"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, May 25, 2009

Aussies Ready for Failed American Testing Model

From theage.com:

Philip Riley
May 25, 2009
EDUCATORS appear to make the worst learners. Evidence for this can be found in the recent decision by the National Curriculum Board (Education, May 18). The board has decided that all students will now be judged by a single standard every year — a one-size-fits-all approach. The effect, if not the aim, of this decision will be to limit the influence of individual teachers on students. It will force teachers to conduct tests for external examination, and just as happened in the US the tests will
become the curriculum.

Sensible teachers will adopt a "teach to the test" instruction method because their job and promotion prospects will rely on these scores. And, just as in the US, our version of "no child left behind" will widen, not lessen the educational gap between the haves and have-nots. So instead of following the US model, why don't we learn from its mistakes and follow a better educational approach?

Educational scholar David Berliner from Arizona State University recently presented studies showing the failure of the "teach to the test" method of instruction. Across America, schools with the most disadvantaged children have been abolishing recess and shortening lunchtime to 15 minutes in an attempt to lift test scores by direct instruction. And the result? On 46 of 47 measures studied by Professor Berliner, achievement has been slower than before it was introduced.

His conclusion is that education based on high-stakes testing is counterproductive. Why, then, has our NCB opted for the US model?

Imagine for a minute what life will be like if we adopt the wrong national curriculum and force compliance through high-stakes testing. In 10 to 20 years we will realise that we made a mistake by putting all our eggs in one basket. Where is the evidence that uniformity equals quality? Not in nature, not in business, not in research.

The overwhelming evidence from history shows that diversity, not uniformity, equals strength and sustainability over the long term. Diversity allows species to survive unforeseen circumstances, and diversity offers new possibilities which had not, perhaps could not, be imagined.

Forecasters suggest that a child in his first year of school this year will be employed in a job, and probably an industry, that does not yet exist. What specific knowledge (curriculum) does that child need to learn next year? Which, if any, tests will help that child to develop and when should they be applied? And, who should make these decisions? What can we learn from other countries' answers?

Finland, which topped the latest round of international comparisons (PISA), succeeded by training, trusting and supporting their teachers — and by less, not more, testing. Finland only takes the cream of its graduates into teacher training. Nine out of 10 who apply do not gain entry. Then they train them well. Every teacher has a master's-level qualification. On graduating, teachers are trusted to get on with the job they have been employed to do.

That Finland is monocultural and therefore advantaged against other countries in the PISA results must be considered, but may be somewhat of a straw man. For example, multicultural Tower Hamlets, until recently the most underperforming borough in the UK, is now the most improved and sits above the UK average. Its fortunes changed by doing pretty much what Finland did. It filtered teachers at the point of entry, and supported them to do their work.

Another monocultural country, China, has an inflexible curriculum based on the "uniformity equals quality" assumption. The laws of probability suggest that if a prescribed curriculum is the right way to go, China should be collecting the most Nobel Prizes by the sheer weight of numbers of students produced. In fact it has won only four. The same number as Finland. Australia has nine Nobel laureates.

The lessons learned from diversity tell us that it is likely that no one has the right answers for education. So let's not put all our eggs into one basket but create many baskets tailored to the needs of the students in the classrooms around the country by the people who know them best: their teachers. And, properly fund teacher training and continuing professional development so that our current education system can produce the best teachers for the next generation. Then we should leave it to principals to get on with the job of finding, encouraging and supporting the best teachers for their schools and their contexts. This is what Tower Hamlets did and we might do better by following its example.

Dr Philip Riley is a lecturer in the faculty of education at Monash

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