The Empire Strikes Back: Reforming Teacher Education in Australia

Hot on the heels of the Carter Review in England, comes Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers, Australia’s very own review conducted by a ministerial advisory group. It is the season to review teacher education, it seems. In fact, it is always the season to poke around and point a finger at the supposedly feckless employees of university faculties of Education who, when they are not turning impressionable twenty-somethings into Marxists are generally incompetent and disinterested in helping anyone to learn how to teach in a school. This kind of finger-pointing has gone on for so long, it is now traditional. And I’ve clearly internalised the criticisms!

Reform of initial teacher education is one of those globally travelling educational ideas that researchers such as Jenny Ozga and Terri Seddon have been investigating for years. Every aspiring knowledge economy has to be interested in reform of teacher education, regardless of how successful their own school systems really are. Built on a kernel of truth – that the quality of teaching is the in-school factor that makes the biggest difference to student achievement (overall, poverty is the factor that makes the biggest difference) – it now seems compulsory for any self-respecting economy to be ‘committed to reform’ of teacher education (amongst other things) on market-based principles and promoting a mix of provision (universities but also organisations such as Teach First, Teach for Australia and its parent body, Teach for All).

One of the strangest examples of this form of compulsory participation in the rhetoric of teacher education reform is Norway, where the city of Oslo hosts a Teach First Norway affiliate of Teach for All. The city of Oslo has one of the most successful school systems in the country and, in order to find the grit and challenge they believe is necessary to create good teachers and leaders, they send their Teach First Norway trainees to England to some supposedly ‘challenging’ London schools. For ‘challenging’, we might read diverse and multicultural. One might argue that this is a perverse form of tourism for a country and a school system with its own rather different problems to solve.

Action Now, from Australia’s Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG), is a fine example of this rhetoric of reform. First, on the positive side, it is a good deal more systematic and weighty than its English cousin, the Carter Review. TEMAG has a modest but relevant list of references; it provides copious information about the historical context in Australia; the perceived challenges are set out carefully and they are argued, at least, rather than simply asserted. In comparison, the Carter Review looks slightly amateurish.

On the other hand, Action Now is a very strange document indeed, one that sometimes gives the appearance of being bought ‘off the shelf’ from the steady stream of former policy-makers/consultants from England that ply their trade internationally when they or their bosses lose power. I know that it was authored by TEMAG but when one reads about national program accreditation and national standards and national quality assurance mechanisms (all of which makes a horrible kind of sense in England), you do wonder how these directions fit within the shifting political settlement of federalism in Australia where education technically remains the responsibility of individual states, although universities are funded federally. Also, TEMAG seems to focus its attention on younger people with poor academic qualifications whereas the majority of new entrants in Australia are older and many are career-changers (rather unlike England). Part of the proposed solution to anxiety over academic quality is to insist on national skills tests in literacy and numeracy – a solution implemented for years in England and one that has never resolved concerns about teachers’ intellectual authority (but that has made a tidy sum for the purveyors of these tests under contract to the state). As one reads the report, it is easy to recognize familiar acronyms and bits of jargon that look likely to have been imported from Blighty. One example is the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership with its echoes of the (soon to be abolished, it seems likely) English National College for Teaching and Leadership. One might suggest it is still a case of ‘the empire strikes back’ when it comes to TEMAG and Australia’s teacher education reform agenda.

Zeal to reform, I have

Zeal to reform, I have

TEMAG’s most obvious borrowings are the literacy and numeracy tests for student teachers. As I said, England has operated a national system of online testing in literacy, numeracy and the use of ICT for over fifteen years. A small industry of test preparation activity has grown up alongside the tests and that has been good news for educational publishers, of course. But the mere existence of these tests has done nothing to change the panic over teachers’ academic capabilities that has been whipped up by governments around the world. Even though they pass these tests, teachers continue to be criticized for their academic capabilities. Globally, politicians continue to argue that if only we could get more of the highest qualified graduates into teaching, the attainment of their school systems would rise to the top of the PISA league table. So the introduction of these relatively trivial literacy and numeracy tests in Australia (trivial in the sense that they can never offer more than a one-off measurement of a narrow set of decontextualized skills of people who are already graduates) is little more than a token response to this widespread anxiety.

And in most cases, it is pure anxiety. The policy tourists often refer to the case of Finland where getting into teaching is a highly competitive business. As former Finnish school official and Harvard professor Pasi Sahlberg has recently demonstrated, the basis on which teaching has become such a competitive profession in Finland is not on the basis of academic qualifications alone. The selection that takes place in Finland is of a much wider range of knowledge, skills and dispositions – dispositions such as being able to relate to and work with children and young people, for example.

Similarly, prior academic qualifications are not always a reliable predictor of effectiveness as a teacher. The American Educational Research Association’s panel on teacher education surveyed the research literature and concluded that the only school subject where there was some evidence that teachers’ high levels of specialism in a subject made a difference to their students’ outcomes was in secondary Mathematics. That said, the teachers of the students who made the most progress in Mathematics had joint degrees in Mathematics and Education rather than Mathematics alone. And primary school children whose teachers had PhDs in Mathematics did less well than children whose teachers were not as highly qualified in the subject. So the lesson as far as teachers’ academic capabilities are concerned is a complex one. That’s not to argue that teachers shouldn’t be literate and numerate, of course. But while introducing such tests in Australia may have some temporary symbolic impact, they are unlikely to solve the problem – which is one of improving teacher preparation as an aspect of the improvement of the whole school system.

In Transforming Teacher Education: Reconfiguring the Academic Work, Jane McNicholl and I analyse the reform/defend dichotomy that bedevils attempts to improve the education of teachers all around the world and relies on some globally travelling reform ideas (both neoliberal and neoconservative) that often make little sense in local contexts. Instead, we argue, countries that are genuinely interested in improving school systems and the preparation of teachers might focus their attention on reconfiguring the kind of work academics in Education faculties do in relation to the profession of teaching. Of course partnerships with schools are important, as is quality mentoring in practice. And of course it’s a good idea to model workforce requirements to predict the number of teachers you need and to anticipate shortages and over-supply. TEMAG recommends all these good ideas. But neither the Carter Review nor TEMAG confront the central challenge of how university Education academics should work with the profession of teaching, how the division of labour between universities and schools in the preparation of teachers might be better conceptualized, and how we can support the early and mid-career development of teachers so as to retain them in the profession and help them to develop to their highest potential. It would be a shame if Australia borrowed some ideas that have had little genuine impact elsewhere.

‘The force is with you, Skywalker, but you haven’t transformed teacher education yet.”