Australian universities are under pressure to produce “classroom ready” graduates, and reforms have been made to teacher education to improve “teacher quality”. But researchers say there is no evidence to support claims that new teachers are less competent than experienced teachers.
A new study, led by Professor Linda Graham with a team that includes a leading expert on teaching quality, Professor Robert Pianta of the University of Virginia, has found no evidence of lower quality teaching by recent university graduates compared to those with many years of experience. But the researchers did find evidence that some teachers are struggling 4–5 years into their careers.
The study mapped teaching quality against teachers’ years of experience. It showed that beginner teachers are doing as well or better than teachers with more than 5 years of experience.
This included their ability to manage student behaviour, which was the highest scoring of 10 dimensions for experienced teachers and the second highest scoring dimension for teachers with 0-3 and 4-5 years experience.
Despite these positive results, say the researchers, the overall quality of teaching could still be higher. To achieve this, they said better support and professional learning is necessary for all teachers, not just those at the beginning of their career.
The study used an internationally recognized, empirically validated tool to observe 80 Queensland primary school teachers teaching Prep to Grade 3. Teachers were grouped into three categories in the study: beginning: 0-3 years; transitioning: 4-5 years; and experienced: more than 5 years.
“Beginning teachers are often treated as ‘the problem’ affecting student engagement, achievement and behaviour. Reform of university teacher education is framed as ‘the solution’,” the researchers said.
“However, there are now multiple studies—including our own—that have found no significant difference in the quality of teaching between beginning teachers and teachers with many more years of experience.”
In Professor Graham’s view, “the continued use of this beginning teacher/teacher education framing of the problem suggests that political calculation is taking priority over empirical evidence in the construction of education policy.”
“This distracts attention from the real issues affecting student engagement, learning and behaviour, and prevents us from implementing real solutions.”
Professor Graham notes that the study didn’t gather evidence on why teachers’ performance dropped from 4 to 5 years in, but suspects from prior studies that it could be due to “increasing workload, reduction of support, and emotional burnout.”
The researchers say that while attracting high-quality candidates into the teaching profession is important, focusing purely on beginning teachers and their university degree preparation is not the only “solution” to teaching quality.
“Any future policy initiatives should aim to improve the capacity for quality teaching of all teachers, especially those who may be experiencing emotional burnout.”
To build a culture of professional learning and support for all teachers, the researchers urge educators to explain to policy makers that more years of experience do not necessarily translate into higher quality teaching. They also highlight that some beginning teachers have difficulty transitioning past the initial induction period, and should receive individually targeted support during this time.
Further longitudinal research with Australian teachers leading up to and out of the 4-5 year transition period could help identify factors associated with changes in the quality of teaching and which supports help maintain and strengthen quality, across a range of educational settings.
References: Linda Graham, Sonia White, Kathy Cologon, Robert Pianta. (2020) ‘Do teachers’ years of experience make a difference in the quality of teaching?’ Teaching and Teacher Education.