Teaching 21C, and no teachers in sight


Is it okay to attend an all day conference called Teaching 21C: the big issues facing the profession today and not, in the whole day, hear from a practising teacher?

I understand that you don’t come to a conference to hear only from teachers . You can get that around the photocopier or at the water cooler and there has been the growth of more hand-on options like TeachMeets where practitioners can share practice, not to mention the networks you can develop in platforms like Twitter. You go to hear from experts, and learn.

But I did feel, at the end of a long day that felt at times a brow-beating (if not belittling) of the teachers who constituted most of the audience, that it wouldn’t have been hard to include some teachers who might be able to contribute to the discussion, if only to respond to some of the provocations.

Don’t get me wrong; there were some good moments, particularly the session on evidence-based practice that seemed firmly grounded in, and linked to, how real schools work. Suzie Riddell (SVA) took us through a toolkit for schools called Evidence of Learning, which seeks to help schools make good choices about what kinds of change you might choose to implement in terms of $$ costs, evidence for a positive effect on learning, including links to more reading and the scale of that effect; a bit like Hattie’s work put to good use.


Earlier, Jan Owen took us through the FYA report on ‘The New Work Order’, emphasising the forces of automation, globalisation and flexibility that are disrupting work opportunities, especially for young people. You can download the whole report HERE (PDF)

But they were the highlights.

It wasn’t great to hear Teach for Australia rep. Melodie Potts Rosevear telling us how she was looking forward to the present generation of teachers to retire. (Spoiler alert: I wasn’t a fan of Teach for Australia before and I’ve blogged about that HERE and HERE; I just don’t think parachuting fast-tracked graduates into teaching and leadership, no matter how smart, does anything more than diminish the profession. Lawyers for Australia? I’d like to see that.)

Geoff Masters (ACER) was one of the keynotes and one of the most disappointing. He showed a series of un-labelled slides, designed to highlight falling standards in Australian learning outcomes (PISA, naturally). In some of the slides (shown below) high results were good, others when they were bad. It was hard to follow; they had no titles, there were no scales.

Masters talked about ‘Five Challenges’ facing Australian education: declining standards, growing disparities between schools, students falling year level expectations, students starting school at risk of being locked into long-term low achievement and (irony alert) teaching is becoming less attractive as a career option for able school leavers. Masters didn’t take questions.

And not a teacher got to speak.

It was all summed up in final plenary panel of grey-haired white men, a dynamic that even they felt a little embarrassed by.

I don’t want to even talk about PISA

PISA results were released this week. The media has enjoyed it a lot.

I have some strong reservations about the validity of the testing, the meaningfulness of national comparisons and the subsequent media league tables, teacher-blaming and contrived anguish in the Murdoch press that inevitably follows: ‘Our kids dumber than ten years ago.’. Yes, I think this really helpful to all concerned.

I could put up a list of links pointing to articles that talk about this stuff, but look it up.

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Teachers ‘phobic’ over test data (Murdoch press obsessed with it)

Or at least that’s how Tom Alegounarias, a board member on the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority and president of the NSW Board of Studies, sees it in a ‘hard-hitting’ (read self-aggrandizing) speech at a conference in Sydney somewhere yesterday as reported in the Murdoch press.

No doubt over neatly wrapped mints, glasses of chilled water and an audience who have been nowhere near a classroom in years Mr Algeounarias said that teachers had been dragged reluctantly to the discussion on data.

“The profession has generally been dragged reluctantly to the part of the educational debate that focuses on identifiable and measurable attainment.

“We’re reluctant to be associated too closely with any data that purports to sum up a level of achievement or pattern of attainment, no matter how popular it appears to be to outsiders.

“We are seen . . . to engage with the issue of measurement only to resist it.”

Mr Alegounarias said teachers had to discard their “phobia” of data and instead seize the initiative and develop better and more valid ways of measuring and comparing student performance.

This reluctance to embrace the use of student data was hampering efforts to improve education and overcome the effects of social disadvantage, he said.

Well, perhaps. But that might be because of the paucity of quality data, the reliance on standardised testing (and standarised curriculum Mr ACARA) and the way the data is mis-used by the (Murdorch) press to create the quasi-league tables and the simplicity that comes out of all that.

I attended an ACER Conference a while ago on ‘Using Data to Support Learning’ and got a lot out of it. Trouble is, the data simplifies what is in fact very complex and leads to blanket simplified approaches that improve testing scores but have little connection with real learning.

Support good teachers

Earlier this year, in my Texas round-up of the ASCD  Conference (doesn’t Texas and Round-up sit nicely together in that sentence!)I attended in March, I posted the ominous ‘sack teachers’ Newsweek cover, which I thought epitomised something of the disregard lots of Americans have for the profession.

So, good on ASCD and the latest (May 2010) issue of Educational Leadership, who have turned the Newsweek cover on its head (below) ASCD do good things; where’s the Australian equivalent? And don’t say ACER! Didn’t they invent NAPLAN?

Below, the original NEWSWEEK cover

Education revolution ties funding to results

It didn’t work in the USA, it didn’t work in the UK, but let’s try it anyway. The Rudd government’s plan to ‘name and shame’ under-performing schools, principals and teachers is simplistic, populist stuff. Stuff that wont improve student learning.

The Australian reports:

KEVIN Rudd will demand states take tough action against failing schools, sacking principals and teachers and even closing sub-standard schools, as a condition of a multi-billion-dollar education fund to ensure all students have a good education.

The Prime Minister will seek agreement from the states to reveal the relative performance of their schools from next year, with individual school reports available to parents within three years that detail their child’s results as well as the school’s performance against a group of comparable schools.

Mr Rudd unveiled the latest stage in his education revolution at a speech to the National Press Club in Canberra yesterday, including extra funding to reward excellent teachers and attract the best and brightest graduates into teaching.
Read the full article from the AUSTRALIAN HERE

Schools in

All the journalists, academics and politicians must be back from their holidays because the media is abuzz this week with all kinds of what should be done to ‘fix’ schools and teachers in the process.

The Federal Government’s rolling up its sleeves and unveiling its education revolution with, you guessed it, a national curriculum! Let’s hope that some teachers are included in the National Curriculum Board which will spend the next three years developing a uniform school curriculum for Australian students. It’s chairman Professor McGaw opened up his tenure with the admonishment that:

Australia has fallen behind in reading because there is too much focus on lifting the results of struggling students, rather than also making our top students perform even better (AGE)

And further, that ‘educators and governments should “behave like women and multi-task”, he said, by working to lift the game of all students.’

Meanwhile, economist Andrew Leigh argues in today’s Education Age that the government should persist with an investigation of performance based pay for teachers (not academics) which is what I thought the other party were in favour of? Leigh is concerned with what he calls the ‘decline in the academic aptitude of Australian teachers’ based on the average percentile rank of those entering education courses. Leigh is a little vague about what might constitute high performance but argues for an opt-in scheme to be trialled.

In the same issue of the big paper Christopher Bantick argues pretty much exactly the opposite viewpoint, that ‘teaching has never been about the money’. Bantick writes:

Should remuneration be a factor in becoming a teacher? Hardly. And money does not make an exemplary teacher either. So what does? The children in front of a teacher are not concerned how much or how little Mr of Ms earns. What they want is to be taken seriously as individuals, and to be excited and challenged by ideas. Learning new stuff is a powerful intoxicant. If teachers forget this, or are distracted by money issues, they may as well resign.

It’s pretty hard to tell exactly what Bantick is calling for except that great teachers are born not made, they ‘touch hearts and minds’ and he urges teachers to

‘…try something unconventional. Shock the students out of their torpor and find your greatness. Be passionate, creative, Yes, take risks’

All presumably within the bounds of the national curriculum of course.

Criminal classes
Oh, and don’t think the Herald-Sun has ignored the burning issues of the day either. It’s cutting edge front page story today by Carly Crawford is called Criminal Classes in Victorian Schools (love the alliteration) and warns its readers that the Victorian Institute of Teaching has quietly allowed 400 teachers who have been convicted of serious crimes in the past to keep on teaching.

So, teachers should get paid more, not care about pay, improve basic literacy and numeracy but don’t neglect the bright kids, think differently and originally but be prepared to teach the same curriculum as everywhere else in this wide brown land. And, don’t forget there’s a lot of ‘criminal classes’ out there.

I wonder what week two will bring?

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The trouble with VIT

You’ve gotta hand it to the Victorian Institute of Teaching, the compulsory union you’ve got when you haven’t got a compulsory union, although unions represent their constituents, not over-regulate them.

When it was first established I was hopeful it would represent the professional voice of teachers in Victoria: advocate for teachers, put the teacher perspective in the education debate, advice and support the profession, perhaps a bit like the AMA?

That hasn’t been what’s eventuated. What’s eventuated is an institute that regulates the profession, that administers, that supervises, that over-supervises, that licenses and regulates and charges fees. An annual fee, in fact, to maintain your teaching licence.

Maybe I’m over-sensitive, but look at the language in this letter (below) Victorian teachers received this week: ‘It is important that only you complete this form’, ‘follow the instructions on the form’, ‘the Institute will not able to process an incomplete application form’, ‘registration cannot be renewed…’ etc. Does it sound like the VIT are talking to their constituents? It was accompanied by two densely printed pages of notes mainly related to what teachers need to do to remain … teachers. And of education? Not a whisper.


Merit pay for dentists

This arrived in my email this week from a teacher in another school. Considering I’ve been posting about this for a while now, I thought I should include it:

Merit Pay for Dentists?

My dentist is great! He sends me reminders so I don’t forget checkups. He uses the latest techniques based on research. He never hurts me, and I’ve got all my teeth.

When I ran into him the other day, I was eager to see if he’d heard about the Federal Government’s latest program for improving the dental health of our children by introducing performance pay for dentists.

“Did you hear about the new federal program to measure effectiveness of dentists with their young patients?” I asked.

“No,” he said. He didn’t seem too thrilled. “How will they do that?”

“It’s quite simple,” I answered. “They will just count the number of cavities each patient has at Grades 3, 5, 7, 9, and average that to determine a dentist’s rating. Dentists will be rated as excellent, good, average, below average, and unsatisfactory. That way parents will know who are the best dentists. The plan will also encourage the less effective dentists to get better,” I said. “Poor dentists who don’t improve could lose their licenses to practice.”

“That’s terrible,” he replied.

“What? That’s not a good attitude,” I said. “Don’t you think we should try to improve children’s dental health in this country?”

“Sure I do, but that’s not a fair way to determine who is practising good dentistry.”

“Why not?” I asked. “It makes perfect sense to me.”

“Well, it’s so obvious,” he said. “Don’t you see that dentists don’t all work with the same clientele, and that much depends on things we can’t control? For example, I work in a rural area with a high percentage of patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues work in upper middle-class neighborhoods. Many of the parents I work with don’t bring their children to see me until there is some kind of problem, and I don’t get to do much preventive work. Also, many of the parents I serve let their kids eat way too much sweet food from an early age, unlike more educated parents who understand the relationship between sugar and decay. To top it all off, so many of my clients have tank water which is untreated and has no fluoride in it. Do you have any idea how much difference early use of fluoride can make?”

“It sounds like you’re making excuses. I can’t believe that you would be so defensive. After all, you do a great job, and you needn’t fear a little accountability.”

“I am not being defensive!” he said. “My best patients are as good as anyone’s, my work is as good as anyone’s, but my average cavity count is going to be higher than a lot of other dentists’ because I chose to work where I am needed most.”

“Don’t’ get touchy,” I said.

“Touchy?” he said. His face had turned red, and from the way he was clenching and unclenching his jaws, I was afraid he was going to damage his teeth. “Try furious! In a system like this, I will end up being rated average, below average, or worse. The few educated patients I have who see these ratings may believe this so-called rating is an actual measure of my ability and proficiency as a dentist. They may leave me, and I’ll be left with only the most needy patients. And my cavity average score will get even worse. On top of that, how will I attract good dental hygienists and other excellent dentists to my practice if it is labeled below average?”

“I think you are overreacting,” I said. “‘Complaining, excuse-making and stonewalling won’t improve dental health’… I am quoting from a leading member of the DOC,” I noted.

“What’s the DOC?” he asked.

“It’s the Dental Oversight Committee, a group made up of mostly lay persons, chaired by a Federal Politician who used to be a lawyer to make sure dentistry in this country gets improved.”

“Spare me! I can’t believe this. Reasonable people won’t buy it,” he said hopefully

The program sounded reasonable to me, so I asked, “How else would you measure good dentistry?”

“Come watch me work,” he said. “Observe my processes.”

“That’s too complicated, expensive and time-consuming,” I said. “Cavities are the bottom line, and you can’t argue with the bottom line. It’s an absolute measure.”

“That’s what I’m afraid my parents and prospective patients will think. This can’t be happening,” he said despairingly.

“Now, now,” I said, “don’t despair. The Federal government will help you some.”

“How?” he asked.

If you receive a poor rating, they’ll send a dentist who is rated excellent to help straighten you out,” I said brightly.

“You mean,” he said, “they’ll send a dentist with a wealthy clientele to show me how to work on severe juvenile dental problems with which I have probably had much more experience? BIG HELP!”

“There you go again,” I said. “You aren’t acting professionally at all.”

“You don’t get it,” he said. “Doing this would be like grading schools and teachers on an average score made on a test of children’s progress with no regard to influences outside the school, the home, the community served and stuff like that. Why would they do something so unfair to dentists? No one would ever think of doing that to schools.”

I just shook my head sadly, but he had brightened.

“I’m going to write my representatives and senators,” he said. “I’ll use the school analogy. Surely they will see the point.”

What about performance based pay for politicians?

Now there’s a thought that might get some traction. As politicians help themselves to another 6.7% pay increase while teachers pays go backwards in real terms, AND it’s teachers who are in the spotlight for their performance! perhaps we should look at politicians pay in terms of performance?

And in the areas of the truth about the war in Iraq, water planning, AWB corruption, public transport and infrastructure, they’re not looking too flash. Even the trains don’t run on time!

The AGE reports today that:

Prime Minister John Howard has defended a 6.7 per cent pay rise
for politicians, saying they work harder than many people on
similar salaries.

The base salary for backbenchers will jump from $118,000 to
$127,000 next month under the latest ruling by the Remuneration
Tribunal, an independent body which sets politicians’ wages.

Mr Howard will receive a $21,000 rise to $330,000 a year while
Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd will get an extra $15,000.

The average wage is between $50,000 and $60,000 a year.

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Performance Pay Deserves an F

I think this letter to the AGE today pretty well sums up my view on this one too. I’d just come out of a Year 11 English class discussing the analysis of language of the media and saying that whenever someone says something like ‘Pretty much everyone agrees..’ you should sit up and be suspicious!  As I blogged earlier, and as Ian Hundley says: pay all teachers more for starters.

THE headline “Everyone agrees, it’s a matter of how to reward great teachers” (The Age, 15/6) misses the point. The fact is that teachers, as a whole, are systematically underpaid for the work they do.

Julie Bishop has latched on to a report by the US Centre for Quality Teaching to support her proposal for performance pay. The report may be noteworthy because the authors have teaching experience. It doesn’t follow that they know how performance pay works in practice.

Performance pay has been much reviewed in many industries over many years and has been found to be a bad idea for most occupational groups. The 52-page US report does not review any of these studies.

Performance pay for teachers deserves an F rating.

Ian Hundley, North Balwyn


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