The truth about teaching graduates

When a medical graduate starts their career, are they expected to immediately know how to treat any malady that walks in the door? What about law graduates? Should they be able to argue a case in Australia’s highest court in their first week, month or year?

It is reasonable to expect they have the foundational knowledge to hold them in good stead. But the new GP will have treatments and diagnoses overseen by a senior medico. The rookie lawyer will learn about the ins and outs of court and complete practical training with mentor support.

Why would anyone expect anything different for teaching graduates?

The headlines scream that initial teacher education (ITE) courses are failing graduates.

The reviews cry out for reform.

The one-sided reports state graduates are unprepared for the realities of the classroom, as if they’ve never set foot in one before they’ve tossed their graduation caps into the air.

As the Executive Dean of Australia’s largest trainer of teachers, I’d like to offer some perspective.

This is not about passing the buck. This is not about denying there is always room for improvement. But we need to move beyond the scapegoating and misinformation.

We are told through the headlines that graduates are to blame for declining student performance.

The reality is teaching graduates make up about 8 per cent of the teaching workforce. They graduate trained and tested in the latest evidence-based strategies and practices designed to meet students’ diverse learning needs, and plan for effective lessons and authentic assessments.

We need to make sure this level of knowledge continues throughout a teacher’s career. Like the students they teach, all educators must be lifelong learners.

Teachers need to keep adding to their repertoire through quality professional development (PD) programs to ensure their practice remains effective, relevant, and responsive.

Teachers need to know the latest evidence that, for example, shows systemic phonics is important for children to learn to read.

Just like those medical graduates as they progress through their careers, teachers cannot be using the same outdated approaches they learned years ago and hope for improved outcomes.

This is where ACU’s new Australian Centre for the Advancement of Literacy, for example, will build evidence for ITE programs and provide PD for all stages of a teacher’s career.

We are told that teaching degrees are based on fads and need to be overhauled.

The reality is teaching degrees are evidence-based. They are already highly prescribed by the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and assessed by panels of principals, teachers, and teacher educators.

They incorporate many disciplines including psychology, cognitive science, sociology, philosophy, and literature. As evidence changes, programs change.

We are told ITE students are dropping out of their courses, thus causing the teacher shortage.

The reality is we are seeing a rise in pre-service teachers studying part-time, largely due to cost-of-living pressures and the financial impost of having to complete largely unfunded school placements.

A four-year undergraduate degree can therefore take eight years or more to complete. But with official measures misrepresented, students are reported as having ‘dropped out’ if they are course incomplete six years after they started, so attrition rates are inflated.

We are told graduates just aren’t prepared.

The reality is preservice teachers are subject to some of the most stringent requirements before they can even dream about leading their own classrooms.

In addition to the Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education, they must pass rigorous teaching performance assessments including the ACU-designed Graduate Teacher Performance Assessment, which is moderated against 18 Australian universities to assure classroom readiness.

During their final placement, they must demonstrate their understandings of classroom context and students’ needs, and planning, teaching, and assessing students’ learning.

We are told students don’t have enough time in the classroom – we agree.

This is why ACU has long called for systemic improvements to school placement opportunities for all teaching students, and better financial supports for preservice teachers who often take time away from work to complete them.

But this is also why ACU has been an early adopter of flexible pathways including internships, accelerated courses, opportunities for preservice teachers to work as classroom paraprofessionals, and our earn and learn partnership with Teach for Australia.

The reality is that graduates have the skills, knowledge, and competence to teach and manage classrooms at a graduate level. Initial teacher education is initial.

Early career teachers need intensive mentoring in schools and ongoing PD to establish their practice and progress against professional standards.

ITE programs provide graduates with knowledge to understand what underpins their decisions as educators, with effective pedagogical practices to meet student needs, with evidence-based teaching, learning, and assessment strategies, and authentic opportunities to practice their skills.

The national spotlight on ITE courses is welcome. But what isn’t welcome is the disregard for the facts and the undermining of our newest members of the most noble of professions.

This op-ed by Professor Mary Ryan was first published in the Australian Financial Review.

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