The role of the 'teacher': Coming of age?
A broad consensus has emerged that teacher quality is the key to improving student learning outcomes and preparing young people for the challenges of the twenty-first century knowledge economy and society. Since the hallmarks of this new era are change and instability, teaching and teacher education need to be calibrated accordingly. While many valuable initiatives are currently in train, there are a number of challenges that need to be met. These initiatives and challenges are the focus of a recent publication by the Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE) titled, The role of the 'teacher': Coming of age?. It is one in a series of publications aimed at focusing attention on issues of concern for the educational community in Australia, and follows on from the successful ACDE Charter.
A significant and positive development in the last decade has been activity in government and academic circles aimed at raising the status of the teaching profession. Registration and professional standards are now seen as effective means of achieving this objective, and improving teaching and learning in schools. For it is through registration that issues associated with professionalism and standards can be addressed. The medical, legal, engineering and dental professions, for example, all have a set of standards to guide the behaviour of individuals. They have also established professional bodies to control entry to, and exit from, those professions, and to deal with issues of career development.
Standards serve as a yardstick for measuring high quality practice. So what characteristics should define high quality practice in the teaching profession? The terms of reference of the Senate Inquiry into the Status of the Teaching Profession (1998) contain some clues. They defined the key elements of a profession as including: (1) a strong motivation or calling (2) possession of a specialised body of knowledge and skill (3) control of standards, admission and career paths (4) autonomy for teachers in carrying out their work and in the exercise of professional judgement (5) members acceptance and application of a professional code of conduct. It is these elements that should be used as guides to improve teacher status and establish teaching as a fully-fledged profession.
Over the past decade or so, education academics and the education policy community in Australia have sought to determine precisely what standards should guide and define the teaching profession. Peak representative bodies for science (Australian Science Teachers Association) and mathematics (Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers) teachers have recently developed standards for their constituents in partnership with academics and government. These developments are welcome.
In developing standards for the teaching profession, a key question is: what knowledge, skills and dispositions do we want accomplished teachers to have? Highly accomplished teachers, first and foremost, have a mix of practical skills and theoretical understandings. In order to teach effectively, one needs both knowledge of content and knowledge of pedagogy. There is enough research now that explodes the widely held myth that quality teaching can result from expertise in one or the other. Lee Shulman's ground-breaking work, and resultant concept of "pedagogical content knowledge", demonstrates that teachers need to know "what", as well as "how", to achieve high-level learning outcomes. This notion of quality teaching underpinned Education Queensland's School Reform Longitudinal Study in 1999, and its current 'New Basics' initiative.
Despite over 50 years of educational research demonstrating what constitutes accomplished teaching, and a professional standards movement whose momentum continues to proceed apace, there remain numerous challenges for the profession.
One issue that threatens to derail continued improvements in educational outcomes in Australia - as demonstrated by the results of the OECD's PISA survey conducted in 2000 and the 1999 TIMSS Video Study- is a worsening teacher shortage, particularly in the areas of science, mathematics, languages and information technology, and the associated issue of teaching 'out of field'.
A range of factors are contributing to the shortage, including high retirement rates of teachers, particularly over the next five years, problems in retaining teachers attracted to the profession (although this has improved), as well as the retention of those in mid-career, and the targeted recruitment of Australian teachers by overseas agencies (mainly in the US, UK and parts of Asia). These issues are comprehensively addressed in the Department of Education Science and Training report Australia's Teachers: Australia's Future (2003). Although the report is timely, and it rigorously analyses the problems, only time will tell if, and how, the recommendations of the report will be implemented.
A review of salary levels for teachers must also be considered. Compared to their counterparts in other professions, such as law, medicine and engineering, Australian teachers are remunerated at significantly lower levels, especially after their first few years in the profession. This is despite performing a role in the community at least as complex and important as their colleagues in the medical and legal professions. While starting salaries for teachers in Australia have improved, and are on par with entry level salaries in other professions, after only a few years they fall quickly behind. Beyond 8-10 years of the teachers' incremental salary scale, other professions' salaries multiply at a rate teachers can only dream of. This means that there is very little scope for teachers to elevate their salary after ten years in the profession, unless they seek an administrative position. This has implications for the attraction and retention of teachers in the profession, and is a key reason for the current teacher shortage.
A further challenge for the Australian educational community is to search for ways of developing stronger functional relationships between schools and teacher education institutions. Currently, schools and universities work largely in isolation from one another. The consequence of this is that student teachers do not spend enough time in schools as a part of their professional experience, and emerge from their courses with little experience or knowledge of the real world of teaching. The NSW report Quality Matters, or the Ramsey Review, which was released in 2002, was at pains to stress how new teachers are not prepared to apply their academic skills in the classroom, and are unfamiliar with the nature and operation of school and classroom cultures. Based on these findings, Ramsey made a range of recommendations, one of which was that student teachers' practical experience should occupy a more central and emphasised position during their pre-service preparation.
Finally, since it is central to the development of highly accomplished teachers, ongoing professional learning is a further challenge that needs to be confronted. Professional learning enables teachers to keep abreast of developments in their learning areas and in touch with advances in pedagogy. However, a number of recent reviews, inquiries and reports - the Senate Inquiry (1998), referred to above, the Victorian government report Public Education: The Next Generation (2000), the Ramsey Review (2002) and the Vinson Inquiry into Public Education in NSW (2002) - have found that the professional learning opportunities open to teachers are patchy, piecemeal and invariably of low quality. This is despite much evidence suggesting that teachers highly value opportunities to improve their teaching and learning.
It is also imperative that future professional learning efforts are not simply reproductions of those we have employed in the past. Rather than the "one-shot" workshop, seminar and conference model that may result in little, if any, real improvement in teachers' content and/or pedagogical knowledge, professional learning programs need to be long-term. In partnership with the private sector and industry (particularly in the case of science, mathematics and technology teachers), education authorities need to invest heavily in ongoing, school-based, evidence-driven and collaborative professional learning strategies. These strategies must be rigorously evaluated to determine their effect on teacher knowledge and skills, and particularly student learning outcomes.
Meeting the challenges outlined above will require considerable creativity, innovation, political will and leadership. It will also mean considerable injections of funding. If these issues are not addressed satisfactorily, Australia's teachers, and therefore Australia's future as a competitive player in the international arena, may be in jeopardy.
Subject HeadingsTeacher training