Appearing in Financial Review, Special Report: Your child’s education, 4 September 2017
Structural impediments holding back professional learning
Teacher development is a key element in improving education outcomes but there are structural impediments holding the profession back, according to experts in the field.
“There is no shortage of evidence showing the link between ongoing training and student results,” says Dr Lawrence Ingvarson, Principal Research Fellow with the Australian Council for Educational Research. “There are plenty of courses and classes for teachers but the problem in Australia is that there is no real system or organisation to it, and, currently, no valid and reliable means for recognition of outstanding teachers.”
At present, primary and secondary school teachers are required, when seeking re-registration, to show that they have undertaken a minimum of 100 hours of professional learning over five years. This is overseen by a statutory body in each state, and the course a teacher does must be approved by the body.
“The theory of the requirement, which relates to professional standards, is to keep teachers aware of new advances in their field and in teaching methods,” says Dr Ingvarson. “In practice, it’s all pretty vague, with the criteria for approval of courses unclear. Most of all, there is a lack of clarity as to where a teacher needs to improve, how they can improve, and how they know if they have improved. Feedback is vital for professional learning, but rarely available.”
At the school level, professional learning is taken very seriously in some schools, especially upper-tier independent schools. In some cases, they even have administrative staff dedicated to professional learning, and the school has the resources to give teachers the time to undertake training.
“That’s fine, but those schools with fewer resources can have a real problem,” Dr Ingvarson says. “Their budgets are already under pressure, and if they have to engage a relief teacher to fill in for a few days when the regular teacher is away, it can quickly soak up available funds. So you can see how professional learning can slip down the priorities list.”
Even when a teacher improves their capability they can find it very difficult to implement what they have learned. A change in methods can be disruptive, and can take some time to show benefits. Teachers are often locked into a set curriculum and an established assessment system, which discourages new techniques.
Professional learning can take many forms, from full-time advanced degrees to short courses to online classes.
“There is an obvious interdependence between knowing more about subject content and improving your methods of communication and teaching,” says Dr Ingvarson. “Listening to lectures has its place but there also has to be practical work. Collaboration with other teachers is very valuable as a means of understanding students’ needs and engaging with them.”
While the diversity of learning opportunities has its advantages the downside is a lack of coherence. Many providers are privately-run training organisations, and the quality varies widely.
“At the moment, there is simply no feeling among teachers that they own the professional learning system,” says Dr Ingvarson. “Many providers see it as a way of making profits rather than tying what they offer to educational outcomes. When you compare that to the professional development system of, say, the accounting profession, where the industry associations play a key role, it should be no surprise that teachers feel that it is not there to serve them.”
One way to deal with the issue is a system of professional certification, to recognise teachers who have reached high levels of achievement through professional learning. There are moves under way to establish such a system through the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, although it is fragmented across states and employing authorities .
ACER recently examined the need for a rigourous national certification system in a major paper for the Business Council, and the response has been positive.
“Certification would be a critical way to promote widespread use of evidence-based practices,” Dr Ingvarson says. “At the same time, it would provide a means to improve pay rates for accomplished teachers. At the moment, the incentive for teachers to improve their capacity to do their job is weak.”
He believes that a certification system would offer a better career path for teachers and do much to improve the status of the profession. It would help to attract talented people into the profession and retain those who are there.
“Who really believes that a top salary for classroom teachers of about $90,000 means we place sufficient value on teachers’ work to attract the best university graduates?” he says. “Who really believes that the typical office spaces in which teachers are expected to prepare and assess student work are indicators of an attractive and esteemed profession?
“At present, the principles and values of professional learning are understood and recognised. The task now is to create a system to take it forward.”