For Dorothy

Dorothy McRae-McMahon undergoes surgery today.

Dorothy (left) at South Sydney Uniting Church


Education: wrong path, Ms Gillard?

Back in November 2008 I posted the following:

Memo to Julie Gillard and Kevin Rudd

Having pumped up an ‘education revolution’ be very careful about visiting sales reps…


You will be very tempted by anyone claiming to have invented an Education Thermometer which, when stuck up the patient’s fundament, will magically tell you just what’s wrong and how to fix it. The more amazing numbers on that thermometer and the more it flashes and whirs the more politicians, bureaucrats and parents believe in its powers…

It’s never so simple.

1. Go to Fair Test if you must look to the USA, and admittedly there is much there to be noted…

2. Don’t pay too much mind to Rupert Murdoch.

3. Read this comment in the US magazine Nation:

As a retired administrative analyst, who worked for the New York City public schools for 33 years–mainly in the area of testing, I call attention to the manner in which Chancellor Klein has used the annual testing program to present an exaggerated politically-motivated picture of the system’s "progress" under his (and Mayor Bloomberg’s) administration. An educational leader should be concerned with the implementation of meaningful testing procedures and the truthful presentation of data to evaluate the status of student achievement. Chancellor Klein has failed to pass both of these tests.

The misleading reporting of the 2005 reading (English Language Arts) test scores is a case in point. This was the year in which the mayor was seeking reelection. Having obtained control of the school system (which prior to the advent of Mr. Bloomberg was a non-mayoral agency governed by a board of education), he appointed Mr. Klein to run the system and pledged that test results would improve. In 2005, at the outset of the election campaign, they jointly and conspicuously announced that 4th grade student achievement had increased by 10%–an astonishing accomplishment.

After I FOILed for data pertinent to these results (and waited nine months to receive the data–long after the mayor had won his second term), I was able to analyze two unacknowledged factors that went into the increase: Over 5,000 students had been excluded from the test population. They consisted of 3rd graders who were held back in 2005 and didn’t take the 4th grade test, as well as a larger than usual number of students classified as Limited English Proficiency.

The net effect was to remove thousands of low-scoring students who, in prior years (such as, 2004) would have been included.

Posted by Fred_Smith at 11/13/2008 @ 08:16am

… and others there.

4. Read this letter from an English teacher here in Oz:

Jennifer Buckingham argues that New York’s system of school performance reporting is a success because "schools given F and D grades improved performance substantially the next year" ("Every good parent deserves truth", November 20).

This is the phenomenon known as regression to the mean. Schools that have unusually low or high rankings are more likely to move towards the middle the following year.

This pattern indicates that the system is not measuring the actual worth of a school but just natural random fluctuations in the performance of students.

You would get the same effect if you measured students’ average height. Schools with unusually short students would tend to have taller students the next year. But it seems unlikely that measuring children makes them grow.

Schools occasionally have high or low end-of-year results. As teachers, we cannot control all the factors that lead to these results. Nor should we try. Time we spend chasing a single year’s result on a particular assessment is time we do not spend planning for long-term change and improvement.

There are all kinds of factors that can affect a single year’s result. Was there a big party the night before the NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) testing? Did a family of five hard-working siblings arrive at the school? Did a talented learning support assistant get her Diploma of Education and move to another school? Did the school decide to have a spelling bee this year?

It is also important to look closely at what is being tested. The NAPLAN testing, which began this year, has a heavy emphasis on spelling. You might say this is because spelling is important and valued. But I would say it’s because spelling is easy to test.

As an English teacher, if I wanted to make my life easy all I would teach would be spelling and grammar. All my assessments would be in exam format. My marking would be done in minutes. But I know that if I do that I will never be able to assess students on certain essential skills. These include the ability to speak publicly, to research ideas in depth and to plan and redraft a piece of writing to publication standard.

These skills will never be on national testing because they are not practical to test. Any league table will move emphasis away from skills that are useful in the real world towards memorisation and skills that are useful in the exam hall.

Brendan Sullivan Page (ACT)

5. Read Sharon Beder in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

Joel Klein is in Australia to "spruik" his business-friendly school reforms courtesy of the giant Swiss bank UBS, the recipient of a multibillion-dollar bail-out from Swiss taxpayers, and dubbed the "world’s biggest subprime loser" by The Age.

The federal Education Minister, Julia Gillard, "welcomes the active involvement of UBS" in education reform. Since her recent US visit, she has been championing the "remarkable outcomes" she claims Klein has achieved in New York, where he is the chancellor of the city’s education department.

Klein, who was previously chief executive of the international media company Bertelsmann (and who had an article on this page on Monday), believes schools should be run more like businesses, and is an enthusiastic promoter of "charter" schools, some of which are operated for profit. He told Fortune magazine, "We’re converting the role of the principal into a CEO role."…

Beware of Corporate Speak masquerading as education policy.

6. Take note of my late Aunt Beth. She was an Infants teacher of many years standing, and in her time a pioneer of such literacy initiatives as the Hallidayan “Breakthrough to Literacy”. In the last conversation I had with her on the subject – and in fact The Rabbit was present and may recall this – she said, in relation to the way her grandchild was being taught, that it would be a good idea if we stopped all this testing and measuring and got back to teaching… There may well be a clue there for your education revolution.

And now

If you are here in Oz you’ll have heard something about how this stands now. Tomorrow the My School website goes live. There is already a lot of material there to download, and to be fair we should all wait and see. I do have concerns still about what the material really will mean and what abuse it may be subject to. Experience suggests such stats based on standardised testing should very much be taken with several grains of salt.

There is an interesting and hardly radical response by the Principal of The King’s School in today’s Sydney Morning Herald. While conceding the new approach may have its benefits, Dr Hawkes concludes:

…Having noted the points above, it is still fair to say that the public will have to be reminded that the quality of education given by a school is not easily reduced to a set of numbers. If they want to find out about a school, they should visit the school and speak to its principal and teachers.

The My School material should be only part of the information used when evaluating schools. Some schools run dynamic leadership courses, others set out to train character and offer life-enriching courses, all of which may not be reported on the My School website.

The Federal Government also needs to improve the presentation of information on the My School website. Putting selective schools in the same mix as non-selective schools is absurd, and clarity needs to be improved.

If the Government wants to promote transparency, it should reveal exactly how the index used to group ”like” schools – namely the ”Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage” – is calculated.

To fellow educators, I suggest, whatever our views about the My School website, the information given to teachers about the individual strengths and weaknesses of students can be very useful in trying to improve student performance. In the end, this is what we should be trying to do.

After tomorrow, half of the school principals in Australia will be ”under the hammer” because half may well be seen to be underperforming relative to ”like schools”. This is an uncomfortable place to be, but perhaps it is a necessary place.

Hi, colleagues

Teachers in NSW return to work today; not me, of course. To Mr R especially it will be an interesting day in his new school in The Gong. I am sure he will have a good year. I’d be interested in his views on today’s topic.

  • Of course the Australian government has Powerpointed for us: My School presentation (4 meg).