National President of the Australian College of Educators and Chair of Teacher Education and Director of Learning and Teaching at the University of Melbourne, Stephen Dinham, speaks exclusively with Education Matters magazine about the Federal Government’s Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers.
How important is it for the Federal Government to focus on improving teacher graduates? Is it the right direction for improving student outcomes?
You’ve got to start with teacher education. Teacher education, both pre-service and in services, is one of the biggest leavers we’ve got to improve teaching and learning. So, we have to get teacher education right. International measures of student achievement for Australia has shown some steady declines over recent years. But also the equity gap is becoming wider as well. It’s most important for a whole range of reasons, including the individual students and society as a whole, that we get teacher education right, so that every young person has got the opportunity to have a quality education.
The Government has highlighted in its report that the accreditation of Teacher Education Courses should be improved. How can they be improved?
We have nationally consistent standards for that, but in my view, and I’ve been involved in accrediting courses for a long period of time, the standard is too low, it’s a very low bar, and we need to do more. The report emphasises this, we need to do more to ensure that these courses are of the right quality. That they are informed by evidence. That the right people are teaching them. That the in school experience is appropriate. That at the end of the day, these courses can demonstrate that they are having a positive impact on teaching and learning.
The report also recommended that all Graduate teachers should be teachers of literacy. How do you feel about that aspect?
Every subject involves literacy. So for every teacher, every day is using literacy and therefore every teacher obviously needs to have a high standard of literacy themselves, and to be able to move literacy forward in their students in their respective subjects that they teach.
What we really need in the teaching of literacy, is a lot of support for teachers. Particularly support that is strongly evidence-based. Literacy is an area where there’s been a lot of conjecture about different approaches and strategies and so on. We need to sort that out, and we need to give all teachers really good support in literacy.
Literacy’s fundamental. It’s the currency of learning. What we find with many kids, is when they get to the early years of high school, their learning really stalls, and in some cases goes backwards. One of the key factors there is the fact that they haven’t got the literacy tools that they need to take them any further because the literacy demands on them in high school just become too great.
So literacy is every teachers business and we need really good across the board evidence-based approaches to literacy.
Would the test proposed to ensure education students are in the top 30% in literacy and numeracy be key to things moving forward in this area?
We need bright teachers. That doesn’t guarantee they’re going to be a good teacher, but it’s a very good place to start. We’ve let our entry standard, in some cases, go down too low, although it’s quite variable. If you look at countries like Germany, I’ve just come back from three months working in Germany, they have a strong state-wide system of examinations for people going into teaching, at the start of their course.
At the moment, this proposal is for the end of the course. I don’t agree with that. I’d like to see something up front. Of a fairly high standard. Those people who pass, fine. Those people who may be get within an acceptable distance from a pass, whatever a pass is determined to be, they could bridge that gap during the course. But I do think we’ve got to be very, very serious about the standard of the people going into teaching courses.
Unfortunately the whole thing has been deregulated. Undergraduate places and government-funded places have been uncapped. So universities have been greatly increasing the number of teachers in their training. There’s been new entrances to teacher education from some of the private colleges and so forth. We need proper workforce planning and this is where the report, I think, needs to go further.
That includes, for example, not just saying to any university, ‘you can train as many teachers as you like’, but to actually allocate places. Because we’ve got a situation at the moment where we have an oversupply of primary teachers, yet significant shortages in Maths and Science, Languages teachers, in particularly in secondary schools. So we need to be targeting our resources to where those area of shortages are.
On the other hand, I think it’s somewhat reprehensible to allow people to train for an occupation when they’re not going to get to practice it. Certainly a lot of principals tell me they’re noticing a widening gap in the quality of people from some of these different providers, including some of the new ones. They will only hire, in some cases, if they’ve got a choice, from certain universities.
So, we’ve really got to address the issue of the quality of who’s going into education. I think the report was right, not to focus on ATARs. Because there’s problems with ATARs. For example, a third of people who go into teaching go in with an ATAR. As well as that, many people who are going into teaching are doing a career change. Average age, in many cases, 27, 28. The ATAR they got nine or 10 years ago, is probably not relevant.
But the other problem with ATARs too is, the published ATARs often don’t bear scrutiny, because there are various bonus schemes, pop up schemes, and so on, that actually enable people to get in with very low ATARs, or in fact no ATARs at all.
We need to move away from ATARs. We need to look at proper allocation of places to universities based upon the demonstrated quality of their courses and proper upfront and exit examinations. I mentioned Germany, there’s a state examination at the beginning of their training, and there’s a state examination at the end of it. At the moment, we’re talking about some sort of thing at the end, but when you think about that, it could be well too late. I mean, if someone were to fail that after doing their university training of four to five years, they’ve wasted a fair bit of time and we’ve waisted a fair bit of money training them.
Is there a need for more practical experience in teacher education?
It’s not quantity, it’s quality. One of the things that the reports often do, is say so many days of this and that, but this report hasn’t said that. But some of the progress standards that have come out federally, had nominated numbers of days. It’s not the number of days, it’s the quality of experience, it’s the quality of the relationship between the university and the schools where it’s candidates are being placed.
Now, the report comes out and mentions this, and quite rightly so. Not only do teacher education courses have to have a strong evidence base, but there has to be the use of the evidence of what we know about what’s effective in terms of university-school partnerships. And what’s the most effective way to train people. So yes, we need to increase the amount of time in schools, but it’s also the quality of what happens in those schools.
At Melbourne University, for example, we have our people going into schools two days a week very early in their program. So they get a lot of time in schools. But it isn’t just the time in school that counts, it’s the quality of experience. So we try and support them as much as we can, with special positions we provide, called Clinical Specialists and Teaching Fellows. We try to provide as much support and connection as we can between ourselves and mentor teachers. So it isn’t just a matter of quantity, it is also quality.
What are your feelings about moving teaching to a Graduate Degree?
Well I work in a Graduate Education school and we don’t take undergraduates. But, I’ve been involved in teacher education for a long time and it dawned on me very early in my career in teacher education, that taking people straight from school, training them as teachers and sending them back to school, often in the same area that they’ve come from, is not a good thing to do.
The profession as a whole has been steadily moving towards Graduate entry. There are more and more Masters at Teaching, for example, Post Graduate qualifications. Including in areas like Early Childhood and Primary, I mean, we have an Early Childhood entry program. We take in people, with a great range of experience. We’ve had corporate lawyers, we’ve had pharmacists, and we’ve had people who’ve been journalists, all sorts of people, coming in.
Now, these are people at the age of 27, 28, on average, who’ve made a mature decision to become a teacher. They’ve done other things, they’ve had other life experiences. They bring great personal resources to a school. Someone who comes in that’s an Environmental Scientist, for example, who’s coming from media and communications, as well as being a regular teacher, they’re bringing a lot of very, very useful skills that are transferable to the school setting.
I think, in an ideal world, I’d say, it should all be Graduate entry, but I’m realistic. I think over time we will move more and more towards that.