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It’s the teachers, stupid

October 25th, 2007

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In the October 19 2007 Times Educational Supplement, the lead headline is “It’s the teachers, stupid”. It reports the findings of a report by McKinsey, a global consultancy firm that argues that the most important factors in educational excellence is the teachers.

The findings are quantified: around the world the top educational systems are found in South Korea, Finland, Singapore and Hong Kong. In these countries, teachers come from the top 5%, 10%, 30% and 30% of the graduates respectively. As a comparison, in the USA teachers come from the bottom 33% of graduates. The figures aren’t specified for the UK, though it is considered ‘between the two extremes’.

Their conclusions are that the only way to improve the outcomes of pupils is to improve the quality of instruction. When a profession is high-status, top graduates want to do it and the quality of their instruction improves.

Having read this article yesterday, this morning on Radio 4’s Today programme I heard a lady talk about one of the changes between when she grew up and now: when she was at school she was told that (as a woman) she could become “a teacher or a nurse” whereas now she might have aspired to be a “doctor or a lawyer”. The status levels are clear, and still entrenched. Doctors and lawyers are high-status professions. A teacher is respected, but is essentially a carer in some important way. I can’t believe that in Finland or South Korea these unfortunate couplets would trip off the tongue so readily.

I am glad that McKinsey has produced this report, because ministers are liable only to listen to a big consultancy business. My heart sinks to imagine how much money has been thrown at this consultancy giant to point out the mind-blowingly obvious. What is scary to me is that ministers appear to be genuinely unable to appreciate these truths without a consultancy-led statistically-backed study, whereas surely a moment of rational reflection shows their conclusions to be self-evident.

Tests are Counter-Productive (shock?)

October 23rd, 2007

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Channel 4 News has recently run a major report about how low-achievers are being left behind in the school system.

It is encouraging that the media is starting to pick up on the reality that testing and league tables helps only the government and not the students. As far as I am concerned, this is patently obvious for the majority of teachers in schools. The testing regime was a top-down initiative which never really had the students’ best interests at heart.

In the report, Mary Hilton of Cambridge University argued that in their last year of primary schools, children in England are “trained and drilled for the tests and its disastrous”. Ask any parent whether they would prefer their child to experience motivating and engaging ideas in classrooms or test revision, and they would all want the engaging ideas… that is unless they had become caught up in a system whereby they worry that their child will be disadvantaged in some way by not being drilled for the test.

This is a problem: testing regimes bootstrap themselves; by introducing a mandatory testing regime, everybody must be seen to perform at least at their level of expectation within that regime, but everyone will strive to perform better. Therefore increasingly attention will be diverted towards the regime. More and more people spend more and more time focussing on the test rather than on what the test was introducted to test.

SATS help the government because they make measurable the achievements of schools. One ought to have reason to pause at this idea. What exactly has been measured?

The improvement that any student achieves while at school is due to a combination of three factors: the speed of their natural development, the nourishment (in every sense) and education that their parents provide, and the education that the school provides. At the very best measuring students’ academic performances does not measure what the school adds to the students. The clearest example of this is that in comfortable middle class areas where, other things being equal, parents tend to have more time and more knowledge about how to educate their children, schools perform better than in deprived areas. In what sense can SATs be thought to be comparing the two schools’ performances by comparing their SATs results? Value Added measurements attempt to get around that problem, but it is not really clear that they do.

Do tests actually measure understanding? At their most sophisticated, testing measures understanding by asking questions which catch students off guard or are unusual in some way. Then the student must adapt using what they know to this new scenario. There is a good reason why at around 16-18, as learners begin to move into an abstract sphere of understanding, that the first meaningful tests that students sit occur in cultures around the world. Before then, tests are likely not to measure understanding.

Driven by the desire for all testing to be standardised and comparable, tests have increasingly become tests of memorisation. Testing 11 year olds will inevitably test learnable skills not creative understanding. Thus, SAT questions are familiar and routine. Performance in answering routine questions can be improved through drill. It is not unreasonable to argue that one of the things tests actually measure is the amount that a child has been drilled for the test.

What is worse, Channel 4 News reports that experts argue that the testing regime is actually particularly bad for lower achievers at school. Not only are they counter-productive, they are particularly counter-productive for students at the bottom of the pile. One can only hope that the clamour to overhaul this current system will grow and grow.

Science Museum Game

October 11th, 2007

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Launchball is a game produced for the Science Museum website. It is an excellent and well thought out little game that has highly transparent educational content. Despite this, it it fun to play.

Most of the puzzles deal with the concepts of power and force, both in terms of their generation and their effect. The aim is to make a little (metal) ball reach a particular goal. It can be done by using wind power to blow the ball, magnetism to attract it, or ‘rollers’ to move the ball along. Some or all of these effects require power, and the different mechanisms for generating and transferring power are really interesting and innovative.

This game is a wonderful way to introduce physics.

Tories tackle Schools & Social Mobility

October 2nd, 2007

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The Tories appear to have come up with a good idea for tackling the thorny problem of encouraging social mobility through the education system. My natural inclinations are not conservative, nevertheless, their idea has merit I think, and deserves serious consideration.

Financialy, students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be worth more to schools than ones from socially more advantaged backgrounds, reports Anthea Lipsett in the Education Guardian.

The only good example of genuinely encouraging upward social mobility through the education system was the post-war Grammar School System, which enabled students from poor backgrounds who were good enough to get into grammar schools the same opportunities to succeed academically as their more socially advantaged peers. Unfortunately however, the grammar school intake tended to be largely from socially advantaged backgrounds to start with, which in turn meant that large numbers of socially disadvantaged students ended up going into the Secondary Modern system. Over time this became politically unsustainable, as the Secondary Moderns seemed to be ‘scrapheaps’ for the less advantaged children.

However, scrapping this system and introducing the Comprehensive School System has not reversed this sort of trend. Now the opportunities for the few socially disadvantaged students to go to grammar schools have disappeared, but the majority have not benefited as a result. Students tend to go to their local schools, but local schools in socially deprived areas have problems attracting the best staff, encounter more students with behavioural and learning problems, and have lower expectations.

Worse, when a school becomes successful, more affluent parents move closer to it for the sake of their children, reinforcing the divide by ensuring that the students from more advantaged backgrounds go to the already-successful schools.

The Tories’ proposal is to incentivise schools to take students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds by recognising that they, on average, need more money to help educate them and so attaching to them a higher amount of funding.

In part, the levels at which the funding is set for different groups, and how it is calculated will determine the success of the scheme. I rather expect that if implemented politicians will thoroughly under-estimate the difference in funding required to offer genuine equality of educational opportunity to every student, not least because the true level of funding required would probably be huge!