The teaching profession straying from university capture

Dr Michael Johnston
21 June, 2024

In the 2024 budget, substantial funding was announced to move teacher education towards an in-school, apprenticeship-style model. The injection of funding is intended to address the shortage of teachers currently facing our schools. The shortage is predicted to worsen, particularly at secondary level. It is exacerbated by substantial attrition from the profession.

Teacher training has largely been the purview of universities since teachers’ colleges merged with them in the 1990s and early 2000s. Universities currently train approximately 90% of teachers for primary and secondary education.

Academics from university education faculties have recently criticised the intention to move away from university-based teacher education. They argued that teaching practice benefits from teacher education programmes being taught by education researchers.

Their argument sounds plausible but does not bear much scrutiny.

It is true that one rationale for the mergers was to enhance the research literacy of teachers. The hope was that basing the profession on academic research would improve the rigour of teaching practice. Yet this ambition has not been realised.

The research conducted and promulgated by education faculties in New Zealand mostly comprises small-scale, qualitative studies. Research of that kind is not reliable or generalisable. To support generalisable claims about teaching practice, large-scale quantitative research is needed. Unfortunately, though, little quantitative research is conducted by New Zealand’s education academics.

Furthermore, New Zealand’s university teacher education programmes have shown remarkable reluctance to adopt crucial developments in more reliable international education research. The example of structured literacy teaching is a case in point.

For at least two decades, international research has shown that structured teaching is the most effective way of ensuring that children learn to read and write. Yet, with the notable exception of Canterbury University, most university teacher education in New Zealand has remained rooted in the failed ‘whole language’ and ‘balanced’ methods.

Theory and research have important roles in informing teaching practice. However, if that research is not rigourous, it is likely to do harm rather than good. Furthermore, the claim that teacher education programmes are more effective when they are taught by researchers is unproven.

Another rationale for merging teachers' colleges with universities was to enhance connections between teacher education and subject-matter experts. It was hoped that teacher education programmes would gain greater disciplinary strength in subjects like science and history through interaction with academics across the university.

Unfortunately, this worthy aim was never realised. A recent report from the Education Review Office (ERO) showed that primary teachers graduating from universities feel ill-prepared to teach across the curriculum, especially in mathematics and science.  Another report, from the Royal Society Te Apārangi in 2021, showed that primary teachers’ average level of mathematics knowledge is insufficient.

On the practical side, university programmes are not adequately preparing teachers for the realities of the classroom. After two decades of universities enjoying a near-monopoly on teacher education, the profession is in substantial trouble.

A 2018 survey by the primary teachers’ union found that half of all teachers leave the profession within their first five years. In a 2023 survey of 1,591 teachers by the Teaching Council, 58% of respondents said it was likely or very likely that they would leave the profession in the next five years. Only 16% said it was not very, or not at all, likely. Enrolments in initial teacher education programmes have also been trending downwards.

An important factor contributing to this situation is the increasing complexity of behavioural challenges that teachers face in the classroom. Another ERO report published by in March of this year found that students’ behaviour in our classrooms is the worst in the OECD, and that it is worsening.

These are downstream effects. Upstream lies the harsh reality that university courses do very little to equip new teachers with skills in classroom management. A recent survey from ERO found that less than a third feel prepared for the job. Just 35% of the new teachers surveyed felt adequately prepared to manage challenging behaviour.

The report also found that new teachers graduating from non-university providers were twice as likely to report feeling prepared for the job as their counterparts from university programmes. Most non-university programmes use the apprenticeship model targeted by the new funding.

The teaching profession, and our young people, have been poorly served by the university model of teacher education. Investing in alternative approaches is not just a good idea. It’s necessary.

To read the full article on the Newsroom website, click here.

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