Good teachers need to be many things. They must be experts in the knowledge they teach. They must be skilled in passing that knowledge on to their students. They must be able to maintain orderly classrooms. Increasingly, they must also deal with a raft of social and psychological problems that impede young people’s learning.
Teaching is one of the hardest jobs of all to do well. It is also one of the most important. Good teachers can turn troubled young lives around. They provide a foundation of knowledge and skill on which young people can build prosperity, social connection and self-expression.
The way in which we prepare teachers for the classroom is vitally important. Teaching can be a very stressful job. If teachers start their careers insufficiently prepared, we put them at risk. Far too many burn out and leave the profession within a few short years of starting.
This week, The New Zealand Initiative released a new report, Who Teaches the Teachers? We analysed the structure and content of our universities’ teacher education programmes, which account for about 90 percent of primary and secondary teaching graduates in New Zealand. We found multiple problems, but they can be summed up by saying our universities do not make new teachers ready for the classroom.
One problem is that the practical classroom experience in teacher education is deficient – in quantity and quality. Teachers-in-training spend as little as 16 weeks in the classroom. Furthermore, any fully certificated teacher can oversee these work placement experiences. That means teachers with as little as two years of teaching can have pivotal roles in teacher training.
There are no nationally mandated criteria for assessing whether new teachers are ready for the classroom. These judgments are typically made by the schools in which teachers in training complete their placements. The result is an unreliable and inconsistent assessment process.
The coursework typical of the universities’ teacher education programmes also leaves much to be desired. In a thematic analysis, we found that more than half of the 221 courses that comprise university degree programmes had a ‘social justice’ dimension. Just two had any focus on the science of learning.
The results of this skew are evident in our literacy data. For more than two decades, the reading and writing skills of our young people have been declining. That is largely attributable to the dominance of the social constructivist ‘whole language’ approach to teaching literacy, which has little empirical support. In contrast, structured literacy – which is strongly informed by the science of learning – has a great deal of research evidence in its favour.
The universities dominate teacher education in New Zealand, but there are also a few private providers. One is the New Zealand Graduate School of Education in Christchurch. This has a model of teacher education that our universities should seek to emulate.
At the Graduate School of Education, teachers-in-training are close to full-time in the classroom. It is a very practical programme. Furthermore, its experience is overseen not by an essentially random assortment of classroom teachers, but by highly skilled teacher educators. These observe teachers-in-training and give them detailed feedback, coaching and mentoring, sometimes in real time.
The assessment of classroom readiness at the Graduate School of Education is also much more rigorous than it is in university programmes. Teacher educators there have a long checklist of teaching behaviours that must all be practised fluently and consistently before a teacher in training can graduate.
The coursework is also much more informed by reliable research than the university programmes typically are. This is ironic, because one of the main arguments for merging the old teachers’ colleges with universities more than 20 years ago was to achieve greater focus on research-informed practice in teacher education.
The very same teacher educators who coach and mentor teachers-in-training in the classroom, and assess their classroom readiness, also teach the coursework on Graduate School of Education programmes. This creates a very tight relationship between the coursework and its practical application – another thing that’s lacking in the university model.
Another alternative model of secondary school teacher education is a partnership between about 20 schools in the upper North Island, and the University of Waikato. Under this model, teachers-in-training work full-time in one of the participating schools, while completing a Waikato qualification online.
This model also has some strong features. Teachers-in-training form close relationships with the schools in which they are working. Most go on to be employed in those same schools. That provides a strong incentive for the schools to mentor them well. Some of these schools also run courses for staff in the science of learning and other important aspects of teaching.
The necessity to simultaneously undertake the Waikato qualification does create a very heavy workload, though. And, like other university programmes, the Waikato degree has a strong social constructivist flavour, which is at odds with the teaching philosophies of some of the participating schools.
A promising way ahead for teacher education would be a hybrid of the Graduate School of Education and the Auckland partnership model. This would involve groups of schools developing their own teaching qualifications and establishing providers such as the Graduate School of Education to provide coursework, mentoring, practical coaching and assessment expertise. The schools would provide venues for practical classroom experience and specialist subject expertise, especially at secondary level.
Teacher education in New Zealand needs a radical shakeup. The university approach has not yielded the research-led teaching approaches that were hoped for. Our young people are bearing the consequences. Partnerships between schools and specialist providers would help to achieve the reform we urgently need.