As the Education Council prepares to take their pitch for a move to postgraduate ITE on the road, it seems inevitable that the proposal will get over the line.
Both unions, on behalf of teachers, are cautiously supportive of at least an investigation of the proposal, but say their job is to keep the Ministry, universities, and the Education Council honest about the fact that there are myriad side effects that need to stay on the agenda. JAYLAN BOYLE talks to a few of the parties to the upcoming consultation.
In April the possibility of real change in New Zealand’s teacher education system became a likelihood, following the comments of our most recent ex-Minister of Education, and public statements from the Education Council as to what they think the future should look like.
‘Lifting the status of the profession’ has become the most macro goal of education outside the classroom itself. The Education Council places the mantra at the heart of it's raison d’être. As is nearly always the case in New Zealand education, there is robust disagreement as to the recipe for success.
Recap: what’s on the table?
When Ms Parata ruffled feathers in April by telling The New Zealand Herald that “teaching has one of the lowest bars [to entry] of any profession”, Parliament’s most recent retiree was furthering a narrative first taken up meaningfully back in the days of Anne Tolley’s Ministry, following a report from the Teacher’s Council (since reconstituted as the Education Council) in 2010 that delivered several key recommendations.
Of most interest was the recommendation that ITE provision be undertaken only at postgraduate level. It seems obvious that this change would impact prospective primary and early childhood teachers most – currently, primary and ECE teachers can enter the profession with a three-year Bachelor of Teaching, a qualification that sits at Level 6 on the NZQF framework.
If the recommendations come to pass, the upshot of a mandatory postgraduate entry bar is that teachers across all three sectors would get their wings at Level 8 on the NZQF framework – meaning everybody spends at least four years becoming a teacher.
April saw another key development in what has been a slow burn towards seemingly inevitable change, when the Education Council publically firmed up its position on the matter.
Dr Graham Stoop told The New Zealand Herald: “Every teacher in the country would have a bachelor’s degree in arts or science or commerce, law, whatever it happens to be. That would give us the content knowledge that we want them to have. Then there would be, let’s say a Level 8 postgraduate teacher education programme on top of that.
“This goes back to the core purpose of the Education Council – to raise the status of the profession...”
Whereas the current Level 7 graduate diploma in teaching is typically run over the course of a full year, Dr Stoop has also signalled that the Education Council see the postgraduate course stretching to “three or four semesters”.
That’s the pitch that the Education Council will be taking on the road at the end of the month, as it embarks on a sector consultation process.
The thorny bits...
On the subject of a mandatory postgraduate entry bar, both teacher’s unions and opposition education spokesperson Chris Hipkins have reacted in similar fashion: they’re heartily behind the overarching goal of raising the status of the teaching profession, and are more cautiously supportive of an investigation into whether moving to a mandatory Level 8 entry bar might help do the trick.
The consultation framework document released ahead of the Education Council’s pitch to the sector cites lots of research supporting the idea that more qualified teachers make better teachers, and positions the move as a key step in raising the status of teaching.
“Overall, selectivity in entry seems very desirable. High selectivity is evident in strongly performing education systems where the quality of teaching is held in high regard (for example, Singapore and Finland). Aside from the obvious benefits of more likely successful ITE experience and quality of outcomes, having high entry standards may help to reposition teaching more generally as a high status profession and one that it is a privilege to enter.”
Jack Boyle, recently minted president of the PPTA, sees a disconnect here – lifting the bar to entry in the hope that teaching will come to be seen as a gold standard profession is a bit like putting your dog’s empty bowl on a table: sure, the bowl could be seen as more aspirational, but it’s still empty. Boyle says using a country like Finland as justification for lifting the bar to entry isn’t as simplistic as it looks, owing to factors unique to New Zealand, such as an approaching demographic bomb.
“The thorny bits, particularly for secondary schools, are numerous”, says Boyle. “Firstly, we’ve got teacher shortages in key areas – in te reo Maori, in STEM subjects, for example – we’ve got a workforce with an average age of 57.5, we’ve got challenges around backfilling the positions required for Communities of Learning, we’ve got issues around relief teachers, and we’ve unfortunately got a very high triage rate for new teachers; about 50 per cent of graduates leave the job within the first five years. We’d suggest that’s about workload, and the lower relative rates of remuneration [as compared with other professions]. We’d suggest these are barriers to getting in, and they’re not going to help retention either.
“Look at jurisdictions like Finland, where they’ve got so many people wanting to become teachers, because it’s seen as a really high status profession. [We think that’s] because of remuneration and the autonomy Finnish teachers enjoy, and the esteem they’re held in. Therefore they’re in a position to require that high entry qualification, because they need a way of filtering out the oversupply. We’re just not operating in the same context here in New Zealand.”
Winnowing or homogenising?
Lynda Stuart, president of the primary teacher’s union NZEI, is forthright in her support for more demanding entry qualifications, but cautions against any sort of ‘magic bullet’ thinking. Like the PPTA, her organisation sees part of its role in the upcoming consultation as reminding the various players that equity of access to training is just as important as equipping fresh teachers with the tools they need. As Jack Boyle says, one size does not fit all: given that modern education thinking strives to find individuated pathways for learners, why are we talking about restricting the path to the front of the class?
An increasingly homogenous pool of teachers is a fear that both Stuart and Boyle refer to repeatedly. Both are saying that before we rush into a nice, packaged, intuitively beneficial solution like lifting the entry bar across the board, we need to think about what sort of teachers we want in front of our kids.
“We run the risk … of accidentally ensuring that those people who are placed in front of our students come from just one particular part of our society,” says Stuart. “We need a really planned approach to ensure that we don’t narrow the intake of our future teachers.”
Feeding into this potentially hidden fish hook is, of course, the extra cost of becoming a teacher – under the current system, a student allowance isn’t available to study at postgraduate level, although the Education Council acknowledges that this is something for consideration. Holding up the Finnish system as an exemplar – where all teachers must attain a master’s-level qualification, Level 9 on our NZQF scale – ignores the fact that Finland is not the super-diverse nation in which we live, either culturally or socioeconomically.
The blowout in a prospective teacher’s student loan is part of what Boyle refers to as the “opportunity cost of teaching”. He’s asking us to consider the matter from a range of perspectives: what about the second-career teacher? Is he or she going to be as inclined to make the move into education when faced with a longer training programme? Surely students benefit when their teachers come from a range of backgrounds, and surely someone who can say “been there, done that” can inspire kids with their experience?
The question becomes reduced further to economic nitty gritty if one accepts the contention of unions that teachers are paid poorly against comparably qualified professions. To what extent is a passion for teaching dampened when the outputs don’t stack up to the inputs? Students of other disciplines can justify the decision to take more time and money out of their lives to attain higher qualifications, because the future rewards are enticing. Can teaching say the same?
It seems that whenever policy people come up with an attractively monolithic solution to a lofty goal, a big part of Stuart and Boyle’s job is to remind those in power that gift-wrapped answers often come with blinkers – and money, both say, is not the only stone in the shoe of the Education Council proposal. Going back to a familiar refrain, both unions consider teacher workload to be a factor in retention, as well as attracting people to the profession.
“The problem isn’t just whether teachers can survive. It’s also about workload: the increased administrative burden of a number of government initiatives, and a number of zeitgeist approaches to education. You’ve got the Education Council, who have legislation guiding them, but they have a much more accountability-focused view of teaching. So, [teachers] are doing more of the inquiry appraisal and attestation, more frequently. Now that’s not a bad thing, but if it’s to such a level that it’s taking away from teaching and learning, then it’s a problem.”
The buck (and the bucks)
While both Stuart and Boyle agree that strengthening our ITE system is crucial to the future success of education in New Zealand, both say that the idea that more qualified teachers means better education outcomes – while maybe partly, even substantially true – is consistent with recent education ideology coming out of the Beehive: that the achievement buck starts and stops with teachers.
They’re worried that front-loading teachers with more initialisms after their names means that more will be demanded of what they say is an already overstretched profession. Both say they’re concerned that teacher qualification sucks all the oxygen out of another key debate: how much money is spent on education.
“I’d really like the answer to this question,” says Boyle. “Why is it only ITE postgraduate qualifications that are being put out there as the way to lift the status of the profession?
“If you look at the high-performing international education systems, what you see in jurisdictions like Finland is that while you are teaching, you are empowered and supported to do ongoing professional learning. That PLD space is really critical. All teachers are lifelong learners.”
“If I had a magic wand, we’d have more money!” says Stuart. “We’ve got a real issue with underfunding across our education system. Ensuring that we can pay people who support children – teacher aides – that we’re able to pay them a decent wage, and that we’re able to give them some job security, is one area, for example, that desperately needs investment. They work with our most vulnerable children.
“I’d be making sure that there is strong, supportive professional development for teachers, and that teachers have the time to embed that professional development. I think we have a sector that is really time poor, too. We need to give teachers some time to really embed those things that work. That’s where I would put the money, and it would take a fair bit of it.”
Boyle and the PPTA agree that investment in PLD, and in alleviating workload pressure to allow learning to bed in, must accompany any further training demands on teachers. He questions also whether ITE can become all things to all teachers.
“I think that in order to get all of the learning you need to become a fabulous teacher, you’d probably need to be in ITE for 10 years. I certainly know that in the 12 years I was in the classroom, I was constantly learning and evolving. Now, a lot of that was interwoven with the needs of the students in front of me, and a fair amount had to do with the changing landscape of New Zealand education – I’m thinking of online technologies, flipped classrooms, different expectations around course structure, various zeitgeist measures like PB4L and restorative counselling – a teacher is constantly having to keep up. That’s before we start talking about content knowledge, which certainly doesn’t stay static, does it?
“What we need is professional learning and support to meet the changing needs of our learners, of our schools, and the context that both operate in. That’s where we’re going to get the best bang for our education buck. Not some arbitrary reaction to a flimsy, causal relationship between postgraduate ITE and the output of the teachers who come out the end of it. There’s no obvious connection between the quality of ITE and the performance measures that teachers are judged against.”
How will postgraduate ITE affect the early learning sector?
If we’re looking to inform our thinking on whether to raise the bar to entry, it follows that we should look at what other countries are doing, particularly those who have become synonymous with education excellence. The Scandinavian nations are never far away from that conversation.
As mentioned, Finland requires teachers to be qualified to master’s level, and Norway is about to follow suit. Arguably, they’re just a bit further down the road than we are, so a case study could be instructional. One key difference between the changes in Norwegian ITE that are now legislation, and those proposed by our Education Council, is that in Norway they don’t apply to ECE teachers. Although it could be said that their ECE teachers already have to attain what we’d call postgraduate qualifications, it’s interesting to note that Norway sees that as sufficient for teachers of the very young, but not for those of older kids.
Back home, there are divergent opinions on whether postgraduate education will make a difference to our youngest students.
Peter Reynolds is CEO of the Early Childhood Council, which does not support the proposal to raise the entry bar in his sector. Reynolds says the group is “yet to be convinced that a postgraduate qualified teacher offers any significant difference in teaching practice on the floor to… children than does an undergraduate qualified teacher”.
“We acknowledge that a postgraduate qualified teacher can present enhanced knowledge and skills around critical thinking, reflection and research”, he says. “We argue that, while there is a clear place in our sector for teachers to advance their careers in these directions, they present little practical benefit to a teacher on the floor, and certainly do not justify lifting the qualification bar for the whole teaching profession for the sake of that subset of teachers who wish to advance their careers in research and policy development directions.”
Alex Gunn of the University of Otago sees it as patently obvious that, if anything, ECE teachers are more in need of time at the academic wheel, and that to suggest that mastering research methodology is the frivolous pursuit of the education boffin is just plain wrong.
“I think that expectations of teachers are changing, in the sense that we are moving into a much more evidence-based paradigm. If we want teachers who can actually investigate the problems they’re facing, then we need teachers who are scholarly.
“I think that this evidence is arguably more diverse in early childhood education. The difference between a postgraduate and an undergraduate qualification is really about the level and degree of autonomy, research, and scholarship [that a teacher is able to carry out].
“If all that we’re after [in an ECE teacher] is someone who can keep a child entertained, fed, rested and occupied while their caregivers are elsewhere, then sure, we can get away with a programme that’s basically ‘be nice to the children, don’t upset anybody’. That’s not what young children and families need. I’m not for a second suggesting that’s what we have now, but you get the point.”
Reynolds also says the ECC wonders whether academic institutions could be financially motivated.
“We are concerned that aspects of the proposal are being promoted by academic institutions struggling to fill course placements and that this economic imperative is not appropriate or sufficient as an argument to accept the proposal.”
It’s an argument that some might find hard to swallow however, and the asterisk is right there in Reynolds’ email footer: “[The ECC is] the leading body for childcare centre owners, committees and management...” Reynolds goes on to rather compromise his own argument in this respect, although he acknowledges that people might get the wrong idea, and believes it’s a problem of perception.
“We are concerned that the drive to lift the minimum qualification level will put pressure on wages without delivering any tangible benefit to service delivery.
“You are quite right that the financial imperative works both ways. I attended a meeting with the deans of the universities where it was accepted that there could reasonably be a financial imperative perceived on the issue, and we agreed that more work needed to be done on the justification argument.”
Keeping them honest
The Education Council has said they don’t believe our ITE system should be examined in isolation. Although the Council chose not to comment for this story, citing a fear of prejudicing the upcoming consultation, it’s to be hoped that they’re as good as their (public) word: that they’ll address the concerns that have been raised elsewhere in education, rather than try to solve too many problems with one bullet, that doesn’t take knock-on and side effects into account.