Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Worrying Preoccupation with Weighing the 'Sheep'!

Global trends in education policy

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Europe where I had the chance to read British newspapers most days. Reading 'The Times' every day was like being at home reading the Sydney Morning Herald. Not because the content was the same, but because many of the articles about education covered the same topics as at home. In Britain, as in Australia and to a large extent the USA, governments, business leaders, media commentators and some parents are decrying the limitations of education systems and are planning or are implementing remarkably similar strategies. In brief, the public agenda involves a call for:
  • More extensive national testing of literacy, maths and science.
  • Tougher exit exams at the end of high school that provide a single mark that allows all students to be compared across the country.
  • A strengthening of system-wide standardised testing of literacy at grades 3, 5 and 8, and in Britain there are plans to test 5 year-olds and include the data in school league tables.
  • The publication of lists of the ‘top’ schools ranked on available cross-national data (e.g. the 'My School' website in Australia).
  • Better-qualified teachers.
  • Increased benchmarking against other OECD countries on the various Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.
  • The introduction or strengthening of national curriculum initiatives.
The dilemma of how often to weigh sheep

Overall, the priority is on being able to measure student performance based on agreed measurable outcomes. Now, I’m not against measurable outcomes, but in education they have some limitations when compared to, say, raising sheep, or monitoring factory production. The assessment of sheep production can be monitored in varied ways. You can weigh the sheep, assess the quality of fleece, check general health signs etc. But one thing I know, as the wise Scottish sheep farmer once said, “it doesn’t matter how many times you weigh the sheep, you have to feed them if you want them to grow.”

I’m very concerned at what is happening in relation to the public debate about education where much of our energy is being spent on calls for more testing. As well, large amounts of money and time are being spent on practices which arguably contribute no more to children's growth than weighing does for the growth of sheep. The people who know most about education, the teachers, are being beaten up by farmers, policemen, lawyers, social workers, small business owners etc, because the teachers don’t want to keep ‘weighing’ their kids and limiting school programs to that which can be easily turned into items on a national test.

I’m no stranger to business and public policy, nor the needs of parents and I’ve been an adviser to PISA and other major national assessment projects in Australia for almost 20 years. I believe that testing has a place in assessment, I see the value of a national curriculum and even system wide testing. And I know that parents want and deserve clear feedback on their children’s progress at school and their performance relative to other children. You can read my post on the ‘My School’ website in Australia for a fuller discussion of some of these issues (here). However, for me, the problem with national assessment programs and the My School website is what they are unable to measure, or those things that cannot be easily measured in quantitative terms.

PISA and the performance of some nations

Prof Geoff Masters
It is worth noting that of the English speaking countries surveyed in reading literacy, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have outperformed the USA and the United Kingdom since PISA was commenced. While I won't speculate on the performance of the USA and the UK, I would offer one piece of advice, increased testing will do little to help either country, only quality teaching will help. The USA has a long history of standardised testing of reading that is well beyond anything you would have found in Australia or New Zealand, although this has increased dramatically recently. It is also worth noting that Australia’s love affair with the national testing began about ten years ago. Since then, while Australia continues to have high levels in reading literacy (we were ranked 9th of 65 countries in 2009 in the PISA results), we have seen a decline in our performance in the same period. In a recent report on Australia’s performance, Professor Geoff Masters, the Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) points out that:
“Australian students are still performing well above the OECD average but their results in reading literacy and mathematical literacy have declined significantly over the past few years,” 
More worryingly he points out that:
“Australia was the only high performing country to show a significant decline in reading literacy performance between PISA 2000 and PISA 2009.”
For Australian readers let me stress that our performance is still high, only six countries had significantly higher scores for their 15 year-old students. But for me a number of alarm bells are ringing.

I don’t think that the secret to a great education system, let alone a great nation, is the structuring of national school education systems to teach to tests, particularly when the tests only measure one small slice of what learning and education is about.

Professor Allan Luke commented recently on Australia’s first attempt at a National Curriculum in a paper for the Australian College of Education:
“To date, the Australian Curriculum has the hallmarks of the new generic, transnational curriculum settlement that emerged in the late 1990s as a response to new economic and social contexts. This features a focus on basic skills acquisition and a taxonomic reinstatement of canonical content knowledge in literature, science and history. It attempts to address the emergence of digital cultures and transnational economies through a complex overlay of 'new capacities' to be 'embedded', integrated and indexed against traditional basics and subject knowledge.”
I don’t agree with all that Luke says but his major point is well made. Many of our efforts to respond to a changing and more complex world, have involved cobbling a few new ideas onto traditional notions of curriculum. Schools are not factories, they are places where teachers create and lead communities of learners who inspire one another. Schools and teachers are trying to educate children for life in a world where there are greater opportunities for learning and the gaining of knowledge than at any time in human history.

The things that national testing find hard to measure

When we do assess children’s learning within our classrooms and across educational systems we need to be careful what we measure. I need to stress that I’m not criticising the quality of the PISA assessments. In fact, the tests used are the best they can possibly be. They measure what they are expected to measure well. But there are many things that the tests cannot measure (or find it difficult to measure) which are very important for individuals and nations. Here are just a few:
  • Problem solving ability.
  • Critical thinking.
  • Creativity.
  • Level of engagement, interest and motivation.
  • Moral growth.
  • Aesthetic and design sense and ability.
  • Citizenship.
  • The ability to work as part of a team.
  • Leadership ability.
  • Depth of knowledge in areas of great interest.
  • Human sensitivity.
  • Well-developed self-awareness. 
While good teachers understand that the above are very important and seek to develop them, consider what might happen to teacher behaviour if all that is seemingly valued by governments, business and lobby groups is performance on school or system wide testing. A National Curriculum like that just developed in Australia (see here) must allow, indeed encourage, the development of many of the above abilities and attributes as well as basic skills like decoding. I read a number of blogs and am part of a number of online communities. The following comment by one outstanding teacher speaks volumes for the issues at hand:

Right now I have to assess 126 items per report card times 26 children. That means 3276 check marks per tri-mester, times each tri-mester = 9728 marks. Now they want us to record it 3 different places…That doesn't count the pretesting in September or the CA60's (Cumulative Student Record Folders) and literacy folders in June.

You can hear the frustration in this teacher’s voice because as a professional she knows that her time is being soaked up ‘weighing’ the children rather than feeding them on the excitement and challenge of learning. There is a need to look closely at the quality of our schools and teachers and to ensure that they continue to do the very best they can with the children parents nurture and prepare for schooling in the first five years of life. Teachers need to be held accountable, but they also need to be left alone at times to make professional decisions. On top of this, they need our support in an age where teaching is harder and all families have higher expectations than ever before.

Other relevant posts

'Australian National English Curriculum' HERE

'My School' Website: A Blunt and Inadequate Instrument' HERE

'Multiple Intelligences' HERE


Tam said...

Just talking with friend today who has decided to home school her children as they are having terrible experiences at school - as is my son only 7 - but daily experiencing failure and not success as he has learning difficulties and doesnt tick all the boxes - pressure on him to change and not the class room to adapt to him - heart breaking and frustrating as a parent

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Tam,

This is upsetting. Children who are different can struggle at school, and sometimes the differences can be as minor as being sensitive, being interested in different things and just having different learning styles. Whatever you can do to supplement your son's learning outside school will help, he needs to experience success in something in or out of school.

I hope that he enjoys the holidays.