It doesn’t take academics to train teachers

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
28 April, 2023

Yesterday, the New Zealand Initiative launched a new report. Save Our Schools makes wide-ranging recommendations to rescue our failing school system.

One problem is a knowledge-poor curriculum. In NCEA, we have a qualifications system that often leads to disconnected and incomplete coverage of school subjects. We have no reliable measures of educational achievement to hold schools accountable for their performance.  We do not train teachers in a way that adequately prepares them for the classroom.

If I could wave a wand and solve just one of these problems, it would be teacher training. High-quality teaching is the most important determinant of learning – and high-quality teaching depends on high-quality training.

Most teachers do the best they can with the training they had. They are not to blame for their inadequate preparation. It is the fault of a system that gives universities an effective monopoly on teacher training.

Nearly 20 years ago, specialist teachers’ colleges were merged with universities. Teachers’ college staff, mostly ex-teachers themselves, had to complete PhDs and become academics. Universities went on to develop postgraduate programmes in teacher education.

I recently visited one of very few non-university providers of initial teacher education, New Zealand Graduate School of Education (NZGSE). I saw there an exemplary model of how we should prepare new teachers for the profession.

Teachers-in-training at NZGSE spend the bulk of their time in classrooms, gaining practice at being teachers. NZGSE teacher educators observe them frequently, provide coaching and feedback, and assess them against a long list of things that competent teachers can do. When teachers-in-training can do all of those things to the required standard, fluently and consistently, they can graduate.

But providers like NZGSE have a problem. Postgraduate qualifications are desirable to prospective teachers. And it is difficult for non-university providers to have these qualifications approved. It is expected that postgraduate qualifications will be taught by research-active academics.

It does not take academics to train teachers. What it does take, are people who know how children learn, and can impart that knowledge to teachers-in-training. People like NZGSE’s teacher educators.

We should relieve university lecturers involved in teacher training from any expectation to be ‘research-active’. That would make it easier for institutions that don’t have research-active staff to have postgraduate teaching qualifications approved.

To improve the quality of teacher training, we must break the universities’ near-monopoly on initial teacher education and open the door to competition from providers like NZGSE.

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