Improving teacher quality has been central to recent education reform initiatives around the world. However, what counts as ‘quality’ within different educational contexts is highly contested, value-laden, vague and misconstrued. The Australian media, in particular, continues to circulate key political messages surrounding teacher quality, with the media suggesting that the problem lies with teachers themselves rather than the teaching practices, curriculum and resources they employ. The most salient solution, or that which is then offered to its readers for consumption, is the need for more national policy reform measures to address the failures or inherent decline of our education systems.
National policy reform initiatives, in Australia and the US for example, have aimed to combat the seeming decline of their nation’s educational achievement as measured through scores on international achievement tests (e.g., PISA, TIMSS). This decline signals a loss of international competitiveness, contributing to a failure narrative which continues to haunt many education systems around the world. In Australia, concerns have been raised that a decline in national and international test scores signals a problem with the quality, or performativity, of its education system. Given that it is widely assumed that good teachers are inextricably linked to their students’ achievements, many educational policies have been underpinned by the assumption that quality in education can be quantified. In other words, the idea that teacher quality can be quantified and measured through the same measures we use to measure student achievement—standardised tests. However, the limitation of such an approach ignores the importance of context when determining what counts as quality in education.
The Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education (LANTITE)
My research colleague, Russell Cross, and I were intrigued when the Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education (LANTITE) was introduced in 2016. LANTITE was part of a suite of educational reforms introduced and which aimed to ensure that we selected the best and brightest into teaching. While we both agree that teachers should have strong literacy and numeracy skills, we are also aware that standardised tests can be powerful gatekeepers—determining who enters the profession and who does not. To better understand the impact of this policy on teacher education and the teaching profession more broadly, we endeavoured to critically interrogate LANTITE as policy. We wanted to problematise the assumptions that underpinned the policy and consider the (un)intended consequences of such an approach. We drew upon Cochran-Smith and colleagues’ four-dimensional framework which examined:
- The discourses and influences which shape policy formulations
- Constructions of the problem and solutions of teacher education
- Policy enactment or how policies are interpreted into practice
- The outcomes of the policy
As I outline below, this framework allowed us to explore the power relations involved and examine the relationships between key actors (e.g., teacher candidates, initial teacher education programs, TEMAG, etc.). Given that policy is described as a web, cycle and enactment, with policy being created, directed, translated, and interpreted within different contexts, policies are not transactional and/or one-dimensional but are a complex web of compromises and settlements among policy actors.
Addressing the teacher quality problem with policy solutions
In countries like the US and Australia, a discourse of outcomes has shaped discussions about quality within teacher education. This entails a focus on quantifiable and measurable outcomes, such as student test scores, retention rates and job placements, which then become measures for determining the quality of teachers and teacher education programs more broadly. However, recently in Australia, there has increasingly been a focus on inputs, in addition to outcomes. We observe this in regards to how the LANTITE, a federal initiative, is positioned as a policy solution to the perceived teacher quality problem. The LANTITE as a policy solution suggests that the problem lies within initial teacher education programs—in how they select teacher candidates into their programs and whom they allow to graduate. Initial teacher education programs have been criticised for being ‘cash cows,’ establishing minimum entry criteria so that universities can meet financial targets. This suggests that the teacher quality problem is due to the selection of low quality teacher candidates. Therefore, LANTITE is offered as a cost-effective solution (not for teacher candidates who pay for it but for the education system more broadly) to filter out those who should not be in teaching.
We also argue that LANTITE as a policy solution—a standardised literacy and numeracy test for teachers—attempts to directly respond to the decline in Australian students’ literacy and numeracy test scores on national and international standardised tests. This suggests that the decline in Australian students’ standardised testing scores in literacy and numeracy skills is directly related to the literacy and numeracy skills of their teachers. Therefore, one might assume that if we ensure that teacher candidates score well on a standardised literacy and numeracy test, so too should their students on similar tests. While, again, we argue that teachers should have strong literacy and numeracy skills, we argue that this might be too simplistic and care should be taken in thinking that a standardised literacy and numeracy test can (or should) 1) ensure that those teachers passing this test will ensure strong student scores in national and international test scores and 2) act as a valid measure of teacher quality in such as wide range of Australian school contexts.
Reforming teacher education?
Educational reforms are a natural part of a progressive society—the desire to improve what we are currently doing and how we are doing it. However, we wanted to examine whether or not the LANTITE, as a policy solution, was creating substantive reform within teacher education. Given the financial burden placed on teacher candidates to take the test, we wanted to know how many students were being excluded from the profession of teaching and how this test influenced the perspectives of teacher candidates. Our quantitative analysis on 2,013 LANTITE scores from a large metropolitan university were consistent with the national LANTITE pass rate of 90-95%. However, our analysis found that when students failed an attempt, they had a 50% chance of passing the test on their subsequent re-sit. Therefore, the 5-10% who failed the test, in our sample, did not reflect the number of teacher candidates who failed the maximum number of attempts but who had failed at that particular point in time. This suggests that many of the 5-10% would later go on to pass a subsequent attempt. Given that most students receive up to four opportunities to sit the test and the overwhelming majority of students who sit the test pass it, LANTITE does not appear to be a very effective policy measure in clearly discerning who should enter teaching and who should not. With this said, however, there is still more research needed to investigate who is failing the maximum number of attempts and the reasons why. Some teacher candidates have argued that LANTITE discriminates against those with learning disabilities, those who suffer from test anxiety and those who are mature-aged. This calls into question how test accommodations are (or whether they should be) made and whether a standardised test is the most fair and balanced way to measure literacy and numeracy skills. The teacher candidates in our study argued that the test was just one of many hurdles that they have had to endure and will continue to endure as they must incessantly fight to prove that they are capable of being a good teacher.
While LANTITE may not appear to have made a substantive impact on who is entering the teaching profession statistically (I acknowledge that it can have a significant impact for teacher candidates at a personal level), our research findings suggest that it is shaping how society, through discourses in the media, and how teacher candidates themselves view the profession. Unfortunately, the LANTITE policy positions the profession, teacher education, and teachers at a deficit. There is an assumption that the profession attracts those who are seemingly not very capable and therefore the best solution is a consistent, national approach to regain some semblance of quality. I, as an educator and researcher, wholeheartedly want to attract (and keep) the right people into the teaching profession but I am unsure as to whether the LANTITE is the most effective way to do so.
Dr Melissa Barnes is a senior lecturer in Monash University’s Faculty of Education, working within the fields of teacher education, assessment, policy and TESOL. She teaches and leads research initiatives that focus on policy construction, interpretation and enactment, with a focus on how policies, including structures such as curriculum and assessments, impact and shape teaching and learning.