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Can anyone teach our children?:

Governments in Australia are increasingly looking to “fast-track” professionals or high-performing graduates into teaching in schools.
By David Zyngier
Date: November 15 2013
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It’s a policy idea that has surface appeal. After all, you can get those with experience in a particular field or industry and knowledge into a classroom quickly – usually with only a few weeks training.

Only South Australia so far has rejected policies along these lines. But other federal and state governments are ignoring the warning signs about fast-tracking and ploughing ahead with their policies regardless.

Despite many politicians thinking teaching is just a matter of schooling kids in the alphabet and basic arithmetic, this policy direction is a worrisome development with real consequences for our children.

The fast-tracking movement

Finland’s director of education Pasi Sahlberg alerted Australia to the GERM or global educational reform movement some time ago. Among other things, the movement preaches the idea that anyone can teach.

In large part, this idea is what fast-tracked teacher programs are based on.

The design and worldwide expansion of such schemes has been led, and made highly visible, by an international organisation know as Teach For All. The organisation has set up programs in around 18 countries including Australia’s own Teach for Australia program.

The idea is to get recent top-performing graduates teaching in some of our most disadvantaged schools with only six weeks training. It has aggressively marketed its programs around the world, claiming it gets results for students and schools.

Teach for Australia costs about $216,500 per fast-tracked teacher. A comparative Victorian post-graduate pathway was estimated to cost government about $140,200 per fully registered teacher.

On top of the cost, the most recent Australian research supporting the claims of Teach for Australia and similar programs remains unconvincing.

Where is the evidence?

At least five US studies, three of which have been published in peer-reviewed journals, include data on Teach for All. The studies find the students of uncertified Teach For All teachers do significantly less well in reading than those of new, certified teachers, with the negative effects most pronounced in primary grades.

In mathematics, three of the studies also report significantly lower scores for beginning Teach for All teachers' students than for traditionally prepared teachers.

The stand-out research in this area was conducted by Professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University, internationally recognised as a pre-eminent scholar in the field. She examined the differences between fully qualified teachers and Teach for America teachers as reflected in student learning outcomes within and across every state of the United States. She concluded that:

"The length of teacher preparation and certification have by far the strongest effects on student achievement in reading and mathematics, both before and after controlling for student poverty and language status."

A recent independent review of teacher fast-tracking by Centre for Learning, Change and Development, School of Education at Murdoch University for the New Zealand Teachers Association (PPTA) concluded that:

Few well-designed studies exist - on a scale large enough to be useful to decision-makers - that have systematically examined the issue. Only one recent US study and one UK evaluation have done this for secondary school teachers.

Based on the few studies that addressed the issue directly, the evidence was mixed – with the report stating there was “insufficient evidence” to conclude that Teach For All teachers were as effective as their traditionally-prepared peers.

Just another fad

Fast-tracking talented professionals into the classroom is yet another imported fad from England and the USA.

Just like Teach for Australia and the UK equivalent, Teach First, fast-tracking is not based on any solid research evidence about what works in education. Almost $17 million was spent last year on fast-tracking teachers in Australia that resulted in only 14 being hired. Half of the first participants in a pilot program that fast-tracks talented graduates into teaching jobs are no longer teaching after two years.

This is not surprising as they discover that teaching is much more than just knowing your stuff. Contrary to the glowing reports, many fast-tracked teachers go unsupported in their schools and leave dispirited and disillusioned. Their voices are largely unheard and definitely under-reported.

In England, former soldiers have also been encouraged to teach through fast track qualification courses. The idea is to promote a military ethos in schools which, according to the English Minister of Education, would bring military values of leadership, discipline, motivation and teamwork into the classroom.

But would you really want ex-soldiers, many of whom may be suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, teaching our children?

Warm and upright

In the 1960s when Australia was faced with a dramatic teacher shortage, it was often said that all you needed to do to be a teacher was to be “warm and upright”.

Many thousands of under-qualified teachers then flooded into the country mainly from the USA and the UK. Ironically, this is exactly the same problem we’re seeing in England today – with too many vacant positions and desperate principals, teaching standards inevitably drop.

We know that well-prepared, well-resourced and dedicated teachers do have the power to tip the balance between success and failure for students. But of course there are many external factors outside of the school and class that have greater impact - socio-economic status, inter-generational poverty, cultural and linguistic issues all have more impact on student outcomes than teacher quality. Where is the sense of putting the country’s most difficult classrooms in the hands of the most inexperienced teachers to only perpetuate the cycle of disadvantage.

But when you send under-prepared teachers into the most disadvantaged schools, you get a recipe for disaster. These so-called fast-tracked teachers require a great deal of on the ground and continuous support - which is very time-consuming and expensive. The evidence shows that here in Australia over 50% of these fast-trackers don’t last the distance. The most educationally disadvantaged children in our schools deserve better than fast-tracked neophytes – no matter how clever they are. They need teachers who are highly experienced, committed and well-versed in dealing with children from diverse communities who understand how to meet the challenges of differentiated teaching and instruction.

Teaching is difficult, often undervalued and definitely underpaid. If we want to match the best education systems world-wide, then leave education to the professionals – and not to the whim of politicians.

* * *

This article was originally published at The Conversation

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