If LANTITE is the solution, what’s the problem?

It’s clear that the implementation of Australia’s Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education students (LANTITE) has been an appalling mess. But what was LANTITE supposed to achieve in the first place? Assuming that it was initially proposed as a solution to a policy problem, I want to explore in this post what that problem is, or at least what the problem is represented to be (Bacchi).

That problem-as-it-is-represented-to-be, it seems to me, is this: Australia’s education system is not performing well enough, and its performance is not improving quickly enough; the single biggest factor in this is that not enough of the ‘right people’ are being selected for teacher education courses.

Why did policymakers believe this? Why did they think it could be fixed with psychometric literacy and numeracy testing? Why did they think teachers need to be among the top 30% most literate and numerate people in the country (why not, say, the top third, or top 25%)? In my attempt to answer these questions, I’ll be covering territory to similar to that covered by Nicole Mockler in her 2018 and 2019 papers. However, I’ll be focusing on the role played by a 2007 McKinsey & Co report which, since its publication, appears to have gripped the imaginations of all of Australia’s Education Ministers.

Spending a lot, performing poorly, declining rapidly (2007)

Julia Gillard became Minister for Education (and Deputy Prime Minister) in Kevin Rudd’s new Labor government on December 3, 2007. Gillard immediately set about delivering the ‘Education Revolution’ Labor had promised at the election. This ‘revolution’ was to be driven by the belief that “Australia needs a world class education system” in order to “be able to compete globally.”

Just a couple of months before, in September 2007, management consulting firm McKinsey & Co released a report written by Michael Barber and Mona Mourshed, titled ‘How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top‘. At the heart of the report, there is an argument about the relationship between three key elements:

  • Public expenditure
  • Performance
  • Improvement.

As Barber and Mourshed put it,

despite substantial increases in spending and many well-intentioned reform efforts, performance in a large number of school systems has barely improved in decades (p. 10).

Barber and Mourshed define ‘performance’ largely in terms of results on the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

The following chart (‘Exhibit 3’) suggests that, in terms of this expenditure-performance-improvement relationship, Australia was doing very poorly: public expenditure was going up significantly, but performance was declining.

(Barber & Mourshed, 2007, p. 10)

By contrast, according to Barber and Mourshed (2007), Singa­pore is “one of the world’s top performers” despite spending “less on prima­ry educa­tion than do 27 of the 30 countries in the OECD” (p. 2). For the report’s authors, this combination of low expenditure and ‘high performance’ makes Singapore’s education system a model for other countries to follow.

Barber and Mourshed (2007) discuss how Singapore, and other ‘high performing’ education systems such as Finland and South Korea, achieve such outstanding results. They conclude that the “ma­in driver” is “the qua­lity of the tea­chers” (Barber & Mourshed, 2007, p. 12) and, for this reason, they argue that the selection of students for teacher education courses is of great importance and should be the focus of education system reform. Singapore’s approach to this is summarised in ‘Exhibit 7’:

(Barber & Mourshed, 2007, p. 17)

As the ‘Exhibit’ highlights, Singapore selects teacher education students from the “top 30% of their age cohort” and, more specifically, check that the applicants have a “high level of literacy”. Elaborating on this point, Barber and Mourshed quote a 2004 booklet about identifying the “right people” for the teaching profession produced by conservative policy-influence organisation (aka ‘think tank’) National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).

In the United States, studies show that “a teacher’s level of literacy, as measured by vocabulary and other standardized tests, affects student achievement more than any other measurable teacher attribute”. (Barber & Mourshed, 2007, p. 16)

For anyone familiar with LANTITE, the reference to the ‘top 30%’ and the ‘measurement’ of teachers’ literacy through standardised tests will have a familiar ring to it.

Gillard’s ‘New Progressive Reform Agenda’ (2008-2013)

It’s easy to imagine the Barber and Mourshed report attracting the interest of the incoming Australian Minister for Education, Julia Gillard. To a newly-minted Minister serving in their first government, the report presents a clear policy problem (spending more but achieving less) and suggests several clear policy responses.

In fact, Gillard quoted the Barber and Mourshed report in a May 2008 speech, titled ‘A New Progressive Reform Agenda For Australian Schools’:

Our schools generally perform well but in the 2006 OECD’s Program of International Student Assessment our absolute and relative performance in reading and mathematical literacy began to slip.

Slipping standards, neglect and division are the Howard Government’s legacy to the nation in education.

While other nations like Singapore were creating laboratories to determine the best methods of classroom instruction, the Howard Government was obsessed with flagpoles rather than implementing a serious reform agenda.

Our focus must therefore shift to getting the right people into teaching, improving the quality of curriculum and improving methods of classroom instruction. (emphasis added)

In a section of the speech subtitled ‘High quality teachers’, Gillard quoted the Barber and Mourshed report, and mentions Singapore and its selection of ‘the top 30%’:

The recent McKinsey report on the characteristics of the world’s best-performing school systems reports studies found that:

‘…students placed with high performing teachers will progress three times as fast as those with low-performing teachers.’

Three of the highest performing school systems – those of South Korea, Finland and Singapore – select teachers from only the top 5 per cent, 10 per cent and 30 per cent of university entrants respectively.

Gillard’s ‘progressive reform agenda’ appears to have been influenced and given impetus to some extent by the Barber and Mourshed report. That agenda led to, while Gillard was either Education Minister (2007 to 2010) or Prime Minister (2010 to 2013), a range of significant changes to Australia’s education system: NAPLAN, MySchool, ACARA, Australian Curriculum, the ‘Gonski Review’, TEQSA, AITSL, and the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.

Pyne, TEMAG and ‘classroom ready teachers’ (2013-2015)

In September 2013, Australia saw a change of government, from the Labor government(s) of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, to the Liberal and National Party coalition government of Tony Abbott. The new Education Minister was Christopher Pyne. In terms of what I’ve discussed above, Pyne picked up where his Labor predecessors had left off. In December 2013, Pyne gave a doorstop statement, responding to the release of PISA 2012 results:

money is not the answer in education. Labor spent $20 billion on the education revolution. They increased real spending in education by 10% and our results declined. The PISA results also show that for Australia, teacher quality is the most important determinant of outcomes for students.

Pyne clearly felt that the expenditure-performance-improvement problem in Australian education had only gotten worse since 2007, and, unsurprisingly, he quickly moved to address ‘teacher quality’. He “revoked the earlier Ministerial Direction to the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) to undertake a review of teacher education” and gave this task to his Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG).

In early 2014, TEMAG began a consultation process. TEMAG released an ‘issues paper’ and invited individuals and organisations to submit responses to questions relating to three aspects of teacher education discussed in the paper. The first of these ‘areas for response’ was as follows:

What teaching practices should be developed in graduate teachers through their initial teacher education?

How can those best suited to the teaching profession be identified?

What are the skills and personal characteristics of an effective beginning teacher? How can teacher education courses best develop these?

I intend to write a separate post about the 139 submissions but for now I’ll just say that not many of them were calling for anything like LANTITE. In fact, it was more common for the submissions’ authors to suggest the Higher Education Providers interview applicants for teacher education courses than to test them psychometrically. But this is moot: according to the TEMAG issues paper, the Minister had already asked the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) to ‘progress’ “national and literacy and numeracy assessment for teacher education students”, in collaboration with Universities Australia (p. 6).

In early 2015, the results of TEMAG’s work were released in the form of a report titled Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers. TEMAG state that the report

grew out of two clear propositions: that improving the capability of teachers is crucial to lifting student outcomes; and that the Australian community does not have confidence in the quality and effectiveness of new teachers. (p. 1)

No citations are provided to support the latter claim, but a lack of public confidence would hardly be surprising given what Education Ministers had been saying for the previous eight years.

The authors also claim that

for a person to become an effective teacher they need high overall literacy and numeracy skills, strong interpersonal and communication skills, a willingness to learn and the motivation to teach. (p. 11)

In this case, they do provide a citation: Barber and Mourshed (2007).

TEMAG made 38 recommendations, including this one, #13:

Higher education providers use the national literacy and numeracy test to demonstrate that all preservice teachers are within the top 30 per cent of the population in personal literacy and numeracy. (p. xv)

The advent of LANTITE (2015-2016)

LANTITE was introduced, as a voluntary pilot involving 5000 students, in August and September 2015. As the May 2020 Implementation Review shows, LANTITE became compulsory in different states at different times at different stages from July 2016 onwards.

(Dandolo Partners, 2020, p. 7)

Conclusion

To a large extent, we have LANTITE now because Education Ministers, both Labor and Liberal, since at least 2007 have apparently accepted the argument that: Australia’s education system is not performing well enough in comparison to other countries, especially Singapore; and, to rectify this, we need to emulate teacher education selection processes of high-performing countries, especially Singapore. This argument was laid out in Barber and Mourshed’s 2007 report for McKinsey & Co., a document that was cited repeatedly by Education Ministers in the years preceding the introduction of LANTITE.

Having clarified the problem that LANTITE was supposed to solve, we are now in a better position to consider several important questions. First, is the problem-as-it-is-represented-to-be one that we really need to take seriously, i.e., does it have some social reality beyond or preceding its representation? Second, after four years, are there any signs that LANTITE has had the effect it was intended to, i.e., is Australia performing better in PISA? Third, how do Australia’s teacher education selection processes now compare to Singapore’s? Some topics for future posts 🙂

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