Inside Story

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Essays & Reportage

Evolutionary tinkering in revolutionary times

15 February 2013

The current system of teacher education isn’t working for many students. Dean Ashenden looks at the alternatives, and their adversaries

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Photo: Temari 09/ Flickr



“AMERICA’s university-based teacher preparation programs,” declared US secretary of education Arne Duncan in a much-quoted remark, “need revolutionary change — not evolutionary tinkering.” We could use a revolution here too. In fact, we know what it could look like as well as knowing that it’s needed. But it seems almost certain that we’re not going to get it.

The need is almost scandalously obvious. When new teachers are asked to rate their pre-service course, about a fifth say that it was not much help in learning how to “develop a unit of work,” a third report that it didn’t help them “work effectively with other teachers,” around four-in-ten don’t feel helped in “knowing how to engage students in learning” or in “handling a range of classroom management situations,” and two-thirds or more say the same about “teaching literacy,” “understanding and catering to student differences” and “working with students from different cultural backgrounds.” Another, less comprehensive survey found that three-quarters of new teachers declined to say that they felt “very well” or even “well” prepared for “the reality of teaching,” and a third survey found that between 20 and 40 per cent felt unprepared in a number of areas of practice. Yet more surveys find, over and again, that new teachers complain about the weak links between theory and practice in their pre-service courses, the lack of relevance of much of the “theory,” and poor or no liaison between school and campus.

Principals agree with them. Asked much the same questions, they give new teachers even lower ratings than the new teachers give themselves. In one survey, nearly half of principals scored new teachers as “well prepared” in just eight or fewer of fifty-nine areas. International comparisons are no more encouraging. The OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey found that more than a third of new teachers in Australia are regarded by their principals as lacking “pedagogical preparation,” putting Australia seventeenth in a field of twenty-two. Only Mexico, Turkey, Italy, Spain and Lithuania did worse. At the other end of the scale, only one in ten Danish or Norwegian principals expressed such concerns.

How bad is that? Pretty bad. Unlike graduates in fields such as pharmacy, architecture, law, accountancy and medicine, who must complete one, two or several years working under supervision and/or in further training, with salaries to suit, teacher education graduates are passed off, employed, and paid as self-sufficient professionals. Many are not.

Everyone in and around teacher education knows that there is a problem, and many are trying to do something about it. In 2008 COAG, the Council of Australian Governments, signed off on a “National Partnership Agreement on Improving Teacher Quality,” which commissioned the development of national standards for teachers and for teacher education programs, and proposed national harmonisation of teacher registration requirements, “engagement” with teacher education providers to improve pre-service teacher education, and new “alternative pathways” into the teaching profession.

Serious money provided under the agreement provoked a hive of activity down on the ground, often guided by developments in Britain and the United States, and often complemented by state-level reviews and strategic plans. Most take aim at the weakest link in a tenuous chain, the “practical component” of teacher education. Two Victorian programs, with the University of Melbourne playing a key role in both, are generally regarded as setting the pace: the masters in teaching, or MTeach, and Teach for Australia, or TFA.

The former revolves around extended “practicums” in “school centres for excellence” supervised by “teaching fellows,” all operating under “school–university partnerships.” TFA, much more strongly based in practice, offers an “alternative pathway” into teaching via a six-week residential course followed by two years as an “associate” in a school catering to disadvantaged communities. There, they have four-fifths of a full teaching load and support from “clinical specialists” (from the university), “teaching and leadership advisers” (from TFA headquarters), “mentors” (from the schools), and perhaps most important of all, each other. Efforts along similar lines can now be found in most states and territories and in a number of universities, often drawing on the “clinical practice” of the medical profession and the idea that selected schools should serve the same function as teaching hospitals.

These are, in sum, exciting times in teacher ed. But they are depressing times too, and not just because this kind of high-energy educational innovation so often gets thinner as it spreads wider. The really disheartening thing is that the main effort is not going into doing things differently but into more of the same, and it’s the innovators themselves who are driving it that way.


THE big resources are going towards increasing the length of all pre-service programs, and doubling the length of postgrad teacher training from one year to two. In April 2011 state and federal ministers of education endorsed a recommendation from the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership that the last of the old one-year programs must be gone by 2017.

This is a spectacularly bad decision. We could ask some awkward questions of the institute, about why programs supposedly designed to deliver its new professional standards for teachers need to be of fixed duration, for example. Shouldn’t students move though their programs in as little or as much time as they need to reach those standards? And if we need two years to get graduates up to scratch, how is it that an “alternative pathways” program gets people into schools — with classroom responsibilities — in six weeks? But the real problems with the two-year rule are that it costs a lot, and it won’t work.

We know that it won’t work because we’ve been there before. In the 1960s primary teachers did two-year courses. The drive to improve teacher preparation and to make teaching a profession pushed courses out to three years by the 1970s and four by the turn of the century, with consequences noted above. In fact four-year-trained primary teachers generally give their courses even lower ratings than do the degree-plus-one-year secondaries. And if it is hard to detect gains in teacher effectiveness (or gains for the end-users, the school students), gains to the profession are even more elusive. Its status, salaries, and standards of entry remain as low as ever. This near-invisible progress was purchased at very considerable cost, which doubled and then some because the longer programs are taught in universities rather than in the old colleges of advanced education or teachers colleges, and the universities set aside two-fifths of each teacher educator’s time for research.

The case for doing the same all over again rests on the same old arguments: the work is more complex, and teaching must become a true profession. As the influential 2010 Queensland review of teacher education put it, pre-service programs must be longer and at a higher (graduate) level because “the status of the profession itself must be raised” and because “meeting expectations for school education in the twenty-first century demands unprecedented levels of knowledge and skill.”

We can accept the premises about the status of the profession and the nature of teachers’ work without accepting the conclusion that yet more time in university-based courses will or can provide what is needed. To the contrary: those and other demands on teachers and teaching can only be met by doing a lot less of the same and a lot more of the new. What Arne Duncan’s revolutionary talk implies is this: university-based teacher education programs are taught by the wrong kind of people in the wrong place at the wrong time.


THE crucial thing in teaching is knowing how to survive and thrive in the classroom. Most of what teachers do is still done in the classroom, and most of what they do there still depends on reflexes and intuition. It is a craft. Learning it is like learning to bat or ski or swim, only more so. Because teaching is so person- and context-dependent you don’t so much learn to teach as become a teacher, in the way that an actor becomes an actor (the two occupations have much in common), per medium of a self-customised, erratic, idiosyncratic process. It takes time, practice and help.

Much of the help required to get people through the process as well and as quickly as possible is feedback rather than “input,” and iterative contributions to long cycles of try–review–think–try again. Some get it very quickly, some slowly, some never get it at all. The only way to find out whether they have got it is by seeing how they go in the actual doing, over extended periods.

Craft knowledge is crucial, but not the whole deal by any means. Teachers need expertise in “subject matter,” and ease with abstract modes of thought, and they need what might be thought of as technical knowledge — knowing how best to move a student through the early stages of reading, for example, or recognising learning disorders and difficulties, or being able to use standards-referenced assessment. As teaching becomes less a solo performance in the theatre of the classroom, as it becomes more technology-rich, and as the relationship between teaching and learning becomes more explicit and accounted for, teachers will need more and more technical expertise.

But that doesn’t mean that expertise is best acquired either before or away from work and the workplace. Here the analogy is learning to become a musician. Musicians need both theory and practice, but they don’t learn one before the other. They don’t even learn them in parallel. They learn them in interaction, and so should teachers.

The difference is that would-be musicians can be provided with everything they need, up to and including real-life performance, at a conservatorium. There is no equivalent for teachers. Only the school can provide beginners with what they need to become pros. More exactly, only the school in the right kind of cooperation with a university. Teachers are used to going to uni. What the new practice-strengthened and practice-based “alternative” programs suggest is that it’s better for the university to go to the teachers.

An early evaluation of the MTeach is promising. It reports around 90 per cent of graduates feeling well-prepared for teaching, more than double the score of mainstream programs. The TFA program seems to be doing even better. There have been teething problems, of course, getting logistics and coordination sorted particularly, but every school involved rates the “associates” more highly than the mainstream newbies, and every school wants more of them. The schools worry about the whole thing being too demanding; the associates say bring it on. Retention rates, for very small numbers (forty or so per cohort) at this early stage, seem to be no worse than for the mainstream, although it must be allowed that those are not very high.

Taken together with experience of overseas programs these early results suggest that the whole of graduate and much of undergraduate pre-service teacher education programs can and should be based in schools.


MANY of those involved would agree but struggle to see how that can be done or afforded. Cost certainly seems to be an issue. Like other two-year programs, the MTeach gets double the subsidy from government and students (via their HECS payments) — around $32,000 rather than $16,000 for the old one-year courses — and gets a special supplement of $5500 per student per year on top of that to pay for the teaching fellows and other work in the schools. TFA is even more expensive. Early estimates suggest a per-graduate cost of around $216,000 against $140,000 for the mainstream (a calculation which, it should be noted, may have been done in a way that minimises the gap between the two).

At first glance those figures do seem to suggest that the “alternative pathways” will have to remain alternative, and that the mainstream will be battling to replicate the MTeach. But the question is worth a much closer look.

For one thing, both the MTeach and TFA are small, high-focus pilot programs with correspondingly high unit costs. More important, there has been no attempt to find offsets. If we consider using the same money in different ways it may even be that the sums already spent on teacher education are just about enough to do the job.

Consider the following “model,” just one of many ways of mixing and matching tools and techniques drawn from the new practice-based programs and beyond, from Australia’s apprenticeship programs, and from “distance ed” and the growing “massive open online courses” movement — to provide a quite different pre-service education of teachers.

First, free up a large quantum of resources and at the same time improve the quality of “theory,” by consolidating existing graduate-entry teacher education courses — 145 of them (there are another 272 first-degree programs), offered by thirty-seven universities and eleven other providers — into a small number of online programs, say three versions of each of the main specialisations so as to provide choice (for users) and the spur of competition (for providers).

Then convert some of the 40 per cent of academic time set aside for conventional “research” to “clinical practice” and school-based R&D, not for all teacher education academics, but for many. Some in universities would see that as an unacceptable loss. It would be better seen as a transformation, not as “losing research” but as shifting effort and attention from one form of knowledge production and distribution to a better one. At least some teacher educators would be excited by the prospect of joining a new corps of clinicians, providing that it was properly rewarded and recognised.

Third, replace two-year campus-based programs with three-year internships (or nominally three-year, as detailed below), with a one-to-two theory/practice split. Spread two years of teacher salary ($110,000) over the three-year internship at, say, $30,000 for the first year, $35,000 for the second and $40,000 in the third, and have $5000 left over to use elsewhere. Schools would need to get two years’ worth of work from each three-year intern, but they already do that in TFA. Small groups of interns would be based in schools geared up for the purpose (as they are in the MTeach and TFA) so that they could learn from each other, and so that the work of clinical staff could be efficiently done. Clinical staff responsibilities would include providing tutorial support to the internet-delivered programs.

Fourth and last, new and emerging techniques of assessment and appraisal could use standards developed by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership to determine both point of entry to the program (what is often referred to as RPL, or recognition of prior learning) and rate of progress through its stages. These could be three in number, with the typical expectation of achieving full graduation and teacher registration at the end of three years, but perhaps a year or so less or more, depending.

Of course a reorganisation of activity, resources and responsibilities on that scale could not be done overnight, or without opposition. There would be conversion costs, including redundancies, retraining (of clinical supervisors and school staff), development of online courses, and new facilities in schools. There would be problems of coordination, cooperation, and territorial possession. Universities’ research output would be reduced.

Against this can be set many possible and probable gains. Internships offering a liveable wage from day one would be attractive to many graduates, and might well lift the quality of entrants to the profession. The long, slow mutation of the school into a place of learning for teachers as well as for students would be encouraged, as would the development of long-foreshadowed career–study pathways. Online courses with in-school support would boost instructional quality and help schools learn how to use the internet for their own purposes. Teachers would have a new career option. A reduction in universities’ education research output would be offset by the development, testing and application of new and more valuable forms of knowledge and expertise. Above all, evidence from the new practice-based programs suggests, it would work. New teachers would actually be able to teach.

There is a necessary element of hypothesising and conjecture about all this, including likely costs and effectiveness, although every element of the “model” sketched above already exists in pilot form or better. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that there would be significant transition costs, but that ongoing unit costs, while greater than for one-year programs, would be lower than for two.

No doubt others could find better ways of assembling the same jigsaw, but the real question is this: why has no one tried? Why, in fact, when teacher educators were offered the opportunity — indeed, when they were prodded towards the task — did they indignantly reject it?


IN 2010 the Productivity Commission commenced a review of “the schools workforce,” including teacher preparation. It soon discovered what everyone in the industry already knew: teacher education doesn’t work very well. It also discovered that several very promising reforms, including those described above, were both dwarfed and negated by the two-year proposal.

By the time the commission had published its interim report in November 2011, the horse had bolted. Acting on the recommendation of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, the ministers assembled had made two-year programs mandatory.

That decision looked bad enough for the commission to suggest in decorous but unmistakably firm tones that it be rescinded. The commission could find almost nothing in the decision to recommend it. It worried that prospective teachers would be deterred, and that problems of supply (particularly of hard-to-get maths and science graduates) would be exacerbated. But what it really worried about were high costs and low effectiveness. While supporting longer and better practicums, the commission could not see why making not-very-effective programs twice as long would work, and suggested that evidence offered by the institute and others in support of the move was “mixed.”

But the costs! The commission pointed out that every student doing an extra year adds $10,000 to the government bill, and is even more expensive for students, doubling their HECS liability from $6000 to $12,000 and increasing by around $50,000 income foregone. Surely, the commission pleaded, there must be a better way to improve teacher preparation? Better induction, mentoring and ongoing professional development, for example?

The Productivity Commission’s interim findings and suggestions provoked a small torrent of dissenting submissions. One faculty of education declared that a minimum of two years was “vitally important.” The Queensland College of Teachers quoted that state’s review of education in support of the two-year move, without considering that the review itself might be vulnerable to the commission’s line of reasoning. The national union of non-government school teachers declared that it “rejects outright” the commission’s views, citing societal change, demands on teachers, and an expanded professional knowledge base. The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership thought the question important enough to commission a special review of the international evidence, conducted by an expert who happened to be the lead author of the Queensland review.

None of these submissions discussed previous experience with doubling the length of pre-service programs. None mentioned costs. All missed or ignored the Productivity Commission’s central point, arguing at length that two years are better than one, which proposition the commission at no stage questioned. None attempted to answer the commission’s pivotal question: since two-year programs cost twice as much, couldn’t we find a better way to get the same result at lower cost? Or extract better value for the same outlay?

Unsurprisingly the commission found nothing in these protesting submissions to cause it to change its mind. In its final report, released in April 2012, it restated its arguments and concerns, and repeated its suggestion that the decision be rescinded. The ministers subsequently fretted about problems arising from transition to the two-year regime, including teacher supply; but, advised by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership rather than the Productivity Commission, the decision stood.


IN THEIR own defence the teacher educators could say that shifting teacher education from campus to school, from theory-based to practice-based, is just too hard. There are too many institutions, interests and agencies to be lined up: nine governments, two main teacher unions, three school sectors, countless “professional bodies,” and no fewer than thirty-seven universities. Worse, the “system” has no coordinating agency or supervening authority; efforts ranging from Whitlam’s Schools Commission to Gillard’s COAG partnerships have failed to herd the nation’s education cats.

In which case, why not have a go in one of the big states? Why, for example, did the Queensland review of teacher education not even consider whether the “alternative” might not become the mainstream? Perhaps more striking, why has there been no such move in Victoria, where most of the creative rethinking and experimenting has been done?

One explanation is that it would not be in the interests of the universities to do so. Doubling the length of postgraduate courses represents a substantial increase in demand for the services of teacher education faculties and in resources available to them. It is good for business.

Teacher educators are hardly the first interest group to find a happy coincidence between their own interests and those of their clients and the wider community, of course. But teacher educators are unusual in their capacity to shape these wider views. Many “outside” organisations have inquired into, reviewed and reported on teacher education, but all of them, up to and including the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (and even the Business Council of Australia), have relied on the advice, research and argumentation of teacher educators. The exception is the Productivity Commission, and it proves the rule. It brought its own brains to the task and reached its own radically different conclusions.

There is an unsavoury aspect to this otherwise commonplace interaction between interests and ideology. Academic research is usually disinterested; the researcher is independent of the researched. In this case, however, the researchers are the beneficiaries of their own work. They come close to a conflict of interest. Even stronger language might be used to refer to the fact that those asking for more bear none of the costs, and that most of those new costs are borne by the student who wants to be a teacher, the poorest and least powerful player in the whole game.

Universities are not the only group for which the term “stakeholder” is all too apt. Teachers, too, have a very large stake in the game. The idea of a “graduate profession” is just another step in a long campaign to improve the status, salaries and standards of entry to teaching by pushing up the length and “level” of its credentials.

Professionalisation is not the wrong idea (although teaching would do well to stop hankering after some of the paraphernalia and pretensions of the “true” professions), but it has been pursued by the wrong means. Teaching’s knowledge base and practice are comparable in complexity to those of other professions, but very different in form. Teaching does need and deserve a high-end credential backed by government. But trying to get it by serving ever-longer periods before getting anywhere near the job does not suit the kind of work teachers do or the knowledge they have, and it doesn’t deliver the industrial goods either.

For one thing, teaching’s pay and conditions make it a weak competitor in the market of credential-seekers, particularly as opportunities for women have broadened. That has the counterproductive effect of pushing entry standards down and forcing providers to develop “alternative pathways” and “flexible entry.” These in turn give the lie to the claim that a longer and “higher” education is necessary.

Worse, extended university-based programs split “theory” from “practice,” expand the proportion of time, attention and esteem given to the former, and denigrate and subordinate the latter. That is why teacher education doesn’t work.

The way to make teaching’s credentials work for both the performance of and rewards to the profession is to base them in practice and in genuinely usable knowledge, and to guarantee them per medium of new and emerging forms of assessment and appraisal.

Costs are not an insuperable problem. The claim for yet more resources is based less on reality than on a way of thinking about reality. Teacher educators are not used to shifting effort around in pursuit of better results, and they do not use the underlying idea of “cost-effectiveness,” a reflection of the intractable institutions which form their main subject matter. Research into productivity and cost-effectiveness in education comes from those few education researchers with training in economics. It is rare, rarely used, and even more rarely understood.

Between 1979 and 2005 there were no fewer than thirty-nine reviews of the national system of teacher education or aspects of it, and forty-one more at the state level. One review of these reviews was aptly titled Two Decades of “Sound and Fury” but What’s Changed?. The really troubling thing is not the time taken to tackle a manifest problem, but the belief in policy-making as “evolutionary tinkering,” a cumulative incrementalism viewed by most of those involved as muddling through, getting us there, bit by bit, eventually. Recent efforts at reform in teacher education and elsewhere suggest the contrary. New problems and new tasks and new costs are piling up faster than improvements. The case for the “revolution” whose broad shape is now clear is not just that it would produce better results at lower cost but also that it is necessary.

The place to start is with ways of thinking, and the place to start on that is with the application to education of economics and its paradigm-busting idea of productivity. There is much that economics does not and cannot know about education in general and teacher education in particular, but what it does know is crucial, and revelatory. We can only hope that the unprecedented appearance of the Jolly Roger of the Productivity Commission in one of the outposts of the empire of education is a sign of things to come. •

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