Deep school and teacher education partnerships can be done: here's how

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Policymakers have long known that teacher education faculties and schools need to work together more closely to prepare new teachers for the classroom. Yet no amount of high-level rhetoric has moved us closer to the goal. Danielle Toon shows why substantial change may now be underway.

In a recent speech to the Australian Council of Deans of Education, Shadow Minister for Education Tanya Pilbersek called for schools and universities to forge closer links to improve the training of new teachers. “We need to encourage universities to partner with schools, to work with them to embed the best evidence-based practices for learning, to conduct trials and to undertake research,” Ms Plibersek said.

Her call is not new. The Australian Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report made it in 2015, as did many of the 21 reports on teacher education in Australia from 1980 to 1999; as do several US reports written over the last 20 years.

But how do we actually create better links between schools and universities? If it were easy it would have happened 21 reports ago. These reports provide little guidance on how to build better school-university partnerships, and they rarely acknowledge the difficulties of doing so between institutions with different priorities, cultures, incentives, and language.

Despite the difficulties, there are now more partnerships than ever in teacher preparation in Australia and the US. Yet not all are living up to their potential. Too many stay narrowly focused on operational issues such as finding practical training placements for teacher candidates. Too many struggle to move from polite conversations to rigorous partnerships that substantially improve teacher learning. Few schools, for example, get a real say in what is covered in university courses. A common complaint is that “candidates come with ideas and strategies that are just disconnected from the realities of the classroom.”

Over the last two years the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have hired Learning First to facilitate a global Community of Practice (CoP) that supported teams of university and school system leaders from Australia, Brazil, Finland and the United States to pilot a reform to improve teacher education. Four reports drawing on the CoP work are published here. The teams’ pilot work, along with our analysis of global best practice and the research literature, has taught us a few things about how schools, universities and their local governing body – school districts in the US, regions in Australia – can build partnerships that turn out classroom-ready teachers.

First, partners need to find common ground. They need to build mutual understanding of how teachers get better and what they need to learn. Two reference points for collaboration that are not used enough in teacher preparation are:

  1. What we know about good teacher professional development, and
  2. The use of school curriculum materials (that is, what teachers need to teach to students).

Japan is an example of a high-performing system that develops effective teachers through a powerful form of teacher planning and collaboration known as lesson study. Japan also uses high-quality school curriculum materials. We’ll discuss the use of curriculum materials in a future blog post.

Second, good school and university partners gradually deepen their collaboration, to the point where they can have robust and specific conversations about each other’s responsibility for improving beginning teacher learning. It is a journey that takes effort, resources, mutual understanding, and time.

Over the course of the CoP, and across many systems, we saw partnerships deepen in the following ways. A diagram here shows how partnerships develop maturity and depth.

Partners, for example, might start with ad hoc conversations built on good personal relationships. But over time they need to move to formal partnership arrangements that can withstand personnel changes and enable regular and structured sharing of data and feedback.

The most effective partners do not stay focused on governance arrangements. They realise that while good structures are important for building better partnerships, what partners do within these structures is what matters most. Structural changes will have little impact if they do not improve how teacher expertise is developed.

From a mutual understanding about good teacher professional learning and high-quality school curriculum should come joint projects. Eventually, the partners will jointly design, deliver and evaluate coursework, practical training and induction – all elements of early career professional development for novice teachers.

School and university partners can begin to deepen collaboration in many ways. They should develop a shared vision and framework for teacher learning. Then they should increasingly work on concrete aspects of the framework, at the same time developing capabilities and incentives that will enable their staff to collaborate. The journey might involve some of the activities shown in this diagram.

Examples of activities to support deep collaboration between district / school and university partners:

danielle toon

danielle toon

Danielle Toon is a former Manager at Learning First.