Nothing to gain from blame and shame

24th May 2013 at 01:00
A 'moral panic' over standards in Australia has led to denigration of teacher educators. Enough is enough

Education is one of the few areas in life where everyone is an expert. Everyone went to school. Everyone had a great teacher. Everyone had a shocking teacher who beat them, called them names andor ruined their life.

Not only is everyone an expert in education, but everyone is also a stakeholder. This type of language results in a subtle but damaging assumption: experience in schooling substitutes for expertise in education. Last month, for example, Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition in Australia, where I am based, was speaking at a Liberal Party rally in Adelaide. He wanted "schools and hospitals run by the public rather than the faceless bureaucrats". Cue audience applause. But who is this "public" that would be managing hospitals in Broome or Ballarat, or schools in Adelaide or Alice Springs?

Do parents know how to create effective curriculum design, establish quality assurance protocols or manage the profound inequality of resources in rural, regional and remote educational institutions? Giving birth to children does not provide parents with the knowledge, methods and expertise to educate them. I have a kitchen sink, but this does not mean that I understand plumbing.

Australian educational policy is a complex jigsaw with several pieces missing. National testing is conducted by the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy, which delivered its first tests in 2008, and reports are released to the public. The programme is administered by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, which became operational in 2009. And the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, formed in January 2010, manages the professional standards and development of teachers. In 2012, the Gonski report recommended a redistribution of school funding to overcome the structural inequalities of region, class and race.

A moral panic has erupted over something that is supposedly blocking the full flowering of all these initiatives, imperatives and press releases into a world-class education system: the quality of pre-service teacher education. Put another way, when in doubt about standards in schools, blame the universities.

It is a conventional tabloid device to blame a teacher when a student has failed. If educational standards are "failing", as measured by standardised tests, it must be the teacher's fault. If parents are not satisfied with their child's progress, it must be the teacher's fault. Through this culture of blame and shame, guilt is displaced from the individual teachers to the universities that "trained" (rather than educated) them.

In such a surveillance culture, it is no surprise that principals shift public concern about their schools' standards on to the quality of the new teachers they are employing. The media spotlight focuses on teacher education programmes in universities rather than the lack of professional development and support that these new teachers receive in schools.

We should lead, not follow

Education is important. Education about education is extraordinary. It is an art and a science, and it requires expertise and experience. It must foster a culture of excellence, achievement and dynamism.

The debates about pre-service teacher education are unbalanced. A key truth has been forgotten: teacher education is higher education. Imposing a particular set of compliance standards on academics and our degree structure ignores the fact that universities have international stakeholders who demand a dynamic engagement with new research.

I have a different vision. Teacher education in universities should lead and not follow. Our responsibility is to ensure that students receive powerful, imaginative and expansive engagement with research in teaching and learning. We must place content in context and develop innovative curriculum shapes and structures for diverse pathways of learning.

The first area explored by our students is entitled "Teachers as learners". The goal is to ensure that future teachers continue to read, research, think, create and develop, while remaining intellectually generous and learning from others.

If our students complete a four-year degree and never return to education, never enlivening their enthusiasm for ideas, then we have failed. But the disrespect for teacher education departments from politicians all over the world hampers our capacity to celebrate, develop lifelong learning and disseminate research.

During this bizarre time in education, I remember a maxim from cultural historian Jacques Barzun: "Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition." When the moral panics fade around testing, standardisation, literacy, numeracy, benchmarks and accreditation, what is left is a teacher who must summon the courage to enter a classroom, manage the unknown and combine challenging content with the motivation to share it.

We must remember what makes learning, teaching and education effervescent and revelatory.

Tara Brabazon is professor of education and head of the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University in Australia.

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