Posts tagged ‘Ontario’

What we can learn from PISA?

It was interesting to read the range of commentary last week around the latest PISA results. If Australian students are slipping towards a mathematical wilderness, spare a thought for Finland who was out-ranked by Estonia.  Yong Zhao‘s attempt at translating the Finnish newspapers was first-rate.

The most balanced views on PISA came from Dr Ken Boston, former director-general of NSW education and Sir Michael Barber, former advisor to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair on where we should be focusing our attention and efforts.

While Australian students may have slipped behind East Asia in maths, science and reading, Dr Boston says we should forget comparing ourselves with Finland or Shanghai because they are so culturally dissimilar.  Instead, we should be comparing ourselves with ‘like’ OECD countries such as Canada, which performed significantly better than us in maths and reading.

Canadian provinces such as Ontario turned around its school system in less than a decade.  It did this by recognising that to improve learning required improving the capabilities of its teachers.  The system identified three key areas and focused on research and data to inform their decision making.  The improvement in student learning reflect this commitment to teacher quality, student equity and learning excellence.

My concern is that we are still distracted by the noise and educational policy chaos.  I’ve written previously that ideology seems to carry more weight than evidence and by the time the next PISA results are released we will still be debating funding models, a national curriculum and phonics.  So what can we learn from the successful practices of Ontario and those highly ranked nations in PISA?graph

Sir Michael Barber states the first is that talent is a myth – “Those countries that believe some are born smart or bright while others aren’t, and reinforce that through the education system, will never be among the top performers. Pacific Asia’s focus on hard work over talent is one reason they lead the way.”  The second is a focus on learning and teaching (what is actually happening in classrooms).  The third is an investment in building teacher capacity and the one that often gets overlooked – persist with the strategies that work.

These messages transcend cultures and countries – it is what distinguishes high performing systems and if we are going to address the equity gap that exists in our schools then we must be willing to listen and learn.

Those who know me well know that I am impatient at the pace of change. Too often we underrate what can be achieved in transforming school cultures but it doesn’t happen over the course of a school year just look at Ontario.  I am not raising the surrender flag here and retreating but I am realistic about what is required.  One of the biggest challenges we face is ensuring our politicians, unions, associations and teachers support the right drivers for change.

Let’s finally move from an excuse, blame and rationalisation paradigm to one defined by collaboration, coherence, evidence and trust.  It seems to me that the former saps energy, the latter energises.

The Next West Wing

An opportunity to discuss education policy on the eve of a Presidential election.  (Courtesy ~BostonBill~)

Recently I attended a meeting with Marc Tucker and Robert Schwartz, two senior education researchers and US government advisors on education policy. Hosted by the new Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation in the NSW Department of Education, this high level briefing provided an opportunity to discuss education policy in relation to worldwide trends and a broader understanding of the current US state of play on the eve of a Presidential election.

For the last few decades Marc Tucker and Robert Schwartz have been important contributors to this discussion, advising US policy makers including Presidents Clinton and Obama.

They made the point that the educational agenda over this period has been largely driven by policies to:

  1. evaluate teachers on a narrow set of criteria to identify and remove the bottom 10 per cent of under-performing teachers
  2. introduce Charter Schools giving parents greater choice and to harness business capital to help fund schooling
  3. set narrow educational standards through basic skills testing

Tucker and Schwarz believe this has been a process of reform by attacking the system. Interestingly, the evidence shows that despite a 270% increase in expenditure on education in real terms under the last two presidential administrations, US schools have gone backwards on all indicators.

Clearly this agenda doesn’t work.

When they went looking for what did work, they found high performing countries (including Australia) had policies that were almost opposite to those in the US.

These countries shared similar characteristics which they identified as a:

  1. strong instructional core, rigorous processes and diversity around assessment of student performance
  2. robust curriculum framework and related standards identifying what students should be able to know and do
  3. focus on building teacher capacity

It was refreshing to hear the discussion go beyond the limited comparisons that are so often made in relation to PISA and the usual top four performing systems in the world. Schwartz and Tucker highlighted Ontario, Canada as one of the best examples of a sustainable approach to education policy around these three areas, particularly in their focus on building teacher capacity. They also found evidence within these successful systems of what Richard Elmore calls ‘reciprocity of accountability for capacity’.

‘Accountability must be a reciprocal process. For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance.’ (Elmore, 2002).

For the last 20 years Australia has been responding to the changing world predominantly through the expansion and integration of technology into schooling  – the Digital Revolution. What the US experience shows us is that the real drivers of change are not tool driven, but rely on a deeper understanding of the nature of people and how they learn; a worldview that informs learning and teaching; a strong foundation of theory and evidence; and finally an investment in building human capital.

Rather than attacking the system (teachers, curriculum, and so on) or making changes at the fringes, we need to look within the profession to build the capacity of our teachers and leaders for successful education reform.

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.

McKinsey 2010

The McKinsey report into ‘How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better’ was released last week.

McKinsey examined 20 school systems around the world that are somewhere along the continuum of fair to great.  These include Singapore and Ontario but also systems in developing countries like Brazil and India.  These education are considered to be making promising starts in improving student learning outcomes.

While we all aspire to achieve the success of Singapore and Ontario, I think we can be assured that we are on the right track.  The report is valuable in that it identifies and unpacks the elements common to these high performing systems.

It confirms that improving student learning outcomes does not happen overnight.  Singapore and Hong Kong took twenty plus years to move their schools from good to great.

For me, this school improvement model is like a tightly woven ball of wool with great control, focus and energy on improving the learning and teaching processes.  As instructional practice improves and teachers begin to collaborate, analyse data and adapt strategies, the ball unravels and innovation spreads.

I think the document is a must read for all educators as we have a responsibility to ensure that we learn from each other about what works, and more importantly what doesn’t.

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