Overcoming problems that remain for overdue reform - Grattan Institute

Published by The Australian, Wednesday 1 January 2014

The Victorian government and the state branch of the Australian Education Union last month resolved a long dispute over performance pay.

A round of mediation between the parties ended with Education Minister Martin Dixon happy they had been able to clarify the “misconception” that he ever wanted to reduce the percentage of teachers and school principals who received annual pay rises (at present virtually all do).

Despite the outbreak of peace, there remain numerous problems with the stream of disputes in Victorian education and the confrontational approaches of both sides. They prevent co-operation, long-term planning and much needed reform in our schools.

This time, the confrontation has prevented meaningful discussion over some high-quality reforms in the Victorian government’s new policy statement, From New Directions to Action: World Class Teaching and School Leadership. This document has the potential to greatly improve Victorian schools.

It groups policy reforms into three areas. First are reforms to attract great people into teaching by improving initial teacher education. For too long, many teachers have gone through teacher education courses that don’t prepare them for classroom teaching.

Numerous teacher surveys and reviews of teacher education have made this point, yet with one or two exceptions the dominant response from teacher education institutions has been one of inertia. The government plans to increase the feedback among schools, teachers, the government as the main employer of teachers, and teacher education institutions. This will better allow teacher education institutions to identify problems and improve their teacher training. In addition, much of the information about teacher education courses will be made public, allowing new teachers to choose the best. These reforms follow world’s best practice, notably in Singapore, where teacher education and training have been put on a new path of continual improvement.

To complement these reforms, 12 teaching academies of professional practice will be established. Networks of schools will work closely with particular universities to continually improve teacher education and training.

Again, the evidence from around the world and from Australia’s best teacher education courses highlights the benefits of strong relationships between schools and teacher education institutions. At present too many of our teacher education institutions are disconnected from the classroom realities that teaching graduates confront.

The second area of reforms will further develop a focus on quality professional learning centred on feedback to teachers to improve their development. The University of Melbourne’s John Hattie has become one of the world’s leading education researchers by measuring the impact of reforms and interventions on student learning. His work emphasises the value of constructive feedback to teachers based on a comprehensive review of their work.

Recognising this, high-performing systems around the world have developed strong cultures of development, collaboration, appraisal and feedback to improve teaching in schools.

Victoria is following this trend by increasing feedback to teachers on how they can continually improve learning and teaching in their classrooms.

Effective implementation of these reforms requires world-class school leadership. The third group of Victorian policy reforms tackles the leadership challenge with innovations that focus on new training and development programs for existing and potential school leaders.

These reforms are long overdue. The poor support that principals receive nationally for incredibly demanding jobs has two unfortunate consequences.

First, there is a shortage of people willing to become principals given the poor training and recognition set against the extreme demands of the job. The second consequence is less frequently discussed but just as important. Poor school leadership development has an adverse impact on teachers and classroom teaching.

Improving teaching in a school to the level we all aspire requires great leadership. At long last, governments are recognising that leadership development needs an overhaul. The Victorian government has begun this process and is already using new providers to train leaders in how to better appraise and develop their staff.

For many years Victoria led the nation in education reform. It is good to see it again pushing the boundaries of education reform. This policy statement is not perfect but, if implemented correctly, it should have a powerful impact for the good on Victorian schools and on the teaching profession.

For implementation to be effective, we must not allow political posturing from any side to get in the road of real educational reform.