Public discussion on teacher education has reached a depressing new low. A casual flick through current commentary gives the impression that teacher education is stuffed. Faculties of education in universities are populated by leftist oldies who haven’t been near a classroom in decades, teacher education courses are too easy to get into, many students who do get in are doing it as a last choice course, student teachers don’t get enough experience in schools before they graduate, and not enough schools have partnerships with universities. I could go on.
If you listen to the pundits you would believe universities have taken no notice of the many and varied changes in teacher education requirements in recent years. As an education researcher, who observes her hard-working colleagues in teacher education jumping multiple accreditation hoops, I have to tell you it is patently untrue.
Whilst I am not a teacher educator, I’m entering this debate to challenge these myths, point to the political function that I think they serve, as well as to say something in defence of early career teachers.
The focus on teacher quality is a political distraction
Following years of hand-wringing over the association between social disadvantage and student performance in national and international assessments, Australia finally seemed ready to give all children the support they need to excel at school. The Gillard government’s focus on equity led to the, now ailing, Gonski model of needs-based school funding and focused attention on the quality of teaching in our schools.
However, even before the change of federal government, ‘quality teaching’ morphed into the odious mantra of ‘teacher quality’. When the Liberal National Coalition gained government, rather than implementing initiatives to support and develop existing teachers so they could continue to improve the quality of their teaching, it concentrated on blaming universities for the perceived ‘problems’ with literacy and numeracy standards in schools.
Preservice and early career teachers became framed as an amorphous group characterised by low ATARs, poor literacy, and hapless classroom management. They are all probably infected by an unhealthy level of left-leaning bias as well, but I may be reading too much into the general rubbish that is written about education by people who don’t teach and who aren’t experts in education research.
Where is the evidence that new teachers are responsible for a decline in student achievement?
The fevered commentariat don’t seem to need much evidence to spruik their views these days but surely you must have wondered. I have not read anywhere, or heard anyone refer to hard evidence for such an outrageous, but apparently so easily believable, claim.
And very little is being said in defence of new teachers, despite this lack of evidence. Media articles such as “Bad teachers to go under huge changes to teaching degrees” fuel the perception that all the ‘bad’ teachers are new entrants and that all the existing ones are great. The silence around this reeks of complicity. Practising teachers should be loudly speaking out in defence of new teachers.
There is also an assumption that time on the job results in proficiency. I’m not so sure about that.
The less attractive teaching becomes as a career choice the bigger the problem we will have
Thankfully some stakeholders are starting to think about this. Greg Craven, Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, one of the biggest producers of teaching graduates, recently pointed to a 12% drop in teacher education applications as evidence of students being scared away by “teacher bashing”. Craven warns of a looming teacher shortage as a result of “talking down the teaching profession”.
Putting aside potential conflicts of interest, Craven has a point. According to recent projections from the Australian Council for Educational Research, “demand for teachers is currently strong and trending upwards, and is forecast to remain high in most states for at least the next ten years”. Should university fee deregulation become a reality, we may see teaching applications plummet as prospective students weigh the costs, both financial and professional.
Juxtaposing conjecture with observed reality
I felt compelled to write this piece after conducting classroom observations as part of a longitudinal study that is tracking the language, learning, attitudes, relationships and behaviour of 250 prep children in southwest Brisbane through the early years of school. The project has been seed-funded by the Financial Markets Foundation for Children and is now in its second year.
During these observations, we visit classrooms and record interactions between teachers and students. Whilst training two of our research assistants to use the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (or CLASS), I was blown away by one of the teachers we were observing. In the first 20 minute cycle we saw not one but two seamless transitions (changing from one activity to another) in a highly-diverse, low-SES prep classroom. This was not an easy class judging by the data collected via our child measures, but this teacher made it look easy.
There were no disruptions and children were falling over themselves to be involved in the activities their teacher was presenting. She seemed to know where every child was in that space and what they were doing; what’s more she seemed to understand that some children needed to move in and out of the activity and would gently but firmly guide them back in once they’d had a few seconds to chill.
This teacher was so engaged in her teaching she was oblivious to us even being there. Every time that we passed through her class, whether we were formally observing or whether we were collecting children for assessment, this teacher was always ‘on’. Her concentration never wavered; there was no down time. She was always prepared, moving from one learning activity to the next quickly enough to prevent the experience from going stale, but slowly enough to ensure that each child benefitted from it.
When I got the chance I asked her how long she’d been teaching and she told me this was her third year out. I was impressed. After much reflection I included the question “How long have you been teaching?” in our teacher interview schedule. Whilst our results are preliminary and based on only 18 prep teachers, I was fascinated to discover an interesting pattern during our preliminary analyses. When we ranked mean scores on the CLASS measure (by three certified observers, all trained to reliability) and matched these against years of teaching experience, we found that the three highest mean scores (in each of the 3 CLASS domains: Emotional Support, Classroom Organisation, and Instructional Support) were achieved by three early career teachers (1-3 years out).
The next two highest-scoring teachers had each been teaching for more than 30 years, however, the differences between the mean scores of these five teachers and others were not insubstantial. The early career teachers, in particular, consistently scored in the high or high-mid range (4.75 to 7.0) across all three CLASS domains, whilst the mean for the full sample was low to high-mid range (3.90-5.80).
This is important because regression analyses using the full dataset show that higher CLASS scores are associated with higher teacher ratings of relationship closeness, whereas lower CLASS scores are associated with higher teacher-student conflict, higher teacher-ratings of child behaviour problems, and with higher child-rated school avoidance.
By the end of this year we will have data from another 18 (Grade 1) teachers and I will be interested to see if this pattern bears out. Even if it doesn’t, in our first year of observations and despite a small sample, we’ve come across three outstanding early career teachers who are teaching in disadvantaged primary schools and who are doing it exceptionally well.
The Grattan Institute’s Ben Jensen joined the chorus recently by claiming that high-performing early career teachers “are excellent in spite of their teacher training, not because of it”, and that the failure of teacher education programs to prepare graduates for the classroom is largely responsible for teacher attrition and student failure.
Again, a claim with no evidence. I found myself thinking about the schools where our brilliant early career teachers teach. Perhaps their schools have exceptional induction and mentoring programs that ameliorate the “failures” of teacher education programs. That is definitely something that we’ll consider as we go forward with our research but, judging by research with early career teachers, exceptional induction and mentoring programs are not readily available.
Incidentally, the highest scoring teacher in our study is a young man in his first year out of teaching, which doesn’t provide a lot of time to benefit from such programs should they exist in his school. To be honest, I can’t imagine what he thinks or how he feels or indeed how any of our early career teachers feel when they hear what is being said in the current debate. No wonder new teachers become jaded and leave.
My point is don’t believe everything you read about how universities today are failing to produce high performing teachers, or be distracted by political spin from the real issue of equitable school funding. Dumping on our early career teachers, our student teachers and, in turn, their university teachers will solve nothing.
Associate Professor Linda J. Graham is Principal Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology, Editor of the Australian Educational Researcher (AER), and a member of the AARE Executive Committee. She is grateful to have received funding for this research from the Financial Markets Foundation for Children (2013-030) with Dr Kathy Cologon (MQ) and Professor Sue Walker (QUT). This research will be presented at the upcoming National Summit on Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour which will be hosted by QUT on the 8th and 9th of July, 2015.