Time for teacher educators to step up on primary teacher specialisation

Learning First’s new report, Australia’s primary challenge: how to lift teacher quality in early school years, argues that Australian primary school teachers should specialise in subject areas such as mathematics, science, and literacy.

May 15, 2017 | Jaqueline Magee

Jaqueline Magee

A young girl playing flute in a high school orchestra

It sounds like a controversial proposal, a transformation of the ideal of generalist teachers that has sustained Australian primary school teaching for many decades. In fact, the idea of primary teacher specialisation is growing among leading Australian educators and is now part of Commonwealth Government policy.

The research is increasingly clear that strong teacher subject expertise significantly improves student learning. Australia’s primary challenge shows how high-performing systems such as Shanghai, Finland, Japan and Hong Kong develop teacher expertise through specialisation. All four systems – even Finland and Japan, which have generalist primary school teachers, as Australia does — encourage teachers to develop their practice in just one or two subject areas, both during initial teacher education (ITE) and in their professional learning on the job.

Drawing on this evidence, Australia’s Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) recommended in its 2015 report, Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers, that primary school teachers be supported to specialise their teaching practice in science, mathematics and languages. In a move with significant implications for prospective primary teaching candidates and higher education institutions, the Australian Government accepted TEMAG’s recommendation that “higher education providers equip all primary pre-service teachers with at least one subject specialisation.” ITE providers are now on notice that they are required to make this happen.

This new primary specialisation requirement is now part of the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) National Program Standards and will be assessed by ITE program accreditation panellists convened in each state and territory.

The new primary specialisation standard requires ITE providers to establish clearly defined pathways within programs that lead to specialisations in key areas of demand. Providers are also expected to assess graduates on their expert content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge, and what highly effective teaching looks like, in their area of specialisation. Finally, provider annual reports must publish the specialisations they make available, and the number of graduates per specialisation.

These requirements sound very general, but for many teacher education providers they represent significant reform. To add clarity, AITSL published more detailed advice on the new specialisation requirements early this year. The AITSL guidance emphasises the importance of content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge, but it is up to providers to decide the exact curriculum for the specialisations.

It is therefore a critical time for the future of primary teacher education. The plans ITE providers are making for primary specialisation have the potential to significantly improve the subject expertise of teachers in key areas. There is also a big risk that these efforts could fall flat, meeting minimum requirements but not instilling more rigor into primary teacher preparation. ITE providers must carefully construct primary specialist curricula, learning from other systems that have prepared highly-skilled teachers for decades. Australia’s primary challenge provides examples of teacher education curricula in countries such as Japan and Finland, which similarly prepare generalist teachers with one subject speciality. A future blog post will look at one example in more depth.

Time will tell whether these reforms will have the impact TEMAG and the Australian Government intended. If done well, a greater focus on developing teacher subject expertise will increase student learning, provide overdue recognition for the complexity of primary school teaching, and make teacher workload more manageable.