ITE issues sure to spark debate

October 2012


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As the sector gears up for a major teacher education conference next month, experts give their opinions on some of the key issues facing initial teacher education in New Zealand. JOHN O’NELL says there are four key issues that constitute a major crisis

How ITE providers address these four issues will largely determine whether they continue to have a substantive role in preparing future teachers to meet the needs of an increasingly culturally diverse and socio-economically fragmented population of learners in schools and early childhood centres.

The ITE providers’ umbrella body, the Teacher Education Forum of Aotearoa New Zealand (TEFANZ), has organised its 2012 conference in Palmerston North differently, to enable leading ITE researchers, teachers, administrators, policy makers, and professional groups to discuss these issues in depth and attempt to find a confident, collective way forward. Aptly, the 2012 conference theme is Reclaiming and Reframing Teacher Education. It looks back to the many undoubted historical strengths of ITE in this country and forward to the many fiscal, demographic, and identity challenges it will undoubtedly face in coming decades.

In 1980, the historian Arthur Powell documented Harvard University’s often tortured attempts to develop university-based teacher education in the 19th and 20th centuries. His book was called The Uncertain Profession: Harvard and the Search for Educational Authority. Substitute ‘TEFANZ’ for ‘Harvard’ and the title might equally well capture the essence of the contemporary crisis facing New Zealand’s ITE sector. Some strident voices in government, the bureaucracy, and the teaching community seriously doubt the ‘value-added’ contribution now made by ITE providers. Uncertainty and self-doubt inevitably result. This, then, is the first key issue TEFANZ faces: What is the unique role of teacher educators? Is teacher education a profession or a guild? To what extent is ITE based on an authoritative, autonomously developed, highly specialised knowledge base? What, specifically, do teacher educators do that cannot be done by anyone else?

The second key issue concerns the functional relationships between ITE providers and those in practicum settings where novice teachers learn to understand the language, practices, and relations of the classroom or centre – and the practical extent of and limits on their capacity to create the optimum conditions in which learning can take place. If government requires that beginning or provisionally registered teachers are ‘competent’ to have direct charge of the learning conditions of up to 30 or more young people at a time for six hours per day, and to ensure that these learners meet government-specified learning targets, how are decisions about the readiness of aspiring teachers made, by whom, and against what criteria?

Increasingly, it is recognised that the burgeoning educational and compliance demands made of teachers (today’s teachers are expected to diagnose, meet, evaluate, and document individual learners’ needs and progress in minute detail) mean that it simply takes longer to develop both professional wisdom and craft competence as a beginning teacher. ITE is now, therefore, conceptualised as inclusive of the years leading to full registration, and as competence- rather than knowledge-driven. What contribution can TEFANZ members make in ensuring that the induction and mentoring of beginning teachers are also robust, educative ‘evidence-based’ practices?

Third, is the issue of sufficient funding for teacher education. Many in the wider community will know that New Zealand’s teachers are held in high regard internationally, partly because of our outstanding results in some international benchmark comparisons of student achievement. What is less well known is that these results are achieved despite lower than the OECD average investment by government in students or teachers. What very few people realise is that government funding for university-based ITE has been drastically reduced over the years, while overall, university revenue fell by around 20 per cent between 1990 and 2008. In the same period, university costs rose on average between one and a half and two times the rate of inflation annually. Government, regulatory, and funding bodies want ever more ITE bang for their buck from TEFANZ member institutions, yet at some point, it becomes impossible to do more with less, and some providers have now decided that in order to survive, they must, in fact, do less with less. For example, Massey University is to offer graduate primary ITE only and The University of Auckland to introduce a fast-track, practice-based route into classroom teaching with financial support from a charitable trust. In the process, state ITE becomes more diverse and more competitive. This, too, creates many uncertainties and a search for new authoritative ways forward.

Finally, and most significantly, there is the issue of societal and demographic change. New Zealand rapidly became one of the most unequal western societies in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, a fifth of all its children live in poverty, and it has some of the worst adolescent health and well being statistics in the developed world. Māori and Pasifika students are disproportionately represented among the poor, are less likely to attend good quality early childhood education, and less likely to succeed in schools. For some who vocally advocate on behalf of Māori and Pasifika learners, this begs the question whether state education, including ITE, is indifferent, racist, or simply inept. However, the vast majority of Māori (and Pasifika) learners will continue to be educated in mainstream settings for the foreseeable future, so how can predominantly white, western, middle-class staffed teacher education providers tackle accusations that they are part of the problem, not part of the solution?

At this year’s TEFANZ conference education providers, academic policy makers, politicians and educational leaders from New Zealand and overseas will address these issues and begin to Reclaim and Reframe Teacher Education.

John O’Neill is Professor of Teacher Education at Massey University and a member of the TEFANZ 2012 conference organising committee.