Teaching our teachers: why universities and schools need to go back to class

Published in The Australian Higher Education Supplement 6 December 2017.

Ben Jensen and Danielle Toon

Sam is studying at an Australian university to be a primary school teacher. He was great at maths in school and he is excited about passing on his love of maths to young people. At university he learns general theories about teaching and some about maths education. But when he begins his first student teaching placement he gets a shock.

 He knows by heart how to multiply fractions, but he struggles to teach it to a room of 11-year olds. Some students keep getting the answers wrong and he can’t work out why. The theories Sam learnt at university don’t help him. His mentor teacher tells him to forget the theories, as “most lecturers haven’t been inside a classroom for 20 years.” In desperation, Sam goes online and downloads activities for teaching fractions from Pinterest, a multimedia sharing website.

This scenario is all too common in Australian schools. OECD data show that new Australian teachers feel far less prepared to teach specific subjects than do many of their international counterparts. The cost is high. A 2015 global assessment of Australian primary students showed that only three English-speaking countries perform worse in mathematics than we do.

These findings should have profound implications for the work of teacher education faculties, schools and state departments of education. But will they? Since 1980 more than 20 state and federal reports have called for university education faculties and schools to forge stronger links in order to improve teacher training. Yet nearly all these reports have stayed generic, providing few details of how schools and universities should work together. As a result, for years the system has barely improved.

Governments are trying to fix the problem. But while there are some bright spots of practice, progress is halting. Schools and universities have different priorities, cultures, and language. Universities are funded by the Commonwealth, schools by the states.  Most teacher educators are academics, with incentives to prioritise publication of research over training.  Most schools see teaching children as their core business and have neither time nor expertise to train new teachers from scratch.  

Many state education leaders, for their part, are unsure of their role in improving teacher education. All players feel they have little say over what others do. The upshot is that Sam and many other novice teachers feel ill-equipped for the classroom.

Sam’s lecturers might think they are preparing him well, but they rarely get to see whether he can enact their theories in a classroom. And if Sam asks his lecturers what curriculum materials or textbooks to use, he will likely be told that it is up to him and his school; they don’t tell teachers what materials to teach. Would medical training not teach trainee doctors how to select and use specific treatments?

In recent years Australia has implemented teacher education reforms.  The 2014 Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group review established stricter quality assurance of teacher education programs and selection of entrants. The new literacy and numeracy test for teacher candidates puts pressure on universities to ensure their trainees have a basic level of knowledge.

Yet such external accountability measures can only do so much. Trainees like Sam regularly pass the test, without learning to teach well. Teachers need specialised knowledge to explain topics to children. Teaching is about understanding other people’s thinking, not just your own.

To really help Sam we need to go deep into the detail of how teachers help students to learn, and how schools, universities, and education departments can help them. This is precisely what a project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation project has aimed to do.

For the past two years, the Foundation has funded Melbourne-based school education consultancy Learning First to work with university and school system leaders from Australia, Brazil, Finland and the United States. In October, teams gathered in Memphis to discuss their experience piloting a reform to improve teacher education in their system.  Two vital lessons emerged.

First, teacher preparation must be directly linked to practice – it cannot ignore what teachers need to learn in order to teach students. Progress comes when teachers are trained in how to select and use high-quality curriculum materials, how to teach them to students of different age levels and abilities, and then how to assess what students have learnt.

Second, none of the system leaders who took part in the project thought they could drive change with top-down reforms, guidelines or accreditation. All believed that schools and universities had to work together on the details of teacher learning, so that university faculty understood the challenges facing teachers like Sam.

The Memphis meeting set out what successful partnerships between universities and schools look like, and then developed a road map for how to get there. In the best partnerships, universities and schools don’t just have friendly meetings and assign practical training placements. They learn from each other how to design, deliver and evaluate the beginning teacher’s journey, from university to practical training to early professional development.

That means joint review of state curriculum resources and how to incorporate them into university coursework. It means designing pedagogies that help novice teachers research, practise, and reflect upon how to teach a curriculum. It means evaluating whether coursework helps teachers in the classroom.

The University of Michigan, for example, works with partner school districts in the town of Ann Arbor. A teacher candidate learns core curriculum content. She analyses videos of her teaching with peers, mentor teachers, and university faculty. She is taught by a clinical professor who has been promoted for his ability to train teachers and to research how school students learn.

Australian universities such as Deakin and Melbourne are bringing mentor teachers and university faculty together to assess student teacher practice. Many education leaders know that deeper partnerships are the answer, but struggle to make them happen across the board.

The good news is that a mountain of research and work around the world shows a way forward. Golden opportunities now exist to forge lasting partnerships among teacher educators, schools and departments of education.  It is high time we took them.

Ben Jensen is CEO and Danielle Toon is a former Manager at Learning First. 

Here's what our school principals need to help them lead, and it's not an MBA

This article was published in the Australian Financial Review (paywall) on 20 October 2017.

Ben Jensen and Phoebe Downing

In recent decades, Australian school systems, like all sectors of society, have spent a lot more money on courses to develop leaders. The number of leadership courses available to existing and aspiring principals has grown dramatically, and the quality of these programs has generally improved. But this investment hasn't really moved the needle – it hasn't created enough leaders who can lift the performance of the whole system.

This is a difficult problem and two responses are often discussed in school systems. The first is to find an effective program somewhere in Australia or overseas and bring it to local school leaders. The second is to try to replicate MBA programs offered at top universities and business schools.

Unfortunately, both these solutions are wrong. Preparing to Lead, a new report written by Australian school education consultancy Learning First and published by the Washington-based National Centre on Education and the Economy, shows why.

Consider this all too common scenario. A senior executive in a telecommunications company enrols in a prestigious MBA course. She finds it intellectually challenging, has a good time and makes useful contacts across a range of sectors, but after a few weeks back in the office she finds that much of what she learned doesn't really apply to her job and before long she reverts back to business as usual.

Around the world, organisations and individuals are spending billions on leadership development programs. While some of these are excellent, the returns to organisations are not what they should be.

Don't need generic programs

Developing leaders whose professional behaviour improves organisational performance requires changes to identity and culture. We develop as leaders when we interrogate our habits and beliefs, and the impact we have on our colleagues. Because it is almost impossible to do this through generic programs such as MBAs, more companies are opting for leadership development offered in-house by human resource or business management firms.

These firms provide their courses onsite, with the challenges and ways of working of that organisation explicitly in mind. This approach is too expensive for most companies, but it makes sense for big school systems that need thousands of effective leaders and are willing to spend to get them. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what the world's highest-performing school systems do.

Preparing to Lead shows how four school systems, which perform consistently at the top of international tests such as PISA, provide outstanding leadership development for their school leaders.

Ontario, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai differ significantly in many respects, yet in leadership development they take a very similar approach. They all develop aspiring principals by requiring them to undertake a real change initiative in schools. To qualify as principals, aspiring leaders are sent into a real school to oversee a long-term intervention to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

Together with the serving principal, who becomes their mentor, aspiring leaders work on improving student outcomes. For example, if school data show that grade twos are struggling with reading, aspiring leaders will sit down with teachers to discuss what is going on. They then work together to devise and implement a plan to adopt new strategies to lift literacy, and they monitor teachers' success in improving their own professional practices.

Must collaborate

This approach can be highly confronting. Because the proposed change will fail if the grade two teachers do not support it, aspiring leaders must get them on board. Leadership programs orchestrate a scenario in which aspiring principals must collaborate, set a vision, solve problems and share responsibilities – all skills they will need once they are school leaders.

Doing this well also requires that the content of leadership development programs matches the career stage and developmental needs of participants. Providers and program designers such as the Ontario College of Teachers or Singapore's National Institute of Education understand the roles and responsibilities of school leaders: what they are accountable for, how they share responsibilities, and what excellent practice looks like in their schools. Providers have developed these insights both by building close partnerships with government departments, professional organisations, research centres and schools.

Through this process these four systems have developed what many consider the best school leadership courses in the world. But because these courses are tailored to specific schools and school leaders, if they were offered in any Australian school system they would fail.

School leadership is critical for improving student learning—and our school leaders deserve the best. It won't come from expensive generic courses; equally, we can't copy and paste from other school systems. We need leadership development that is specifically designed and delivered for each Australian school system. Preparing to Lead shows how it can happen.

Dr Ben Jensen is CEO, and Dr Phoebe Downing is senior associate, of Learning First. They are the authors of Preparing to Lead.

School principals need lessons in budgeting to make Gonski 2.0 successful

This article was published in The Australian Financial Review (paywall) on 23 June 2017.

Ben Jensen

The Gonski 2.0 federal school funding will see a lot more money flowing to schools, especially those serving poorer communities. Because increases in school spending have been largely wasted over recent decades, the federal government has asked David Gonski to report on how to spend the dollars effectively. Unfortunately, the pressure is already on to produce a report that repeats past mistakes.

Many education experts and commentators want governments to provide lists of what the academic research says makes the most difference in classrooms. If student outcomes have not improved, these experts argue, then money must have been spent on the wrong things. So we need to tell schools what the right things are. This approach sounds good, but it has one problem. It doesn't work.

School principals are inundated with lists, standards, rubrics, templates, guides and websites all telling them what the evidence is on how to improve their schools. Producing another one will change nothing. Instead, we need to recognise and help school principals with the complexity of school strategic and financial planning.

Historically, principals had little influence on school budgets. State governments largely controlled the finances. In the 1990s the push for greater school autonomy, led by Victoria, changed the principal's job forever. It has taken many years, but most schools now have a single budget line that is controlled by the principal. He or she pays the bills, balances the budget, and decides whether to spend more money on computers, teacher professional development or classroom materials and so on.

Poor training

This is no small task. A primary school of about 350 kids has a budget of well over $3 million. A high school with roughly 1000 kids will often have a budget in excess of $11 million. Managing organisations of this size requires serious strategic and financial expertise and experience. But principals have been promoted because they were great teachers. They normally have little or no financial management experience.

While this mismatch is clear, the training principals receive is often poor and normally ignores the issue. Instead, school principals must be experts in curriculum, pedagogy, teacher development and student learning.

When school systems contact principals about their budget it is normally a negative experience; an audit that focuses on large mistakes or misconduct or when the school has run out of money before the end of the year.

It is rarely discussed but hundreds of millions of dollars are sitting each day in school bank accounts. This isn't because of improper conduct or because schools have too much money. It is the result of the uncertainty and risk aversion of principals whose job descriptions continually under-emphasise the importance of strategic financial planning.

More work is needed connecting key budget decisions such as teacher training and professional development to improvements in student learning. And then learning about what budget decisions did and did not have an impact to improve budget planning in subsequent years.

This is how school principals and school systems will learn and improve over time. It is what is needed to make Gonski 2.0 successful.

Why Australian primary schools need more teacher expertise

This article was published in The Australian Financial Review (paywall) on 10 May 2017.

Ben Jensen and Katie Roberts-Hull

The budget has opened another battle in Australia's 50-year war over school funding, with the federal government proposing a revised Gonski formula to fund schools according to need, and the Labor opposition promising to defend the Catholic sector against cuts. Money matters in school education, but the endless argument obscures two far more important questions: what are we teaching our young people and are we teaching it effectively?

The answers on both are not promising. For more than a decade, Australian students have not only failed to improve in the OECD's PISA tests of 15-year-old's problem-solving ability, they are falling behind students in many other advanced nations. Maths is a particular area of concern. Since 2003, the proportion of Australian maths high performers in PISA has halved, to about one in 10 students. The proportion of low performers, meanwhile, has shot up. They now outnumber high performers two to one.

As alarm over these results has grown, commentators have urged schools to increase the amount of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) teaching in the curriculum. But reforms such as these magnify the problem with our approach to education, especially primary education. We always push for a broader curriculum instead of building expertise in core learning areas.

The challenge for Australia

Australia's primary challenge, shown by Learning First's new report, is how Australia can learn from four high-performing school systems – Finland, Japan, Hong Kong and Shanghai. These very different systems all focus on deepening teachers' subject expertise, right down to the earliest years of schooling.

These systems start with a detailed curriculum that they have generally narrowed over the years. They do this not because they don't believe in broader issues such as STEM, but because they realise that by being more specific on what to teach, teachers can develop much more expertise on how to teach. This approach has implications for all aspects of schooling.

In all four systems primary school teachers specialise, enabling them to develop deep expertise in just one or a few subjects. In Shanghai there are primary school teachers who only teach maths. But even in Finland and Japan, systems that have generalist primary teachers, as Australia does, initial teacher education requires in-depth preparation in one or two subjects. The professional learning teachers do once they are in schools is also more subject-specific, giving them access to subject experts and quality instructional materials. This creates the deep subject expertise that great teaching requires.

Less breadth, more expertise

The Australian approach is one of increasing breadth; we want primary school teachers to teach virtually all subjects and whenever there is a problem, we want them to teach even more. This approach results in serious problems at every step along the teacher development pathway.

First, many teacher education programs have low entry requirements for science, literacy, and maths expertise. Second, these programs often have few rigorous courses in these subjects. Teacher candidates therefore spend minimal time developing subject expertise. Assignments often lack rigour and the bar for course completion is low.

When prospective primary teachers apply for jobs, subject expertise is rarely important in the hiring process. Finally, in the classroom, teachers often lack high-quality instructional materials and knowledgeable coaches to help them develop subject expertise. There are many exceptions to this narrative but overall, we don't emphasise, and therefore don't sufficiently develop, subject expertise for primary school teachers.

Pedagogical content knowledge

The high-performing systems we identified understand that the way we teach young children is more important and more difficult than many people realise. The most effective primary teachers are not just experts on the content of their subjects, they also know the best teaching methods for different age levels, what is known as pedagogical content knowledge.

To teach subtraction to eight-year olds it's not enough to be able to do it yourself. You have to understand, for example, whether it is better to start a lesson with the problem, 13 minus 9 or with 12 minus 3 as children will regularly take different approaches to subtraction depending on which numbers are involved. Teachers have to know all the different strategies children might use to tackle each problem, and immediately know what mistake was made when you see a student's wrong answer and then how to address it.

There is good news. Australian primary teacher education programs are beginning to develop specialist tracks, which presents an opportunity to shift to more rigorous courses in maths, literacy and science. Schools also need to re-organise teachers' professional learning, and perhaps their timetables, to allow them to develop specialised subject expertise.

Australia's primary challenge shows the steps that high-performing systems have taken to scale subject expertise across all schools with tremendous impact on teaching and learning. The report shows what can and cannot be transferred easily to Australia. But any reform must start with an approach that emphasises subject expertise in primary school teaching.

Dr Ben Jensen is CEO, and Katie Roberts-Hull manager, of education consultancy Learning First.

Make the Gonski money matter

Ben Jensen

Gonski 2.0 promises a significant amount of money to schools but will it make a difference? The Government has asked David Gonski to deliver a report before the end of the year on how the money should be spent. The goal is to end more than a decade of stagnating or declining results for Australian schools.

Most reports on school funding say money should be directed to specific activities. This hasn’t worked in the past. So instead of specifying where money should be directed, the report should establish a national framework that assesses the effectiveness of money we spend and then states how we can spend it more effectively for the cost. To achieve this, the report should:

  • acknowledge the fact that because the states and Catholic and independent sectors run schools, the federal government’s power to direct money to where it is most effective is very limited. Most efforts to direct funding to specific activities just lead to increased compliance: school systems ticking boxes to show they have met funding conditions rather than introducing real change.
  • focus on student outcomes rather than funding inputs, realising that too much rhetoric around evidence-based policy merely reinforces the longstanding emphasis on inputs in education policy. 

The report should propose a National Report Card that compares the performance of each system across the country against the money they spend. So instead of the federal government ordering states to spend money on A,B or C, it can let states decide – since they run most schools – but then publish evidence to show whether the money had any impact on kids learning.

We already have much of this information but it is scattered. Putting it in a single report card would increase accountability where it is sorely lacking and change the political debate. It would be a huge step in the right direction if state politicians were forced to show how much they have improved schools rather than just promising to spend more money on them.

Ben Jensen is CEO of Learning First. This article was published in The Australian Financial Review on 10 May 2017.


Student outcomes, not cash, must drive schools reform

"Tying funding to specific interventions reinforces rather than changes the focus on inputs. It sounds like accountability, but it isn’t. It encourages people to comply and judge their decisions against a long and changing list of the ‘the right things’. It fails to get schools and school systems to evaluate and continually learn from the impact of their actions on student outcomes. This is the change we drastically need.

Minister Birmingham needs to shift the debate from inputs to how easy school system is improving student learning. He could lead a regular public debate on how each system is performing. A report or scorecard could show the learning outcomes for students in each system across the country, with a focus on growth from previous years. It could focus on the whole student, covering attendance and retention, literacy, numeracy, other key learning areas, education attainment, post-school destinations and well-being. Comparing progress on a prioritised subset of these measures against funding levels would spur a meaningful education debate."

Read more from Ben Jensen's opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review on their website here.

Education: kids need more exposure to deep conceptual learning

"Our children’s wellbeing relies on developing deep conceptual knowledge in key areas rather than shallow knowledge in many areas. It is useless to teach youngsters computer programming if they don’t understand foundational mathematics concepts. This means we must realise that not every STEM initiative is good.

In primary schools, STEM should be mainly about mathematics. The teaching of science in primary schools is often concentrated on procedural knowledge (e.g. can you name the planets) rather than conceptual knowledge. Developing a deep conceptual knowledge in foundational areas of maths is vital for a meaningful understanding of science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills in later years."

Read more from Ben Jensen's opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review on their website here.

AFR: "Parents and policy makers want the best for children - but that may differ"

We all want better school education. Parents and families want the best for their children and the policymakers who run our school systems want this as well. This alignment is great, but if you scratch a little bit deeper you will see that the way a policy maker approaches reform to school systems often exacerbates the concerns of parents. This is a big part of the politics of education reform and it shows why reform is often so slow.

There is a fundamental difference in how policy makers and parents think about the main outcome of school education: children's learning.  Most of the main indicators of student learning in Australia are not pointing in the right direction. Our students are falling behind students in other countries and our national tests show that we have failed to significantly improve performance in most key learning areas. This has a huge impact on Australia's future wellbeing and so is front and centre in the minds of policy makers. Virtually all of us agree it should be front and centre, but when families are thinking about their child, academic performance is not the main concern.

Read more from Ben Jensen's opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review on their website here.

US release of new report "Not So Elementary: Primary School Teacher Quality in Top-Performing Systems"

This week saw the US launch of a major new Learning First report published by the National Center on Education and the Economy. 

"From leading Australian researcher Ben Jensen, the new report Not So Elementary: Primary School Teacher Quality in Top-Performing Systems, gives new insights into a critical driver of the success of the world’s top-performing education systems—developing elementary teachers with deep content knowledge."

Press coverage:

More information on the report:

The Australian: "Teacher, teach thyself and ignore the usual advice"

"As students across the country returned to their classes this week for the new school year, their teachers and school leaders were faced with the same question as every year: How will I help my students learn?

There is no shortage of strategies offered for teachers to try to improve students’ literacy and numeracy, cultivate their 21st-century skills and support them more effectively in the classroom. This commentary is likely only to increase, given the announcement this week that Labor will fund the last two years of the Gonski scheme if returned to government.

The implication of much of this advice is that the answer to “How will I help my students learn?” is sitting right in front of teachers, if only they would consider the evidence.

In some cases this is true, but few teachers in Australia are not across the works of our leading education researchers such as John Hattie and Patrick Griffin (who are two of the best in the world)."

Read more from Ben Jensen and Jacqueline Magee's Inquirer article in The Australian on their website here. 

The Australian: "Learning First facilitates new approach to teacher training"

"Just before events in Canberra began dominating the news, a new approach to how teachers are educated before they enter classrooms was taking shape in Melbourne.

Representatives of seven education systems from across the world formulated a commitment to reform teacher education.

This was not a normal gathering. A commitment was being made by groups that often sit on opposing sides of reform debates.

Their reasons for coming together are simple enough. First are the problems in our schools. Over the next couple of months about 17,000 new teachers will graduate from 400 teacher preparation courses across Australia. Every year, too many of them are underprepared and feel overwhelmed when they enter classrooms."

Read more from Ben Jensen and Danielle Toon's Inquirer article in The Australian on their website here.