Sunday, August 31, 2008

suddenly, teachers don't like Rudd

Interesting to hear these comments from fellow teachers in the staffroom last week:

"I don't trust Rudd"
"Rudd's educational plans are ridiculous"
"I'd rather have Howard than Rudd" (never thought I'd hear that out loud)

Through discussion it was clear that teachers are aware that attempts to lift standards through standardised testing and Leagues tables has been tried already in Britain and the USA - and has failed. One teacher said, "Why don't we try to emulate systems that have been successful, such as in Finland?"

Also, Julia Gillard was interviewed on Lateline about the "education revolution" and the interviewer actually asked her some tough questions.
  1. What apart from softer rhetoric ("transparency" versus "blaming and shaming") was the real difference between Rudd's and Howard's policies?
  2. Could she comment on Rudd's lack of passion when speaking compared to American politicians, such as Hillary Clinton?
Of course, Rudd's scheme may have some general public support. Teachers are a much maligned group these days. It's too early to say where this is heading.

Update (31st August): For the sake of completeness here is a news report, which includes some readers comments, about the new Rudd proposals: Rudd declares class warfare


Unknown said...

The issues are not simple. Monitoring, targeting and accountability sound appealing. The electorate are not sophisticated enough in their understanding of complex issues involved. Whether the politicians understand the issues, I am not sure, but the electorate will need a lot of explaining to understand.

Tests are proxies for the real educational goals of real world skills, usable knowledge (vs inert) and higher order thinking.

Tests inevitably measure lower order skills and even test items designed to measure higher order skills can often be solved with lower order rote strategies when the teacher is able to anticipate test questions.

Rewarding teachers and schools on test results inevitably dumbs down education. How can we get this message to the final authority, the electorate?

Bill Kerr said...

Very good points Tony.

I was a late arrival in this staffroom discussion but had my say too:

- that accountability for teachers was a desirable goal but very hard to measure
- I have seen extended interviews of politicians, educational bureaucrats and teachers about the American scheme of "No Child Left Behind" (on the SBS program, Lehrer's NewsHour). The first two groups initially sound sincere and convincing but then award winning teachers are interviewed and some of them are in tears because they have been forced into narrow teaching to the test, their creativity and initiative has been destroyed
- I also asked the other teachers what they thought about Rudd's plan to cut welfare to those parents whose kids were poor school attenders (I'll write a separate blog about that)

In South Australia we already have a more effective way of measuring teacher quality - a fairly rigorous "Advanced Skills Teacher" process

Your final question is hard to answer. I won't attempt an answer right now.

Anonymous said...

I'm seeing more of the problems with NCLB lately. I recently read a Reader's Digest article talking about how there are a lot of teachers who are cheating to boost scores on the standardized tests. My sense is the cheating is not pervasive enough to be called "universal", but it's sounding like a significant number of teachers are doing this. One of the symptoms they talked about was a sudden jump in scores. If this happens, people should suspect cheating. Interestingly this reminded me of what happened in the movie, "Stand And Deliver". Escalante suspected that the testing authorities thought cheating occurred on the Calc. test because of the Spanish surnames on the roster, but maybe what really happened is they had never seen so many students from the school district take the test (for one), and two, never seen them do that well on it. The reason I say "district" is it's likely no one from that particular school had ever taken the AP Calc. test before. Escalante had to create a summer class to teach Calculus, because it wasn't in the curriculum.

The RD article talked about a variety of cheating methods that have been used. Teachers might give the answers ahead of time. They might point to the correct answers during the test. They might even change the answers on tests before they are turned in. Traditionally, teachers have monitored the tests as they are taken. In this environment where there are consequences to low scores, this puts them in a conflict of interest. I'm surprised teachers are allowed that kind of access to the test takers and the tests.

The article had a "What can you do?" section, offering solutions. I assume the article was intended for parents, not administrators. What stunned me was one of the suggestions was something like, "When you suspect cheating hire an independent auditor". Say what?? I can imagine maybe a group of parents pooling their resources and doing this, but only as a last resort. Doesn't this sound like something the school district should be responsible for, or the state?

An idea that seems to be gaining some ground here is that NCLB needs to be changed to not measure absolute performance, but relative performance. In other words, the school should be evaluated on whether it can take students who have been promoted, but skillwise are behind one or more grade levels, and show a significant gain in knowledge. They may not be up to grade level, but they've shown an acceptable level of improvement. As much as this seems like "going soft" on the academic standards I think this is more realistic given the situation that a lot of schools find themselves in.

I remember Alan Kay offering a suggestion many years ago that perhaps it would be better if schools switched to a system of self-directed learning, giving teachers much less responsibility. It's a risky approach in my opinion, because students can slack off just as well as the schools can. If it's too difficult to get adults to watch out for the students' interests, then the students who have more of a direct interest should take it on. What other options are there beyond parents home schooling their kids?

I watched an interview with Michelle Rhee a while back on Charlie Rose. She's an administrator who was hired to reform the Washington, D.C. school district, which is one of the worst performing ones in the country. The city, using its authority under NCLB, disbanded the school board, and Michelle has set about going into each of the schools and examining what needs to be done to improve things. She was diplomatic, but she said that the basic problem was that the school system was really running itself to benefit the adults, not the children. She said there was this "triangle" of interests that created the problems: the school board, the teachers union, and the superintendent. She didn't blame the teachers union for all of the problems. She said it had some positive things it could contribute. She said there was just a general culture that existed in the decision making process where the children had no voice, no sense of representation. She didn't argue that students should be put into these institutions where the decisions are made. She meant that none of the adults involved was paying attention to their needs.

One of the examples she cited was that in one school, a significant number of teachers would not show up for work. These were not scheduled off days. They just would not show up when they were supposed to. And no substitute teachers were assigned either. Students would literally be sitting in a classroom with nothing to do, or it would be staffed by a teacher (who normally taught a different subject) desperately trying to fill in on a moment's notice. I was stunned to hear this. In the school district I was in as a student I'm sure such behavior would've resulted in dismissal. It would've been inexcusable to do that without justification (like an emergency).

The positive effects of NCLB that I've heard about from educators is for the first time there is a greater chance that badly performing schools will be exposed, and there are some powerful tools available that local officials now have where they can push school officials aside who are interfering with improvement efforts. The bad news is that NCLB is causing problems for schools that were performing well to begin with, both in terms of administration and curriculum.

The problem with standardized testing is similar to a central problem with badly performing schools: it's set up to make things easy for the evaluators. Everything is centrally managed. Every school takes the same test (at least with the federally managed test). Knowledge is not evenly distributed, nor are ways of thinking that people have acquired.

In the example of the science teacher who taught her students that perhaps the ocean food chain begins with the undersea vents, rather than photosynthesis, it seems like it should be possible for the school to challenge the "correct" answer on the test, administered at that particular school.

I guess what I'm searching for is a way to keep the good qualities of NCLB while diminishing or eliminating its destructive qualities. I'm willing to entertain alternatives to NCLB. I just haven't heard any good concrete alternatives beyond "get rid of it."

Anonymous said...

BTW, if you're interested in seeing the Charlie Rose episode I spoke of with Michelle Rhee, you can view it here:

The episode is from July 14, 2008. The first 25 minutes are devoted to analysis of the presidential race between McCain and Obama. The interview with Rhee starts at 25:32 (25 minutes, 32 seconds). You can just slide the video progress pointer to that point in time if you want, and the video feed will start there.

Anonymous said...

I re-read Tony Forster's comment, and in answer to his question, "Rewarding teachers and schools on test results inevitably dumbs down education. How can we get this message to the final authority, the electorate?", I'll say that I think the Lehrer NewsHour report on NCLB put a chink in the idea that standardized testing improves education. It showed how the NCLB rules in connection with the tests are driving good teachers away from good schools, and it showed how the tests themselves don't necessarily measure with complete accuracy. In fact they probably penalize a student for being more informed and/or thinking better than the people who wrote the tests. The thing is I don't know how you get away from this, except by improving the way educators think. A lot of teachers, for example, are not too curious about their own subject.

I can remember when I had high school physics we were talking about gravity, and some formulas that described motion under its influence. The teacher told us that the "law of gravity is universal" throughout the universe. The labs we did on this subject were so exciting to me, yet when we took our written test on the subject, she asked a puzzling question, "If Earth was visited by aliens would we share the same knowledge about gravity?" I answered with a qualified "yes", saying something to the effect of we would share some of the same knowledge, but since we don't know what causes gravity, they would probably know more about it than we do. I was thinking of flying saucers, craft that used advanced knowledge of gravity. Even though this was a bit of fantastical thinking, what I was really communicating was, "We don't know everything there is to know about gravity. Perhaps someone else knows more." According to her this was the wrong answer. She gave me no credit for it. Even though this was not a bubble test, she treated it like it was one. She wasn't interested in what I thought. She wanted me to regurgitate: "Yes, because the law of gravity is universal." If she had asked the question, "Is the law of gravity the same throughout the universe?" I could've accepted the idea of answering with a simple "yes", because as far as we knew it was. By bringing in the idea of considering the knowledge of another civilization, "aliens", she was totally changing the meaning of the question without realizing it. She probably thought she was being creative, adding a bit of fun to the test. Too bad she didn't entertain the idea that she was actually asking an interesting question that would provoke thought among her students.

It sounds like the standardized tests introduce flaws like this. I can't say whether they dumb down education any more than many teachers dumb it down themselves, because my guess is many would agree with the way the test questions are asked. They just don't like the consequences.

An alternative to testing the students would be, as you indicate, Bill, testing the teachers. I wonder how they'd rate each other.