26 January 2012
Debate goes back and forth about the plans of the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland to bring to New Zealand a movement that has its origins in the education reform zeal of the United States – Teach First [add Country name]. The results to this point internationally of such programmes are pretty neutral – works in some places, less successful in others.
Like most reforms in schooling the fundamental flaw that it has is that it will simply bring young teachers into the schools to do the same things that schools have always done. If you continue to do the same thing you will get the same results. This is so clearly true that it almost sounds trite when said now.
Recruiting young teachers differently doesn’t address the key issues that must be addressed which might be summarised as follows:
Is the curriculum right for the world in which young people have to survive? Clearly not. That is why so many young people do not succeed and are at risk.
Will socialising young teachers, however clever they might be and however they are recruited, into schools bring about curriculum change? No, it has always been beyond the power of young teachers to do other than fall into line, teach what is required of them and is mandated by departmental plans, curriculum documents and so on. If students are failing in the current programmes they will continue to fail in the programmes delivered by the Teach First novice teachers.
Is a general academic programme taught in the setting of a comprehensive secondary school in the interests of all students? Clearly not. The evidence is overwhelming that disengagement is the result of the narrowing of the curriculum, the general nature of the curriculum, the requirement that students stay in school until an older age and the removal of clear vocational pathways and choices.
The evidence is clear – the most distinct marker between those systems that are successful and those that are not is the extent of the availability of vocation choices for students.
These are fundamental issues. How we recruit and train teachers is not going to advance changes in any of these areas.
So the discussion about Teach First New Zealand is at best irrelevant and at worst a distraction.
As a Head of Department, a Principal and a Director of Secondary Teacher Education, I know full well that a trained teacher is likely to be a better fit than an untrained teacher. There are things to be learned about teaching and learning and teachers need to know this material. It can’t simply be absorbed in some way or another.
But I also know that there are many ways of packaging teacher education and the pressure-cooker / block course approach is as good or as bad as any other approach. In 1981 I wrote with a colleague a programme of teacher education based in a multicultural setting. It had many of the characteristics of the Teach First programme. Of course it was rejected back then when the mainstream teacher education system knew better!
There is an element of naivety in the claims that top Maori and Pacific graduates will be attracted into teaching by a programme that offers a Limited Authority to Teach salary. This is an untested assumption that seems to ignore the realities of the demand for quality Maori and Pacific graduates. It has always been the case that attracting young people to teaching is a combination of things – a sense of the worthwhile, a sense of vocation, empathy for young people, love of the academic discipline and… a fair and reasonable remuneration.
It is also somewhat ingenuous to put the Teach First programme forward as a key contribution to lifting the value of low decile schools. There is little evidence that low decile schools need bright young novice teachers any more than any school does. Is it understood that the “decile rating” system is a description of the students who attend the school, their families and the communities from which they come?
It is hard work being a teacher in a low decile school. High maintenance students, layers of language issues, communities keen to support their little ones but without the wherewithal to do so and less money sloshing around in both the community and the school, all conspire to place demands on teachers. Low decile schools are the creation of the state which created communities of disadvantage through housing policies and until these undergo a transformation (as is being attempted in Tamaki) schools will continue to be in a lonely battle against the negative forces that are the real issue. The responsibility for addressing these issues lies firmly with the state.
Leaking houses, toxic waste sites, the Christchurch rebuild – there are many examples of the state accepting a responsibility to put things right.
Teach First can never put things right in education. Nor does to be fair teacher education. The changes required are fundamental and significant in their scale.