A long overdue rant

Long overdue in the sense that anything here is long overdue as I hadn’t blogged for a long long time.

Long overdue in the sense that Australia’s anti-intellectualism and suspicion of those with a university education has long gotten up my nose and it’s about time that I said my piece about it. (No guarantees that this is my piece in its entirety, I reserve my right to rant further on this topic).

Ok, some background, some context is probably necessary before I put my rant pants on.

The Labor government has been very education focused since coming to power in 2007.  In 2008 when Julia Gillard was federal Minister for Education she oversaw the signing of the Melbourne Declaration (which is the official document outlining Australia’s national goals for education). By fortuitous happenstance the education ministers of all the states (with the exception of Western Australia) were members of the Labor party and a close look at the Melbourne Declaration and Labor education policy suggests that the Melbourne Declaration enshrines many of Labor’s education policies into this national  agreement (the national curriculum, increased federal control over education, accountability and transparency, equity, etc). Since the signing of the Melbourne Declaration the federal Labor government has increased its control of the education sector. We are closer to having a national curriculum than ever before, we have a federal quality framework for the early childhood sector, the new government bodies AITSL [Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership] (AITSL is currently developing a federal set of teaching professional standards) and ACARA [Australian Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority] (ACARA oversees the NAPLAN testing and the MySchool website) mean that education is being overseen and regulated by federal as well as the existing state regulatory bodies. As can been see from this brief overview, since coming to power in 2007 the Labor government has been busy (whether this incursion into education is positive or not is a debate for another day).

Image of the Melbourne Declaration document

Although there has been a lot of progress since 2007, things have gotten more difficult since Julia Gillard became Prime Minister in 2010. Not only is her government a minority government, but various states now have Liberal led governments thus the cohesion that existed when the Melbourne Declaration was signed no longer holds.

Not very long ago the federal government commissioned a review of education funding in Australia – the Gonski review. School funding is one of those contentious topics where everyone is an expert and everyone has an agenda. So the Gonski review was commissioned and it returned with a conclusion that in order to fix some of the problems of the unnecessarily complex and opaque conditions surrounding school funding, and to ensure that all schools are adequately funded on a needs basis, it is going to cost an extra $5 billion – this is probably higher than it needs to be as Gillard stated that no schools would be worse off as a result of any changes arising from the Gonski review. Anyway with agreement from the states the Gonski Review recommendations  might be put in place – but it isn’t going to happen with the states in slash and burn money saving mode.

And this all brings me to the subject of my rant. A post by Liberal Minister Alan Tudge on ABC’s The Drum on the failure of the government to implement the recommendations of the Gonski Review has managed to push my buttons. Tudge argues that the Gillard government needs to concentrate on teacher quality in order to improve Australia’s educational outcomes. He states:

After two years of work, it will back to the drawing board for Gillard, but she now has the opportunity to do what she should have done at the outset: tweak the current funding model and then focus attention on what really matters – quality teaching.

Our teacher training courses are frequently poor, focusing too much on the philosophy of education and not enough on the basics of how to teach well.

Well, I have a couple of things to say to this. You know what I love. I love how everyone is an expert when it comes to teachers and teacher education. And yes let’s hold teachers responsible for the state of education, no better yet, lets blame teacher educators for the state of education in Australia.

Firstly, the Gillard government is looking at teacher quality – what does he think that AITSL is all about?

Secondly, what does he think that that teacher training courses actually involve? I can tell you, it’s certainly not four years of nothing but philosophy of education. (Can you imagine it? ED101 – Intro to educational philosophy I, ED102 – Intro to educational philosophy II, ED201 – Educational philosophy I, ED202 – Educational philosophy II, ED301 – Studies in Educational philosophy I, ED302 – Studies in Educational Philosophy II, ED401 – Advanced studies in Educational Philosophy I, ED402 – Advanced Studies in Educational Philosophy II!!). I can assure you that while educational philosophy is a part of an education degree, it is a small part. Education students study educational foundations (history, sociology, psychology  and yes, a smattering of philosophy with a focus on ethics – I ask you who wants teachers without any background knowledge in ethics?); curriculum and subject content courses, pedagogy and methodology, behaviour management, special education and Aboriginal education as well as professional studies courses (incorporating practicums and an internship). What, pray tell, should be left out? So perhaps before Liberal Ministers bag out teacher education they should actually take a minute to find out what contemporary teacher training involves.

Thirdly, although I am not against improving teacher quality and teacher education (although I believe neither are in the perilous state indicated by Tudge) improving these areas alone will not solve the problems of our education system. The current focus on teacher quality puts the responsibly for educational outcomes on individual teachers and on the institutes responsible for teacher accreditation and registration. It ignores that education is embedded in complex structures and that student outcomes are influenced by, not just teacher quality, but also their SES background and the SES background of the schools of which they attend, parental and community attitudes to education, the curriculum, resources available to them and a host of other factors. Teachers themselves do not work in isolation and quality teaching is enabled when teachers work together in schools. The emphasis on teacher quality and the current solutions proposed to improve teacher quality  – bonus pay, teacher accreditation, professional standards – are each based on the presupposition that teacher work and teacher success is an individual endeavour and ignores the reality that teachers work as part of system – they work with colleagues, the school leaders, parents and the community, and within education systems; complete with bureaucracies, rules, syllabus documents and expectations over which they have no control. In other words, due to the complexities of the education system and the varied communities within which schools are embedded, improving individual teacher performance will not necessarily lead to better educational outcomes. Teacher quality is not the panacea for education’s problems. And discourses which look to simplistic solutions to solve education’s woes only serve to obfuscate the many factors influencing educational outcomes. The inequities that plague our otherwise good education system took several generations to evolve to this point, a renewed emphasis on teacher training is not going to suddenly make these problems disappear.

*deep breath* I think I’ll leave it there for now, but I do have more to say on this topic.

Disclosure: I have a PhD in educational philosophy, work as a teacher educator.

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One comment on “A long overdue rant

  1. shonias says:

    As a recent client of one teacher education course, I have a number of complaints, some of which overlap with Tudge’s. However, I agree with you that his complaints utterly miss the point in the broader context.

    I was somewhat stunned that the course didn’t actually include much in the way of how to teach. I also have some serious reservations about the behaviour management that was taught. Mostly I was infuriated by the massive amount of busy work in the course and huge overlap between subjects. They could have made the course 30% shorter and missed no content whatsoever. Instead, they are making it 100% longer. That should weed out anyone who has anything else to do with their lives other than teach. /teacher ed rant

    However, in the context of what needs to be done to improve the education system, all of that is by the by (except possibly the long term effects of discouraging mature age students from retraining as teachers). Even if we want to talk about improving teacher quality (and I agree that there is way too much emphasis, which translates to blame, placed on teachers), focussing on training is missing the point. Teachers need to be treated as professionals, to have the exhausting and emotionally draining nature of their work recognised. They need to be paid as someone who is 5 or 6 years degree qualified is paid. And personally, I think they need sabbaticals – a chance to recharge the emotional batteries and an opportunity to step back from the classroom and look at their profession academically for a while. To watch other professionals do things in other ways and be inspired by it.

    But really, if we want a magic bullet, the closest thing we’ll get is to get rid of segregated schooling. No private schools, no single sex schools, no selective schools. It wouldn’t be enough, but it would help. This process we have of taking just about every kid with advantage and putting them with other kids with advantage and leaving the less privileged kids behind is an abomination.

    Oh yeah, and chucking out most of the syllabi would help too. :)

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