Classroom ready teachers

Beginner teachers are NOT under prepared and NOT bad at managing behaviour. Here’s the evidence

For years claims have been circulating that newly graduated teachers are under prepared to teach in today’s often challenging classrooms, and that they are bad at classroom management. Thanks to mainstream media interest, and critics within education circles, these claims have led to an increasing array of government interventions in Initial Teacher Education in universities around Australia. What, how and to whom teacher education is delivered has been thoroughly examined and churned in the bid to improve teaching quality and student outcomes.

As teacher educators, intimately involved in teaching our new teachers and supporting them as they embark on their careers, we were deeply concerned about these claims so went looking for evidence of what was going wrong.

This blog post is about our research and what we found.

Be surprised, we found no evidence that beginning teachers in Australia are unprepared for the classroom or that they are bad at behaviour management.  

We believe extensive reforms have been made to Initial Teacher Education in Australia to ‘improve’ teacher quality without any evidence to support the claim that beginning teachers are less competent than experienced teachers.

Our research, carried out in Australian schools, found that most beginning teachers in fact engaged in higher levels of emotional support than their more experienced colleagues, and for most, behaviour management is not a problem.

Background on government ‘reforms’ to make teachers “classroom ready”

Following the now infamous 2014 Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report, which formalised the (we believe false) claim that graduate teachers were unprepared for the classroom, Australian universities have responded to accreditation requirements by

Various state governments have also made changes that impact universities intake criteria and course content: Queensland, for example, has mandated that students entering primary teacher education degrees must have four semesters of sound achievement in English, Maths and Science. New South Wales has signalled that to be eligible for employment in NSW government schools, students commencing a teaching degree from 2019, must:

  • Receive a minimum credit grade point average in their university degree.
  • Prove sound practical knowledge and ability, which will be reflected by an assessment of every single practicum report.
  • Show superior cognitive and emotional intelligence measured via a psychometric assessment.
  • Demonstrate their commitment to the values of public education in a behavioural interview.

Those doing online degrees are out.

None of these measures are bad, in and of themselves, although they have created significant compliance burden for teacher educators and schools of education, as well as increasing the fiscal pressure on schools and faculties of education.

The problem is that these interventions into university teacher education have come without any supporting empirical evidence that beginning teachers are less competent than their more experienced colleagues.

Our research into the teaching quality and classroom management skills of newly graduated teachers

What research method did we use?

There are different ways of measuring the quality of teaching. The two main ways involve using test scores (like NAPLAN for example) or by observing teachers teaching, and measuring the presence or absence of teaching practices known to add positively to students’ social, behavioural, and academic outcomes. The latter method is, of course, much more expensive because it uses direct observation, but it also can’t be manipulated like test scores can.

One method of direct observation is the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) observation measure developed by University of Virginia education specialists Bridget Hamre and Robert Pianta. We used this method in our six-year longitudinal study.

In our paper published in Teaching and Teacher Education this week, we compare the CLASS scores of beginning teachers (0-3 years’ experience) and experienced teachers (more than 3 years’ experience) and found no significant differences between the groups.

We used the CLASS system in our study investigating the development of severely disruptive behaviour of students because we were interested in learning the contribution made by the quality of teaching. In the very first year of this six-year longitudinal study, we noticed three standout teachers who were all in their early 20s and wrote about it in the AARE EduResearch Matters blog.

That’s also when we decided to ask how many years our teacher participants had been teaching in our research interviews because we were interested to see whether the excellent practice we were seeing bore out over time with a much larger number of participants.

Six years later, we can finally reveal: yes, it does and no, those three early career teachers were not an anomaly. Beginning teachers really do cut it.

We then broke our experienced teacher category into two (4-5 years and more than 5 years) and compared the CLASS scores of teachers in these groups with beginning teachers (0-3 years’ experience). This time there were significant differences with the 4-5 year experience group achieving significantly lower quality in three dimensions: Productivity, Instructional Learning Formats, and Negative Climate.

Importantly, there were very few participants in the 4-5 year experience group. While these findings do align with the possibility of a post three-year decline for some teachers, the findings should be interpreted with caution as extreme outliers can have a disproportionate influence on group means.

What’s the upshot?

We followed more than 200 students over six years and very few of their teachers declined participation. Their length of teacher experience ranged from 3 weeks to 38 years.

Basically, beginning teachers performed just as well as, or better than, teachers with more years of experience, regardless of the groups we compared them with. And, while all research is impacted by self-selection to some degree, in this study that was mitigated by our relationship with and presence in seven participating schools and the longitudinal nature of our project.

We found no evidence that beginning teachers were unprepared for the classroom or that they are bad at behaviour management. In fact, we found that most beginning teachers engaged in higher levels of emotional support than their more experienced colleagues. And behaviour management was the second highest scoring dimension of the 10 dimensions measured by the CLASS.

This evidence is good news for beginning teachers who must have been feeling pretty bruised in recent years and good news for preservice teachers who are scaling an increasing number of hurdles to prove their worth. It is also good news for teacher educators who work incredibly hard under enormous pressure to continually revise and refine their content and to support their students to do well.

Rather than implementing any more graduation hurdles designed to “vet” entry to the profession or further destabilising university teacher education, governments need to look at the evidence and turn instead to finding better ways of directing support to all teachers and provide intelligently targeted, quality professional learning to those who need it.

Professor Linda Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Linda is currently Chief Investigator on several externally funded research projects including “Which children develop severely disruptive school behaviour?”, a six-year longitudinal study funded by the Australian Research Council. She has published more than 80 books, chapters, and journal articles, as well as numerous pieces published in The Conversation.

Associate Professor Sonia White is an academic in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education and researcher in The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at QUT. Sonia is a registered mathematics teacher and her research investigates children’s early learning and development.

Dr Kathy Cologon is a senior lecturer in the Department of Educational Studies at Macquarie University. Kathy has a particular interest in research and practice relating to the development and support of inclusive education, with a view towards greater recognition of the rights of all children.

Professor Robert Pianta is Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and founding Director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL). He is a leading expert in the field of developmental psychology with much of his research devoted to supporting teachers use of quality teaching practices that best support children’s academic, social-emotional and behavioural development. With his colleagues at CASTL, he has led the development of well-known measures including the Teacher-Student Relationship Scale and the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS).

How we talk about teachers is changing. Does it matter?

The way teachers are talked about in the public space is important. It affects teacher morale and how people might interact with them both professionally and socially. It even affects the way new teachers perceive their career pathway unfolding, or not. As an educator working in teacher education I am especially interested in the way early career teachers are talked about, as this immediately affects our students when they graduate.

Early career teachers seem to be a current obsession of both politicians and media commentators. To me the message in the public space was going something like this: if new teachers in Australia were brighter/of a higher ‘quality’/more suitable/better trained/more dedicated/harder working/perfectly-chosen-in-every-way our standards would improve. It was a hunch that this is a change of direction in how early career teachers were being talked about in the public space so I decided to embark on an analysis of policy and media texts to explore how early career teachers are talked about and what, if anything has changed.

What I did

I chose to compare documents from 1998/99 to those from 2014/15. With over 100 reviews of teaching and teacher education having been held on a state and national scale since the late 1970s, there were plenty of sources to choose from.

Specifically, I examined the Commonwealth Government’s response, provided in 1999, to the report from a 1998 Senate Inquiry into the status of the teaching profession known as A Class Act, and the 2015 Commonwealth Government’s response to the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) report, Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers.

I chose the 2015 response because it represented the most recent ‘policy settlement’ in relation to early career teachers at the time of the research. I chose the response to the 1998 report because it was the most recent general review that had been conducted on a federal level, focused at least in part on early career teachers. I also considered that the 15 or so years between the two responses, and the fact that the responses both came from Coalition governments, made them a good comparison.

I supplemented these with 228 newspaper articles from the twelve national and capital city daily newspapers published in 1998/99 and 2014/15 identified using the search terms ‘graduate teachers’ and ‘teaching graduates’.

In analysing the texts, I was interested in whether and how far early career teachers were represented by government and news media sources as a ‘problem’, and whether this had changed over time. Some of this research has recently been published in the Journal of Education Policy.

What I found

1998: A Class Act

In a nutshell, the problem with early career teachers in 1998 was that there were not enough of them. There was a lot of talk about a current or impending shortage of new teachers. This was linked to an identified problem with the status of the teaching profession. (Status was low therefore people, supposedly, did not want a teaching career.) The report argues teacher status could and should be improved by the introduction of things like a “code of high professional standards” for teachers.

A very interesting aspect of all this was that the Government saw the implementation and ongoing assessment of professional practice against such standards as “the responsibility of the profession itself”. Oh how times have changed!

Other ideas to attract and retain teachers back in 1998 were to give beginning teachers better support through induction programs and improved employment conditions (including a move away from short-term contracts to secure employment).

In terms of teacher education, it was understood that while some national consistency was desirable, it was very important to ensure the differing needs of different states and territories were able to be met. Indeed, these observations about the tension between national consistency and local requirements infuse the whole Government response to A Class Act.

Early career teachers were understood to be novices, rather than ‘fully formed’, working toward becoming expert practitioners in this first part of their careers:

It is generally acknowledged by all those involved – university educators, practising teachers, education departments and beginning teachers themselves – that no pre-service training can fully prepare new teachers to perform at their full capacity from their first day at work. This is not a reflection on the quality of new teachers nor on the standard of pre-service training. It is a recognition of the complexity of teaching and of the large number of variables…affecting a teacher’s performance. (Commonwealth of Australia 1998, 204)

2015: Classroom Ready Teachers

Jump forward to 2015 and early career teachers are a problem on a number of fronts. They are said to be lacking in basic literacy and numeracy skills, lacking in the ‘right’ motivations for entering the profession, lacking the skills they need to make a positive impact on student learning and, of course, lacking in ‘classroom readiness’.

Absent from the 2015 response is the recognition that good teaching practice is something that begins development during initial teacher education and continues well into and beyond the early years of teaching. While the response does argue for “a nationally consistent approach to the induction and support of beginning teachers to make sure they reach their full potential once they enter the profession”, it also provides a strong vision of beginning teachers who can claim an impact on student learning and be ‘classroom ready’ from the outset.

Solutions proffered to the ‘problem’ of early career teachers in 2015 were many and varied. Alternative entry pathways for teacher education courses to catch those ‘unsuitable’ would-be teachers, is one. Others include the introduction of literacy and numeracy testing for initial teacher education students (designed to catch those with poor skills prior to graduation) and a ‘tightening up’ of requirements and processes for registration of initial teacher education courses.

Significantly, the delegation of greater powers to the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) is seen as a key mechanism for remedying the problems of early career teachers.

What has changed?

So there’s been a shift in how early career teachers are talked about in the public space. They have gone from having a problem (not enough of them, lacking in status, not getting enough help) to being the problem.

As I see it, there is political expediency in laying blame for ‘falling standards’ or ‘stagnating standards’ (or anything else that might be going wrong in schooling) onto new teachers. They’re an easy target. Also the focus on early career teachers has easily segued into further action to federalise control of teacher spaces.

I believe the way we talk about teachers in the public space does matter and how it plays (deliberately or not) into power shifts is important. Early career doctors are not blamed for all that is wrong with our health system, new politicians are not blamed for stagnation in government policy, new lawyers aren’t blamed for expensive out-dated practices in law.

Early career teachers are embarking on a career that can help change the world. They deserve as much support as we can give them, not an unfounded suspicion of their motives and skills, especially at a time when teacher retention and attrition are ongoing concerns.

 

Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Sydney. She has a background in secondary school teaching and teacher professional learning. In the past she has held senior leadership roles in secondary schools, and after completing her PhD in Education at the University of Sydney in 2008, she joined the University of Newcastle in 2009, where she was a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education until early 2015. Nicole’s research interests are in education policy and politics, professional learning and curriculum and pedagogy, and she also continues to work with teachers and schools in these areas.