Australia's primary challenge: how to lift teacher quality in early school years - Australian edition

Ben Jensen, Katie Roberts-Hull, Jacqueline Magee, Leah Ginnivan

Australian students have not improved their achievement on international tests for a decade, and are falling behind students in many other advanced nations. In maths, the proportion of high performers in PISA has halved to 11 per cent over the past 14 years, and low performers outnumber high performers two to one. As public alarm over these results has grown, discussions have focussed on the need to strengthen teacher skills to improve student learning. This report shows how four of the world’s highest-performing school systems -- Hong Kong, Japan, Finland, and Shanghai -- place a strong emphasis on teacher subject expertise, even in early year schooling. In these and other systems, the most effective teachers do not just know their subjects (content knowledge) they also how to teach them (pedagogical content knowledge). Acquiring both forms of knowledge is more important and more difficult than many people realise. Yet opportunities for Australian teachers to do so, particularly in primary teacher education and primary schools, are scarce.

Concerns that primary teachers have inadequate subject expertise have been well documented. Problems exist at every step along the teacher development pathway. In particular:

  • Because teacher education programs are unselective, the science, literacy, and maths expertise of prospective primary teachers is generally not strong.
  • Primary teacher education programs have few quality courses in each subject area. Students therefore spend minimal time developing teacher subject expertise. Assignments often lack rigour and the bar for course completion is low.
  • When prospective primary teachers apply for jobs, adequate subject expertise is often not important in the hiring process.
  • In the classroom, teachers often lack support, meaningful subject-specific professional learning and high-quality instructional materials -- all of which help them to develop subject expertise.

There are many exceptions to this narrative but overall, the development of primary teacher knowledge in key subject areas is inadequate. In a downward spiral, teachers with low subject expertise teach students who learn less, who then become teachers with even less subject expertise. Acquiring on-the-job subject expertise is particularly difficult for primary teachers, who often teach five or more subjects.

Hong Kong, Japan, Finland and Shanghai are known for emphasising high standards in primary teacher subject expertise. This report shows how Australian systems can begin to apply similar policies to ensure that such expertise reaches our classrooms.

One thread that unites all four systems is that primary teachers specialise, enabling them to develop deep knowledge in just one or a few subjects. In Shanghai and Hong Kong, primary teachers teach fewer subjects. In Finland and Japan, they teach all subjects, but in training and development focus deeply on just a few. This specialisation allows the deep subject expertise development that is necessary for great teaching.

Success in these systems is driven not by one simple reform, but by many policies combining to reinforce and support teacher knowledge. Becoming a primary teacher requires meeting a high bar of subject-specific knowledge. Initial teacher education includes rigorous content in each subject. In-school professional learning is also subject-specific, allowing access to subject experts and quality instructional materials.

The quality of teaching and learning in primary school significantly affects later academic and life outcomes, as well as the economic health of the nation. Australia needs to get its approach right.

Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems, Australian Edition

In any district, state or country, when children’s learning stagnates or falls, the response is universal: we must improve teaching to improve learning. All of the evidence shows that this is the right response. But it’s incredibly difficult. We spend millions of dollars on teacher professional development, but it’s not having the desired impact on our kids’ learning.

But in some systems it is working. This report, Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems, shows how British Columbia, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore improve teaching in schools.

So, why is professional learning having a real impact in these systems? What are the steps other systems can take to refine their improvement strategies?

First, professional learning in schools must focus on an improvement cycle that begins and ends with student learning. The focus of teacher professional development should be determined by the learning needs of students in a classroom. Teachers work collaboratively to develop their instruction to meet their students’ needs and then evaluate the impact on their learning.

This improvement cycle embodies the evidence of effective professional learning, but it has not always worked in schools. It fails when used in isolation. Broader reforms are required to ensure improvement across the system.

Second, to make professional learning effective requires a reform strategy that changes:

  • How we hold schools accountable – increasing accountability for the quality of teaching and the development of teachers;
  • How we develop our school leaders – high-performing systems have all created new leadership positions in schools to develop teachers and improve professional learning; and
  • How we target school resources to make sure teachers have enough time to focus on professional learning. 

Over time, this blend of policies means professional learning becomes central to teachers’ jobs. It is not an add-on. It is not something done on Friday afternoons or for a few days at either end of the school year. Teacher professional learning is how educators improve student learning; it is how they improve schools; and it is how they are evaluated in their jobs.

A new approach: Reforming teacher education

This report is the first in our Spotlight Series examining key issues in education and offering effective solutions for school systems and governments to improve student learning. 

The first Spotlight report looks at initial teacher education and aims to shift the debate away from the simplistic idea that higher entry standards into university will raise the quality of teaching. Instead it should focus on the effectiveness of the teacher being produced by improving the quality of their training.

The report examines the perverse incentives in the system that encourage cheap, quick, low-quality teaching programs and provides a reform framework to reverse these incentives and create a continuously improving system of teacher education.

The report has been covered in The Australian newspaper with an accompanying opinion piece by Dr Ben Jensen. See www.theaustralian.com.au 

AITSL InSights: Aspiring Principal Preparation

Learning First prepared this report for the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL). The report identifies the key considerations for designing principal preparation programs in an Australian context.

The school principal role is complex and diverse. Increasing principal autonomy and accountability has broadened the responsibilities of school leaders, making their role more challenging. Developing aspiring principals’ knowledge, skills and abilities is more important than ever. But how is this achieved? How should leadership development programs for school principals be designed and developed? This is the challenge facing education systems.

This report draws on best-practice leadership development in education and other sectors to develop key considerations for the design of principal preparation programs to help systems meet this challenge.