Recuit, train teachers better for higher scores.
Alan Tudge, The Australian, 22 June, 2021
When asked why Singapore has such astounding success in school education, the Singaporean high commissioner’s response to me was crystal clear: “It boils down to the human capital you recruit.”
Singapore recruits its teachers exclusively from the top 10 per cent of applicants and trains them at a single, highly regarded institution with a sole focus on making them ready to teach.
Australia used to sit alongside Singapore in the top performing nations in education outcomes, but in the past 20 years Singapore has improved its standards while Australia has gone backwards.
We have lost the equivalent of a year’s worth of learning. The average 15-year-old Singaporean student is three years ahead of the average 15-year-old Australian in mathematics and 18 months ahead in reading and science.
So how do we turn this around? Through the human capital we recruit. Recruiting exceptional talent and training them in evidence-based practices are not the only things that lead to higher standards in schools but they are universally regarded as among the most, if not the most, important things.
The Grattan Institute estimates recruiting a higher-achieving teaching workforce would boost the average student’s learning by six to 12 months, almost reversing the two-decade decline.
We are lucky to have some of the most dedicated and hardworking teachers in the world. Every day they change children’s lives. I have nothing but admiration for our teachers, particularly because of how they have handled the challenges thrown at them during the pandemic. But many say they don’t feel well prepared when they enter the classroom, and the number of top-performing students entering teaching has declined by a third in the past 15 years, the biggest drop of any faculty.
Many teacher education faculties have been infected with dogma and teaching fads at the expense of evidence-based practices. The clearest example of this is how students are taught to read.
During the past two decades students in teaching degrees increasingly were told that, rather than learning to decode words using phonics, kids should guess at words based on the pictures they saw and the context. There is no evidence to support this as the most effective method for teaching kids to read.
Indeed, national reading inquiries in the US in 2000, Britain in 2006 and our own in 2005 concluded that decoding (phonics) must be taught systematically along with vocabulary and comprehension. Recent research has reinforced these findings.
Twenty years later, the tide has begun to turn in schools, but phonics still is not universally taught in initial teacher education courses. To La Trobe University’s credit, it started a short course in phonics recently. Almost overnight, 1000 teachers signed up.
This tells me that teachers want to learn best-practice teaching methods. But it is also an indictment on teacher education faculties that they weren’t taught this to begin with.
It is shameful because the people who are most affected by poor teaching practices, particularly in regards to reading, are disadvantaged kids who don’t have the parents at home to fill in the gaps, or children who have reading difficulties such as dyslexia.
The same can be said in relation to explicit teaching, where the teacher leads the learning, rather than inquiry-based, or “child-led”, learning methods.
McKinsey analysis shows a student who is taught predominantly through explicit teaching methods has a 10-month advantage in their learning at age 15.
The evidence is clear, but it still is resisted by many in education faculties.
This year I launched a review of teacher training courses. The expert panel now has released its discussion paper to seek public feedback. I already see clear themes from the panel’s work.
We must do better at recruiting and training teachers. Evidence-based practices must be taught in our publicly funded universities. We should have alternative pathways into teaching, including shorter ones, based on successful practices abroad. This will be important to attract some mid-career professionals to teaching as an alternative career and to help address teacher shortages, particularly in maths.
Before I entered parliament I helped found Teach for Australia, a non-profit organisation. It attracts outstanding graduates from non-teaching backgrounds and fast-tracks them into teaching in an apprenticeship model after a six-week induction.
We also need a more practical focus in teacher education courses. This is something the old teachers colleges got right. We need to get more principals and leading teachers, who are the real experts on effective instruction, involved in training future teachers, rather than only academics and researchers. In medicine, practitioners are typically the teachers of future doctors and the same principle should apply in education.
The government has taken steps to improve teacher training, including introducing an accreditation system for teaching courses and testing graduates’ literacy and numeracy before entering the classrooms to teach.
But to return to the level of Singapore and the other top-performing nations, more needs to be done. This review, which will report back by the end of this year, is a significant step towards this end.
Alan Tudge is the federal Education and Youth Minister.
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