Tests and Factories

@Thanks2Teachers: #Teachers: As long as our schools are geared to THE TEST, we’ll be factory workers turning out standardized products. RESIST!

The above tweet has been doing the rounds all day. I just don’t get it, and I don’t agree with it. Schools have always ask students to sit tests, we’ve always had standardised (yes I’m British, we spell it with an ‘s’) public exams, and yet, whaddaya know, every student who emerges from school is a unique individual.

Yes I KNOW there are problems with the way tests are administered and used, read on.

The big standardised test argument is irritating because both sides are arguing cross-purposes.

Argument 1: “We must introduce standardised tests to ruthlessly exposes our education system’s strengths and weaknesses, to discover and promote teaching talent, and remove ineffective practice/practitioners”

  • True because: without a common standard assessment you cannot possibly make comparisons between different institutions. At the very least this needs to be moderated professional judgement with sampled common assessment. Otherwise people can, and will, hide behind well-meaning ineffective practice. A good school or teacher will generally produce the better test scores (although the reverse isn’t necessarily true)
  • False because: you cannot possibly use one single tool to enforce accountability, highlight good practice, allocate funding, and judge teaching ability. This will, obviously, lead to narrow teaching, lower standards, and low morale. One data point cannot make a complete judgement, no matter how much you want to believe in it.

Argument 2: “Standardised tests don’t measure learning, they are harming out students, and they do not show good teaching”

  • True because: in order to standardise the assessment it has to be relatively shallow, it can lead to narrowing of the curriculum, good test scores don’t always indicate good teachers, and bad test scores don’t always indicate poor teachers.
  • False because: if you teach a student well (i.e. deep understanding), this will almost certainly be reflected in their test scores. Also life is full of tests and assessments, students need to know how to deal with them – this is a help, not a hinderance. If a school/district/student is repeatedly getting  poor scores it indicates that support is needed – this is also useful. Finally, good teachers do tend to get good test scores. Well-meaning but less effective teachers, however, may not.

People who are calling for standardised testing genuinely want to find out where the system is failing students so that they can be helped. People who are opposing standardised testing genuinely don’t want inappropriate and demoralizing use of narrow statistics to judge a broad education. Stop shouting at each other (and definitely don’t sling mud)

So why not have both?

  1. Use standardised tests as one diagnostic tool, backed up with randomly sampled assessments/interviews/observations. Give teacher the ability to award their students a moderated, professionally-judged grade, and give this equal weighting with the test.
  2. Look at a large number of factors, including attendance, behaviour, etc., to identify areas requiring support.
  3. Don’t judge teacher effectiveness using only this same testing system. Use peer-observation, student voice surveys, portfolio’s of evidence, and a wide array of assessment data, standardised and otherwise, current and historical.

I’m still developing these ideas in my head, and I’m open to suggestion. However, I suspect that I shall continue to be angry if I read

@joe_bower: “Tests and grades don’t wreck learning” is the equivalent of saying “Guns don’t kill people”.”,

as well as

@ShapeyFiend‎ Easy way to have best education in europe: fire the worst 10pc andteachers assistants. Class size doest matter if you’ve decent teachers.”

Both are, clearly, absolute nonsense.

American Educational Ad Hominem

Thanks to @OldAndrewUK I learned the meaning of “Ad hominem” the other day:

“an attempt to link the validity of a premise to a characteristic or belief of the person advocating the premise” (Wikipedia)

Thanks to Twitter, I see more and more of these every day. Take the USA education debate today:

“I find it disturbing that this makes sense to me: Ravitch Billed for Taxes Despite Refusing Pay – http://nyti.ms/fwNx4f

“Bill Gates funds the education debate. Billionaire Agenda. Follow the Money. – http://t.co/xyCBr2G via @readability

This is shameful mudslinging. Anyone with even the slightest balance of opinion will know that both Diane Ravitch and Bill Gates are passionate about educating America’s children, as are Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, etc. The Democratic and Republican parties are full of genuine, dedicated people who want to make the world a better place. The teaching unions are full of wonderful individuals with a vocation, and the companies investing in schools really want to make a difference.

Both sides are casting accusations and abuse, and then assuming that everything the other side suggests is intent on destruction and not debate.

Does anyone seriously think that vicious, personal, nasty attacks will open the debate up and win hearts and minds? Are the leaders on both sides stepping in to quash this nonsense? Not that I’ve noticed.

Sadly these character assassinations are cheered by both sides. They have stopped debating policy, they are undermining each other. In the process, they are undermining education itself. People will lose trust in both sides, opinions will become entrenched and nobody will be the winner, certainly not the kids.

I am, frankly, disgusted by the level it has descended to. The sensible voices are all but drowned out. I truly fear for the UK’s education system should this appalling behaviour take root here.

Go on, I dare someone to tell me:

“Yeah but they started it first, we’re the good guys here.”


Behaviour, for better or for worse?

Many teachers wish that all students would arrive at school ready to learn, respectful and mild-mannered. Of course, that’s not the reality, and there is a regular cycle of hand-wringing as people claim that behaviour is much worse than it used to be.

The debate is, quite necessarily, full to the rafters with anecdote. After all, there is no standardised scale of classroom behaviour, and certainly no measurements that can be used to compare things accurately. Memory is also entirely unreliable in these matters. I suspect the lessons that will really stick out in any student or teacher’s mind would be where great learning took place, where something funny happened, or total chaos reigned. supreme. The day-to-day level of disorder is unlikely to be remembered well.

Another problem is that people reconstruct their memories to suit their narrative. A teacher who rose through the ranks and ended up consulting on behaviour is more likely to remember how they improved behaviour against the odds, whereas someone who struggled and eventually quit teaching is going to justify this as being due to kids’ bad behaviour rather than any of their own deficiency.

So what evidence do we have? @OldAndrewUK pointed out a few interesting books from the 50s and 60s which talk about life in ‘tough schools’ where the worst behaviour mentioned was certainly mild compared to stories that circulate these days. A recent ATL survey claims most teachers think behaviour has deteriorated, and another report suggests that schools are going to extreme lengths to hide problems from inspectors. Certainly there has been emphasis from the new government on problems in schools.

However, on the other side of the fence we have evidence that Ofsted, PISA, and the British Crime Survey all suggest behaviour problems are decreasing.

So is the “behaviour was better in my day” something that can be dismissed as nostalgic rose-coloured-spectacled nonsense for those with a penchant for moral panic? Perhaps the idealistically smug “well *I* don’t have a problem, I just love the kids” brigade are wilfully ignoring a deterioration in behaviour in order to self-justify their careers? Perhaps both are true, in parts.

The truth is, we shall never know, we can’t possibly measure it, and there isn’t anything that remotely resembles hard evidence – it’s layer upon layer of anecdote. What is undoubtedly true is that where schools provide clear leadership, high expectations, engaging lessons, and rigorous, caring discipline, there is good and improving behaviour.

The big behaviour debate serves very little purpose. It becomes a destructive pawn in political games that do the education sector a disservice. You can’t win this argument, and there is little benefit from taking one side or another. I strongly believe people should just focus on what works, share good practice among teachers and parents, and expect nothing but the best from every child, and for every child.


Improve your tracking system with interim targets

Many schools have tracking systems set up in their Management Information Systems. These can be a real cause of stress when blunt, inaccurate information is generated leading to conflict between teachers, students, parents, and management.

In this video David explains the idea behind using interim assessments to give heads of department flexibility over the information generated by the tracking system.

This video was made with Jing and this Prezi

If you’d like more information or advice on how to apply this to your school, then please contact David at Informed Education.

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Delivering change requires a cultural shift

I’ve just finished reading Sir Michael Barber’s fascinating book Instruction to Deliver, hot on the heels of the most interesting “Learning by Doing” by DuFour et. al.

Barber describes the exhaustion of relentlessly applying pressure on a reluctant civil service in trying to drive improvement. That will be a familiar feeling to any teacher trying to bring about improvement in their class – it takes vast reserves of energy. Just as soon as an improvement appears in one place, a problem crops up in another. Take your foot of the pedal for an instant and the class/organisation backslides.

What is missing here? Culture! A culture of success, of collaboration, of listening, and of independent learning. Good schools have it – that feeling that everyone is pushing in the same direction, for the same goal.

I heartily agree with Sir Michael that other key ingredients are clear vision and purpose, simple goals with clear measurements of progress, and being held rigorously to account. However, it seems to me that there is no point building an organisation that will only drive in the right direction when you’re holding the whip. You want an organisation where everyone passionately believes in the vision, and will strive to achieve it. To coin Jim Collins‘ analogy, a flywheel is much more likely to gather momentum if everyone pushes it than if one or two people are pushing really hard and everyone else is dragging.

To be a great school, I think the four central pillars must be include this aspect of culture. If I was to have a stab at summarising these interesting books I’ve been reading and list the qualities required then it would be something like these four key principles:

  • Culture – has every teacher bought in to the school vision? Do they feel supported? Are they free to innovate, without fear of retribution, but with careful support, enthusiasm and monitoring from their peers? Is every member of staff pulling in the same direction, reinforcing values, challenging those that don’t comply, and actively seeking ways in which to make new gains?
  • Information – Does every teacher have the necessary information, at classroom and student level, with which to measure the success of their teaching? Do the senior management use this data to offer both praise and support, where necessary? Can the pastoral team spot trends happening in multiple subjects suggesting a problem with a student or group? Is variation in achievement across the school made visible?
  • Collaboration – Does every teacher and leader invite the opinions of colleagues, and feel able to lay difficulties out in the open without fear of being undermined? Do opportunities (time, money, space) exist for teachers to work in small professional learning groups to carry out research and create a positive evidence-led improvement cycle?
  • Leadership – Is there a clear vision of what the school is about? Are resources being (demonstrably) spent on the priorities of the whole school, and does the public praise reflect these priorities? Does the leadership group challenge problems head-on without making excuses? Do staff feel able to contribute ideas, and take responsibility? Do they create systems which are self-sustaining and self-improving, instead of those that require constant decisions from the top?

I’m sure this is only the tip of the iceberg, and this is my first attempt to lay out my thoughts on this. I would very much welcome any feedback, criticism or praise! I would like to develop some illustration or diagram that represents the place of culture within an organisation, and I would love to hear ways in which positive culture can be nurtured and supported.