Education Leadership

Making teachers nervous the key to lifting standards?

nervous emojiFour years ago I wrote a piece for the UK Huffington Post reflecting on the nonsense being espoused by the then head of OFSTED, Sir Michael Wilshaw. Upon his appointment as Chief Inspector of Schools he dispensed this advice to UK headmasters:

“A good head would never be loved by his or her staff. If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ you know you are doing something right.”

In the same piece I noted that whilst now living in Australia, it was prudent to keep an eye on UK education matters, as more often than not, Australia adopts education strategies and policies borne out of the UK – albeit with a significant time lag – for example, standardised testing, national curriculum etc.

And now it seems Australia is at it again.

News broke this week that the NSW Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES) will now be known as the NSW Education Standards Authority and will be given even more power to lift school compliance and teacher quality.

In a Sydney Morning Herald article, NSW Education Minister – the usually sensible – Adrian Piccoli said,

“The board ought to make schools nervous around school registration requirements, and it ought to make teachers nervous around teaching standards.”

Why the minister would want to add to the stresses already at play in schools is beyond me. For example, in Australia, school principals are five times more likely to face threats of violence than the general population, and seven times more likely to face physical violence whilst statistics show that early career teachers leave the profession at alarming rates. I can only presume he has taken advice that suggests instilling fear into already-stressed individuals and organisations is best for lifting outcomes. (I’m yet to read any research that suggests this is the case… but hey-ho).

And how will – do you think – the minister and the NSW Education Standards Authority determine whether these nervous teachers have improved? What targets will be set? Go on… I bet you CAN guess…

Take it away Tom…

In that same SMH article, Tom Alegounarias, who will become the part-time chair with a chief executive beneath him in the new structure, cited the highest achieving education jurisdictions globally as a target for NSW.

“It’s about setting our targets against international standards. How do we get to Shanghai, how do we get to Finland?”

Clearly I can’t miss the opportunity to suggest to Tom that the best way to get to either Shanghai or Finland would be by plane – boom-tish! (I’m here all week!)

But I have written before as to why we shouldn’t be overly smitten with China’s approaches to education (seriously… cigarette companies sponsor schools) or uncritically fawn over Finland (for example, youth unemployment is double that of Australia).

Unsurprisingly, Alegounarias also suggested that the reform would be deemed a success if there was “a big bump” in the state’s NAPLAN results in the next few years. This reductionist approach is concerning given that it has actually been suggested that such a “bump” would prove nothing. In case you don’t want to read that article in full, here is a very important section of it… (italics indicate direct quote from the article and I’ve added bold to the bits I think are really important).

Margaret Wu states that the fluctuation in NAPLAN scores can be as much as ± 5.2. This is because of a standard error of measurement of about 2.6 standard deviations.

This means there is a 95% confidence that if the same students were to complete the same test again (without new learning between tests) the results would vary by as much as ± 5.2 (2.6 x 2) of the original score. This represents nearly 12% variability for each individual score.

The standard error of measurement depends on the test reliability, meaning the capacity of the test to produce consistent and robust results.

What some researchers say is that the NAPLAN test’s large margin for errors makes the comparison across years inaccurate.

For example, if a student gets 74% in a test and another gets 70% and the error is 5, that means that essentially the first mark is 74 + or – 5, and the other mark is 70% + or – 5.

This means the two different marks can overlap by a fair bit. So it is not really possible to say a score of 74 is that much different to a score of 70.

The implication is that when you take this into account over a whole cohort of people it is difficult to sat (sic) categorically that one set of marks is any different compared with another.

In short:

Teachers and principals should not be judged based on NAPLAN findings and, as others have argued, more formative (assessment during learning) rather than summative (assessment at the end of a learning cycle) measures for providing teaching and learning feedback should be explored. 

What concerns me most is this stuff about NAPLAN – as well as research around teacher wellbeing – isn’t written on a scroll hidden inside a booby-trapped tomb within the grounds of a mythical city that no-one can find… it’s on the inter-web-thingamajig… and I’m pretty sure that most government buildings would have access to that. And before people counter with research that suggests the opposite – that teachers are lucky to have the job they have and could use a little more stress in their lives, and that NAPLAN rocks – I’m only putting forward the links here by way of adding to the conversation.

Too many arguments in education are based around all-or-nothing binaries, and people are quick to jump into one camp or another and attach a hashtag. But I reckon the solutions might a little more nuanced than that.

But nuance does not a vote winning catch cry make, or a feel good movement create…

To understand more of the nuance, the government could ask teachers what they think (like I did on Twitter) – click the tweet to see the discussion that follows…

But then again, open discussion with the profession might make politicians nervous.

Education Leadership

“Class Size” debate just got farcical…

A couple of weeks back I blogged about the Class Size Myth.

I made two simple points.

  1. A smaller class size in and of itself does nothing to enhance student learning. A poor lesson infront of 40 kids will still be a poor lesson in front of 20.
  2. But, in order to implement the proven strategies for improved learning, we need smaller class sizes.

This post had more hits in one day than my blog normally gets in a month, and it presented an argument that most people seemed to understand.

Unless – that is – you are the CEO of the NSW Institute of Teachers (NSWIT) – the lead authority for teaching in NSW.

In a Sun-Herald article entitled, Bigger class sizes free teachers to raise standards, NSWIT CEO, Kate O’Donnell states,

It’s not about saying make the class sizes bigger so teachers can have less contact time but, rather, to make sure in the teaching day there is time allowed for teachers to do something else other than be physically in front of their students, which is ultimately where we want them to be at their best.

But it is about making class sizes bigger, with the inference that this will somehow raise teaching standards.

Interesting. It goes against all the research I’ve read as well as going against common sense… so what’s doing?

The NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell recently cut $1 Billion or so from the NSW education budget at a time that increased spending on education has been identified as a key factor in improving teaching and learning. By cutting spending it could be construed that he cares little for education – not a good look for any politician, let alone a first-term premier.

What he needs here is, a way in which he can appear to be interested in raising teaching standards whilst saving money. If he can convince the electorate that he is a good bet educationally and economically speaking, he may well be able to swing this past the voters.

So, what better way then, than to have the head of the government’s teacher authority, Ms Kate O’Donnell cite the great performances of other countries (I presume like most in this debate, she is using PISA as her guiding light) who all have big class sizes… brilliant!

She says,

There’s evidence that in effective systems that do sacrifice smaller class sizes, particularly in older grades, they’re not sacrificing student outcomes.

But the only problem with this statement is that is no evidence that this is the case at all.

Let’s take the two “top-performing” systems (as much as it irks me to distil learning down to a simple PISA score).

The use of the word “sacrifice” by Ms O’Donnell suggests that governments are deliberately forgoing smaller classes in order to make educational gains.

But, in Finland the government committed to reducing class sizes in the late 60s, and as a result the maximum class size is now 20, with science lessons capped at 16.

Whilst, the OECD reports that in China,

In major cities (and Shanghai is typical), recent drastic declines in population have forced local governments to adopt small classes so as to minimise teacher layoffs. This has significantly reduced teachers’ workload and created room for student activities during lessons that would be impossible in large classes.

But hang on, Ms O’Donnell tells us that large classes will reduce teachers’ workload… geez my head hurts.

And the only city from which China’s PISA scores are formulated?  You guessed it… Shanghai.

I find it strange that the government would – on the one hand – use findings from the OECD to strengthen its argument to improve teaching, but then – on the other hand – dismiss (or ignore, or be completely unaware of) findings from the OECD that cite small class sizes as one of the reasons for academic success (albeit in standardised tests).

I can only assume that one of three things has happened here.

The Sun-Herald misquoted Ms O’Donnell, which would be alarming.

The Government and the NSWIT are misinterpreting data and research, which would be equally alarming given their level of responsibility.

Or they are deliberately misleading NSW, which would be even more alarming, if not entirely surprising. By citing that bigger classes pave the way to better teaching, are they laying a foundation for a policy change?

And, it’s not just happening in NSW.

The Federal Opposition Education Spokesman, Christopher Pyne, has already gone on the record saying he believes class size has little impact on learning, while the QLD government is keen to cram more kids into each classroom too.

I’m not sure what Ted Baillieu, the Victorian premier, thinks about class size, although he did give assurances in 2011 that class sizes would not increase. This came a year or so after he said that under his government, VIC teachers would be the best paid in the land and we all know how that is going!


How Australia Can Win The Education Race

As part of the Australian Government’s response to the Gonski Report, this week Julia Gillard will announce she wants to see Australia ranked in the Top 5 of educational systems by the year 2025.

By pure chance I’ve written my top tips to ensure we improve education standards. You can read a less Aussie-centric tip sheet on the Huffington Post here. But if you are Aussie focused…. then please – read on!

It was great to hear Prime Minister Julia Gillard championing Australian education last week. She was encouraging us to win the Education Race in order to remain an economic powerhouse.

It was rousing stuff, but wait a minute – a race? 

Since when?

How fast are the kids supposed to be learning?

As a teacher, how hard should I push these kids? Who are we racing against this week?

Please don’t say Asia – they’re top of the league.

I’m not surprised by the reduction of education, a complex social debate into a pithy one-liner. After all this is how most of our debate – educational, political or social takes place. Think Stop the Boats, Local Schools – Local Decisions, I Give a Gonski, the Great Big Tax, Lost Generation etc.

In fact the last time I can remember any decent public debate around education, it was on the ABC’s Q&A and even then there wasn’t a teacher on the panel.

But Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne was, and in reply to Ms Gillard’s speech, Mr Pyne stated, “The Government have some serious questions to answer.” 

Exactly! Yes they do! So ask them Mr Pyne… Mr Pyne? Chris? Anyone…

But hang on there. This could work in my favour.

Let’s assume for a moment, that education is a race. Because to be quite frank, in doing so it will make my job a hell of a lot easier.

I won’t need to come up with interesting and engaging lessons. No need to find any relevance in the curriculum other than the fact we are trying to win. All kids LOVE competition right?

I could stop gibber-gabbering and get down to the nitty-gritty. With appropriate support, I could get some serious rote-learning happening.

But first I need to know what our Key Performance Indicators are.

In footy, it’s points. Playing attractive football is (literally) pointless if you can’t score. In cricket, it’s runs and many a dour batsman has kept out a more aesthetically appealing player based on the fact they have a higher scoring average.

So what are we competing for in the Education Race?

As far as I can tell, it all boils down to PISA league table positions.

In this regard performance in the PISA tables is not too dissimilar to performance in sport. Perhaps it’s from this that Ms Gillard draws the sporting analogy?

Or maybe Ms Gillard is reflecting on the Olympics, where much was made of the poor performance of the Australian team, particularly in with regard to their Chinese counterparts.

As is often the case, when national sporting teams fail to live up to their billing, a far-reaching enquiry ensues. Often these enquiries seek to find out what they can learn from their rivals.

So let’s apply this enquiry based approach to our education system.

If we want to compete with China and ultimately win the Education Race, we need to learn from their system.

What do they do so well, and how can we apply it here in Australia?

Reports vary, but some suggest that students spend up to 12 hours a day at school, attend school on the weekend and many kids say they don’t have any spare time to play with friends. Forty percent of kids say they have no friends to play with at all.

This could be because, according to a Chinese Youth and Children Research Center survey conducted in 2007, around 50% of parents refuse to allow their children anytime to go outside to play as it detracts from study time.

It’s clear we need to keep kids in school longer and obviously parents need to do their bit, but how on earth are we going to fund this? Particularly in light of the hoo-ha surrounding Gonski.

Why not have big tobacco firms sponsor our schools?

At Sichuan Tobacco Hope High, students parade around in school uniforms with Marlboro logos emblazoned across their back.

Forget Local Schools Local Decisions! If we genuinely care for our children’s future and want to match it with the Chinese, then governments need to woo back the tobacco industry. They’ve been ostracised long enough.

We also need to stream our kids in middle school in the way they do in China.

According to the China Education and Research Network, secondary education is delivered by academic lower and upper middle schools.

At the age of 12, lower middle school graduates wishing to continue their education take a locally administered entrance exam, on the basis of which they will have the option either of continuing in an academic upper middle school or of entering a vocational secondary school.

Vocational schools offer programs ranging from two to four years and train medium-level skilled workers, farmers, and managerial and technical personnel.

Schools for Skilled Workers typically train junior middle school graduates for positions requiring production and operation skills.

Imagine if we followed this model in Australia.

We could ensure we only have our best academic students taking the NAPLAN tests.

Imagine what that would do for our standards?

No need to worry about all those pesky socioeconomic considerations, indigenous issues or immigrants with their cumbersome language issues and emotional baggage.

We could remove them from ‘real’ school and farm them out to the numerous manufacturing and manual labour industries we have in Australia.

And imagine if we could forget teaching about our history in the same way that the Chinese have expunged the less desirable elements of their history from their records. Even well educated university students have little knowledge of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Imagine if we didn’t have to waste time teaching the history of Australia, or the cultural sensitivities and divides that exist because of it?

Imagine if we didn’t have to teach critical or creative thinking and writing skills?

Imagine if the internet was so heavily censored by our government that there was nothing of interest to distract our kids from the latest bout of numeracy and literacy exercises.

We teachers need some support in achieving this, and whilst some parents and other do-gooders may baulk at the price – figuratively speaking – of this kind of education. I’m sure we can all agree, that winning the Education Racewill be worth it!

Put the champagne on ice, we’ll be top of the league in no time!

‘Aussie… Aussie… Aussie…’