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Parents value more than test scores

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Ben Jensen, Director of the Grattan Institute, reported last week that his research had shown that the publication of NAPLAN results on the Commonwealth’s My School Website had not led to parents changing schools for their kids or increased competition between schools. So what has all the fuss been about? Why is so much of taxpayer’s money being wasted on these projects of dubious educational value?

This is a damning admission for the great “Testing, Scoring and Comparing” regime established by governments around the world in the last few years. Teachers and other educators have been arguing that this approach is not what was going to improve education and they have been proved right.

Jensen’s research also showed that parents valued a lot more about their schools than the outcomes of narrow cast tests like NAPLAN. They value things like “school culture and discipline, religious affiliation, reputation, the state of buildings and school grounds, and visible classroom characteristics such as class size” (Grattan Institute Report).

So apparently competition is not that relevant a value in education. In that case, let’s do away with the paraphernalia of competition between schools, and focus on co-operation and collaboration between and within schools and concentrate on providing the best education we can for the children and the communities we serve.

More “communication” may just be more dubious data

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Many people will have seen the saturation advertising on the Commonwealth Government’s “Plan for Better Schools”. One of the key points in this campaign is “Better Communication with Parents”, so I thought I would have a look at the website to read more. Imagine my surprise when the only reference I could find was a section on “More Information for Parents” about more data on the My Schools website, information which schools already provide in their Annual Report on each school’s website.

This raises the question of the difference between information and communication. There is already information overload and governments seem obsessed with data. Schools no doubt will be required to supply more statistical data. However, does this really mean parents will have better communication with their children’s schools?

Good communication involves both speaking and listening. All parents from time to time have concerns about their children’s experience at school whether it is academic, social or behavioural. For these concerns to be addressed there has to be opportunity for communication, which is a two-way thing, whereas the data avalanche is all one way, from the top down.

Schools need to be approachable and to provide a variety of opportunities for parents to engage with teachers and the school leadership about the progress and well being of their children.

Challenging the Productivity Paradigm in Education

Thursday, April 26, 2012

I hear a lot of talk in business and education about paradigms. A paradigm is the current narrative (or story) about how things are in the world or in a particular field such as education. It’s what the American economist J.K. Galbraith called the “conventional wisdom”.

The current story goes like this. Australia survived the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) better than most. However, next time we might not be so lucky. So to maintain a strong economy we need to build our productivity. Productivity means we can produce more goods and services with the same or less workers. To achieve this, we need an education system to train our students with the skills needed for the 21st-century economy. The best way to achieve this is to have national testing of literacy and numeracy skills, to publish the results and highlight the low and high achieving schools. This will motivate schools to ensure students achieve better results, the country’s productivity will improve and give us an international economic advantage.

What’s wrong with this story? Well, unfortunately, it is based on dodgy assumptions, leading to a flaky hypothesis, an inaccurate prognosis and an invalid conclusion.

Productivity and 21st Century skills are all about being innovative, new ways of thinking and creative solutions that can be taken up rapidly throughout the economy. You will not achieve this by narrowing the focus of learning, creating an atmosphere of fear, top-down direction and high stakes comparison of results which are the outcomes of the current system.

So rather than narrow down the curriculum with a view to improving test scores we should be broadening it out. Don’t intimidate students. Build confidence through appropriate challenges, strong relationships and emotional security. Then the creativity will come bubbling out in all sorts of ways and we will get a really happy ending for everyone.

Is Education Reform Just About Money?

Monday, April 16, 2012

“Wealth the key to school success!” the headline shouted in a major education story this week. The story showed that the top performing schools in the national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests were from the country's wealthiest areas. On the one hand, it is surely no surprise that areas of socioeconomic advantage also have educational advantage. On the other hand, if this evidence is used to make the case to throw more money at low achieving schools in low SES areas it won't necessarily solve the problem.

Even within our own area there are significant differences in NAPLAN performances and in the socioeconomic background of parents in the different schools. I did a quick search of the new ‘Your School’ website on Warwick’s postcode of 4370 and it instantly gave me a list of Warwick schools to compare.

However, even though the concern is apparently about wealth inequalities, the measure used to indicate social inequality, the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) does not include a measure of parent income.

So there are schools with lesser or greater disadvantage in their students’ backgrounds, but what is the best way to address this? Can you really expect schools to reverse all the effects of social disadvantage?

Where governments can make a difference in school performance is to continually work towards enhancing the quality of teachers and placing good teachers in low SES areas. Teachers, at a minimum, need greater emphasis on literacy and numeracy in the pre-service courses. However, teachers also need better training in how to really inspire young people through the impact of their own character and teachers also need input on how to reach out to and engage with parents so they can support their children's learning and growth. Neither of these important aspects are significant parts of current teacher training courses.

Getting the Balance Right between Academic and Character Development

Friday, March 30, 2012

I was talking to some friends recently who had returned from a couple of years working in New York and they were saying that the pressure on kids in schools there is incredible.

The New York system, set up by lawyer Joel L. Klein, so impressed our Prime Minister that she modelled much of Australia’s current education policy on it. This includes the high stakes NAPLAN testing and the publication of schools results on the My School website.

Because of Queensland’s relatively poor performance on the NAPLAN test, there has been a lot of pressure on teachers. In some schools, certain students are asked to stay home on test day so as not to drag the results down.

The Prime Minister is also concerned about our apparent slip in performance from 4th to 7th place in relation to other OECD countries, especially since some of our Asian trading partners have passed us.

Ironically, Pasi Sahlberg, Director of Education in Finland, which has been at the top of the OECD rankings for many years, is critical of the way Australia uses its NAPLAN tests and My School Website. Speaking on the 7.30 Report on ABC TV last week he commented:

“Anywhere these types of things had been put in place, teachers started to focus more on teaching to the test and curriculum has narrowed…”

Sahlberg said, “We believe that co-operation and networking and sharing are the things and important things to make sure everybody will improve…”

It is important to get the balance right between helping children achieve good literacy and numeracy standards and putting too much pressure on them.

Education is about producing good citizens and helping children gain confidence in their ability to learn. Is high stakes testing really the way to achieve these outcomes?

[A video and transcript of the interview with Pasi Sahlberg can be found on the ABC Lateline website.]

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