In recent years, the classroom readiness of graduates has been inconsistent, with both school leaders and the general public losing faith in the system producing our next generation of educators.
But when the next wave of education graduates throw their mortarboards in the air, their employers can expect some changes.
In December 2016, all state and territory education ministers and the Commonwealth, agreed to a rigorous new set of standards for Initial Teacher Education (ITE).
The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), has been asked to assume responsibility for the reforms to be made.
Edmund Misson, deputy CEO of AITSL, says the catalyst for these reforms was a damning report produced by the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG).
Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers, released in 2015, demonstrated a need to better prepare new teachers for the classroom.
“That report found that basically there’s a great range of quality in teacher education in Australia, that there were some absolutely terrific programs, and some that weren’t so great, and that the accreditation system wasn’t differentiating between those,” Misson explains.
“So that report outlined a whole range of reforms, and the main way of implementing those was to change the standards that teacher education courses need to meet … so the overall direction is to focus much more on outcomes, on the quality of graduates, on the impact those graduates have on student learning, and less on the details of what’s done within a course.”
Some of the key findings detailed in the TEMAG report were that the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers were weakly applied, and not all courses were assessing pre-service teachers against these.
There was also evidence of poor practice in a number of programs, with pre-service teachers graduating without the required skills and content knowledge.
Dennis Yarrington, president of the Australian Primary Principals Association (APPA), can attest to this. “APPA has a major concern about the teaching of reading, whereby too many graduates are coming into schools without the skills and knowledge to teach reading,” he told Australian Teacher Magazine in March.
In a follow up interview, Yarrington revealed the APPA conducted some of their own research following the TEMAG report.
“We surveyed principals across Australia around classroom ready graduates and are they classroom ready? “Now, what came back was an alarming result around principals’ expectations of graduates being able to teach reading.
“And so, what we’ve been following up with AITSL, is around how are universities teaching reading?
“Because what we’re finding out is … principals weren’t very happy with their graduates,” he says. In addition to the teaching of reading, the principals surveyed reported problems with graduates in the areas of classroom management and organisation, and a lack of confidence and competencies in other areas of the curriculum.
“We’re finding as teachers come into the schools, principals are then spending limited professional learning money on up skilling graduate teachers,” Yarrington adds.
In an effort to better prepare future cohorts of graduates, the Initial Teacher Education Reforms cover five main areas.
The first, is stronger quality assurance of teacher education courses.
There’s also rigorous selection for entry to teacher education courses, improved and structured professional experience for teacher education students, robust assessment of graduates to ensure classroom readiness, and national research and workforce planning capabilities.
Professor Tania Aspland, executive dean of Education at Australian Catholic University (ACU), says the reforms have meant a lot of work for the university, “but it’s all really good work,” she says.
As part of the reforms to the selection and assessment of education students, AITSL have developed a literacy and numeracy test which students must pass in order to graduate.
“That’s a mandatory part of the new standards, so if you want to offer an accredited teacher education course, you have to make sure all your graduates are passing that test,” Misson says.
Aspland says ACU have been quick to introduce this test to their students.
“On our own website we have a literacy and numeracy diagnostic tool for students, before they do the test they can put themselves through the diagnostic tool, and get a feel of where their strengths and weaknesses are, and if they do have any weaknesses we have intervention programs for them,” she says.
“We have a very high success rate with that program. So we’ve had to embed that in our programs and we’re very proud to say that 94 per cent of our students complete the test for the government the first time around, and are successful.”
Another change to primary education courses at ACU, has been the introduction of a primary specialisation.
At ACU, course coordinators have chosen to focus on maths and literacy first and foremost. “…this doesn’t imply that primary teachers will be specialist teachers, they will still be generalist teachers, but they’ll have one area of the curriculum that they’ve studied in depth,” Aspland says.
“When teachers sit around the table with new graduates, they’ll know that one graduate might have literacy specialisation, another might have maths, another might have special education and that way we’re strengthening the pool of teachers who work together as generalists in the primary sector.”
Another problem area identified in the TEMAG report, was “insufficient integration of teacher education providers with schools and systems”.
“Providers, school systems and schools are not effectively working together in the development of new teachers.
"This is particularly evident in the professional experience component of initial teacher education, which is critical for the translation of theory into practice,” the report states.
Misson says whereas in the past, some students had to find their own teaching placements, and there was no dialogue between the university and the school, new standards enforce better partnerships between placement schools and teacher education institutions.
“…there now will have to be a written agreement,” he says.
“So, the standards are quite specific about what that needs to cover. “It needs to cover arrangements for assessment, it needs to make sure there’s clear communication about what that student has already covered and what the focus of this placement is, clear roles and responsibilities for the school and the university, and also the university needs to provide some support for the supervising teachers within a school … so that they’re supported to do a good job of mentoring those preservice teachers.”
ACU has been working to form strong relationships with industry partners, and has put memorandums of understanding in place.
They’ve also taken steps to better support supervising teachers, as recommended by Misson.
“So we have a really new professional learning program called ACU Mentoring,” Aspland says.
“So all of the teachers who work with us, we provide professional development for them, so that they’re the best mentor that they can be.
“They get credit for their professional development with the registration authorities, and they can also use that credit towards a master of education if they wish.”
Yarrington agrees that the professional experience offered to a pre-service teacher is critical to their development, and describes the requirement of partnerships as a “big win”.
He also says the more time pre service teachers spend at the coal face, the better.
“I think it’s about ensuring that they have time in schools, their professional experience practice, the practicum, [we] say it needs to be at least 100 days, so maximising that time,” he says.
“We know some universities are up to 140, and, that is where we start to see graduates report the more time they can have in class, the better.”
According to Misson, the new standard set for the minimum length of professional experience is 60 days in a postgraduate course, and 80 days in a four year program.
“Some courses go well above that, especially when there’s an internship, but that’s the minimum standard,” he says.
A unique feature of the ITE reforms, is that the performance of graduate teachers will be tracked into their careers, and this information will be fed back to the universities that trained them.
“So, like I said, the overall direction is to focus on outcomes,” Misson says.
“So, once the course is up and running, maintaining its accreditation as a teacher education course will rely on the university being able to demonstrate the outcomes that are being achieved through that course.
“So, these might be the performance of students during the course, especially in their practicum placements, but also afterwards. Are they getting jobs? Are they satisfied with their preparation? Are they teaching well in the schools where they end up employed?”
Misson says many people are worried the performance of graduate teachers will be based on NAPLAN scores, but he assures us this won’t be the case.
“Well, you can’t really use NAPLAN scores for this purpose, but all teachers in schools are making assessments and determining whether their students are progressing, and I think there are a number of ways that you can get at that,” he says.
“You can ask the new graduates how well they’re going, you can ask their principals or deputy principals … whether their teaching is effective, and you can also do some work with data that’s generated inside schools, about student progress.
“…It would be interesting to see if, for new teachers, there are any differences in that progress, depending on the type of course that they’ve been through, or which university, or indeed which type of school they wind up in, which is a really important factor too.”
Aspland says tracking young teachers’ progress is a great idea, and will help universities to provide the best courses.
“It is important that we continue to collect evidence around how successful [our] graduates are, so that we can go on and continue to improve our programs,” she says.
“So, it is a good thing, it’s not just using the NAPLAN tests, it is actually working more holistically, to make sure that the graduates of ACU are meeting the needs of contemporary schools, and contemporary children, so that feedback is important.”
As the ITE reforms continue to roll out this year, many have high hopes for graduates to come.
“Well, certainly the standards to accredit courses is a move in the right direction, to lift the standards of our graduates coming out,” Yarrington says.
“I think [the ITE reforms have] heightened the quality of the teaching workforce, absolutely,” Aspland agrees.
“We’re going to graduate higher quality teachers, therefore there’ll be higher quality teaching going on in schools.
“So the reforms have all been very, very constructive and they’ve been accepted quite willingly in universities…”
Misson is also happy with progress made so far, and looking forward to seeing further results.
“This is a really important and really major set of reforms, and we’re at quite an exciting phase I think, where we’re starting to see change in courses and in universities as a result, so, it’s an exciting time,” he says.