Posts tagged ‘Grattan Institute’

What’s wrong with Aussie schools?

I wonder how many times we need to hear the OECD and Grattan Institute tell us that our education system needs to be performing over and above and not under and below international benchmarks!  The link between our declining performance on PISA and teacher quality has been the subject of commentary from educational experts for more than a decade.

Speaking recently in Dubai, OECD’s education chief, Andreas Schleicher warned that without sufficient investment in the teaching profession and a fundamental rethink of the role of teachers in today’s world, we risk slipping further down the international ladder.

It’s not just the economic imperative that we won’t be globally competitive that should compel our profession to change, but the moral imperative of giving every student in every school a world-class education.

One of the problems according to Schleicher is that we continue to see teaching as number of hours spent in front of students as though it’s the only half of the whole when in fact the other critical half is professional learning and teacher collaboration.

I agree wholeheartedly with Schleicher that we must move away from seeing teachers as deliverers of a curriculum to teachers as ‘owners of professional standards.’  This view is evident in Finland where it is widely accepted that educators are ‘the ultimate authorities on education, not bureaucrats…’

The profession has been compliant for too long in the face of imposed educational reforms and mandates dictating the nature of teachers’ work.  Our education system is too valuable to be a political and ideological target for short-sighted policies.  I’m not naive enough to suggest that we are close to partisan politics in Australia but the time for a coherent pre to post schooling framework was a decade ago.

It’s striking that the OECD’s education chief has expressed concerned about the future of our education system. It is even more striking though that our politicians have failed to listen and our profession has failed to take the lead.


The Black Box

In 2001, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam published their seminal article titled Inside the Black Box: raising standards through classroom assessment.  It focuses on formative assessment which according to the authors is at the heart of effective teaching.

The article suggests that the practice of formative assessment has not been front and centre in most classrooms. In fact the link between formative assessment and significant learning gains has been nebulous.

Black and Wiliam note there is a “tendency to emphasise quantity and presentation of work and to neglect its quality in relation to learning” in primary classrooms. There is also a tendency to over-emphasise grading at the expense of giving quality feedback to students about the task and their learning.

Integral to the success of the factory model of schooling has been this prevailing view to compare students and cohorts at the expense of using assessment as evidence of each student’s progress.  Black and Wiliam suggest one way of overcoming this is by creating cultures of success within classrooms supported by a school/system belief that every child can succeed.

Formative assessment becomes a ‘powerful weapon’ as teacher feedback is focussed on the task in the context of the learning target with the aim of continually trying to close the gap.  In this way, assessment forms the work of teachers as they adapt their practice to the needs of the learners.

Research shows that task, target and improvement are critical to improving student learning outcomes.  They must clearly articulated by the teacher and clearly understood by the learner.  Black and Wiliam state that students cannot be expected to ‘believe in the value of changes for their learning before they have experienced the benefits.’

The Grattan Institute’s recent report on Targeted Teaching makes reference to Black and Wiliam’s work and Hattie’s meta-analysis as the bedrock of targeted teaching.  The report identifies what teachers need to measure and evaluate but recognises a lack of time in classrooms and training needs to be addressed.

It is clear that assessment/evidence must be a priority within all schools and across all systems.  To do this, we must consider Grattan’s recommendations to develop a consistent approach to using evidence, a clear set of expectations and a common language so that all teachers can “support their judgments about student learning and determine their teaching decisions.”

Yong Zhao recently wrote that the quality of an education should not be evaluated on a mean set of scores or student performance in a few high-stakes tests but should always be geared toward the growth of each student.

Growing students cannot be done without knowing students.


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.


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