New Zealand recently hosted a conference for Teach for All, a global network which the Herald described as leading ‘a teaching revolution’.
The short version of what they do is just that, short. Train people for six weeks and get them out into schools as ‘teachers’.
It’s not hard to see why this is controversial when it’s put this bluntly. In the USA, where the programme first began under the patriotic-sounding title ‘Teach for America’, the main criticism is that these teachers are woefully underprepared for the realities of the classroom, and in particular the classrooms in schools in poor neighbourhoods where they’re specifically recruited to teach.
Again, in the USA, it’s also seen as a cut price way to get bodies in front of classrooms, which undermines the teaching profession and does a disservice to needy students by giving them inferior teachers.
Teach For All’s professed goal is to close the education gap between students from poor and wealthy backgrounds, and the way that they aim to achieve this is by recruiting ‘top graduates’ who wouldn’t usually choose to go into teaching.
It’s a noble and important cause that’s worth taking seriously and looking for new ways to address.
When PPTA first was informed that New Zealand was getting a Teach First programme here we were sceptical. We had heard the US criticisms and were aware of its connections with the corporate education reform agenda.
However, we also could see that a programme of field-based teacher education, for subjects where there are shortages of teachers, could have some advantages. Many of our PPTA members went through teacher education under somewhat similar schemes in the 1960s and 1970s, when they were paid as they trained.
Cognisant of the potential benefits and pitfalls, we commissioned independent research on the impact of fast track teacher training schemes. The research, which pulled together over 100 studies from around the world, painted a complex picture – more ‘shades of grey’ than black and white.
Teacher training, like these six week courses, that is “minimal and highly technicist”, combined with the “inherent assumption that anyone who is bright and enthusiastic can teach”, is seen as devaluing teachers. The high turnover of graduates from the various Teach for All schemes around the world compared with teachers who have taken traditional training is also problematic.
On the other hand, the few well designed comparative studies of student achievement show that typically students of teachers in these schemes achieve similar results to what they would with other teachers, and possibly even better in science and maths.
As a result of this research PPTA’s position on Teach First has been not to oppose it. We encouraged the Teach First NZ and Auckland University, who deliver the programme here, to ensure that Teach First participants would be teaching for only 12 hours a week, with support from experienced mentors who have release time to work with them. These things happened.
In New Zealand, the teacher education programme continues for the first two years of their teaching, so they are learning and teaching at the same time.
And it has emerged since that the Teach First NZ programme is far from a ‘cut price’ model. The government has put over $6.5 million into the three-cohort pilot of the programme, which has put fewer than 60 students through. This is many times more expensive than traditional teacher education.
The court case that PPTA has against Teach First NZ, the University of Auckland and the Ministry of Education is on a particular narrow but important issue. The State Sector Act and the Secondary Teachers’ Collective Agreement are very clear about how appointments to teaching positions must happen, to make sure it’s a fair process. The way in which participants on the programme are appointed to schools breaches this. There are a number of options for how the Ministry of Education, along with Teach First and Auckland University, could resolve this, and we hope that they do.
In the meantime, we look forward to seeing the final results of the evaluation of the New Zealand programme, and are hopeful that even a fraction of the enthusiastic claims of its promoters, like those at the recent conference, will be borne out.
This blog appeared as a column in the November 2015 edition of Principals Today - available here