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Teaching standards: will they help?

The issues of teaching standards, their relationship with professional learning, and their potential to help improve teaching quality, were the subject of a panel discussion at last week's Curriculum Corporation annual conference.

Here we present three short reports that provide perspectives on these issues in relation to some key learning areas - Science, English and Mathematics.

  • Dr Jane Wright is Past President of the Australian Science Teachers Association (ASTA) and Science Coordinator at Loreto College, Marryatville, South Australia.

  • Karren Philp is President of the English Teachers Association of Western Australia and Head of English at Hamilton Senior High School.

  • Will Morony is Professional Officer with the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT).

Highly accomplished teachers of Science

Jane Wright discussed the National Professional Standards for Highly Accomplished Teachers of Science, published in March 2002. The project relates to ASTA's aims to improve the quality of professional development undertaken by Science teachers, and to develop a national voluntary system of professional certification.

It was argued that while teachers of Science are 'a well-qualified and highly professional group', they are also a 'diminishing resource' because it is becoming harder to attract new recruits to the profession and to maintain standards. Shortages of qualified Science teachers exist at all levels in secondary schools, and attracting and retaining suitable Science staff is even more difficult in rural and remote areas.

These problems cannot be solved, Wright asserted, 'by short-term measures of employing either scientists with no background in education or teachers from other disciplines with little knowledge and understanding of science. Teachers teaching Science without thorough and up-to-date knowledge of both science and science education will have the effect of diminishing the quality of science teaching and learning.'

Classroom teachers played a pivotal role in defining the standards set out in the National Professional Standards for Highly Accomplished Teachers of Science. Wright informed the conference that a group of 15 expert teachers, representing all levels of schooling, all systems and all States and Territories, formed the National Science Standards Committee which was central to developing and writing the standards. The wider community of Science teachers, as well as science education experts, universities and peak science bodies also provided feedback to ASTA regarding the appropriateness of the standards.

The final document comprises 11 standards across three areas:

  • professional knowledge, which includes knowledge of science, knowledge of students and knowledge of teaching science
  • professional practice
  • professional attributes.

A further element of the project involved designing and trialing methods of assessing teacher performance against the standards. Wright conceded that much more work needed to be done in this regard, but initially teachers submitted portfolios that included items such as samples of student work, assessment tasks, written commentaries and analyses, instructional materials and videotapes of lessons.

Wright strongly emphasised the need for discipline-specific professional standards. Not only do teachers need deep knowledge of the subject matter they teach, but they must also have subject-specific pedagogical knowledge. Moreover, content knowledge and pedagogy are interdependent, as depth of subject knowledge has a profound effect on the pedagogical choices available to teachers. The knowledge, skills and attitudes of a highly accomplished teacher of Science are different from those of a teacher of, say, English or Mathematics.

Standards for Teachers of English Language and Literacy in Australia (STELLA)

The common ground and also the distinctiveness of learning areas was illustrated by Karren Philp's discussion of standards in English teaching.

From 1999 to 2002, with the help of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE) and the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA), teacher panels were set up in different States and Territories. These panels worked with academic researchers to develop the STELLA materials.

The STELLA materials comprise:

  • Standards statements - what accomplished English teachers know, believe and do
  • Key words - attributes describing accomplished practice, which are linked to questions teachers can use to reflect on and improve their practice
  • Narratives - stories of accomplished practice by Australian teachers that constitute 'the beating heart of the project'. It was from these narratives that the standards were distilled.

Each story, Philp explained, invites teacher engagement and links to the key words and questions. Teachers are asked to 'describe what it looks like in their own room with their own students; and that's when the standards are at their most powerful'.

Used in this way, STELLA offers 'a conceptual framework for teachers to work out where they are in their careers'.

The way the standards were developed is an important key to their success. Standards need to work for English and literacy teachers across the profession, working in a multiplicity of contexts. Philp suggested that 'the capacity of STELLA to transcend the differences ... to reflect what is characteristic of English teachers in all the contexts in which we teach - is most certainly a major achievement of the project. STELLA speaks to all English language and literacy teachers because the standards do not purport to "measure" teachers against a "one size fits all" concept of the ideal English teacher.'

Another important factor, Philp observed, is that STELLA not only invites individual engagement, but also collaborative engagement in schools related to real teaching tasks. Futhermore, it also provides a framework for coaching at the school level.

AAMT professional teaching standards

Will Morony began by emphasising the need not to lose sight, in the efforts to promote improvement, of the outstanding job already being done by many teachers.

The Australian Association of Mathmatics Teachers (AAMT) is 'perhaps the first organisation in Australian education to link its professional development programs directly to a set of professional standards'. It is the Association's strong belief that the language of its standards will become 'the lingua franca for talking about the teaching of Mathematics in Australian schools'.

According to Morony, the AAMT's work on professional improvement has proved valuable in several ways. It has provided the following.

  • A public statement of what the committed profession understands to be good teaching of Mathematics. 'It has the weight of being a nationally agreed public statement, and the validity of having come from a rigorous research and development process.'
  • A framework for professional development. The AAMT standards 'enable people to set trajectories so they can develop in areas they identify as relevant in their context and level of growth, and know they are heading in the directions defined as important by the profession'.
  • Peer acknowledgment of high accomplishment. The Association is working towards 'a voluntary, fair and rigorous system of assessing teachers against these standards'.
  • A means to inform and influence wider discussions about teaching standards.
  • Criteria for career advancement.

Morony stressed the need for effective processes to assess and certify teachers. It is this that will ensure the standards are more than platitudinous statements.

Despite the substantial achievements to date, the AAMT's effort to implement its professional teaching standards is 'work in progress'. There is no doubt, in Morony's view, 'that a major watershed will be reached when the process for assessing teachers' work against the standards has been finalised and piloted. This combination of standards, assessment and recognition is the Association's best guess at what it needs to have in place to maximise the impact of its work. From there it will be the continuing hard work of increasing awareness and use of the teaching standards by teachers of Mathematics'. Achieving this, however, will require that:

  • institutes of teaching, education systems and universities come to accept the AAMT teaching standards as the basic framework and language for teacher professional development
  • all stakeholders agree on terms for national coherence and consistency in professional standards
  • career structures for teachers are established that are linked to advanced standards, and ensure that there are tangible rewards for those who have demonstrated that they are leaders in teaching.

The last of these three, Morony concluded, 'appears the most problematic of all', but it is needed to 'build a fabric of professional development around our professional standards to support the improvement in teaching we seek'.

This article is based on the conference report prepared by Vic Zbar of Zbar Consulting Pty Ltd, on behalf of the conference organisers. Conference support was provided by National Curriculum Services.

The conference papers will be available in full on the Curriculum Corporation website in the near future.


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