In what, internationally, is becoming a sure sign of an impending general election, here we have yet another review of initial teacher education in Australia – a ‘thousand and second damnation’, perhaps, in the words of one of the review panel members. Delivered to former minister Alan Tudge in October but released last Thursday with the minister still missing in action because of an inquiry into a relationship he had with a staffer, the report of the Quality Initial Teacher Education (QITE) review is a curious mix of serious reflection and scatter gun politics, with a deeply colonial flavour.
The report powerfully underscores the national responsibility to address Australia’s First Nations communities through multiple means in educational contexts, including better support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to enter the profession and better preparation for all teachers to teach in a culturally responsive and sustaining way. Combined with a strong emphasis on ensuring better representation of Australia’s diverse and multicultural communities in the teaching profession, the report’s authors should be congratulated for signalling the powerful part that teacher education can play in fostering a fairer and more equitable society.
Also worthy of note is the call for the government to raise the status of the teaching profession in Australia and, more indirectly, cautioning policy makers about using schools in politically motivated culture wars if they wish to improve both recruitment and retention in the teaching profession.
The report is sometimes characterised by a naïve understanding of what counts as ‘evidence’. For example, the injunction to use more randomised control trials in teacher education programs, apparently recommending universities deny some prospective teachers in control groups the beneficial treatments, at the same time as urging universities to reduce the length of programs to get teachers into classrooms quicker. The rhetoric around the ‘gold standard’ of RCTs is telling; it’s most often wheeled out when people have not engaged with the multiple forms of evidence that can give policy-makers good reasons why a reform is worth scaling. Good policy requires good judgement about what research can and can’t tell you rather than slavish adherence to methodological dogma.
Further contradictions are apparent in the report’s approach to innovation. The system-wide encouragement of innovation is critically important factor in developing the quality of ITE – to be welcomed – but panel’s recommendation of greater political control of the content of ITE curriculums through proposals for ‘quality’ measures tied to commonwealth funding will lead to an overwhelming focus on compliance. The evidence internationally is that the tighter you control provision through monitoring and audit cultures, the less creativity and innovation you get. A different kind of culture is needed, one that expects universities to be innovative with ITE.
Similarly, a welcome emphasis on high expectations for ITE programs is contradicted by the proposal to shorten them to a year for those with ‘good subject knowledge’, for example. This recommendation both contradicts the evidence about teachers’ subject knowledge (where a teacher’s advanced qualifications in mathematics, for example, can lead to poorer outcomes in mathematics for primary age students) and runs against international trends where the period of initial preparation is being extended. The issue for career-changers is how they support themselves during a career transition not the length of the program alone and there are already examples of accelerated programs where student teachers are paid for work in schools alongside learning to teach. Reducing the length of programs in itself will just make it more difficult for the panel’s aims to be realised.
The references to the ‘United Kingdom’ Core Content Framework are just embarrassingly ignorant and unworthy of inclusion in a serious document. There is no UK framework. The UK is made up of four nations and the panel is referring to the highly controversial framework for England that is widely regarded as deeply ideological and fundamentally amateurish (it was shown to be copied and pasted from another document in a political rush to get education policies out prior to the 2019 British general election). Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have far different frameworks for ITE – with the Welsh policies being especially worth reading for their requirement for schools and universities to work together in consortia. This part of the report is pure colonial political theatre.
Which brings me to perhaps the single greatest weakness. Overall, the report continues to perpetuate the myth that the quality of an ITE program is overwhelmingly down to what universities teach on campus. This report, like so many others, betrays a profound lack of attention to the importance of what happens in schools. Schools placements – especially longer ones – present powerful, practical learning opportunities for student teachers. Yet Australian schools, especially private ones, do not all have a history of offering placement opportunities. Any serious national effort to improve ITE would also address how schools can better exert their powerful influence on what and how new teachers learn to teach in collaboration with universities. The best policy frameworks internationally (e.g. Norway’s, the US federal ‘teacher residency’ initiative, and yes, Wales) do just that.
Having a whack at universities just prior to a general election is an expedient way of provoking a ‘debate’ about the state of a country’s education system without attacking teachers directly. Despite a strong start – such as emphasising the part that teacher education can play in fostering a fairer and more equitable future for Australia – the QITE report soon descends into yet another rather predictable damnation.
Viv Ellis is Dean of the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His latest book (with Lauren Gatti and Warwick Mansell), The New Political Economy of Teacher Education: The Enterprise Narrative and the Shadow State, will be published by Policy Press in November 2022.