Posts tagged ‘Grattan Institute’

Making time for great teaching

The latest Grattan Institute Report, Making Time for Great Teaching, by Dr Ben Jensen is a must read for educators. In an age of teacher over-load and increasing external accountabilities, Jensen presents the case for removing the distractors so that teachers can spend more time on the things that really matter.  He argues that if schools reduce the number of staff meetings, school assemblies, extra-curricular activities etc then critical time can be devoted to proven school improvement practices. Jensen and his colleagues worked with six schools across the country to enable more time for intensive mentoring, observation of practice, collaboration and school-based research.

Schools must make difficult but crucial trade-offs in how teachers and school leaders spend their time. We must be explicit that every time we ask teachers to perform extra activities we are decreasing the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

Last week at the National Catholic Education Commission annual meeting in Canberra, my colleagues and I met with a number of Members of Parliament. It was an opportunity to further impress the need for politicians to focus on what is really important in the work of schools.  Many priorities and procedures are often assumed to be mandatory when they are mere accretions. Jensen makes the point that

Government regulations restrict schools. Enterprise bargaining agreements restrict changes to work schedules, and duty of care requirements restrain schools that want to free their teachers from child minding to focus on improving teaching.

Ultimately, the responsibility for making time for great teaching lies with individual school communities but the Grattan report shows what is achievable when we focus on what matters most.

Advice to our new PM

Two weeks ago, Professorial fellow and former Dean of Education, University of Melbourne Professor Brian J. Caldwell delivered our  annual Ann D Clark lecture.  It was timely for two reasons – Professor Caldwell and Jim Spinks’ book ‘The Self-Transforming School‘ is recently published and the book contains advice to our incoming federal government – stay out of education.

While the incoming coalition government has committed to supporting the autonomy of school systems and playing a limited role in school education, we are yet to see what this looks like in reality.  In a piece last month on the role Canberra should play in our schools, the Grattan Institute’s Ben Jensen wrote, “because the commonwealth spends about one-third of all public funds in school education, it will always want something for its investment”.

There is consensus across school sectors, academia and tiers of government that in terms of student achievement on international tests, we haven’t made any significant improvement.  What is more worrying though is the ever widening gap between low and high performing students.

One of the reasons why Caldwell and Spinks are suggesting that the federal government stay out of education is that the ‘control and command strategies’ used in the past haven’t resulted in the desired outcome – ie. sustainable and long term school improvement. Caldwell writes, “tying everything to implementation of a ‘national plan for better schools’ was bizarre, given that school improvement is something that schools must be responsible and accountable for.”

Caldwell argues that there is a strong case for change in Australia.  He proposes that we follow Canada’s lead (which outperforms Australia on international tests of student achievement) where there is no federal government ‘apparatus’ in education.  A Council of Ministers that would determine national policies and priorities would replace a Minister of Education. Wherever possible funding would be directly funneled to schools or at the very least to state and territory governments as well as independent and Catholic school sectors. This model is built on the premise that you locate expertise and resources as close as possible to the learning space. It takes into account the equity and diversity of school needs as well as being open, transparent and accountable to public scrutiny.

Caldwell says that self-transforming schools don’t need two levels of governments competing against one another in order to tell schools what to do.  In Canada there is competition among provinces and almost all innovation comes from individual schools and systems. Leadership is critical in this model because school leaders are empowered to respond to change.  Who better to address the diverse learning needs of a school community than the school itself?  I agree but the challenge is how to go about about increasing school autonomy while ensuring we get the learning and teaching strategies right for every child.  This requires effective instructional leaders leading in every school.  That’s perhaps the biggest challenge of all.

My view is that those who can and must improve schools are schools themselves (supported by forward-thinking systems and governments). However, there will always be a place for intelligent debate and intelligent educational policy that acknowledges the demands of a contemporary and connected world.

Let’s hope that in the next few years, Australia will become a truly ‘learning nation’.

The great divide

I noticed a number of news articles last weekend on school funding prompted perhaps by the announcement of a federal election in September.  I’ve always stated that we need a common sense approach to school funding.  Australia is not the only nation to be facing tough economic times so we need to become smarter when it comes using funding to improve the learning outcomes for every child.

In education, we strive to achieve an alignment between the work of schools and the central office and a coherence in what we are working towards.  This must also apply to state and commonwealth funding.  As the Grattan Institute’s Ben Jensen points out, in recent years the federal government has substantially expanded its involvement in education to “good and bad effect.”  Jensen admits that while some federal programs have been significant milestones such as a national curriculum, many have had little impact on learning outcomes and therefore our rankings internationally.

The school laptop program is just one example of the great divide between state and federal government. The five year program cost taxpayers around $2.4 billion,  however the NSW state government is now seeking a funding guarantee to begin replacing more than 250,000 outdated computers and to ensure the 1:1 ratio is maintained beyond 2013.  The federal government will not commit to extend the funding which is why principals are now asking where the money is going to come from.

Jensen is correct in saying that Australia scores poorly when it comes to linking policy design to implementation.  The above example demonstrates putting the cart before the horse, or the tool before the teaching.  Countries such as Singapore, Finland and South Korea have drive education reform with a strong framework for improving teaching; a revision of curriculum/assessment and finally how technology could support this. All this located in a cohesive and comprehensive values base reflected in policy.

Jennifer Hewitt also wrote in the Financial Review that:

The education system is failing students because of fundamental flaws in the approach to teaching and teaching methods, rather than inadequate funding models.  The problems are less about money and more about policy choices.

While these countries don’t have two tiers of government, it may be that our federal government needs to articulate an educational vision for today’s learner in today’s world while state governments work together on developing system wide strategies. Funding could then be directed into the ongoing training of all leaders and teachers so that implementation becomes effective at the local level.

In explaining its “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” initiative, the Singaporean Ministry of Education said the initiative: will be the cradle of thinking students as well as thinking adults and this spirit of learning should accompany our students even after they leave school.  The capacity of Singaporeans to continually learn, both for professional development and for personal enrichment, will determine our collective tolerance for change.

To tackle this divide, we can’t rely only on numbers and comparisons. Great learning theory (Bransford et al) tells us that learning is about context, connections and meta cognition. We have to learn how to do the work of improving student learning outcomes. A coherent framework will enable us to deliver on our rhetoric of quality schooling for all students.

Beyond the black-belt

There is a saying in martial arts that when a student makes it to black-belt, the real learning begins. We should be seeing teaching through the same lens. When teachers enter the classroom for the first time, the learning begins and it must never stop.

Professional learning and feedback go hand in hand to improve teacher effectiveness.

Research shows that ongoing professional learning is critical to improving teacher effectiveness but so too is the role of teacher evaluation. Without evaluation, professional learning cannot be individualised to improve teacher practice.

Last year, the Grattan Institute published its report into teacher appraisal, Better Teacher Appraisal and Feedback: Improving Performance, which shows that a system of teacher evaluation can increase effectiveness by 20 to 30 percent. The problem in the past has been the ad hoc nature of teacher evaluation – often infrequent or failing to provide teachers with valuable feedback and/or strategies to improve student learning gains.  By integrating teacher evaluation into every aspect of teaching and learning, we create a culture of success for teachers, which leads to success for students.

Linda Darling-Hammond discusses the role of teacher evaluation in an article in the November 2012 edition of Kappan and states that systems must ensure “teacher evaluation is connected to – not isolated from – preparation and induction programs, daily professional practice, and a productive instructional context.”

Darling Hammond outlines five key features of a teacher effectiveness strategy:

  1. Common state-wide standards for teaching related to meaningful student learning and shared across the system (what should teachers know and do to be able to support the learning of every student)
  2. Performance based assessments based on these standards (linking teacher effectiveness to student learning gains)
  3. Local evaluation systems aligned to the same standards for on the job teaching based on practice and student learning (creating a continuum of competency for professional learning at every stage of teachers’ careers)
  4. Support structures to ensure trained evaluators can mentor teachers
  5. Aligned professional learning opportunities

These points illustrate the need for the teaching profession to work collaboratively to develop a common language around learning, a common understanding of what good practice looks like and a common process for measuring it.

Jason Culbertson’s article, Putting the value in teacher evaluation, also reflects on a teacher evaluation system called TAP which is currently being used in 380 schools around the US.  The TAP evaluation system includes a number of classroom observations every year by experienced evaluators. This is followed by conferencing in which the evaluator and teacher examine an observed strength, weakness and an individualised plan for improvement.

According to Culbertson, the most important result from this process is the common language developed around what effective teaching looks like. The standards provide teachers with a very clear understanding of what “performance looks like at various levels of expertise in a range of classroom practices and skills” which led to the most accomplished teachers ‘recalibrating their expectations’.

What appeals to me about the TAP method is that strategies are not only selected by ‘master teachers’ based on analysis of student data but are road-tested and refined in classrooms before teachers introduce it into their own classrooms.  In this way, teachers are not dropped into the deep end to ‘sink or swim’ but are given a solid foundation on which to trial, collaboratively reflect and if necessary, refine strategies to improve student learning.

It is easy to assume that teachers should instinctively know how to improve their practice or that they begin their career armed with all the knowledge and skills required.  But as Darling-Hammond and others point out – teachers just like students, need clear objectives, constructive feedback and opportunities to succeed.

Extending mathematical understanding

Why is it that so many students struggle with mathematics?  It’s one of the questions I’ve been pondering after reading the work of  MIT mathematician, Dr Seymour Papert.  For me, Papert is becoming a modern John Dewey and his assessment of why children struggle is persuasive:

I think part of the trouble with learning mathematics at school is that it’s not like mathematics in the real world. In the real world, there are engineers, who use mathematics to make bridges or make machines. There are scientists, who use mathematics to make theories, to make explanations of how atoms work, and how the universe started. There are bankers, who use mathematics to make money — or so they hope.

But children, what can they make with mathematics? Not much. They sit in class and they write numbers on pieces of paper. That’s not making anything very exciting. So we’ve tried to find ways that children can use mathematics to make something — something interesting, so that the children’s relationship to mathematics is more like the engineer’s, or the scientist’s, or the banker’s, or all the important people who use mathematics constructively to construct something.

We know that providing students with a solid foundation in literacy and numeracy sets them up for life-long learning.  We also know that the gap between the performance of Australian students and their East Asia counterparts is widening and has been for the past twelve years.  According to the report released by the Grattan Institute, Australian students are on average two years behind Shanghai students in maths and at least one year behind students from Singapore and South Korea.  As a system, we can learn from other systems such as Ontario Canada, which has made significant investment in improving literacy and numeracy.  As Michael Fullan continues to remind us whenever he visits, they have focused relentlessly on literacy and numeracy and it has become the work of school principals, lead teachers, teachers and even parents.

I invited Tim Hardy, Team Leader in System Learning to share the context of our K-12 numeracy strategy.  My thanks to Tim for his guest post below.

In 2008, COAG released its National Numeracy Review Report (NNRR), and for many, the issues highlighted are not surprising.

“While the overall levels of numeracy / mathematics achievement in Australia are quite good by international standards, there is an unacceptable proportion of Australian students (particularly but certainly not only amongst Indigenous students) who are not achieving acceptable standards of proficiency. Many students also lack confidence in the subject, do not see personal relevance in it and are unlikely to continue its study voluntarily.” (National Numeracy Review Report 2008 xii)

With the moral imperative well established, ‘Numeracy Now’, an initiative of our system, came about as a strategic response to the fifteen recommendations from the NNRR to ‘improve numeracy outcomes for all’. The recommendations specifically reflect the issues that were identified from the available research and include directions for teaching standards, school expectations and system organisation.

An example of these recommendations include: the development of pedagogical content knowledge of teachers; that mathematics be taught in context and ‘beyond the mathematics classroom’; the use of diagnostic tools such as interviews for mathematical assessment; systemic assessment programs to provide a research base to inform pedagogy; that an emphasis be on developing conceptual understandings rather than routine procedural tasks; specialist teachers regularly working shoulder to shoulder with classroom teachers; needs of cultural and minority groupings be identified and understood; and the building of leadership capability

An initial priority of our strategy was the development of instructional leadership capability within our schools. In collaboration with our academic partner, Dr Ann Gervasoni from the Australian Catholic University, over one hundred leaders including primary and secondary principals, lead teachers and system leaders have completed the Leading Mathematics Learning and Teaching program. The focus of the learning includes: the Mathematical Assessment Interview; identification of the most vulnerable learners; creating productive learning environments; developing pedagogical content knowledge of teachers; researched based teaching strategies; tracking and monitoring of student progress and implementation planning.

While the NNRR specifically recommends that the focus needs to be on the early years of schooling, our strategy has included secondary schools, initiating an authentic K-12 structure. The collaboration between primary and secondary teachers, specialists, lead teachers and principals has been profound, creating a shared understanding about quality teaching and learning with a collective responsibility for all learners.

In conjunction with the leadership program, the Extending Mathematical Understanding (EMU) – Specialist Teacher Intervention program, facilitated by Dr Ann Gervasoni, trains nominated teachers from each school to teach a daily intervention program for the most mathematically vulnerable Year 1 and Year 7 students.  The aim of this program is to equip teachers with the knowledge and skills to provide accelerated intervention that promotes students learning and a  positive and confident disposition. To further build on our system capability, we have a teaching educator currently training to become an accredited professional learning leader in order to facilitate the accredited EMU intervention program. The ‘behind-the-screen’ facility to observe teachers facilitating an EMU group, is a feature of the program.

Schools showing parents how to support children with maths at home.

The most important outcomes of the initiative are:  all Year one students assessed with ongoing tracking and monitoring; the most vulnerable students are identified in Year 1; a decline in vulnerable students in the second and third year of the project and that leaders are equipped to lead implementation plans based on credible data. An encouraging observation by our academic partner Ann Gervasoni is that of teachers applying their new knowledge into innovative practice to include the effective use of digital technologies e.g. teachers using iPads with a clear mathematical purpose, students using digital manipulatives to develop conceptual understanding, recording their thinking, with the ability to share beyond the classroom.

Parents of participating schools have expressed appreciation for the opportunity to learn about what is happening at school and importantly how best to support their children at home when it comes to mathematics.

Tim’s summary of our strategy reflects a fundamental principle from which we work – moving from an ‘I think’ mentality of teaching to ‘We learn’.  This approach uses the best research and data as a base line.  We focus on what works, why it works for each student and how we can continually extend teachers, students and even parents in their mathematical understanding.

From the outside in

I’m in Singapore this week, giving a keynote and doing a workshop for the 3rd International Project Based Learning Symposium. It is easy to see why Singapore is among the world’s top five performing school systems when there is such a strong focus across the education sectors on developing learner and teacher skills such as inquiry, collaboration, deep knowledge and independent learning.

Interest in PBL is growing in schools across our system but it has been a success in transforming the learning for students at Parramatta Marist High. For me, Parramatta Marist’s experience is an example of our broad approach to improving learning and teaching based on the principles of inquiry (ref Timperley’s teacher inquiry cycle).

Inquiry is about open-ended questions – moving from having the right answer to being comfortable asking the right questions. Brazilian educator Paolo Freire believed that:

‘It is impossible to be human without curiosity, without questions. The questions is in the foundation of human existence…One of the sad things, for example, is how we sometimes become accustomed to the absence of the question. For example, pedagogy, as it is generally practiced today, is exactly a pedagogy of the answer….Professors enter the classroom on the first day of the term, for example, and talk, giving answers to questions that have not been asked by the students.’

In the case of Singapore’s National Institute of Education, teachers’ engage in inquiry so that they are better able to teach a curriculum focussed on ‘critical thinking, inquiry and collaboration.’

We are seeing that high performing systems are committed to teacher and student inquiry. Teachers learning about student learning and students learning through discovery.

Last week I attended a talk by Dr Ben Jensen of the Grattan Institute on what we can learn from the best school systems in East Asia.  What was interesting but perhaps no surprise is that these education systems have high levels of equity – there is less gap between high and low performing students in Korea, Shanghai and Hong Kong compared to other countries like the UK, US and Australia.  According to OECD figures, the bottom 10% of maths students in Shanghai perform at a level that is 21 months ahead of the bottom 10% of students in Australia.  This rises to 28 months in the USA. That is a gap of more than two years.

There are two points to make here. We know that key to overcoming issues of equity is having quality teachers and teaching in every classroom.  This is what is happening in East Asia.  The second is that the business of schooling is big business in the sense that economic growth is contigent on having a highly skilled workforce.

It is the second point that is the focus of the article ‘Rethinking School‘ in this month’s Harvard Business Review.  It’s estimated that if the US had closed its achievement gap with better performing nations, then its GDP could have been $1.2 to 2.1 trillion higher.  The figure is based on the work of Stanford economist Eric Hanushek who found that countries where students had higher test scores also had higher rates of growth in income per person.

This is why China which outranks both the US and Australia in maths and reading is a serious competitor and why the Obama administration has implemented education reforms such as Race to the Top.  The article makes the point that after forty years of research we know what makes the greatest difference to student learning but initiatives to improve the quality of teaching have not yielded the desired results.  In fact, according to the HBR article, ‘it will take 40 years for 80% of New York city students to reach math and reading proficiency, let alone the level of excellence that Chinese students are already achieving.’

I don’t believe that personalising learning using technology is the silver bullet to improving the US’ education system.  As I’ve said often enough, it’s not about the tools, it’s about the teacher.  What the Grattan Institute report shows is that East Asia’s education systems have implemented reforms that provide high quality teacher training, mentoring to continually improve learning and teaching and continual evaluation of teacher practice.

What is evident is the knowledge building that comes from inquiry – the application of new routines of practice explicitly linking learning and teaching.  And it’s the engagement in this collective inquiry that teachers and students will benefit from.

Want teachers want

I’ve been waving the flag for some time about teacher performance and how the profession is addressing (or not addressing) this issue.

If you haven’t already done so, download the Grattan Institute’s report What teachers Want: Better teacher management by Ben Jensen.  It cites OECD figures in which 63% of Australian teachers believe evaluation of their work is undertaken for no other reason than to fufil administrative requirements and has little impact on their day to day practice.

Disappointing as this is, at least there is recognition that the work of teachers needs to be appropriately assessed.   While we already have measures in NSW for teacher accreditation, are there sufficient mechanisms in place to address under-performing teachers?

Recently, the draft national standards for teachers was released for feedback.  Academics have already raised concerns that the proposed standards are not evidence-based; grounded in contemporary theory or reflective of the complex nature of teaching (Education Review, May 2010).

We need to look very closely at the work of teachers; what are the industrial, ideological or cultural barriers to improving teacher quality?  Who is responsible for evaluating teacher performance?  And if teachers don’t meet the minimum standards, what happens next?

Any attempt to raise the status of the teaching profession must begin with changing the culture and focus within learning environments. I also believe that improving teacher quality is inextricably linked to the quality of school leaders (read SMH Opinion on the importance of school leadership).

In his report, Dr Jensen concludes that school principals should be given greater responsibility to evaluate and address teacher practice and be given the broad resources and support to do this.

We are in dire need of new models of teaching that have their roots in a deep understanding of both the nature of life and learning in today’s world. Looking at improving teaching requires us not only to look at the ways we evaluate good teaching but how we develop new models of teaching that reflect today’s world.  Unfortunately our existing models are cemented in an industrial model of  teaching that is process driven.

Someone reminded me that no teacher goes to work every day to do a bad job.  What teachers want and need is continuous feedback, recognition and the opportunities to develop their skills in order to move from not so good to great.

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