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 Social Commentary

The Great Australian Education Debate

My somewhat cynical, tongue-in-cheek, superficial (call it what you want) take on the education debate in Australia.

Blame Game_01(2)

Education Wellbeing

Buying into NAPLAN Stress

I wrote this for my weekly Generation Next column.

According to Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald, “Stuffed toys that help children deal with ‘difficult emotions’ are kid stressed exambeing spruiked as a means to ‘assist with the stress of NAPLAN.’”

As an aside, it does seem ironic that the PR firm pushing these toys is called Evil Twin.

Now, I understand that Year 12 students get stressed over HSC or VCE examinations. After all these are what they have been playing for since the Game of School began.

I understand Year 6 students getting stressed over a scholarship examination. After all, I’m sure they know just how lucky they are to even get the chance to sit for that test.

And – at a push – I can even understand Year 4 or 5 students getting stressed about being examined in order to gain access to the illustrious Opportunity Class. (Seriously… who comes up with these ideas?)

But a Year 3, 5, 7 or 9 student getting stressed over NAPLAN?


Let’s be clear. NAPLAN is not something students should be stressed about.

However, the way in which NAPLAN has been rolled out, and the use of the data it generates, means that NAPLAN is certainly something teachers and principals get stressed about.

What should be seen as a diagnostic test to gauge those kids who need extra help has been turned into a blunt instrument to judge teacher and whole-school performance.

Whether you agree NAPLAN should be used to measure school performance – and for the record I do believe it should play some part in a far more comprehensive analysis – the fact remains that a student’s results in NAPLAN, will have little bearing on their education. Certainly not in the same way their performances in their Opportunity Class, scholarship or Year 12 exams would have.

So why the stress?

One can only assume that it is the schools imparting this stress onto students and parents.

Anecdotally there have been stories in the past, of principals telling less-able students to stay at home on NAPLAN day, fearful of how the school’s results would be impacted by his or her attendance. And then of course there are the schools only admitting new students whose NAPLAN scores are deemed “good enough.”

Parents are simply following the lead from the schools.

Tutoring companies and NAPLAN study book publishers can’t believe their luck. One publishing company has sold 180,000 books already this year, whilst you’ll find School Zone NAPLAN-Style Workbook: Year 3 Numeracy at Number 9 on the Bestseller list courtesy of well-meaning parents.

Bookstores who may have been worried about their future a couple of years ago are now banking on NAPLAN hysteria seeing them through!

Meanwhile ACARA and government officials trot out the same old tired lines about NAPLAN being something you can’t prepare for.

Well people aren’t buying those words. They’re buying the words in NAPLAN books, and now it seemsGood Luck toys.

So I ask again, why is it – do you think – that the kids are stressed?

Education Engagement & Motivation Wellbeing

Are we testing the wrong things?

This is my latest article in the Generation Next Newsletter…

As the Fairfax media reports that more parents than ever were withdrawing their kids from the annual NAPLAN tests I wonder if these tests are even assessing the right things in school.

Now I realize the importance of literacy and numeracy – of course I do.

But, these tests only measure outcomes.

If we only assess the outcomes, we often misunderstand or completely ignore the causation.

What if we saw these “outcomes” as a by-product of genuine engagement and wellbeing in our schools?

What if – instead of striving to enhance scores, we sought to enhance the wellbeing of our kids (and teachers!).

What if – instead of trying to compete with our Asian neighbours in the numeracy league tables, we attempted to genuinely engage our students in a way that develops critical and creative thinkers with a real lifelong love of learning.

To be frank, engagement and wellbeing are pre-cursors to real achievement, but all too often we pursue achievement at the expense of our kids’ (and teachers’) sense of engagement and wellbeing.

I recently discovered this Gallup poll that aims to chart the levels of hope, engagement and wellbeing across students in Grades 5-12 across the United States.

In Australia, I know ACER have this survey on engagement as well as their wellbeing survey and I think it would be in your school’s best interests to know how your students are tracking in this regard.


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…’

Change Education Leadership

Why, why why… don’t we ask the right questions?

Those involved with education reform  in Australia, the UK and US seem to focus on what we should teach students, when we should teach our students & how we should teach, assess and compare our students with their international counterparts.

To me, it appears that those leading educational change* neglect the most important questions of all.

Why should we teach our students that?

Why should we teach our students then?

Why do we assess kids in manner we do?

Why are we comparing our students to kids (particularly in Asia) who are being educated to staff factories and call centres?

I believe we really need to get to the WHY of education.

I was fortunate to be in a room the other day when Susan Groundwater Smith posed a great question (in the style of TV quiz show Jeopardy):

“To what question is School the answer?”

I don’t know if there is one particular question that fits the bill here, but I do know that most politicians aren’t courageous enough to even think about it.

*In this post, the word change is used with a great deal of poetic license.

Change Education Engagement & Motivation

No Grades Day

Last year I set my senior PDHPE class a little task, then involved them reading up on the latest recovery strategies used by the top rugby league players. “Is it in the syllabus?” they asked. “No,” I replied, “This is brand new stuff.”

Out of 20 students, how many looked at the stimulus material provided on our schools intranet? (complete with a handy tool that tells me how many students have viewed said material)

Three. A 15% success rate!

When I asked why, the common reply was “We don’t need to know it for the HSC.”

To be honest this was a little experiment… although statistically not reliable given the small test group, it backed up what I expected to see.

Behavioural science tells us that when students see grades as the outcome of education, they actually lose the intrinsic love of learning they entered school with.

Daniel Pink’s talk in this post explores this concept in terms of monetary reward.

How many times has the first question a kids asked you after setting a task been “Are we being tested on this?” or “What’s this out of?”

If no marks are attached, what priority is it given?

How many schools say they want to create Lifelong learners, critical thinkers etc… and then subconsciously undermine their students’ intrinsic motivation to learn by continually attaching a grade to their learning?

I’ve heard of consultants who advise marking and grading S T U D Y N O T E S !

So my vision is to have a day where no grades are given. Anywhere. In Any School. WORLD-wide. But I will settle for some schools, heck even one’ll do!

Kids coming to school to learn for learnings sake. No fear of failure. No reinforcing the labels we have for our kids. Letting kids explore…

Never-mind teachers or parents, I reckon the kids would “flip out” because that’s how we’ve conditioned them…

So put the date in your diary: Friday 18th May – the day after NAPLAN – and no the irony is not lost on me…

Education Engagement & Motivation Leadership

My Latest Sydney Morning Herald Article

Page 17 of today’s edition of the Sydney Morning Herald carries an article I wrote regarding the development of the new Australian Curriculum. Read it online here

Entitled “Old Ways Curb Young” Minds and featuring comment from Daniel Pink, Richard Gerver, Brian Caldwell and Professor Robyn Ewing, I will  be interested to see what reaction it gets, not only from the Education sector, but the public in general.

Please let me know what you think!

In other news…

My colleague, Ray Francis and I will be presenting at this weeks Association of Independent Schools Pastoral Care Conference. We are running a 60 min workshop on “Strengths-based approaches to Student Wellbeing.”

I’m also pleased to confirm that I have been invited to speak at the highly regarded Generation Next Youth Wellbeing Seminar in Perth in September.

Click here for more info on both of these events.

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Education Leadership Media

Testing Times for NAPLAN

For the benefit of my overseas readers, all Australian school students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 are assessed using national tests in Reading, Writing, Language Conventions (Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation) and Numeracy.

These are known as NAPLAN tests. They are the equivalent to the SATs in the UK or the NEAPs in the US.

Every year standardised tests come under the microscope. Everyone with an opinion (educated or otherwise) throws in their two cents…

So here’s mine (you can decide whether it’s educated or otherwise.)

In the last couple of weeks, with regard to NAPLAN, the media has been awash with allegations of teachers cheating, parents refusing to allow their kids to take the test, and principals selecting new enrolments based on NAPLAN scores.

With stories like this it’s not surprising that anyone who wanted to condemn NAPLAN got their obligatory 3 minute soundbite onto Morning TV. Bold statements like “NAPLAN harms our kids for life” at breakfast time, make for essential viewing for the mums and dads of every 8 – 14 year old in the country!

But here’s the thing…

Standardised tests do have a role to play in today’s education. They can serve as a diagnostic tool to highlight areas in a child’s learning that may need attention – indeed that is the purpose NAPLAN was intended to serve.

On the NAPLAN website it says:

  • Students and parents may use individual results to discuss achievements and progress with teachers.
  • Teachers use results to help them better identify students who require greater challenges or additional support.
  • Schools use results to identify strengths and weaknesses in teaching programs and to set goals in literacy and numeracy.
  • School systems use results to review programs and support offered to schools.

The tests themselves are not the problem.

The issues such as those reported in the media this week arise because the data is abused by people who should know better.

The problems associated with standardised tests are due to the seemingly innate human desire to compare oneself (or children) to others.

This has been exacerbated by the fact that the governments MySchool website uses NAPLAN results as its main source of comparison data.

In early 2010, Prime Minister, Julia Gillard whilst still Education Minister stated, “Before MySchool, parents would do everything they could to find out as much information as possible about the schools in their suburb – maybe they’ve moved suburb, moved cities, moved states, want to know which is the school that their child should go to and that’s been a hard battle for them to get the information. Now, as one source of information they will be able to get on MySchool and see more comprehensive information than they’ve ever had access to before.”

As soon as we have a notion of choice – we get competition between the potential choices (in this case, schools) and in every competition in the world – there is cheating and corruption. So should the stories in the media these last two weeks be surprising? I don’t think so.

This has the potential to get much worse with Ms Gillard’s government announcing at its budget this month, their intention to introduce incentive based pay for teachers.

You guessed it – NAPLAN test scores would be part of the assessment criteria!

So, stay with me here…  scores from a test – that we are told, you cannot teach to or prepare for – will form the basis of whether or not a teacher nets an extra $8000 a year or not…

If NAPLAN wasn’t high stakes before… it certainly will be now – for the teacher at least! Never mind the raft of research that tells us performance related pay actually DECREASES performance! (But that’s another blog post yet to come…)

As well as principals keen to ensure that their schools league ranking doesn’t slip on their watch, individual teachers will have the thought of an extra $8000 in their mind when it comes to planning the next week’s work.

In the quest to net the extra cash, what will be the first to go from the child’s learning experience? Art, Music, Drama, PE? Perhaps creative writing will be pushed the side so classes can work from books that look to maximise your NAPLAN performance.

But that’s all to come… back to the issues of the day.

Principals and teachers have to be the leaders in the education revolution. They have to stand up for what is right and spell out to the politicians and misguided masses, what is blatantly wrong about using these standardised tests in a way they were never intended.

The media will report whatever makes the headlines that day… so whilst one day they’ll be condemning NAPLAN, you can be assured that in a month or two, the same outlets will be publishing league tables or promoting the idea of Performance Related Pay based on NAPLAN data.

As I said before. I have no problems with standardised tests per se; but the way in which we use them is fundamentally flawed.

If a principal uses NAPLAN test scores as a means to select students into their school (and for the record – I don’t believe there is a single principal in the country that would only use test scores to do this) then the sooner they retire, the better. And you can quote me on that.

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Education Leadership

Just another disappointing sequel

My latest article has been picked up by Online Opinion.

Just another disappointing sequel

 With perhaps the exception of The Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back, sequels rarely receive comparative critical acclaim as their predecessors. Sequels often offer little to enhance the story, in many cases only serving to confuse or infuriate the audience.

My School 2.0 is an example of another disappointing sequel.

It still relies on NAPLAN scores to sustain its plot, but this time funding is introduced to the script to add further substance.

TV news reporters and newspaper journalists have been quick to expose the fact that independent schools spend more money on their students than state schools. Was that the twist in the story? Did we really not see that coming?

Federal Minister for Schools, Peter Garrett, heralded the launch of My School 2.0 as, “A great day for parents around Australia.” He also added, “We’re now going to see parents, schools, the community, the media and others really start to have a deep discussion over the next months. That’s a good thing.”

A deep discussion about what? Certainly not improving education.

Read the full article at Opinion Opinion.

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