This post was originally published 13 February 2017 on the AARE EduResearch Matters blog.

The idea to put specialist science and maths teachers into Australian primary schools gained a lot of support after the latest results of international tests were announced. It was suggested as policy in NSW last year when then Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, announced a plan to deliver hundreds of specialist STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) teachers into NSW classrooms*. Well-known mathematicians such as Adam Spencer have also backed the idea. It is indeed a popular idea.

However, I suggest that this strategy is not the solution. I have several reasons for suggesting this. First, the strategy neglects bigger picture issues in the system. Second, this solution has the potential to undermine the strengths of primary education, as well as the relevance and accessibility to science for primary students. And finally, this solution assumes a deficit on the part of primary teachers. If the curriculum is too challenging for teachers to grasp, perhaps it is also too difficult for students. A better response would be to provide primary teachers who need it with the time, funding, and high quality professional development in science.

Our test results are a consequence of systemic failures, including high stakes testing

The results that have been used to justify this strategy include NAPLAN results, and the latest TIMMS results. In the TIMMS results, we can see that scores in science have plateaued. But these results must be very carefully interpreted. As the Director of the Australian Council for Educational Research, Sue Thompson, points out our results demonstrate a long trail of underachieving students, largely representing students from areas of lower socioeconomic status.

This suggests the issue is not so much with the teachers, but with the funding of schools (which may be spent on resources, professional development, release time for planning and so on). We already know that Australia has a very inequitable funding arrangement between schools, with schools in wealthier areas and cohorts generally receiving substantially more funding than those in poorer areas, or with poorer cohorts.

Originally a low-stakes diagnostic test, the publication of school results, and the use of scores to evaluate teachers (informally if not yet formally), has turned NAPLAN into a very high-stakes test, both for students and for teachers. There is building evidence that primary schools and hence teachers have been devoting class time that used to be for teaching science, humanities, technologies, the arts, and scientific and mathematical inquiry and problem solving, to directing students in tasks that will improve their performance on NAPLAN. Further, a lot of teachers’ time out of class is now spent analysing and responding to NAPLAN data, in professional development for NAPLAN, and developing new activities to teach students. It’s time to lower the stakes and return time to classes to focus on science and other subjects.

Further, we must ask questions about what and how both tests measure, and whether this is what we desire from our education system. If our goal is for all students to become expert scientists, the situation is indeed dire. But if our goal is for all students to become confident and skilled consumers of science (scientifically literate) as a part of their active citizenship, then the situation we have now, where primary teachers are generalists, with a broad knowledge in all areas, has greater potential to achieve this.

The strength of primary education lies in its generalist teachers

We often talk about primary teachers as holding general knowledge about all subjects, with expertise in pedagogy. One of the great strengths of a primary education is the opportunity to integrate content across subjects, and be flexible with when, where, and how to teach subjects, capabilities, and key ideas across the school week, term, and year.

This is particularly valuable because learning different content across various lessons builds students’ literacy and numeracy, the very skills that NAPLAN claims to assess. When students read about insects in their reading rotations, increase technical knowledge in their vocabulary and phonics activities, use the data from their latest science investigation in their graphing lessons, or learn to make accurate measurements using different units, they are learning how to work with information and give it meaning. Literacy and numeracy aren’t developed out of context. Science, maths, English texts, history, geography, health, and technologies all provide contexts for students to build these capabilities meaningfully, and demonstrate the value of each area of inquiry for everyday life. This is where a love of the subject, be it science, maths, history, or English literature, can arise.

That opportunity is lost when specialists take students away from their generalist teacher for any subject (yes, even music and physical education).

Further, primary teachers are diverse role models of “everyday people”. In my experience, primary teachers are thoughtful, careful and deliberate about their practice and the children that they work with, and work hard for their students. But to their students, their teacher is an everyday person, someone who can learn and understand all the things they are going to have to learn and understand at school. If their primary school teacher can do it, then so can they!

Whether they intend to, specialist teachers perpetuate beliefs that their subjects are not for everyday people. Students may come to believe that those specialist subjects are for special people, with special interests or aptitudes, or who already love the subject. We already have a pervasive belief throughout the community that science is only for those with a high intellectual quality (and sadly, we have an anti-intellectual backlash, too). This message would be perpetuated by the mere existence of specialist science teachers in schools.

If we want the general community to value science, a generalist teacher best models and teaches that valuing.

Is the Foundation to Year 10 Curriculum too challenging?

The strategy for specialist teachers in primary schools reveals a deficit view of primary teachers. The assumption is that primary teachers are incapable of understanding, or perhaps learning, the basic science included in the Australian Curriculum: Science (Foundation to Year 10). However, this is unreasonable. If what is included in the curriculum is too challenging for grown adults with four-year qualifications in Education (or equivalent) to understand, perhaps we should be questioning the curriculum rather than the teachers.

If it is not too challenging, then the appropriate response would be to provide the time and funding necessary to plan, develop, and deliver high quality science lessons, as well as sustained, high quality professional development for those teachers who are struggling to understand the science necessary to teach it.

Sustained professional development, through universities or by programs like Primary Connections are avenues for improvement. Primary Connections is an excellent program that teachers who are lacking confidence to teach science can use to plan and support their teaching. There are Science Teacher Associations in each state who are willing and ready to deliver high-quality PD to teachers, but are starved for funding and support themselves.

What if science specialists worked alongside teachers? Queensland attempted this model a few years ago, with the Science Spark strategy, but it was ad hoc, and variably effective. There were some schools for which it worked quite well, but in many schools, the Science Spark operated as a specialist teacher, freeing up generalist teachers’ time to concentrate on other lessons, but also giving them permission to forget about science education for a little while. When the Science Spark program ended, most teachers were no better able to teach science than previously. The question remains as to whether there were any positive long-term impacts of this poorly orchestrated scheme. We can do better.

Let’s do this

Let’s identify a fleet of experienced primary teachers; teachers who understand the complexity of a generalist classroom and primary-aged children, and work with them build their ideas of and about science. Let’s also prepare them with coaching skills. Then, as specialists, those teachers can work alongside their colleagues, coaching them as needed to improve their understandings for teaching science.

Let’s also give teachers sufficient time to engage with this strategy, by removing some of the other less necessary demands on their time. Eventually, all of our primary teachers would be scientifically literate, and skilled at teaching science.

*Find NESA’s ‘clarification’ of this policy here.

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