Failure to launch: postgraduate initial teacher education

December 2012


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The Ministry of Education’s welcome u-turn in June on its policies concerning class sizes and teacher cuts had a knock-on effect for the proposal to move initial teacher education to postgraduate-level. Now confusion reigns among providers and prospecti

Several years ago, the Education Workforce Advisory Group was tasked with investigating the best path for initial teacher education in New Zealand. In April 2010, the group, comprised of an array of key people involved with teacher education, presented to Anne Tolley, Minister of Education at the time, their report, A Vision for the Teaching Profession, whichrecommended, among other things, moving toward initial teacher education being provided only at postgraduate level. The recommendation was made on the back of evidence-based characteristics of effective initial teacher education and induction.

The period of public consultation following the release of the findings resulted in a mixed reaction from the sector. While many expressed their concerns, others were broadly supportive of the raising the standard of teacher education through a postgraduate programme.

Based on the Advisory Group’s report and general support from the sector, Minister Tolley pushed the idea forward. Hekia Parata, on becoming the new Education Minister, continued to support the drive for postgraduate initial teacher education. Cabinet Business Committee Papers dating April 2012, released under the Official Information Act, show the Ministry’s clear intent to carry out the proposals of the Education Workforce Advisory Group, including strengthening initial teacher education through a postgraduate approach.

Interestingly, the document states that although any decisions need to be considered in the context of Budget 2012, ‘these initiatives will largely be funded from reprioritisation of current expenditure’. The document also acknowledges ‘a small net cost associated with the system improvements being implemented’.

Minister Parata’s Budget 2012 announcement on 12 May this year declared a shift to a postgrad focus for teacher education. “To raise teaching quality, we have to identify who is delivering successful practice and make that common practice,” said Parata. “A post-graduate qualification will be introduced as a minimum for all trainee teachers.”

However, it was another aspect of this speech, which would see all hell break loose in education circles. The proposal to increase class sizes and reduce teaching staff at intermediate and middle schools provoked intense backlash from schools around the country. Under immense pressure from the public, by 7 June, Minister Parata confirmed a complete policy u-turn of no teacher cuts or increases to class sizes.

Teachers, principals, and parents expressed huge relief at the reversal of the decision. However, little attention was given to the repercussions of the policy backflip. The Ministry had hoped to save some $114 million through the unpopular proposals, which was to be channelled into strengthening teacher education and professional development, among other initiatives.

Although at the time of the backdown on class sizes, Parata said the shift to postgraduate initial teacher education would still go ahead, it now appears the Ministry is also pushing back on this policy in an attempt to save costs and buy more time. A further report released under the Official Information Act also cites teacher supply and demand trends as a reason that moving to a postgraduate qualification will deliver limited results in the short term.

While (as at time of writing) no public announcement has been made confirming the Ministry’s position on the matter, it appears to be clear and common knowledge among teacher education providers that the Ministry’s enthusiasm for implementing postgraduate initial teacher education programmes in the near future has now waned.

Mixed messages

Confusion is rife among providers.

“There are very mixed messages from the Ministry of Education on postgrad teacher education,” says Jay Reid of AUT University. “The latest is that mandatory postgraduate teacher educationwill not proceed, at least in the short term. Given the Minister’s public statements on the issue, the budget links, there should be great embarrassment at the backdown.”

Reid struggles to follow the logic that the shortfall in the budget due to the reversal of the class size policy is one of the key reasons for preventing the implementation.

“I find the link with resourcing bizarre,” he says.“There aren’t really any extra costs associated with postgrad teacher education.”

Duguld Scott of Victoria University of Wellington shares this opinion.

“It appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to the decision on class sizes,” he says. “The Ministry’s sums weren’t that good”.

Peter Lind, director of Teachers Council, agrees that within the parameters of student caps there are unlikely to be many internal costs for providers whether they structure their programmes as undergraduate or postgraduate, but he says it does have wider economic implications for teacher salaries.

James Chapman of Massey University suggests the argument for increasing teacher salaries has been blown out of proportion. While he agrees salaries would increase over time, it would have little impact in the short term. He says the 20 to 30 students emerging from Massey’s postgraduate programme would be a “drop in the ocean”.

Chapman believes there is still a lack of clarity why the decision has been made to halt the move to postgraduate teacher education.

“Either the Ministry doesn’t understand how universities are funded, which is possible, or they don’t understand how to deal with TEC funding, which is also possible,” he says.

Is postgrad the way to go?

The public consultation revealed concerns about a shift to postgraduate initial teacher education. Many teachers, particularly those in the early childhood and primary sectors, felt a one year programme on top of an unrelated undergraduate degree would provide insufficient preparation for the classroom.

This feedback from an early childhood teacher was representative of many others: “My concern is that a one year process for initial teacher education is far too short a time to acquire the necessary academic/theoretical knowledge that sits alongside the practical requirements of practicum, especially if the undergraduate degree is not related to education.”

However, the consultation also revealed many advocates for the proposal and there remains strong support among many providers.

Duguld Scott says he is “very much in favour” of a postgraduate focus. “I see it as a means of helping schools become more evidenced-based, helping teachers become better equipped to deal with course work, better assessment levels of teachers, and better at catering for students in low socioeconomic groups – which is where New Zealand’s educational performance is lacking in the sea of all the good stuff that is happening.”

Chapman says it is a challenge for undergraduate teacher education programmes to achieve any degree of research output that is required under the PBRF requirements. He believes research is important and one of the prompts for Massey’s new Institute of Education, which aspires to sit alongside institutes in London, Ontario, Melbourne and Harvard.

Dr Louise Starkey, of Victoria University, says the NZQA descriptors show that level 8 is the level required for teachers teaching in the 21st century.

“There is a suspicion that universities are keen for a shift to postgrad because it means more funding, but this isn’t the reason. We are simply interested in the best outcomes,” she says.

These views are supported by recent Graduating Teacher Standards, prepared by Auckland’s Graeme Aitken, Claire Sinnema, and Frauke Meyer in building on previous initiatives by NZQA and New Zealand Teachers Council to develop a graduate profile for initial teacher educations standards, proposes expectations or ‘standards’ for what teacher education graduates need to be able to do on entry into the profession. The authors present a Teaching for Better Learning Model from which six standards emerge, which require new teachers to think about their decisions made on students’ learning priorities, teaching strategies, personal professional learning, and the critique of the education system that influences their teaching. The model, which “acknowledges that teaching is a complex undertaking”, has implications for teacher education curriculum, specifically the content and structure of the course.

This theme is picked up by the sister paper Learning to Practise by Auckland’s Helen Timperley, which discusses ways to put the Teaching for Better Learning Model into practice. The main message is that teacher education can’t continue at the same level it is now and requires a major rethink.

If a postgraduate approach is to be the answer – and this is not the explicit suggestion – providers agree that it needs to be done well with ongoing input, critique, and refining.

“The Ministry is looking for a silver bullet that they’re not going to find,” says Scott. “It can’t be prescriptive – it needs to be a continuous reflective process.”

While Scott makes the point that other professions, like architecture, have moved to a postgraduate model will little fuss, Peter Lind counters that many professions also operate effectively from undergraduate training, like law, for example.

Lind thinks careful consideration needs to be given to why a postgraduate qualification is necessary for initial teacher education.

“In the 1990s, shifting teacher education to a university undergrad programme was thought to be sufficient, and now the yard sticks are moving again.”

Lind says providers need to look closely at what a quality teacher education programme requires.

“It is no use renaming a qualification as postgraduate for the sake of it.”

Reid agrees.He believes the challenge for a postgraduate programme would be in framing a one year theory and practice course.

“It wouldn’t do to simply rename other graduate secondary programmes, for example.”

Although he professes “no strong feelings” about a postgraduate focus, Reid quashes the criticism that under a postgrad model a teacher’s education would be reduced to a one year course, and he says the undergraduate degree is certainly relevant.

“I would be in favour of a postgrad teacher education programme if there were stringent entry and selection criteria.”

By hitting the pause button on postgrad teacher education, Lind thinks the Ministry has given providers a chance to prove why the postgrad model is necessary.

“I think university deans should be using this time as an opportunity to demonstrate that postgrad is the way to go, that there are gains to be made.”

However, it might not be that straightforward. A moratorium introduced years ago by former Minister of Education Trevor Mallard aimed at preventing the proliferation of teacher education programmes is now seen by many providers to be blocking the way to exploring these avenues. Scott says the moratorium is now being used by the Ministry to stop anything new.

Chapman agrees the original intent of the moratorium is being misused by the Ministry, which issued a statement to say the moratorium must remain in place with no changes to be made to initial teacher education programmes in terms of site or mode or delivery. This interpretation of the moratorium has prevented Massey from offering its programmes through various distance learning capabilities and via its Albany campus. Chapman says it defies all logic. “It is an unnecessary interference in a democratic country.”

Chapman has a right to feel put out. In accordance with international best practice and in alignment with Government policy at the time, Massey set out to implement a postgraduate teacher education programme as part of its new Institute of Education. Despite receiving NZQA approval for the programme, Massey has been informed by the Ministry that they can’t proceed due to the moratorium.

^Collaboration the key

With many providers experiencing the same frustrations in trying to move forward on the same issues, collaboration is important. This became clear from discussions at the recent Teacher Education Forum of Aotearoa New Zealand (TEFANZ) meeting held this year at Massey University.

Chapman says the limiting and damaging misuse of the moratorium has been something that the deans of the merged colleges of education strongly agree on and has inspired collaboration across institutions.

But Peter Lind thinks there is scope for more sharing across institutions for the overall good of the system.

“It is perhaps a naive political perspective, but ideally, the universities should get together to pool their research and establish the best path.”

Lind points to the example that Canterbury, Massey, and Auckland universities are all conducting costly research on the impact of face-to-face interviews for recruitment into teacher education programmes. In a perfect world, they should be collaborating, he says.

Lind says the role of the Teachers Council could potentially be to provide more opportunity to incentivise this sort of collaboration. With adequate funding, he envisages Teachers Council providing forums so providers do not feel coerced.

Of course, with the findings of the Teachers Council review expected soon, these sorts of decisions will remain on hold for the time being. Part of the Teachers Council’s role is to approve and review teacher education programmes, so it is possible findings of the review will tie in with clarification about the future direction of initial teacher education. Perhaps the Ministry is planning to announce any revisions to the role and operation of Teachers Council at the same time as clarifying the confusion around postgraduate teacher education?

Prospective teachers caught in the fray

For the sake of the providers, but also those individuals hoping to become teachers, hopefully clarification will arrive soon.

Indeed, the mounting confusion over the issue is causing concern for some prospective teachers. Reid says he expects far fewer will apply for teacher programmes next year due to the uncertainty and mixed messages. Scott agrees teacher education programmes may be looking at a rather lean year.

However, in documentation released under the Official Information Act, the Ministry reassures current students that they can be confident about the quality of their qualification and that it is acceptable for provisional registration as a primary or secondary teacher.

Starkey says the issue of switching to a postgraduate programme has wider implications for students, with many concerned about the Government’s decision to abolish student allowances for postgraduate students.

Starkey believes that beyond these concerns, most students do not care whether an undergraduate or postgraduate approach is taken.

“Those who want to become a teacher will do whatever it takes to get there,” she says.

Like other areas of education, plans for initial teacher education have taken a rollercoaster ride this year. The domino effect has seen the failure to implement one policy affect the implementation of another. Initial teacher education providers believe shifting to a postgraduate model is inevitable, an “unstoppable force”, as Duguld Scott says.

Change will happen it seems; for now, clarification appears to be what is needed most.