On Tuesday the news broke that about eight out of 10 Grade 4s were functionally illiterate. I raised my eyebrows, but I wasn’t all that surprised. I was really more relieved that what I’ve experienced and discussed anecdotally with colleagues is now substantiated in a controlled study. I also wondered how many university lecturers were truly surprised by this stat. Considering that universities are getting the strongest academic survivors of our education system, and, again, from anecdotal evidence and personal experience, that many of the first-year students seem to struggle with reading, writing and studying (never mind actually attending class on time), is it really such a revelation?
Forget the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), If you truly want a shot of panic, you should take a look at the 2016 Initial Teacher Education Research Project (ITERP). The report is an easy, quick read, but here is a concise summary (page 18):
“In brief, the ITE [Initial Teacher Education] programmes at few of the five universities currently training the majority of the country’s new teachers were structurally and conceptually coherent. Admission requirements were low, and selection mechanisms were weak. The depth and breadth of instruction and learning in subject and pedagogical knowledge varied widely; the relevance and value of some programmes and modules was problematic, with their quantity thin and their quality poor; and work-integrated learning (teaching practice) was inadequate, characterised by limited and skewed exposure to prevailing school practices and conditions, insufficient and inexpert supervision and inconsistencies in the amount and quality of feedback and assessment.” (pg 18)
What I hope the latest PIRLS shock does is force us to pay attention to the truly atrocious state of our teacher education programmes, both the Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) and the Post-Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). Of arguably greater importance is that we should scrutinise the academic quality of applicants selected to become teachers. I’m not advocating a blame game. There are numerous reasons why our teacher education programmes and students teachers are at this particular level. I would even argue that they would be far worse were it not for the sincerity of many of the students and the capable and dedicated staff trying to cope with multiple obstacles in the different institutions. But we need to acknowledge this state of affairs so that we can address it.
Education programmes generally have lower entrance requirements than other degrees. Rumours have been going around for years that education programmes admit students who do not even meet the lower entrance requirements. The ITERP report confirms this when it states that “40% of finalyear student-teachers who responded to the ITERP survey in 2013 had been admitted to their ITE [Initial Teacher Education] programmes without having achieved a matriculation pass with the required degree endorsement.”
Considering that too many of our teachers seem to be students who failed to meet the already low matric requirements, can we really be shocked that eight out of 10 Grade 4s cannot read for meaning? Furthermore, I’ve found in my experience (not confirmed by studies) that functioning high schools, at least, often prefer to employ teachers with a BA, BSc or Bcom degree rather than a B.Ed. The only exception that I’ve come across has been B.Ed maths teachers. By admitting so many students who failed to meet basic entrance requirements, universities have lowered the status of the B.Ed degree, which is grossly unfair to some of the best teachers I know who have this qualification.
I often wonder how many university students are functionally illiterate. In 2015 I set a task for some first years. They had to choose a historical source, draw up some questions at a Grade 8 level with a mark allocation, and write up the memo. The following year I deleted the memo part from this task and focused purely on how to find appropriate sources, and how to set appropriate questions. This was because in the previous year I had found that many of the students had misinterpreted their own chosen text and, even when appropriate questions were set, could not answer their own questions adequately in the memo.
The above example is obviously very worrying. Those students are our future history teachers. There is no intrinsic reason they can’t improve academically, but it would take a huge and consistent amount of intervention from the institution and personal motivation from the students. This takes time and money, since support staff with the knowledge and skills to do remedial English reading and writing is needed for many, many students (and this includes first-language speakers).
I also tutored a general first-year class of education students and they had to reflect on why they decided to study a B.Ed. About a third did so because they couldn’t get into any other degree, or because it was the only degree for which they could get financial aid. Another third or so wanted to teach because they loved children, wanted to the help them and make a difference in their communities. The final third stated that they became teachers because they loved a particular subject, or because they found that they had experience teaching their friends when their own teachers failed, and realised they liked it. The ITERP report shows a more positive spin on final-year student-teacher motivation for becoming teachers, with most seeming to fall into the latter two categories. But I think there are still too many teachers who enter teaching for the wrong reasons, or because they equate a love of children with a love of learning. And we need to be strict about this last distinction.
Right, so, hopefully any reader who has managed to get this far in my rant has realised that I’ve been trying to say that many of our student teachers are academically weak and not the best role models to inspire a love of learning or reading, no matter how sincere. I agree with the ITERP report that argues that “the first place where ITE can begin to improve learning in our schools is to focus specifically on what can be done to improve the quality of ITE applicants and entrants and hence on the process of selection”.
I know this is difficult. I know this is political. I know that university leaders need to make delicate decisions between academic integrity and practical factors such as finding the funds to continue existing. I know many top students are not attracted to teaching. If they can get double the money and triple the status for half the work in another field, it makes sense to do something else. So we need some political will here that can see beyond the next election. Unpopular decisions need to be made.
Apart from focusing on the selection process, we also need to look at the quality of the education programmes. Teaching Experience (TE) is arguably the most important element in any teaching qualification. Teaching isn’t theoretical, it’s all practical. Yet I’ve found that so many students have wasted their time on TE and received little meaningful feedback. I’ve read previous reports of supervisors who had very little to say beyond how well students’ teaching files were kept, or they focused on whether the lesson was entertaining and fun, rather than actually educationally sound.
More concerning is that students tend to be seen three times or less during the TE by their supervisor. Due to staffing pressures, universities are expecting teachers and schools to provide the necessary feedback and mentorship. This is very problematic. It assumes that all teachers are able to do so, that all teachers have acceptable teaching practices, and that all teachers are willing to find time for their students’ teachers. Furthermore, as confirmed by ITERP, some students never receive any feedback, not even from a supervisor that they have paid as part of their fees to provide this feedback. It is gut-wrenching to think that there are students who have done four years of a teaching degree with no feedback or development on their core skill – teaching. It’s like people paying to learn how to drive and perhaps tried it by themselves, but have never received any formal feedback or guidance from their driving instructor.
Ideally a supervisor should be visiting a student every second day, or every third day at the most. In this way student teachers can try something, receive feedback and improve it or try something else. It also lowers the stakes. Too many student teachers receive no formative feedback, and when their supervisor visits, it is to evaluate their teaching for a final mark. This is just bad education practice. This two- or three-day ideal is laughable in our current situation. Universities don’t have enough staff and there are too many students to provide this type of feedback, but that is where the biggest difference will be made in the short-term, and where we should focus our resources first.
What is also worrying is that the report found that staff generally had low academic expectations of their students. I’m sure there is a causal link in this and the low expectations that teachers have of their own children that they are teaching, possibly because their own idea of what constitutes an adequate academic level is quite low. According to ITERP, the Council for Higher Education in 2010 found that “[i]nstitutions consistently designed their programmes at too low a level in terms of the knowledge and competences expected from students”.
I’m guilty of this as well. I did not give my first-year students numerous rigorous academic texts to read. The course was hardly taxing. I found that I marked more leniently than I had ever marked my own Grade 10 history learners. I had my reasons, as do so many other staff. It is once again to do with managing the practical, the ideal and the political.
Personally, I think teaching qualifications should be a two-year intensive post-graduate programme, and that we should scrap B.Ed degrees and current PGCEs entirely, but that is an opinion piece for another day. If we are determined to keep the B.Ed and PGCE programmes, we need to funnel oodles more money to universities so that they can employ enough quality support staff to develop the academic skills of the student teachers, and also provide sufficient supervision on teaching practicals. Either that, or we need to restrict the number of students in the degrees.
I know that it is so easy to sit behind a computer making judgments and espousing ideals while conveniently ignoring practical realities. For those who are making the decisions, I do not envy you. I can only imagine the different parties you have to try to keep happy. However, I think there is a place for dreaming up ideas and goals, even if they are not immediately attainable. And the one idea we need to prioritise and work towards tirelessly is figuring out how we can attract the best candidates to teaching. We need people who are internally motivated, have a good work ethic, are academically strong and love learning, have compassion and love children, have dollops of common sense and can take initiative.
People, the truth is out there. Most of our kids are clearly wasting their time in the first four years of school (and probably later as well). We need intervention programmes, we need more resources, we need crisis management, we need to rethink our education programmes, but most of all, we need to focus on attracting and keeping our best people to teaching. DM
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