There is a strong critique of the impacts of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers from educational researchers. They argue teaching standards force teachers to focus too much on producing proof of classroom successes and leadership development. At the same time policy makers, who advocate and implement the standards, claim the standards provide a common language of teaching: making it easier for teachers to talk about and share their work.
Whilst both groups are equally entitled to express their informed opinions on such an important issue for education, as we see it, there are common omissions from both accounts. Both reply on persuasive arguments rather than evidence and both do not consider the views of teachers and prospective teachers. Also, educational researchers and policy makers are not the subjects of the performance standards. For these reasons we decided it was worthwhile to seek the views of teacher education students.
We wanted to develop an understanding of the actual impact of performance standards on the practice of teacher education students, specifically in relation to the assessment of their professional experience. Our study is a small and humble contribution offered as an invitation to a debate with all interested stakeholders.
Use of teaching standards in NSW
The use of teaching standards as a performance measure for teacher quality is now more than a decade old in the state of NSW in Australia. The process was introduced gradually from teacher education programs to new graduates who were labelled the ‘new scheme teachers’.
The first generation of these new scheme teachers are now into their twelfth year of teaching. In the interim, the NSW policy has been augmented by the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers in concert with a nationally audited accreditation process for teacher education.
The progressive introduction of the standards in NSW from initial teacher education programs out into the profession has meant that teacher education courses have been a testing ground for their implementation. In schools and faculties of education, the often small group of teacher educators were given the task of integrating the standards into course and program outlines. At the same time, their colleagues in critical policy research in education were typically engaging in robust debates about the overall purpose of the standards. Despite these debates, the standards had to be implemented as a condition of accreditation for providers of initial teacher education in Australia.
The biggest initial impact of the standards was on the high stakes performance assessment required in professional experience for student teachers. This is where a large group of supervising teachers, untrained in the use of the standards, had to apply the new graduate teaching standards as criteria for assessing teacher education students on professional experience. Understandably, it was difficult for the providers of initial teacher education to achieve consistency in judgment across so many assessors and with unfamiliar assessment criteria.
Criticism of standards
There has not been a lot of research on the impact of having standards for teachers in Australia. Even the definition is not clear, in that we have gone from talking about standards for teaching to talking about teacher standards. (At the same time we seem to have shifted from talking about teaching quality to teacher quality in the past decade.) It is interesting to note that NSW introduced professional standards for teaching in 2005 whilst at the federal level, more recently, they were named the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.
This might be interpreted as a mere semantic shift from teaching to teachers but there is a view in critical policy research that this signals a significant shift in focus from the collective to the individual. The implication of this redefinition is that it will be easier for authorities to hold individual teachers to account for their performance, thus positioning the standards as a way to regulate and check on teachers rather than a way to help them develop their professional skills.
If you want more detail of the arguments against the teaching standards offered by critical policy researchers please go to our full paper (find the link at the end of this post).
Standards as a common language
The promotion of the teaching standards as a common language to describe teaching as a profession is so commonly heard that it now could be regarded as a meme. The meme was evident in the findings of our study (more about this below).
What we did in our study
Our study examined the application of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers to the assessment of professional experience in teacher education at a point more than ten years on from their first implementation in NSW. We gathered empirical data via a survey of 229 secondary teacher education students from a program based in Sydney, NSW. We followed the survey with focus groups in an endeavour to record the students’ perceptions on the use of the standards as assessment criteria for professional experience.
We focused on the application of the graduate level of the standards to the assessment of the students’ professional experience. Within this focus we acknowledge the benefit of the standards acting as a common language for teaching, their supporting role in the formative assessment of teacher education students and the variable quality of their application as assessment criteria by supervising teachers.
Standards as a common language
The meme was evident in our study in an interview response of one of our teacher education students:
It also does give me a language to discuss those things with colleagues. It gives me a language that I can easily call on if I want to discuss any of those things, maybe I just think are intuitive or obvious, but I can still speak those things with colleagues with a language we share.
Some teachers were not au fait with the standards
Members of the focus group which took part in this study specifically identified three “groups” existing among teachers, namely the “resistors and cynics”, “middle ground”, and “converts and advocates” of the Standards. As described by one teacher education student:
I feel like there are a few levels of the use of the Standards. There is the sort of lip service, “I have been teaching for a really long time, I am not really interested in looking at them”, level. There is thelevel of teachers who are slightly versed with them but not completely and so they touch on them maybe and will have a brief conversation perhaps with you about them and be able to refer to the Standards in general but maybe not specifically. And then there are teachers -in my experience, these are the sort othree groups of conversations I have – and then there are teachers and students also, colleagues of ours, who maybe are in any of these groups. It do not think it is necessarily age -related although generally the older, more long-teaching people are probably less, at this point, anyway, until they have to be accredited, generally less familiar with them in specifics. The third one is that group that really embrace them and really use them as a tool, because it is a really useful tool.
It was evident from some of our interview responses that the teacher education students often had to guide their Supervising Teacher in their understanding and application of the standards. This is exemplified by the following quote:
I asked my Supervising Teacher to give me a report midway through so that I could work on his feedback in the last two weeks. From this a number of the standards were unknown to him and we had to look up the meanings at the back of the prac’ book.
Where a Supervising Teacher did not relate feedback to the Standards, individual TES would implement a strategy to compensate for this:
I’ve basically started to highlight individual standards and attaching them to the lesson plan so that my Supervising Teacher specifically focuses on those standards in that lesson which made him provide a little more useful feedback.’
Although the Standards perhaps have not been internalized as a common language or are consciously understood by all teachers, none-the-less many teacher education students were of the firm opinion that the majority of teachers are highly proficient and innately capable of meeting all the Standard Descriptors.
Feedback and self relection
Another of our findings related to the standards being used effectively for formative or ongoing assessment during professional experience. This theme is evident in the following response from another teacher education student:
I did relate [the feedback given] back to the Standards mainly because my teacher did use the form, and the form is related to the Standards, and I really like that. I really found it very useful. I find the Standards useful … [because] I am able to use them as a structure for reflection … no matter how much I think I am doing it, or intuitively I am doing it anyway, I still find it reassuring to be able to check myself against it.
We feel that the proactive approach on the part of the teacher education students in our study is great preparation for the ongoing accreditation now required from teachers across their career span from graduate to lead teacher. In this respect, we are heartened by the response of another student who acknowledged that “it has been my own personal reflections that led to my progress.” As well, it seemed that the standards supported the development of the teacher education student in the absence of focused mentoring from the Supervising Teacher. This is an encouraging finding for teacher educators in this interim period where not all supervising teachers are conversant with the standards
The findings presented in our paper confirm some of the arguments presented in favour of the standards by their promoters. These are the worth of the standards as a common language, their role as an explicit framework for teaching and their value in promoting self-assessment, reflection on practice and professional conversations. The findings also lend weight to the argument that the application of the standards to the practice and assessment of professional experience is variable in quality, given that not every supervising teacher on professional experience will have the necessary skills and understanding of the standards to provide constructive feedback to our students.
Tony Loughland is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW. Tony is currently working on the validation of a teacher observation instrument based upon the construct of teacher adaptive practices.
Dr Neville John Ellis is a Lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW. His teaching and research interests are in teacher professional learning, classroom-based research, and comparative studies in education.
Full text of our paper
Loughland, T., & Ellis, N. (2016). A Common Language? The Use of Teaching Standards in the Assessment of Professional Experience: Teacher Education Students’ Perceptions. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 41(7), 4.