On a crash course

grad-teachersYou wouldn't call someone a doctor on the basis of six weeks of training, so why is it different for teachers? By Erica Cervini.

Here's a novel idea to tackle the doctor shortage in the western suburbs and in rural areas: take some science graduates, give them six weeks' training and then parachute them into a job.

They can hone their knowledge and skills as they examine their patients.

Third Degree doubts anyone would take the suggestion seriously. Patients would baulk at the idea of having doctors with six weeks' training and no practical experience treating their illnesses.

But the idea of accelerating non-teaching graduates into teaching jobs is being considered in Queensland and is a reality in Victoria.

Forty-five graduates, who joined Teach for Australia last year, have recently started teaching in Victorian secondary schools after completing a six-week course at Melbourne University. They will spend 80 per cent of their work time in the classroom and 20 per cent studying for their diploma in education.
The federal government, which is bankrolling TFA to the tune of $22 million during the next four years, describes the scheme as ''innovative''. The Victorian government is contributing about $7 million.

The scheme is an insult to teachers, education academics and trainee teachers.
What does Melbourne University's involvement in TFA say to regular education students? Under the new Melbourne model, the diploma in education has gone from one year to a two-year masters in education. Why bother, when you can do a six-week course, then a part-time diploma?

Third Degree is not alone in criticising TFA.

One letter-writer to The Canberra Times reckons TFA sends a message to the ''70,000 serious current teacher education students, and all of those who might follow them, that their professional education is a fraud''.

Roslin Brennan Kemmis, the head of education at Charles Sturt University's Wagga Wagga campus, says the scheme ''devalues the status of teachers'', while Central Queensland University's Ken Purnell believes it fails to prepare teachers adequately for the classroom.

One of the other dangers of a TFA-like scheme is that university bureaucrats could embrace it and impose it on education faculties. Just imagine what they could do. For a start, they could do away with teaching rounds.

In 2003, Third Degree began reporting that some education faculties could not afford to send lecturers to schools to observe students on teaching practice. Bureaucrats also wouldn't have to deal with the understaffing of education faculties and their ageing academic profile.

And by reducing staff even further, there would be cost savings. Education faculties are already seen as largely unprofitable, because they don't have the same capacity as business schools, for example, to raise funds. Although education is branded a ''national priority area'', it's still starved of money. Faculties have not been adequately compensated for the shortfall in revenue created when HECS rates were reduced for education courses.

Let's face it, education faculties get pushed around because they have low status and priority in the eyes of university bureaucrats. Universities get involved in gladiatorial fights over who wins medical faculties, but they don't fight over education faculties. And universities aren't all racing to introduce education courses, but they are falling over each other to offer law as a way to attract students and bring status to their institutions.

Teach for Australia is not going to fix problems faced by education faculties or magically improve the status of teaching.

International reports have already indicated how teacher quality is one of the keys to improved student performance. So, instead of borrowing ideas from the US (Teach for America began in 1990), Australia should look to countries such as Finland, whose students come top of the class in OECD surveys on maths, reading and science. The country must be doing something right with its teacher training.

For example, teaching qualifications are prescribed by law and Finnish teachers do a minimum of five years of study to complete their bachelor and masters degrees. And teaching in Finland is seen as an important profession and is a competitive course for students: only 10 per cent of students who apply for education courses secure a place.

Contrast that statistic with the sobering figures released at the end of last year by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Between 2007 and 2008, there was a 5.1 per cent decrease in the number of students starting teacher-training courses.

Teacher training in Finland

From The Age Blogs: Third Degree