Saturday, August 29, 2015

Appeasing the parents and fixing the infrastructure

When I went to secondary school there were three different types of schools:  grammar schools were for those who passed the 11+ exam (probably around 20% of the school population), secondary modern schools were for most of the rest, and there were a few technical schools where people did vocational training.  Sometime after I started secondary school, the politics of education changed and it was decided that all secondary age students would go to a non-selective comprehensive school. Middle class parents in the Sixties and Seventies had started to be vocal about their resentment that a test at the age of 11 could lead to their child being sent to a "second-class" school.  The argument was that good teachers were attracted to grammar schools, and it would be better if there was a more equal distribution and the same opportunities for everyone at schools that were not selective.

Sometime after I left the UK, it was further decided that comprehensives were not doing a good job. At this point "failing" schools could be turned into academies which took them out of local authority control, replaced school managers, and sought sponsorship.  Academies often tended to focus on something specific, Arts, sports, technology for example.  Now, however, I read in the news this summer that around half of all academies are still "failing" students with teaching falling below a standard allowing all pupils to make sufficient progress, work not being matched to pupils’ abilities, low expectations of pupils, inadequate marking and feedback, and unacceptable behaviour by pupils with poor attitudes to learning.

In the UK the middle class parents are still unhappy, and as such are turning away from state schools. This is part of a trend across OECD countries, with a dropping percentage of students attending government-funded schools in favour of private ones (ironically known as "public schools" in the UK).  Some politicians regard this trend as very dangerous - the argument is that government schools are vital to the survival of democracy and so there must be a critical mass of students in the state sector.  However parents are voting with their feet - or maybe their wallet - as the perception remains that you can get a better education if you pay for it (or possibly that your child will end up meeting the "right" people at such a school, or possibly simply avoiding the "wrong" ones).

Parents want to have choice in the schools they send their children too - even though in reality it's only the wealthy parents who can really opt out of the state system into private schools.  Hattie's research, however, shows that the variability between schools is small relative to the difference within schools.  He asks, "Why do we provide choice at the school level, when this matters far less than the choice of teacher within a school?"

Another distractor he mentions is that of class size.  His evidence is that there is a very small effect from reducing class sizes, and the reason for this is that teachers rarely change how they teach when they move from a larger to a smaller class.  He has plotted the average country PISA score against the average class size and has found little correlation.

The next thing that policy makers often turn to is the curriculum.  Some time after I left the UK a National Curriculum was implemented with standardised tests in English, Math and Science for all students aged 7, 11 and 14, and then other exams at the age of 16 and 18.  I think some of these SATs have now been abandoned.  Hattie writes that it is not productive to stipulate achievement in years, but better to refer to levels so that students can work at their own level irrespective of their year in school or age.  A levels-based curricula can then be aligned with the assessment system and is more likely to impact student learning than standardised year-based curricula.

There is another problem with common assessments.  Hattie writes "Finding out what teachers want you to know and giving it back to them in assignments and exams is a common key to success .... such narrow excellence tends not to favour twenty-first century deeper thinking skills such as creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration ..... the art of teaching is to balance the need for surface knowledge with deep processing of this knowledge."

Hattie also uses the expression "testing gone mad" to describe what happens when a call for a more rigorous curriculum is matched with a call for more tests to check that the curriculum is being implemented (and therefore that teachers are doing their job).  The real issue with assessment is that it is providing information about student achievement, yet Hattie argues that the real purpose of assessment should be "to provide interpretative information to teachers and school leaders about their impact so that they have the best information possible about where to go next in the teaching process. He writes "Until we see tests as aids to enhance teaching and learning, and not primarily as thermometers of how much a student knows now, on this day, on this test, then developing more tests will add little and will remain an expensive distraction."

Photo Credit: paulhami via Compfight cc

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