A fierce debate is raging at the moment in political and education circles about the quality of recruits into teaching courses. Universities claim that university courses can mould pre-service (student) teachers into classroom ready, quality teachers therefore students with lower entry scores should not be excluded.
On the other hand there is a popular political argument that universities need to raise entry levels to teacher education courses in order to lift the quality of teaching in Australia. The idea is if Australia had better teachers we would get better results, especially in international rankings of literacy and numeracy.
Labour’s education spokesperson, Tanya Plibersek, joined the debate recently when she said entry standards for prospective teachers in Australia must be higher than they are currently because we need the cleverest candidates to instruct our children. She proposed incentives to get smarter students into teaching.
Several states, including NSW, are already imposing increased standards for entry to teaching courses, although there remains a lot of resistance from some universities.
I believe to meet the challenges of the future and to attract and retain high quality teachers, it is important for universities to understand pre-service teacher motivation and their development of those important teacher characteristics. So I decided to have a closer look at what is happening with our student teachers: whether higher entry levels make a difference and what effect teacher education courses have on the qualities that would make them ‘classroom ready’, such as self efficacy (that is belief in one’s own ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task), resilience and persistence.
My research shows that entry levels do indeed make a difference. It also shows, perhaps surprisingly, that current teacher education programs do not seem to be influencing the major characteristics important to teachers that recruits bring into the course at entry point.
How attributes and dispositions are currently included in selection criteria
As Plibersek pointed out, entry-level grades into teacher training courses have been on a downward trend since 2006. Data show that high school marks for prospective teaching students have declined over the past 10 years. However during this time there has been an increased interest in the characteristics and attributes, other than entry score to university courses, of successful teachers.
These characteristics are recognised in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers that drive initial teaching education course curriculum planning and policy, and determine whether pre-service (student) teachers and graduates are classroom ready. As well as literacy and numeracy benchmarks pre-service teachers must show they meet seven standards and sub-standards. These standards are underpinned by an emphasis on empathy and ethical dispositions and a set of skills that result from resourcefulness and adroit capacity to motivate students.
Selection criteria into initial teacher education courses now aim to draw upon the most suitable candidates by ascertaining these dispositional attributes. Universities contend that these attributes and dispositions go beyond academic grades and are more important because teaching, like medicine, is considered to be a vocation not merely a profession.
I wanted to look more closely at what was happening with student teachers: whether university study made a difference to their personal attributes and whether their entry scores made a difference to whether they would complete their course or not. We know that a large proportion of pre-service teachers drop out of their courses before completing their qualification for a range of reasons.
My study tracked a cohort of 190 pre-service teachers enrolled in a B.Ed. degree or a Graduate Diploma of Education from their first semester at university through to their final year or when they left or completed the course. I surveyed the undergraduates several times, beginning with a survey at the end of their first semester at university and then every semester till the end of their 3rd year, a year prior to graduating. The post-graduate pre-service teachers were surveyed at the end of the first semester at university.
The surveys assessed a number of goals and character traits, such as the students’ resilience and persistence, as well as their self-efficacy for various aspects of teaching. This was based on the hypothesis that these attributes would change and develop as a result of their university training. Survey results were Rasch analysed and then imputed into structural equation models to examine the links between the survey factors and timely course completion.
As I had records of all students, including those who dropped out or did not complete the course, the characteristics of those who changed courses or dropped out were also analysed and compared to those who completed their degree.
My results show what makes a difference
My results showed no significant differences between undergraduate and post-graduate students’ self-efficacy, resilience and persistence and no significant differences in these characteristics between those who completed their degrees and those who did not.
So teacher education and a student’s experience at university did not influence those important aspects of character that are considered to be highly desirable of quality teachers. Therefore it is important that we do indeed select those who are already focused on achieving their goals and are already persistent.
However those character traits had no effect upon timely degree completion. What mattered as far as timely completion were the student’s grades. Higher grades and goal directedness were the strongest predictors of a timely completion. Post-graduate pre-service teachers were more likely than undergraduates to complete their course and within the undergraduate cohort those specialising in Early Childhood Education were least likely to complete their degree.
So indeed entry scores make a difference in whether a student is likely to successfully complete their teaching degree. Those students with higher scores and those who already have a degree are more likely to complete. Those with lower scores are more likely to drop out.
These findings pose a number of questions in relation to pre-service teacher recruitment and training. For instance: How do we best support and motivate aspiring preservice teachers throughout their degree courses to keep them engaged? What critical personal attributes of preservice teachers ensure that they have the capacity and resilience to complete their degree? Are there contextual factors that impact upon preservice teacher completion rates and how do they vary by specialisation?
More significantly my findings indicate that perhaps prospective teacher recruits need to have higher entry scores than are currently required by some universities, irrespective of other dispositional attributes, if they are to graduate and enter the profession.
Helen Boon is Associate Professor in the College of Arts, Society & Education at James Cook University. She is Head of Curriculum and Pedagogy in Education. She teaches in the areas of educational psychology, special needs and behaviour management. Helen has a strong research interest in climate change and the intersection of ethics, climate change and adaptation to climate change. Helen initially trained in Chemistry and Physiology and then taught Chemistry and Mathematics for a number of years. Her preferred research methods are quantitative, including statistical modelling and Rasch modelling. Helen has led a number of projects: a WIL project with partners from the School of Medicine, a Collaboration Across Boundaries Project with the School of Public Health, Tropical Medicine and Rehabilitation Sciences, and an NCCARF funded project with the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Charles Sturt University. Helen is currently working on an ARC funded project examining the most effective pedagogies for Indigenous students. Recent publications include a longitudinal study about climate change education and pre-service teacher attitudes and a paper about the dearth of ethics training in preservice teacher programs across Australia.
Helen is reporting on her research at the 2017 AARE conference today.
2017 AARE Conference
The theme of the 2017 AARE conference is ‘Education: What’s politics got to do with it?’ There will be over 600 presentations of current educational research and panel sessions at the conference which runs all this week in Canberra. Journalists who want to attend or arrange interviews please contact Anna Sullivan, Communications Manager of AARE, Anna.Sullivan@unisa.edu.au or our editor Maralyn Parker, firstname.lastname@example.org
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