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Don't follow the Americans on teacher education policy reform

By Susan Ledger - posted Tuesday, 8 September 2015

In a global environment where Teacher Education is under intense scrutiny, governments are searching for quick fixes and in so doing adopt policies that may not necessarily be 'fit for purpose'. I am proposing that Australia should generate its own unique teacher education policy reform so as to position itself as a global leader in the field rather than simply modifying a less than satisfactory US model. This conversation begins with personal and global concerns, it uses the metaphor of shopping to describe policy borrowing within the Australian context, and closes in response to current government recommendations.

At a recent Australian Teacher Education Association (ATEA) conference in Darwin the audience were shocked to hear Teachers College, Columbia University Evenden Professor Lin Goodwin's portrayal of the American teaching landscape over a decade after the No Child Left Behind policy was introduced. She cautioned Australia not to copy policy reform from her country.

She highlighted some of the negative consequences of high stakes testing, including  teacher suicides, teacher imprisonments for cheating on tests, the lack of morale and the decrease in educational standards of those for whom the policy were originally targeting. Lingard (2010) refers to the policy borrowing of Australia' education revolution 'as a mix of the neo-liberal with social democratic aspirations' (p129). A recent OECD report affirms that 'in relative terms, the children of low-educated families became increasingly excluded from the potential benefits that the expansion in education provided to most of the population' (OECD, 2014 p 17).


It heralded a call for inclusive societies to have education systems that promote learning and the acquisition of skills equitably so as to support meritocracy and social mobility at all levels – a strategy which has been adopted in Singapore, Finland and Canada. The reduction of education to accountability scores and ratings, like the US model, needs to be challenged and critique given its lack of improved educational outcomes.

In an educational environment that is corporatized and commercialized, policy borrowing is representative of impulse shopping. At a given point of need, we typically search out a bargain; and spend the rest of the time justifying why we bought it rather than looking at the consequences of the decision. If, however, we went in search of quality, the choice of item purchased would be significantly different. In this context, America proffers a policy sale item; cheap, measurable but not necessarily needed.

Whereas, if Australia sought quality policy reform, they would adopt principles and practices from Singapore, Switzerland, Finland and Canada. Each of these countries achieve better educational outcomes and improved social policy changes than the US, as evidenced by the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 results - Singapore 2nd; Switzerland 8th, Finland 11th, Canada 12th, and the OECD PISA Index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS). Educational policies in these countries have raised the profile of teaching, resulting in teacher education being a highly competitive and respected profession within the community. In contrast, America sits 37th on the PISA, 2012 Mathematic results and similar ranking for Language.

The standardization of education, corporate management models and fixation with tests evident in Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) has indeed spread to Australia, and the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) is the epicenter for this reform. AITSL will play a significant role in the years to come. With a team of young, eager bureaucratic mid-level management staff, some with less than two years teaching experience it is imperative that AITSL encourages critical analysis of its operations.

There are good signs on this front, with the release of the recent position paper entitled, Classroom ready: demonstrating he impact on student learning of ITE programs (AITSL, 2015) calling for a response from the profession. Lin Goodwin's response would be that these calls must not go unanswered and that the profession needs to have the will to challenge.

There is no doubt that the corporate approach to policy borrowing and enactment is similar to what was experienced in the US and UK context. Affiliated programs are emerging in Australia including Teach for Australia and Charter Schools. The Australian government announced an increase of $22 million in funding to be channeled into the American imported alternative initial teacher education franchise 'Teach for Australia', of which one of its graduates is now responsible for quality assurance within AITSL. In an evidenced based environment it would be remiss of us not to challenge the reasoning behind this decision over home-grown alternatives such as internships. The recent push for charter schools is yet another example of borrowing programs repudiated within the US context and yet being adopted here:


We constantly reform our education system because, when alarmists point out our deficiencies, we spring to action with whatever new ideas are floating in the cultural ether: scientific management at the turn of the 20th century (Rice, 1913), large-scale curriculum reform in the Sputnik era (Bybee, 1997), educational technology in the information era (Collins & Halverson, 2009), and free enterprise and choice in the neoliberal era (what Sahlberg, 2011, called GERM, the global educational reform movement). Unfortunately, only rarely does systematic and cumulative research impact education policy. (Marx, 2014)

The recent Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) recommendations provide the perfect platform for shaping an alternative to current practice. AITSL has been tasked with implementing the majority of the TEMAG report and as such will need to bear the weight of reform critics and the accolades of program successes. The impact of policy decisions on key stakeholders will need to be monitored by the profession and fed back to AITSL through transparent feedback loops. The education sector as a whole must ensure that the policies and processes adopted are not simply borrowed from the American model for ease of implementation otherwise we may find ourselves repeating the not so desirable outcomes of poor teacher morale and student disengagement currently experienced in America.

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About the Author

Susan Ledger is Director of Engagement and Professional Experience at the Murdoch School of Education.

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