Saturday, February 09, 2008

curriculum reform will not improve education without quality teachers

Some deep systemic problems of the Australian education system:
  • mathophobia amongst many students and teachers - see the incredible quote below that many primary teachers can't do grade 5 maths
  • Low status of teaching as a profession and often low quality of new teachers, who have never had very strong content knowledge
  • burnout of older teachers, after years of teaching 5 lines to often difficult classes
  • although our system (Private / government) produces some high quality students we have to acknowledge the long tail of under-achievement in Australian schools
Some extracts from Teach for Australia:
(the need for) Very strong content knowledge, particularly in English and maths. The lack of content knowledge has been a criticism of many existing teachers and teacher education degrees. Applicants to be Associate Teachers would be expected to arrive with outstanding content knowledge. As Dr Lawrence Ingvarsen from the Australian Council of Educational Research has stated: “The research indicates that you cannot use what are known to be effective teaching techniques unless you do understand the content deeply.” (page 9) ...

It is frequently noted that the quality of aspiring teachers has been in decline in the last few decades, particularly at the primary level... Professor Louden from the University of Western Australia notes that a “very large proportion of students [doing combined education degrees] cannot do grade 5 maths, because they have not learnt maths at school and they became primary teachers because it is something you can do without being any good at maths.” The National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy found that “participants [education faculty members] reported that many students lacked the literacy skills required to be effective teachers of reading. These students needed help to develop their foundational literacy skills.” (page 11)
I did a search on the Louden reference and found more detail in this article from July 2007, in The Australian:
He said poor maths skills among primary school teachers were an example of the underlying problem of the quality of those entering the education system.

While the educational debate centred on curriculum, the real challenge was to reverse the slide in the quality of people entering the profession.

Professor Louden said changing curriculums would not improve standards. "What drives improvement in schooling is teachers, one by one. It is not even good schools; it is good teachers. Good schools are schools with lots of good teachers," he said.

While half of the variance in school performance was due to the individual student, he said one-third was due to the teacher a student had in a year, 10 per cent year-on-year was in the student's socio-economic background and 5-10 per cent in the school, over and above the teacher.

"The underlying problem is that the social status of teaching has dropped dramatically," he said. "Every occupation that has been invented since 1970 is a graduate occupation and has gone into the occupational hierarchy above teaching.

"When I was a boy, most accountants did not have degrees. Now the biggest faculty in every university is a commerce faculty, and they are all people who are expecting to earn more and have higher social status than teaching."

While the top Australian students were among the best in the world, the system was failing those in the bottom half.

"Throughout the bottom half of kids, we just do not have it right anywhere beyond Years 3 or 4," he said. "Kids in the bottom quartile of mathematics performance at Year 5 probably learn no more mathematics, although they do another five years of mathematics.

With more searching I found this summary of current government thinking from a 2007 Senate Inquiry into the Quality of school education (162 pp):
Convincing evidence presented to the committee has stressed the centrality of good teaching as the factor which has most bearing on educational quality. Good teachers are the key to good performance. Good schools are those which are made up of good teachers. The committee has found that at a time of growing consensus on curriculum improvements, the threat to improved standards may result from the insufficient numbers of more able recruits to the teaching profession, and the failure of employing authorities to place a sufficiently high priority on measures which maintain the professional and intellectual vigour of teachers. This is particularly so in the case of teachers who have been at the chalkface for many years and whose sense of vocation is under strain.

It appears that in some respects the training offered to teachers does not match the needs of schools for more rigorous and challenging teaching. While this may in part be attributed to declining entry standards to teaching, the committee notes that there is some dissatisfaction with the ability of many new teachers to cope with the challenges of teaching. A great deal of emphasis has been placed recently on improving the experience of practise teaching, including its duration, vis-à-vis the time spent on more theoretical aspects of training. This committee has other concerns. It believes that many new teachers have insufficient grounding in the actual subject content they are teaching. That is, they do not know enough history, have limited appreciation of literature through not reading enough of it, and are ignorant of, and frightened of, mathematics and science. This has a direct effect on the quality of educational outcomes because it can impede student intellectual growth.

Schools are our most public institutions. They are the most vulnerable to criticism and are often perceived as failing in their mission. The committee agrees that much of this criticism is unfair, and based on misperceptions. It takes little account of the need for schools and teachers to accommodate and deal with students whose social conditioning, often in dysfunctional families, thwarts their willingness to learn and weakens their ambitions.

But often the criticism is not unfair. Schools and systems need to acknowledge that such criticism often result from informed observation of poor performance or neglect of students' leaning difficulties. The growth of skills and abilities may be stymied as much by the absence of challenge as by class disruption or slow progress of some students in a class. The failure to organise a school so as to maximise learning opportunities for all students partly explains the existence of the long tail of under-achievement which characterises the relative performance of Australian schools, compared to those in Canada, in the various international comparative surveys (page 15)


W^L+ said...

Bill, even in the U.S., we are having a tremendous problem with our education system. Now, I guess it is possible that both countries just have bad teachers, but all of the teachers I have known were hard-working and dedicated. Perhaps it is the way we train teachers, or maybe it is the administrative and organizational constraints that they work under.

U.S. schools are trying to deal with numerous societal and family issues that would have been ignored in the past, so that also could be the issue.

I don't think teachers today are much different than they were fifty years ago, when our schools were the envy of the world, so I can't see them as the primary problem.

In Australia:
Are your teachers proficient in the subject matter they are trying to teach?
Are your teachers trained in teaching, so that they have the skills to convey the knowledge to their pupils?
Are your teachers given sufficient resources so that they can focus on teaching instead of fundraising or improvising teaching materials?
Are your teachers supported with staff that can provide social assistant to students (and their families) when those needs interfere with the learning process?
Is the culture (both mainstream and native) sufficiently behind education that families and students will make it a priority?

I'm just a reader of your blog, but I'm trying to understand what makes the highly trained and motivated US teachers unable to produce educated students and whether this is the same issue you are facing in your part of the world.

Tekkie said...

I agree with the thrust of your post here, Bill. What's essential IMO is the love of learning on the part of the teachers. Even if they are not proficient in a subject, do they have the motivation to learn more about it, to become more proficient, never being satisfied with ignorance or illiteracy themselves? We should acknowledge that teachers are themselves learners. They shouldn't be as ignorant as the students are coming in, but they shouldn't consider themselves know-it-alls either. They should be encouraged to learn, explore, and enjoy their subjects, and to impart that spirit to their students.

Last year I listened to a fruitful radio talk show that listened to some real people who are involved with implementing education goals. They had some callers into the program as well. One of them talked about how teachers spend a lot of their time going to seminars, trying to learn about new "programs", as she called it. This happens every year. What I understood her to mean was that there are people who function something like consultants who teach teachers about new ways of teaching students the same subject matter. The way she described it though made it sound like teachers acquired these "programs" the same way PC users acquired software upgrades. The program is a standardized methodology, just as the software people buy is mass-produced, and so everyone gets the same thing. There's no academic vitality or sense of research in this way of acquiring pedagogy.

Teachers need to be researchers, not merely implementors.

On the subject of content literacy, we have the same problem in the U.S. Last year I heard that most math teachers never took math. A lot of them were trained as gym teachers. The reason being that somehow gym teachers are considered more "generic", and so have more of a choice of what teaching positions they can take, or something. When I was in the public school system I don't recall seeing this disconnect. In primary school, my teachers taught multiple subjects: math, English, history, social studies, geography, science, etc. They were generalists. I don't know that they were subject experts, but they knew enough to at least teach each subject proficiently in a rote fashion. They had some flexibility. Their knowledge was not brittle. If a student asked a question they could answer it.

By the time I got to jr. high and high school most of my teachers were experts in their subject area. So it makes me cringe some when I hear that most teachers now are not subject experts. Having said this I wouldn't say my teachers were know-it-alls. I remember an instance where I stumped my pre-Calculus teacher when we discussed how calculators calculated logarithms, trig. functions, and roots. Still, he knew quite a bit about the subject he taught--namely advanced algebra.

Bill Kerr said...

reply to w^l+:

In my experience teacher quality varies a lot, from very good to very bad

The world today is very different from 50 years ago, the structural changes in the economy require higher education for more

There are other complicating cultural shifts - the entitlement mentality, the competition b/w multimedia and reading etc. I'm not attempting to present a full analysis here but did highlight some deep systemic problems

My original post referred to the decline of quality in aspiring teachers, the decline in status of teaching as a profession, compared to other professions and the problem of the long tail of mediocrity

You say teachers in the USA are "highly trained and motivated" as a generalisation. I really doubt that. I suspect they vary enormously just like Australia.

lucychili said...

Seeing teacher graduates as a finished product which is good or bad leaves out a whole lifetime of experience and opportunity to grow within a role.

It would be nice to see ways to provide more support for professional development.

What needs to change to make it more natural to be learning and trying/using new ideas as an integral part of a teaching week and in partnership with a peer community?

What opportunities, support, time, infrastructure, space, permission to make a mistake, make it possible, useful and interesting for teachers build on class and content skills?

It is possible that there needs to be more elasticity in the systems around the teachers to facilitate adaptive and experimental learning and teaching?

Bill Kerr said...

"Seeing teacher graduates as a finished product which is good or bad leaves out a whole lifetime of experience and opportunity to grow within a role"

I don't recall saying or even thinking that teacher graduates are "finished products"

Whether we are talking about traditional Schools or community based teaching, the quality of the teaching is still a very important factor - particularly for disadvantaged communities. The illusion of easily developed effortless progress is very much confined to the middle class kids, with parents providing lots of subtle guidance at home.

This might mean quality constructionism or quality behaviourism or quality community based something. In education everyone has their own perspective - that's fine - I'm advocating for quality in these perspectives

Bill Kerr said...

further reply to to w^l+:

something I forgot to say --> in Australia there has been very little extrinsic incentive for teachers to go beyond the call of duty, to walk the extra mile, to do more for the kids

Pretty much the only way to "get ahead" has been to go for promotion, which means less teaching, less contact with kids

Of course a lot of teachers do go beyond the call of duty due to intrinsic motivation - but by and large the system does not reward them in any meaningful system based manner

Over the years the system has demanded more (more work, compliance with crappy curriculum frameworks) and so the teachers, who do the real work, have often become more pissed off