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.

Weird Science

Today the Victorian Government announced that it had shelved a $28 million dollar project to invent a “pleasant tasting, attention-sustaining, low-priced drink that enables secondary students to work safely and with sustained alertness all day” because it failed the common-sense test. And yes, I’m pretty sure that Coca-Cola might have already invented it. There’s more about that here

That educational initiative came just a day or so after the Federal Minister for Education announced, and repeated, that to raise the standards of students entering teaching degrees, future applicants would have to be in the top 30% of the country in terms of literacy and numeracy based on, wait for it, their Year 9 NAPLAN results!

That was hurriedly withdrawn, but I did have to agree with the AGE letter writer this morning, who said:

IT IS my fear that our government, in continuing to leap on the standards-based reform bandwagon , will be moving to a superficial and restrictive system to assess what cannot be assessed (‘‘ Students facing tougher entry to teaching degrees’’ , The Saturday Age, 16/4).

That this homogenised, reductive approach is being touted by our School Education Minister, whose past as an artist and activist would be as difficult to assess via standardised means as the life of a teacher, is shocking.

Throughout my teacher-training course and my six years as a teacher, I have been rigorously assessed. I, like all other teachers, have needed to prove myself during classroom observation, performance reviews and interviews. I have produced portfolios of work and documented contributions to curriculum and syllabus development.

Most importantly, I have received feedback from students and their families. Do I know the content? Yes. I have the academic transcripts and the classroom responses of my students. Does that make me a good teacher? No.

What is of greater importance is the ability to work with students, parents, colleagues and the community to offer diverse educational experiences . While these experiences may not fit neatly into a table of quantitatively derived data, there is no better measure of the ability to teach.

Madeleine Coulombe, Balwyn North

Meanwhile, somebody actually has been doing some real thinking about the quality of teaching, a Grattan Institute report just released tries to address issues of teacher quality and improvement. That report is HERE

The Key is Good Teachers

A little while ago I was involved in a forum convened by the Grattan Institute which was looking at teacher performance and evaluation, and how that all fits together.

So, I was interested to see a report coming out of that institute by Ben Jensen called ‘Investing in Our Teachers: Investing in Our Economy’. All economic metaphors aside, the basic premise; that good teaching is what matters most, is hard to deny. The report argues that we’ve spent too much on reducing class sizes for no good effect (have we actually really given that a go?) and argues that teacher effectiveness is the lever for real improvement.

Agree! But the next step is always blurrier and I don’t think it’s as clear cut and quanifiable as the report makes out. But the report outlines 5 ways to improve teacher effectiveness:

1. Improve the quality of applicants to the teaching profession

2. Improve the quality of teachers’ initial education and training

3. Evaluate and provide feedback to develop teachers once they enter the profession and are working in our schools

4. Recognise and reward effective teachers

5. Move on ineffective teachers who have been unable to increase their effectiveness through development programs.

Hard to argue with much of that but the word ‘effective’ is tricky, and that’s often when these things turn to standardized test results in isolation from other factors.  However, this report seems to have a better handle on all that and also says:

Many of these problems stem from a lack of meaningful teacher evaluation and development. It is, therefore, ineffective (and grossly unfair) to dismiss poorly performing teachers who have never before received effective teacher evaluation and development. All teachers need to have effective evaluation that identifies their strengths and weaknesses and feeds into individualised development plans.
A development program may aim to increase the performance of teachers found to have specific weaknesses. Development steps should be undertaken so that they can raise their effectiveness to sufficient levels. Many will improve. Some will leave the profession of their own accord and some will be dismissed for not improving their performance. As shown, this will improve learning in schools and lift Australia’s students to amongst the world’s best.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the approach the Federal Government wants to take on teacher performance and performance pay.

Teach for Australia (revisited)

I’m not commenting (I already have) I’m just pointing to this from the AUSTRALIAN today.

PROFESSIONALS wanting a mid-career change of lifestyle will be encouraged to become teachers under a plan to ease their entry into classrooms.

Under the plan, professionals could be teaching in classrooms after just eight weeks of specialised training.

Announcing the policy at her Aldelaide alma mater, Unley High, the Prime Minister said the government would cover up to 50 per cent of course fees and provide up to $10,000 in income support to facilitate accelerated entry into the classroom.

The policy, called Teach Next, builds on a raft of education announcements by Labor during the election campaign, including more autonomy for school principals and cash bonuses for the top 10 per cent of teachers.

Ms Gillard said the $10,000 in income support would help professionals considering teaching to enter the profession.
“This is about bringing people into teaching from all walks of life,” Ms Gillard said.

“We know we are short of maths teachers, we’re short of science teachers, we know that our teaching workforce is ageing.”

Ms Gillard said the policy would add to the workforce new people who wanted to enter teaching.
“Maybe after a lifetime in a profession, they want to bring those skills into teaching”.

Just the facts Ma’am

I went looking for a picture of the Blues Brothers because I thought that the old ‘just the facts, ma’am’ quote came from them, but I found that the quote actually came originally from a much earlier TV series called Dragnet, which I vaguely remember from the black and white TV past, and which the Blues Brothers were clearly parodying. (hence pic above)

And what inspired this rash burst of reckless Googling? The Guardian article TODAY which reported new UK Schools Minister Nick Gibb lamenting that students were leaving school not knowing enough facts. And gave the startling example that some UK students were leaving school not knowing who Miss Havisham was!

Now, before I go on, I submit this brief multiple choice exercise, which you may choose to ignore. Miss Havisham was:

  1. The real name of Queen Victoria
  2. The maiden name of the wife of UK Schools Minister Nick Gibb
  3. A fictional character created by Charles Dickens
  4. The tall one of the Spice Girls.

If you followed multiple choice logic that stipulates ‘when in doubt, always choose C’ you’d be right. Below is Sian Phillips playing Miss Havisham.

But is this an important fact that all students should leave school knowing? I wonder. According to the article:

Today’s schoolchildren lack basic facts, such as who Miss Havisham is or who was in charge at the battle of Waterloo, the schools minister, Nick Gibb, said today.

“Knowledge is a basic building block for a successful life” and children need a grasp of the facts to master subjects such as science, maths, English and history, said Gibb. Instead, the education system is downplaying knowledge and concentrating on teaching “skills”.

He told a Reform conference in London: “Getting to grips with the basics – of elements, of metals, of halogens, of acids, of what happens when hydrogen and oxygen come together, of photosynthesis, of cells – is difficult. But once learned, you have the ability to comprehend some of the great advances in genetics, physics and other scientific fields that are revolutionising our lives.”

Gibb extended this argument to history, geography and English literature.

“The facts, dates and narrative of our history in fact join us all together. The rich language of Shakespeare should be the common property of us all. The great figures of literature that still populate the conversations of all those who regard themselves as well-educated should be known to all.

“Yet to more and more people, Miss Havisham is a stranger – and even the most basic history and geography a mystery.

“These concepts must be taught. And they must be taught to everyone. Sadly, that is not always the case.”

I’ve had this discussion with a number of teachers over the years; often as they’ve come to me frustrated that this generation doesn’t seem to ‘know’ anything. That they don’t know basic ‘facts’ and that it was our job to teach them those facts.

All laudable stuff, and I couldn’t agree more about our responsibility to our students, but what facts?

As soon as you enter that part of the conversation it gets trickier and pricklier. In the not-so-recent past Geography students had to memorise the names of the rivers of south-eastern Australia and I seemed to spend much of my time in primary school drawing the routes of the early explorers into the blank outline maps of Australia they provided. Recent governments have played around with Verse 2 of ‘Advance Australia Fair’ and the tale of Simpson and his donkey as ‘essential facts’. Are they? The trouble is everyone has a different list of the essential facts: the works of Shakespeare, Bible stories, the table of chemical elements, what’s a triangle, the names of the great artists or the essential elements of the internal combustion engine. Write down your essentials and put it next to another teachers, and they don’t match.

Maybe, just maybe, it might be better to look again at skills, at how students can learn to learn, can become inquiring and interested and questioning about the world and know the tools, strategies and skills to find out what they need to know? I’m all in favour of the grand narratives that drive the imagination and I’m not against facts. They can be important too, but the facts that are important to me, may not be the ones you need.

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

English Teaching is IT (*new blog)

You don’t have to dig too far down the blogroll links to see how immersed I’ve become in the digital world: blogs, wikis, nings (x3), websites, twitter …

So, it was with some deep thought that I got involved in yet another blog, but I did! This idea came about on a bike ride a couple of weeks ago, chatting to another  English teacher named David Baxter about some of the ideas he’d been using in the classroom and talking also about what I was doing. He’s the teacher I blogged about a little while ago in m provocative 😐 Tale of Two Teachers post (it was the best of times, it was the worst of times)

Anyway, we thought it might be good to collaborate on a blog aimed at English teachers looking to use technology in the classroom, a blog that would be more practical and tips based than the meandering theorising that mostly goes on here, but looking at things that work, and some that don’t. Hence English Teaching is IT was born. It’s on WordPress, its up and running, and I hope it’s useful for English teachers and others too. I hope you’ll take a look and maybe even subscribe.  While I  expect there’ll be some cross-over with what I’m writing about here, the focus of the new blog is on the classroom, and tools that work for English teaching and beyond.

English Teaching is IT

Transformational Teaching: UbD for pre-service teachers

This was my final ASCD session 😦 , and it was from the standpoint of teacher education; a university team from Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ, involved in pre-service education, and how they were working with UbD with these new teachers.

New Jersey revised Core Curriculum Content Standards in 2008 and that revision was framed in the language of backward design: big ideas, essential questions, enduring understandings. (Wiggins is from New Jersey!) For a brief moment listening to yet another state talk about their journey, I felt that a national curriculum might be a good idea.

They began with a single faculty (Science), followed up by a team who went to Princeton to work with Wiggins. Not everyone was on board or enthusiastic (surprise?) However, UbD was infused into all subject matter methods at both undergraduate and graduate levels for initial certification candidates.  They then took these ideas and presented it at the Hawaii International Conference on Education in January 2010.

‘It’s everywhere now’ is the message.

We then moved into activities (eek): a carousel brainstorming activity which aimed to explore the differences between knowledge and understanding.

They also linked UbD (kinda sketchily) with Bloom’s taxonomy and the six facets of understanding (explanation, interpretation, application, perspective, empathy, self-knowledge) and see it as connecting well.

Interestingly, they emphasised the terminology of instructional blueprint over lesson or unit plans.

The key message of this session for me was that UbD was now so entrenched that it was becoming part of core practice in some teacher training

The presenters were:

Dr Donna Jorgensen

Dr Martha Viator

Dr James Stiles

Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ

And then I was walking out of the big convention centre for the last time,  with people heading off to all corners of the United States, many with their bags already packed and heading out to the airport directly, the Exhibitor’s Hall already dismantled and the cleaning staff moving in.

I’ll reflect on the big picture meaning of the conference on the way home. I’d like to pick up on the themes and ideas that resonated for me across the sessions and how they apply to my own context.  I also want to prepare a presentation summing up some of those ideas too.

I’ve enjoyed walking around San Antonio too. It’s a strange place from an Australian perspective, Texan, Mexican; a widely distributed city that, according to Wikipedia, is the seventh largest city in the USA at 1.3 million.  It certainly didn’t feel that big or busy, or prosperous really, and I imagine a lot of the life of the city must be out in the suburbs away from the city centre. I loved the Alamo and the Cathedral and the Riverwalk, and I’ll post some better photos when I get home and make sense of them.

Meanwhile, I’ve got at least 25 hours of travelling ahead of me today, and a long wait at LAX.

Teach to the test

Why is that our current governments, both state and federal, seem to look to the rest of the world for the very worst of educational practice? From NY to New Jersey the current government fad is accountability and transparency, but only in such a dumbed down way that we can use in a 6 second TV sound-bite.

This time round the State Government in Victoria is looking to link teacher pay with student performance in national tests for literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN). Students results would form part of a ‘scorecard’ (we all understand what a scorecard is, right?) that might lead to up to $7000 in bonus payments.

What could happen; teaching to the tests? (which are narrow, shallow and statistically dubious)

Full article is in the AGE HERE

A view from the bridge

I spent a couple of memorable hours during the holidays exploring the Brooklyn Bridge in NY, a beautiful bit of engineering and central symbol from Arthur Miller’s  wonderful play A View from the Bridge, which I taught to Year 12 a couple of years ago and really enjoyed.  I took the photo above and lots of others!

I thought of bridges today, saying goodbye to the Year 12 class at the final lunch and wishing them well for the exams. It’s a strange cycle, teaching, when you think about it. Building a class culture and working relationships and then finishing that journey, saying goodbye, and starting again.  They’re ready to go, ready for the exam, ready to cross that bridge from school into the next stage of their lives and that’s what you want as a teacher or a parent; that they are ready.  You do your best to prepare them and then you watch them cross that bridge.  And start thinking about next year.