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.”


Habitual Complainers

I just read a fascinating article that had been tweeted by @gcourous“Finding fascinating goals”. This great article contains a little gem:

“Habitual complainers usually have more goals for others than they have for themselves.”

This is a lovely statement, and if you listen to habitual complainers you would certainly think this was true.

However, I am confident that if you dug a little deeper in to the brains of these critics and cynics you would find just as many goals. The difference? These people are losing faith in their ability to meet them, and have been so stung by criticism and nagging self-doubt that they are lashing out other people instead.

Really, it’s just a version of “it isn’t fair!”, or at an even more basic level, complainers are voicing their basic low-level fight or flight response.

Listen to any prominent education critic on either side of the debate and somewhere underneath the self-righteousness there is someone who desperately wants to make a difference and improve things. The more viciously they are attacked for their suggestions the more aggressively they will fight back, complain, and criticise.

In both the USA and the UK I’ve seen prominent figures on both sides of the argument struggle to make their arguments under a siege of criticism. Each side sees the other as habitual complainers and attacks them. Many of them stop even trying to engage with their opposite numbers and start preaching to the converted instead. This inevitably ends up with a lot of one-sided I-told-you-so-isms and I’m-more-on-the-side-of-kids-than-you-ness.

On a lower level we see the same in schools. Leaders pushing unpopular reforms end up becoming entrenched and sit with their colleagues and criticise ‘problem’ staff and lick their wounds. Teachers sitting in staff areas laughing and criticising management as part of their daily routine. Both sound dismissive of the other, but they all really want the school to be a better place despite the rhetoric.

Of course everyone needs to blow off a little steam at times, but where jokes turn in to a destructive habit, there’s something wrong with the culture.

It starts at the top. If teacher, unions, media and politicians could stop attacking each other for cheap point-scoring then they’d start to see that their targets have just as many goals and dreams as they do. We need to get less defensive, admit our own mistakes, and make ourselves feel better by helping others with their own goals.

I’d love to see the teaching unions engage alongside the government instead of both sides accusing the other of greedy and wicked hypocrisy and assuming any new measure is a weapon to be used against them. I’d love to see the Twitter community engage in finding the hidden gem of an idea in the tweets of people they dislike, instead of ganging up and attacking them (as I blogged before)

I saw a great quote in Richard Branson’s book Business Stripped Bare, where he recounts something told to him by the Dalai Lama:

“If you wish to experience peace,
provide peace for another.
If you wish to know that you are safe,
cause others to know that they are safe.
If you wish to understand seemingly incomprehensible things,
help another better understand.
If you wish to heal your sadness or anger,
seek to heal the sadness and anger of another.

Those others are watching you now. They are looking to you for guidance, for help, for courage, for strength, for understanding, and for assurance at this hour.”

Definitely food for thought.

I hope I’m not just being overly optimistic or idealist.


Swallow your pride, and follow your enemies

First of all, pop quiz. Which well-known educator has 7,212 Twitter followers and follows 5? Can you find a more extreme example?

Education is a rather tribal affair. You have reformers, bureaucrats, unions, innovators, personalised-learning lovers, etc. Here is a pretty standard Twitter exchange.

@teamA_leader1: “We must think of the children first, and stop defending bad teachers”.

@teamA_leader2: RT @teamA_leader1 “We must think of the children first, and stop defending bad teachers” <– So true! #edchat #edTeamA

@teamB_leader1: RT @teamA_leader1“We must think of the children first, and stop defending bad teachers” <– Here we go again, #pathetic.

@teamB_leader2: RT @teamB_leader1: RT @teamA_leader1“We must think of the children first, and stop defending bad teachers” <– Here we go again, #pathetic. <– agreed, disgusting #edTeamB #edchat

This will generally be followed by more abuse thrown around within each team, until someone gets a bit extreme. At this point someone in the opposing ‘team’ will retweet this extreme abuse and add on “<– see! bunch of unprofessional, rude morons”

It’s very easy to do this. In fact it makes you feel better about yourself and your beliefs, and avoids any of that unpleasant cognitive dissonance. In fact, as I’ve written before, the whole process just gets you more entrenched in your own views, and makes it significantly less likely that the two sides will engage constructively with each other.

Look at any conflict or disagreement, and you’ll be unlikely to find anyone who won the argument by repeatedly shouting one-sided arguments. In fact you’ll find that everyone has to compromise just a little, examine their own beliefs, and find common ground.

So whether it’s educators in the USA hurling abuse at Michelle Rhee or Diane Ravitch, or UK teachers and politicians making fun of Michael Gove or Christine Blower, then this pattern doesn’t move us on.

Go and take a look at your Twitter follower list now and find 10 people who specifically disagree with your most fundamental beliefs. Then, actually take some time to understand them, and even engage with them.

In the end, there is no answer that will improve everything for everyone. Education is, and will always be, a compromise. Perhaps you may need to concede that e-learning may not be the best way for all students to learn. Maybe you might concede that there are some legitimate cases where tests and grading might just help students progress, or perhaps you may have to admit that focusing even harder on data might not actually make your school a better learning environment.

Whatever you decide, don’t be an education fundamentalist.

[ad#Google Adsense – banner]

Changing education is not enough

The outside world expects us to educate a child, and demands that we tell them how ‘clever’ he or she is upon leaving school. If we want to remove one-size-fits all education and testing, then we must provide new measures that the public and industry can understand.

Look at any teacher website, read twitter, go to any education conference, listen in any staffroom and you will hear educators talking about how to help their students learn, and fulfil their potential. We are passionate about children achieving ‘Aha!’ moments, opening their eyes to new experiences, and finding and developing their unique set of talents. We talk about learning, and we love our jobs.

Talk to people outside education and they will talk about teaching children and training children. Behaviour for learning means “shut up, listen, bring your books, do your homework”. They want to know if one child is better than the other, who is succeeding, and who is failing. Finally, when the child leaves school they want to know “how clever is this child?”, “which countries’ students are more intelligent”, and so on.

Let’s face it, even some dinosaurs in education still think this way! No wonder much of the government, and most of the media will jump on test and exam results, and blame teachers for failing. Employers don’t want to have to figure this out themselves, they want us to tell them who to employ, so anything other than a one-size-fits-all testing regime sounds worse than useless.

Bu we know that this is exactly why so many kids don’t like school, why so many kids are fixed in a mindset of failure. We are desperate to move from carrots and sticks and motivate kids through innovation, discovery, and creativeness.

So we’ve got to get clever, and produce a new definition of success. We need to measure such things as how engaged kids are in their education, how interested they are in what they are learning, and how free they are to explore their own questions.

We need to measure each child’s strengths, showcase their expertise and talent, and nurture their entrepreneurial spirit.

Once we’ve done this, we start giving out awards, and really publicising such amazing brave new ideas such as Big Picture Learning. Give every education system in the world a rating for these ideas, and show the strong correlation between these ideas and international success.

Once the public starts latching on to these outcomes, then governments will gradually start dialling down the universal tests, the central control, and will start letting educators do what top managers have realised – let everyone play to their strengths, not mould them to your ideal.

Then, and only then, will we be able to stop swimming against the tide.

Learning is more popular than teaching!

And the results are in! For every 10 mentions of “learning” in current writings, there are only 6 mentions of teaching. This wonderful result is brought to you by the Google NGram Viewer:

This graph shows learning (in red) overtaking teaching (in blue) by 1960, although from 1880 to 1960 it was teaching in the lead. Click the graph for the full details.

However, the politically correct may be disappointed that “teaching and learning” is far more popular than the newer “learning and teaching”…

Now who said that data couldn’t be fun?

Measures of effective teaching

The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation is conducting research in to measuring and improving the effectiveness of teachers. They recently released some early findings which show:

  • First, in every grade and subject we studied, a teacher’s past success in raising student achievement on state tests (that is, his or her value-added) is one of the strongest predictors of his or her ability to do so again.
  • Second, the teachers with the highest value-added scores on state tests also tend to help students understand math concepts or demonstrate reading comprehension through writing.
  • Third, the average student knows effective teaching when he or she experiences it.
  • Fourth, valid feedback need not be limited to test scores alone. By combining different sources of data, it is possible to provide diagnostic, targeted feedback to teachers who are eager to improve.

One of their key findings is that student feedback is critical. They have some very interesting tables of results showing the difference in responses from students in schools at the 25th percentile and students at the 75th percentile, and the results are compelling.

What are the key points here?

  • Create an environment where teachers are free to innovate and eager to improve, without fear of retribution.
  • Listen to the student voice – sample regularly and analyse the data, both at class level and school-wide.
  • Assessment data is a key element of showing effective teaching. Teachers who produce better achievement tend to score better on all measures of teacher performance.

How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better

In November, McKinsey produced a new report analysing the most improved school systems in the world. This fascinating document goes through some of the key markers on the journey from fair, through good, then great, and finally reaching outstanding. What were their key points about data?

Firstly, they noted that there were six common themes in all improving systems:

“The cross-stage interventions comprise a group of six actions that occur with equal frequency across all performance stages, but manifest differently in each one. These six interventions are: revising the curriculum and standards, ensuring an appropriate reward and remunerations structure for teachers and principals, building the technical skills of teachers and principals, assessing students, establishing data systems, and facilitating improvement through the introduction of policy documents and education laws.”

Systems moving from “poor” to “fair” used data in a very driven way:

“The system sets minimum proficiency targets for schools/students, frequent student learning assessments (linked to lesson objectives, every 3-4 weeks), and data processes to monitor progress”

Those moving from “fair” to “good” focused more on holding schools to account for each student, and for cohorts.

“The system establishes student assessments and school inspections to create reliable data on performance and to hold schools accountable for improvement. The system uses this data to identify and tackle specific areas (e.g., subjects, grades, gender) with lagging performance”

When moving from “good” to “great” schools were encouraged to let data filter down to practitioners, and ensure every teacher was fully involved in tracking and evaluating progress.

“Instructional coaches work with teachers to strengthen their skills in areas such as lesson planning, student data analysis, and in-class pedagogy. The systems cultivates ownership in schools for improvement through introducing self-evaluation for schools and making performance data more available”

And finally, from “great” to “outstanding”…

“The system sponsors and identifies examples of innovative practices in schools (teaching and learning practice, parent/community involvement practices, etc.) and then
develops mechanisms to shares these innovations across all school”

Clearly the Labour government concerned itself mainly with perceived pockets of “poor” teaching, and acted centrally to raise these to “fair”. Sadly, this process also served as a drag on those already good schools. In some senses the new government is now focussing on these schools and freeing them up with the academies program. However, good LEAs have always been good at identifying and sharing good practice, and it doesn’t yet seem entirely clear what is going to replace this. In addition, the current government is still wedded very firmly to centralised prescriptive testing regimes, whereas the top school systems have allowed professionals leeway to judge their own standards.
So as a school leader what is the message here?

  • Ensure regular collective tracking and monitoring of students, with regular moderation of these processes.
  • Set suitably challenging individual and cohort targets (e.g. with FFT, RAISEonline, etc)
  • Conduct regular, in-depth analysis of internal tracking, including breaking down by characteristics such as ethnicity, gender, deprivation, cognitive ability, etc. as well as a thorough ‘post-mortem’ after exam results.
  • Leaders and senior teachers should sit with middle managers and class teachers to discuss their understanding and use of internal school tracking. This should be an opportunity to identify areas of strength and innovation.
  • A culture of openness and sharing needs to be fostered. Every teacher should be encouraged to visit other lessons, both within the school and in other schools, and to discuss ideas with their colleagues. Share good practice, and foster a culture of innovation.

This sounds likely truly informed education.