processes and regulatory requirements will constipate vital reform.

As far as teacher education goes national authorities impose many of the processes so these cannot be part of the state’s streamlining process. Perhaps the streamlining could be of the additional requirements that NSW itself requires.

However there is no suggestion in the review that the extra layers imposed by NSW for initial teacher education accreditation should be removed. The new authority will still require initial teacher education accreditation and teacher registration to have unique NSW state based requirements. These will continue to be piled upon the rigorous national processes and requirements of AITSL (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership), ACECQA (Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority) and TEQSA (Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency).

It’s hard to imagine how a call for streamlining and unburdening might work without some attempt at removing the layers of additional state-based processes and requirements.

So this appears to be an empty recommendation. Let’s move on to another inferred risk.

Teacher quality

The review focuses on teacher quality, and declares that teacher accreditation should remain the responsibility of teacher accreditation authorities. Setting the registration/accreditation of individual teachers aside, if there was respect for the national authorities, then the story should have just ended there. But the review highlights a need for “risk based auditing” of “Teacher Accreditation Authorities for ongoing quality assurance” (p. 33).

In other words, the review panel seems to be dissatisfied, or at least lacks trust, in the effectiveness of the national teacher accreditation authorities’ to exercise their role. This is a clanger. The NSW BOSTES leaders have been at the table for the development of the nationally consistent teacher accreditation policies and processes since they were birthed.

The report indeed acknowledges this by detailing the “engagement with the Education Council and inter-government forums” (p. 33) and declaring the NSW BOSTES as a partner in developments at national levels.

But whatever the inference is here, there are some well-crafted soothing words for the benefit of the national accrediting authorities in the following statement:

“It is the Review Panel’s view that, unless there is a material difference in policy and New South Wales is setting specific and higher standards, the Authority (BOSTES) should not reproduce existing resources” (p. 33).

So what is the risk being conjured up? Is it that fine and well-designed teacher education programs might not emerge from the nationally consistent and rigorous accreditation processes? This is an unlikely risk for NSW, especially given the ongoing input NSW BOSTES has had in creating those national frameworks.

Therefore, sadly, it is more likely that we have identified Risk #2: that BOSTES will not be able to maintain control of the nationally consistent accreditation requirements. It needs to do this to sufficiently satisfy the local electorates that NSW offers bespoke education.

Another key recommendation under the heading of teacher quality is that “the authority’s oversight of initial teacher education provision… is strengthened” (p. 35). Yet again this smacks of distrust of the nationally consistent processes and policies, but also of distrust of the quality and motives of teacher education providers.

Compounding this is the review’s call for “the power to place conditions on the approval of ITE programs and the suspension and revocation of program approvals” (p. 35). We can only wonder about all of that.

Final school practicum

Specific attention is given to the final school practicum in an initial teacher education program (Recommendation 6, p. 36). This is when student teachers do their last supervised teaching in classrooms before they graduate. We believe it is seen as the greatest of all risks. We identified it as Risk #3: that incompetent graduate teachers might attain teacher accreditation due to ineffective assessment of their capabilities in the final practicum.

So, the review panel wants the new NSW Education Standards Authority to have power over whether an initial teacher education program can continue to be offered, and it will depend on whether pre-service teachers graduating from that program meet particular standards set for the final practicum. This is a truly big stick, and only possible as a recommendation from a Review panel (and suite of stakeholder consultations) that did not feature a strong representation from teacher education specialists.

If teacher educators had been given a fair voice in this review they would have explained the wicked problems of equitable final practicum assessment. The enduring fact is that classrooms are not all the same, teacher supervisors are not all the same and schools are not all the same. Pre-service teachers will teach in different levels of schooling in different regions, and with extremely divergent ranges and mixes of socioeconomic, cultural and community factors.

The story of one provider of initial teacher education, just over the border from New South Wales, explains the scope of what we are talking about. Griffith University in Queensland is our university so we confidently use it as an example to provide insight into the scale of the exercise. In 2015, Griffith placed 2639 students into school practicum at 458 schools, including some in other parts of Australia, amounting to 60,531 days of practicum which is the equivalent of 166 years. Yes 166 years for just one university. While these were not all final practicum experiences, the scale of the exercise is a powerful message about the potential for this strategy to go awry.

In Queensland, all three education sectors, together with the ten higher education institutions and the Queensland College of Teachers, have collaborated to ensure a consistent approach to final professional experience performance and evaluation. The Queensland Professional Experience Reporting Framework is a result of that collaboration. Perhaps taking a look at this might be useful.

One final practicum is not a good measure

With this in mind, many teacher educators believe performance in one final practicum is not an appropriate bar to measure the effectiveness of an entire initial teacher education program. That is, unless and until:

  • There is a greater sharing of the responsibilities for mentoring and development of pre-service teachers at the coalface, in the classroom.
  • There are reliable approaches to moderation of practicum evaluation.
  • There are specialist teachers in school that understand their role as site based teacher educators and who work in partnership with the university teacher educators.

The greatest risk

We believe the review should have seen past what might look good for politicians and or what could be used to generate simplistic “good” media coverage. A focus far more important should have been how the teacher educator sector might participate in ways of working more effectively and professionally together and how they might improve their connections with classroom teachers and schools.

The greatest risk is fussing over who has control, and who can find the best “spin” to give reforms, is distracting us from our most important collective job; that is teaching students how to succeed as learners and to be productive and positive members of society.

In all, the BOSTES Review is disappointing. It adds bricks to the already existing walls between initial teacher education and the rest of the education sector. Its recommendations are framed in ways that reinforce negative regard and disrespect for initial teacher education and those of us who work in the sector.

As we see it an unhealthy focus on risk aversion (not risk taking at all) constructs a punitive environment that separates the people in education who should be working together to raise standards. To do that effectively the voices of teacher educators should be heard.

It is about time the authorities in charge of school standards in NSW stop referring to “stakeholders” and start talking about “partners”.

 

Here is the full Review of the NSW Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES)

Nan-Bahr_250pxProfessor Nan Bahr is Dean (Learning and Teaching) for the Arts, Education and Law Group at the Griffith Univerity. She is responsible for the quality of design and implementation of programs across the Arts, Education and Law Group, both undergraduate and postgraduate and development programs, including higher degree research and coursework. The role works with the Pro Vice Chancellor with decision making responsibilities regarding students issues and applications.

Prior to joining Griffith University in 2015, Nan was Assistant Dean (Teaching and Learning) and Professor of Education for the Faculty of Education at the Queensland University of Technology. This position followed from her role as Director Teacher Education with the University of Queensland. Nan has a background as a Secondary School teacher for Sciences, and the Arts, particularly Music. Nan holds a PhD in Educational Psychology and Music Education from the University of Queensland and has postgraduate and undergraduate degrees majoring in Biology, Music, Special Needs Education, and Educational Psychology. 

Professor Bahr has a national and international profile for educational research with over 100 publications including four books (one a best seller). Key research has been in the fields of music education, educational psychology, teacher education, adolescence, resilience, and teaching innovation in higher education. As a University Teacher, she has been awarded the University of Queensland Award for Excellence in Teaching, has been a finalist (twice) for the Australian Awards for University Teaching, and has been awarded for extended service with the Australian Defence Force.

Prof Donna Pendergast colour

 

 

Professor Donna Pendergast is Dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University.  She has an international profile in the field of middle years education.  She is actively involved in policy discussions regarding quality teaching and is the Chair of the Queensland Council of Deans of Education.