Virtual concurrent announcements by the NSW state government and the federal government to strengthen teacher training and improve teaching quality highlight fundamental issues that are restraining effective schooling reform, namely, the parallel involvement of both tiers of government to achieve a common goal and governments’ apparent inability to consensually agree to implement holistic system change to improve the teaching profession.
Both announcements represent a metaphoric illustration of the difficulties facing governments attempting to find agreement over the progressive emasculation of the Gonski review into school funding.
On 5 March the NSW O’Farrell government announced moves to improve teacher quality by including minimum Higher School Certificate (HSC) criteria for school leavers hoping to enter a teaching degree at university. In addition students undertaking teaching degrees will be required to pass a literacy and numeracy test. Graduate teachers will enjoy reduced teaching loads in order to participate in mentor and collaborative practices while all teachers will be required to obtain accreditation with the NSW Institute of Teachers. Teachers returning to the profession will need to complete teacher refresher courses.
Conveniently, School Education Minister Peter Garrett – accompanied by Tertiary Education Minister Chris Bowen - announced on 12 March that the federal government would also become more closely involved in teacher improvements. The government wishes to implement a new admission process for teachers including evidence of some participation in community activities. Literacy and numeracy testing will be required before teacher graduation based on a common assessment framework. All teaching courses would be subject to review by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.
The federal announcement conveniently coincided with the Minister Garrett’s appearance on the ABC’s Q & A television program on 12 March where Garrett seized on the government’s announcement as another initiative to ensure every teacher possesses the passion and the personal capacity to offer the best classroom practices to all Australian students.
As with the continuing impasse which exists between the states/territories and the commonwealth over school reforms prompted by the Gonski review, it appears the two governments are both proselytising broadly similar teacher outcomes. The purposes behind each government’s enthusiasm for teacher reform are dimensionally different, a point not lost on either the teaching profession or the electorate.
While the NSW government is halfway through its four-year term the federal government is obviously endeavoring to secure every possible reform mileage for teacher improvement as part of its national plan for school improvement pending the forthcoming federal election in September. The federal ALP has been forced to play catch up to the NSW initiative having been caught significantly short by the earlier announcement by NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli.
While both tiers of government are seemingly attempting to achieve broadly similar outcomes to improve teacher professionalism the following questions need to be asked.
Research has long revealed that improving the quality of teaching remains a fundamental conditioner to improve student outcomes. On this aspect alone it is commendable that both governments are focusing attention to improve the teaching profession. How the federal government proposes to adequately measure ‘teacher passion’ is highly debatable. Is there any implication that the majority of more than 250,000 Australian teachers are not already passionate towards young people’s learning?
A fundamental difference in government alliances remains unanswered between these two not dissimilar objectives. The state is responsible for government school performances and hence should be the prime instigator of teacher improvement processes. Non-government schools are required to comply with state legislated criteria so they will automatically fall into line behind new state-mandated teacher initiatives. For years many such sector schools have initiated mentor and/or comprehensive in-classroom support and assessment programs to improve student outcomes.
While the federal government clearly wishes to exert its funding muscle to muzzle the states to agree to the Gonski recommendations, its financial clout with the tertiary sector means the Commonwealth wishes to align the strategic initiative for teacher improvement from the states into the federal sphere by mandating teacher quality responsibility as a national imperative rather than a state responsibility.
Given the federal government’s financial clout over the non-government sector it becomes a simple exercise for the Commonwealth to impose implementation procedures on the sector with the threat that recurrent funding will be withheld from non-compliant schools. The rationale for such action was clearly demonstrated with the federal government’s Asian White Paper launched in late October 2013, which indicated that funding would be conditional on schools implementing Canberra-mandated language programs.
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