Data on teacher education provides valuable debate

November 3 2014

DATA plays an important role in teacher education, informing decision-making, measuring success and evaluating progress. The release of the second annual Initial Teacher Education: Data ­Report by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, which I chair, contributes to the available data and provides a stimulus for public debate.

The commonwealth government has recognised the importance of teachers getting the best possible start to their careers by establishing the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group to advise on how to improve teacher education. With the ministerial advisory group due to report soon, this report sheds light on important issues but, like all data, while it answers some questions, it raises more.

The data highlights the scale and diversity of initial teacher education in Australia. More than 78,000 students were enrolled in initial teacher education in 2012, in more than 400 courses delivered through 48 providers. They study on campus and online, full-time and part-time, and at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. We still know too little about which of these pathways produces the best results for which students. We could usefully have a debate about whether this diversity is a strength or spreads the limited resources available for teacher education too thinly.

One concern about the large number of students in teacher education is that it will lead to an oversupply. The evidence on this is mixed. It is encouraging that graduates with a bachelor degree in education are just as successful in gaining employment as those with other degrees. About half of our primary and secondary teaching graduates are employed full-time in schools four months after graduating. Another 25 per cent work part-time in schools, and the majority of these want full-time employment. Is this good enough, or should we aim to match supply and demand more closely?

One of the hottest teacher education debates is about entry standards. The report sheds light on this. Only a fifth of students entering teacher education come from secondary school and have an ATAR recorded. Others come into teaching degrees from other university study, TAFE, or based on their past work and life experiences. ATAR scores, however, for those who have one, are dropping, and teacher education is attracting fewer students with high ATARs. This contrasts with high- performing education systems, which draw teachers from the top academic performers.

Should we be concerned, or should we celebrate the diverse pathways people take into teaching careers? Would a push towards postgraduate teaching courses be the best way to ensure all new teachers have a strong academic grounding? How do we promote a diverse teaching workforce, when people from rural areas and low socio-economic backgrounds are more strongly represented in teacher education than in other degrees but students from non-English-speaking backgrounds are not?

I suspect we are only at the beginning of a major public debate on initial teacher education. I am pleased this report contributes to making it an informed one.

John Hattie chairs the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership.

This article originally appeared in The Australian.