Friday, May 4, 2018

Minding the gap: correlation or causal factor?

I grew up in East London.  In my school of around 80 students who took the 11+ in 1970, 8 of them passed and 72 of them failed.  I was one of the 8.  That meant I left primary school and went to a "direct grant" grammar school, which also happened to be a single-sex school.  Now a direct grant school at that time was one that was funded directly from the central government for a certain percentage of the school fees, the remainder of the funding was through private fees.  I therefore went to that school for free, whereas other girls went there because their parents paid for them to go, and while I don't approve of wealthy parents being able to buy a "better" education for their children, I have to admit that going to that school probably changed my life forever.  My father was an Irish immigrant to London and my mother had left school at the age of 13 in 1942 as her London school was bombed during World War II and never rebuilt.  My fate, had I gone to the local secondary school, would probably have been very different.  Likely I would not have gone to university, likely I would not have become a teacher, likely I would not have left the UK for the world of international teaching, where I've been for the past 30 years.  So reading Daniel Sobel's book about the attainment gap I'm really interested in what he refers to as "soft data".  I was one of those kids who almost certainly would have fallen through the gap, but I was also one of the lucky ones who didn't.

Last Friday at our PD day in Mumbai we were talking about reading - in particular the Fountas and Pinnell method of levelling books for guided reading.  I believe that the policy at my school is that students can choose to read books at one level above and one level below their actual assessed reading level.  I remember thinking back to my childhood, where the only children's book in our house was The Wind in the Willows, which our parents read to us one chapter a night.  Somehow, without any direct instruction, I learned to read before I went to school.  As an 8 or 9 year old, I vividly remember reading the "adult" books my parents had in the house - one of which was Hard Times by Charles Dickens and a book called Enquire Within.   Nobody suggested that these were at an inappropriate level for a child to be reading, and sure, I probably didn't understand all the words, but I can also say that these books helped me to build vocabulary and that reading "real" books was probably much more beneficial to me in becoming a reader than the Janet and John books being read in my primary school.  I still read every day, averaging around 50 books a year.  One of my biggest fears is that I won't live long enough to read all the books on my "Want To Read" list!

So in the light of all of this, I was more than curious to know what is more important in educational success:  natural ability or the socio-economic situation of the family and the quality of schools that students attend (my hunch was that it would be the latter).  Research shows that the family environment is seen to have a very strong impact on educational achievement, whereas it has a very small impact on cognitive capacity - which I guess is what causes the gap, as students from poorer families are not achieving to their capacity.  Studies show that other factors are important in educational success, including personality, being open to new experiences, good teachers and good peers.  I thought about this in the light of my own experience and can agree that being with other girls who were both academic and motivated was definitely a plus point in my own schooling, and I can therefore relate to the statement that many children from poor families thrive in education and in the world beyond the classroom.  However it's also clear that there are fewer of these children who reach "the top".  Thinking about the other 3 girls from my primary school who went on to a grammar school, 2 of them were from "good" homes and they also ended up at my school, the other one came from a family where her parents were divorced.  She was rejected by my direct grant school (it was Catholic and selective so unfortunately because of being brought up by a single father she did not really fit the profile of students who were admitted) and ended up instead going to the local co-ed grammar school where she eventually became demotivated and did not achieve her potential.

The girls from my primary school who went on to grammar schools were not well off.  In fact, in the case of Paula who was not admitted to my school, her family income was probably no less than mine.  She lived with a father who worked, I lived with both parents but only my father worked.  In addition I had two younger siblings, so the money was spread out further in my family, to five people rather than two.  The attainment gap is not caused by differences in family income, but instead by other background differences which have been labelled as "mysterious third factors", such as schools.

In my first year of teaching I worked in a small town on the Yorkshire coalfield (it was during the miner's strike - so it was a challenging time to be trying to motivate children).  For a third of my day I was assigned a class known by the non-politically correct term of 4Y (Y being the last letter in the name of the school, this was the bottom stream - only several years later later did this change to a more acceptable way of naming classes, then my class became known as 4MM which was based on my initials, not the ability level of the students).  4Y was the "remedial" class.  Now let's put this into perspective.  I was a first year teacher.  I had no experience at all of working with challenging children from challenging homes.  Some of these children did not have "homes" in the regular sense:  they lived in caravans in a field about 2 miles away from the school.  All of the pupils except two in my class of 24 "special needs" children were from broken homes, and one of the others was still being brought up in a single parent home because her mother had died.  At lunchtime this girl had to walk 2 miles home, light a fire, and prepare food for her dad and older brother who were working in the mine.  She was always late back to school in the afternoon as it was not possible to do all this in the one hour lunch break that we had.  Looking back now I find it almost incredible that I survived this first year, and I truly question whether anything I did made a difference in the lives of these 14 year old students.  They loved listening to me read aloud, which I did every day, and maybe this had some benefit.  My question is why?  Why was this class of challenging, very needy students given to someone with absolutely no experience at all of teaching?  And also, why were this group of students together in every subject for the entire day?  As Daniel Sobel points out, "disadvantaged pupils have a tendency to drift into the bottom sets and stay there".

I don't remember giving any standardised tests at all for most of my time teaching in the UK.  My students sat Mode 3 CSEs and we wrote the test papers ourselves, moderating them with other local teachers.  Since leaving the UK, however, I know a whole battery of tests have been introduced, mostly to measure success or otherwise in the National Curriculum (I should point out that my current school also tests students:  we do the MAP and WRAP tests which are probably equally horrendous).  One thing I didn't consider before is that classroom environments are not ideal testing conditions and that the rate of children being put into the "wrong" group is quite high.  In fact I have noticed that some of our very bright children do seem to take an incredibly long time on these tests, and that the scores are sometimes a surprise, in that they don't really reflect what I see daily in the classrooms.

One thing I do relate to though is that schools are often very isolated (siloed) places - once a teacher closes the classroom door there may be little or no connections with his or her colleagues and the best practices of some teachers in helping individual students may not be shared.  To some extent in a school like mine where teachers are involved in collaborative planning, and where there are actually no doors or even walls, this is not necessarily true, but I do relate to the statement that "good teachers are not sufficient to help close the attainment gap if other important classroom-level factors are missing.  Schools need not just to hire the right teachers but to work across the board."

Schools are blamed for a lot, and clearly looking at the raw data it seems as if there is a correlation between what schools are doing and the fact that the attainment gap grows over time.  I've heard Sir Ken Robinson and others talk about how schools are killing creativity, which likely has an impact on motivation and student achievement.  Daniel Sobel, however, points out that the pre-existing factors that hold students back may be seen less during primary schools because the material being taught is something that every student can learn and because in many primary schools the behaviour policies are well enforced, and it's only later when the content starts to become harder that these environmental factors become more important and students struggle to cope.  He writes, however, that while schools do contribute to the achievement gap, if schools did not exist the gap would be much larger.

Working overseas for most of my teaching career I was especially interested in the findings about gender and ethnic gaps in the UK.  My own limited experience of working in Yorkshire was that the few Indian children I taught did seem to be motivated and do extremely well.  When I was working in Amsterdam it was the Japanese and Koreans.  The UK data seems to confirm this as well.   Many immigrant parents have a strong work ethic, which is transmitted to their children.  However it's interesting that data from different sources ends up with different conclusions.  In the PISA tests white, English students do better than their black and Asian schoolmates, however GCSE results show that Asian pupils do better on average, whereas white, working-class students tend to do worse.  Add gender into the mix and the waters get even muddier.  Boys seem to underperform girls at most educational levels despite there being no difference in average intelligence between genders.  In GCSE science girls tend to outperform boys, in PISA tests the opposite is true.  Strange, right?  I'd like to dig into the reasons for this a bit more, and maybe I will in upcoming posts.  One thing is certain:  I know we can do better in helping students to flourish, and I want to be part of that in whatever way I can be.

Photo Credit: @DeeInna Flickr via Compfight cc

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