Sunday, January 19, 2020

Should I send my children to a state high school?

Short answer.  In nearly every case. Yes.  If you live in the Western Suburbs and their peers are going to an Independent Public school, if your child is top 5% academically or has an disability, you have personal history at that school, if your local public school is going through a difficult transition or if you are looking for religious education as part of the curriculum then maybe not.

Long Answer. As a teacher supportive of public education this was a very difficult decision and long drawn out process for my own children.  For a short period I was teaching in a public school, was an advocate for private education and was sending my children to a private school.  It made it very difficult to recommend a state school to parents and raised the question of "if I believed in the private system why wasn't I teaching in the private system too?",  "Was I not good enough to even teach in a higher SE school and why wasn't a public school good enough for my own children?"

I wanted the best for my kids as do all parents, the independent private schools had superior resourcing and better results.  Surely it was a no brainer to pay the money and get a better education.

With the benefit of hindsight I can say that I was very, very wrong for my family.  There are clear reasons why private schools outperform public schools and though it has a little to do with teaching quality as they have more control over staffing processes, it is not the only factor.  Despite odd employment practices in the public system, there are very fine, vocational teachers working in public schools working under demanding conditions.

The basic reason private schools outperform public schools in low SE schools is that cost of living clumps struggling families together.  Many families in low SE areas lack the education to support their children, in many cases had poor experiences within the education system and subsequently lack support for the education system itself.  The proportion of drug use, poor parental skills, unemployment, cultural issues, mental health issues, lack of tertiary study and lack of contact with their own children due to work commitments is much higher.  The entry levels of students at low SE schools are much lower requiring more creative work by teachers in secondary school to access the curriculum.  The skills of teachers in low SE schools is not just about curriculum, it's dealing with all the other issues too, whilst teaching children.

For most people, in higher SE areas there are few reasons not to use higher SE state schools, your decision should be based on local performance and perception.  Investigate local issues with local parents to see what is really going on.  Public documents will not reveal much.  If parents talk about bullying and uncontrolled classes think about the local fee paying privates - but make sure its not happening there too.  Find out about the tenure of the Principal and their focus. Shifting students from public to private between primary and secondary is tempting but brings a considerable level of disruption to their learning whilst they adjust.  There is risk in transition socially, emotionally and academically at a time of significant developmental change.

My own experience putting my first child in a high ranking independent private school from Kindergarten was not good.  I was promised a thriving young girl and was delivered an unhappy child in a highly competitive environment, with little curriculum differentiation for a quirky student (as opposed to children at either end of the educational spectrum), poor pastoral care and a group of upwardly mobile people that we could not relate to.  As the naive parent that initially proposed sending my child there, it is a decision I have forever regretted.

It's not that the school did not deliver for those parents that pressed their kids, wanted homework, were in the top 5% or had an ID, students that benefitted from strict curriculum delivery and desired upward mobility or were already wealthy and knew it.  It just wasn't what we wanted for our kids.  After four years of an unhappy child, we moved her to the local public school.  It has taken two years for her to be a happy kid again and having normal developmental issues rather than social and curriculum ones.  What I discovered was the difference of her being embedded with families of similar values outweighs perceived academic benefits.  She could be a kid again and develop at her own pace together with our expectation that she would always give her best effort - not be coached beyond it through constant parental tutoring - the expectation at the private independent school to compete.  If you are in a situation like us, I'd suggest rip off the band-aid and get them out, don't hesitate and don't struggle with the decision.  It is the kindest thing to do for your child.

We all want the best for our kids.  Mine can cope in an environment where they are instructed what to do and are happy to do it.  At their new school there is little bullying and enough pastoral care available to deal with little issues.  Teaching is a bit hit and miss as the environment is not particularly challenging and because there is no mechanism to weed teachers out if the teacher can't deliver.

We have three low fee private schools nearby and still have her enrolled at one in case of another parental catastrophic failure but I don't expect to use it.  I know low fee paying private schools do pastoral care well and are less likely to do the "weed" out of students that do not fit purely the academic mould than the high performing Independent private schools.  I have looked into the public feeder high school and am very happy with what I hear from parents at the primary school with older siblings, we should now be ok.

The low SES school that I taught at for so long has better teachers with a more diverse skill set.    Students quickly identify the weak links in teaching staff and move them on.  Kids that can't cope with the difficult environment move on to low fee private schools or higher SE public schools.  Training of teachers is relentless to ensure best practices are maintained to prevent an unproductive environment.  For kids struggling behaviourally it is a much better environment than a private school where they would be asked to leave and have their basic security challenged whilst they matured.  For them the low SE public school is great as the school wants them and wants to help them mature.

For kids that grow up in the area, can survive the environment, are smart and get access to ATAR programs they wouldn't otherwise, they benefit from intense assistance (without these students the school would lack aspiration and growth).  These kids are the pride of their schools, kids that do succeed, despite all the noise that interrupts their learning.

Given my obvious appreciation of low SE teachers, why did I not send my children there?  My kids  lack the social experiences to deal with the environment, I'll support them to university or whatever they choose, they do not need the extra support to cater to local requirements and don't have the skills to cope with the difficult students.  Their home environment is not what I grew up in and they'll do better in a higher SES school.

I was a strong believer in the values education provided by a low fee private school, particularly the service beyond self ethos.  I acknowledge when done well it is brilliant.  I'm not so sure anymore that it is the norm though (after teaching briefly in one at the start of my career - it was superficial at best), but am open to considering it again - it's just that I've seen the service beyond self ethos in public schools provided by teachers in an authentic way, not forced by curriculum and wonder if this form to kids is more effective.  Rotary Interact clubs are a great substitute for this with a win-win for the community and students, where students decide what they want to benefit and it's not a form of community service enforced slavery, tainting their perception of public service.

So, for me choosing a school, ultimately now is not about league tables - it's about cultural fit.  Choose where your child will thrive and forget the rest - it will follow regardless.  There will be exceptions, but the general rule is this - if it feels wrong it probably is.  Ask some questions, make some changes and if it doesn't improve, if the child is not happy, move them.  You are doing the right thing.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Saddler Methods text and general ideas for improving ATAR results

I've been a proponent of Sadler texts in low SES schools as they are relatively cheap, ramp slowly, have reasonable worked examples and I really like the built in study through the Miscellaneous exercises.  Some teachers really dislike them and prefer the Nelson texts instead and for some students the Nelson text is better.  By doing the Sadler Unit 3 Methods text again to reacquaint myself with the course, it has reminded me of a few pitfalls I have encountered along the way.

There are some tricks to using the Saddler text.

1. Go through each worked example with students identifying explicitly what Saddler wanted students to recognise in each topic.
2. Understand that Saddler does not cover every dot point in the syllabus.  You do need to check what is missing and include it in your programme.
3. Check that students are doing the Miscellaneous questions, otherwise they will miss one of the greatest benefits of the Sadler text.
4. There are few exam level questions in the text.  Ensure students use their revision guide in conjunction with the text.
5. Provide revision papers, prior to tests and exams, to get students to assessment level.  The text does not do this at all.
6. Make connections to the glossary and formula sheet whilst students are learning.
7.  Use a journal to identify key points (eg. get students to put their notes in a seperate book from their exercises) and then generate their page of notes from the journal.
8. Get students to highlight question numbers that are tricky or test corners of the syllabus that may turn up in assessment.
9. Identify which questions may appear in calculator sections and which questions appear in non-calculator sections.
10. Explicitly teach and enforce calculator usage until competency.
11. Make sure students are reaching questions at the end of chapters and not just doing 15 easy questions in class.
12. Do corrections (and go through the assessment) after each assessment.
13. Ensure that students check answers after every exercise (at a minimum) and redo questions that are incorrect.  Preferably in red pen, so that you can see from a distance without interrupting them.
14. Be mindful that some exercises take longer than others when setting homework.  As a safety net, I tell students to stop after 1hr 15 mins and assume that they will do a minimum of 45 mins every night.  If it is the whole class, we continue the exercise the next day.  If just a few students we identify together why they are taking too long and try to remedy it.
15. Extend students with the Nelson text if they are finishing earlier than the rest of the class.  In some cases, get them to use this text instead.

I tell students the following:
a) Do only the first ten questions in each exercise and expect to fail.
b) Do the main exercises only and you may reach 50% on assessments and expect to fail the exam.
c) Do the main exercises and miscellaneous exercises, you may reach 50% on assessments and it's possible to pass the exam.
d) Do the main exercises and miscellaneous exercises, make good notes, understand the syllabus dot points/glossary, you should reach 50% on assessments and could pass the exam.
e) Do the main exercises and miscellaneous exercises, make good notes, understand the syllabus dot points/glossary and use the revision guide, you should do well (60%) on assessments and may pass exams.
f) Do the main exercises and miscellaneous exercises, make good notes, understand the syllabus dot points/glossary, use the revision guide and do your corrections thoroughly, you should do well (60%+) on assessments and about the same in the exam.
g) Make a study group prior to exams and allocate content research for revision to each member prior to study meetings to further improve exam results.  Drop members that are not actively contributing.
h) Do as many past papers as you can lay your hands on and have time to complete. Identify any patterns in papers.
i) Do all the past ATAR papers prior to Mock/ATAR exams.

Given the median in exams is over 70%, points g-i are imperative for low SES students to reaching the state mean (not only using Methods as part of your ATAR score).  We would complement above with after school classes, UWA Fairway, ECU Studiosity and summer schools to help students rectify the 2 year gap that they entered high school with.

Natural ability will take some students so far and buck the trend, but usually it catches up with them.  The formula above has worked well with getting average students through the course and though "obvious" took a fair few years to nut out what worked and what was ineffective for larger groups of students (other than just the top four students or students falling behind getting intensive tutoring).

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Three Games - Machi Koro, My First Carcassonne and Arkham Horror 3rd Ed

Machi Koro (G Rated)

I played this with my 10 year old and her grandparents.  A simple card game where you build a city engine that is run by dice.  Easy to learn and quick to play although it does have a finite life as it does get samey after a few plays.  Don't let the name fool you, it's all in easy to read English. A four player game that could definitely work in the classroom as it should play under an hour.

A couple of take-that elements to teach resilience and gamesmanship, some text and literacy, some optimisation and a little strategy.

Recommended for early to late teens.

Found online, at stores like Gamesworld or your local friendly hobby store.


My First Carcassonne (G rated)

I'm playing this with my 7 year old.  It's a tile laying game with some counting, network laying, creation of closed networks and simple optimisation strategies.  5-10 minutes long.  She often wants to play 3-4 games.  No literacy skills required.  Nice big chunky meeple.

She can now beat me reliably using basic strategies and is ready to move to full Carcassonne.  It was a great way to get her to want to play games (the harder games turned her off playing).

Recommended for getting young children interested in play based learning.

Reasonably easily located online (try Milsims, gamesEmpire or eBay).


Arkham Horror 3rd edition (M15+ Rated)

I'm playing this with my wife.  The game drips with theme and lots of text.  Takes 1.5 - 2hrs to play which limits its use in school unless able to leave setup over multiple days in a safe location.  Lots of bits and takes ages to set up and take down.  Would need to know the game thoroughly and enjoy it to play with high school age students.

Although the occult theme is attractive to students, parents may not be happy with the theme.  Be best checking first.  It's not gruesome or sex filled, but has demons, spells and the like.  If you are familiar with HP Lovecraft, it's based in the C'thulu mythos.

The game is really good and quick to learn for all its complexity. The mechanics and bits everywhere look great on the table but do overwhelm the gameplay from time to time, but with familiarity, it will hopefully become less overwhelming- especially during the mythos phase.

I'm not sure if I prefer this edition or the 2nd edition but given the old edition is getting hard to find, I'd stick with the new edition as new expansions are likely. 

From a learning perspective, it has a high literacy component, potential for roleplay, lots of instructional text, an algorithmic approach to turns and optimisation in managing the various aspects of play to solve the mystery before becoming overwhelmed by the mythic creatures.  Online tutorials such as Beccy Scott can be a great way to learn the game.

Recommended to play with your own teenage kids or your partner.

Found online, at stores like Gamesworld or your local friendly hobby store.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Writing an application - unwritten rules

To begin with, I think it is awful that we have a process where it is considered ok to have unwritten rules.  Thankfully there are schools that still have fair processes, but, as predicted many years ago, the  rise of independent public schools has resulted in unfair practices (processes that meet PSC guidelines in a limited fashion).

There are a number of unwritten rules that lead to some staff getting interviews and others not, purely on the way selection criteria/CV's are constructed and subsequently read.  The information on the jobsWA website on each application is very limited compared to what is actually being done to get roles.

The first unwritten rule is (to my mind) the most unfair.  The buzz term in resourcing schools is 'projection' into the role.  Projection requires you to answer questions as if you were in the role.  I'm not sure how this meets the Equity or Merit criteria for applications as it gives an unfair advantage to the incumbent and tells you little about what they have done (only what they would do based on model answers).  Some would say this is fair as having knowledge of the context is a part of assessing an applicant, but that could be taken into account in their interview answers. By limiting answers in selection criteria to "projecting" and not "actual experience" in roles that may deviate from the requirements of the role, it diminishes the value of a person with diverse experience and agility to move with requirements. It rewards responses with maintenance of the status quo through private knowledge, current unwritten objectives and agreement with existing practices.

The second unwritten rule is to abide by the word limit.  The word limit rewards someone with intimate knowledge of the school as they can be concise in answering questions in a way that solves problems within the school through projection.  It is harder as a non incumbent (an equity issue again) to identify what would meet school requirements thus requires further explanation to scatter gun what is required.

The third unwritten rule is to write SAO's or some other version of situation/action/outcome.  They are typically wordy and you are not sure which SAO will meet school requirements.  Be too specific and it looks like you have limited experience, be too general and you are not indicating how you solved the problem. Have too many and you have issues with the second rule.

The fourth unwritten rule is you can't expect inference from the CV.  An extreme example would be answering a leadership question in the selection criteria and not discussing chairing the curriculum team because it was not specific to the SAO used.  Some panels will not infer your experience from your CV if it is not specifically in the selection criteria.  A lack of inference (checked at interview) is being addressed at panel training, but is still common practice in schools.

The fifth unwritten rule is to make it as easy as possible for the panel to identify you as a worthy candidate.  Do not use a lot of bold, but bolding where you are attempting to meet selection criteria makes it easier for the panel to see that you have met the criteria (or attempted to answer the question).

"As a leader in the school, it was required ...", "In addressing financial requirements ..."

The sixth unwritten rule is not to read from your notes at interview.  I learned this at my last two wins and am not sure this is a universal rule.  In each case I had the questions in front of me (and only the questions), brought a bundle of notes (that I did not look at, but did review prior to the interview) and attempted to project how the panel would interact with me if I was in the job.

The seventh unwritten rule is that typically the panel will not talk to you during the interview other than to read the questions.  This may be an attempt to maintain a level playing field, but makes it difficult to know if you are answering the question.  Look for when they go to write something as this can be an indication you are on the right track.  A good teacher engages in conversations with students to create a rapport, for many of us, a one sided conversation is not natural and can diminish the ranking of an applicant.  It requires practice.  It's an odd way to assess cultural fit, to my mind the most important part of the interview process.

The eighth unwritten rule is to call the school before the selection criteria to get extra information.  WTF.  This practice is not universal (try taking calls from 90 applicants) but more common in leadership positions.  The couple of times I did it, I was asked what did I want to know? (I don't know what I don't know), or given general information that I could read online.  It felt like an imposition and I stopped doing it.  I think this is done to overcome the Equity issues outlined above with projection requirements but is commonly given advice in feedback.

The ninth unwritten rule is to call for feedback.  Do this.  Some people are wonderful at this and already have it prepared for you as it is a very common practice.  Assess what they say and amend your application.

The tenth unwritten rule is to get assistance writing your application.  Sadly the process is often the best applications get the interview and subsequently the best applicants do not get the job.  After all, good teachers stay put and do not job hop, thus do not have a lot of experience in application writing. Your only hope of avoiding "learning the required way to construct an application by trial and error", is to find someone that has recently managed to navigate the system. Find a recent "successful" applicant - say in the last 6 months and get them to read your application. Get their application to model from.

The eleventh unwritten rule is that if timelines are short, it is likely the school is wanting the incumbent and seeks to limit the time available for other applicants to tailor their selection criteria.  Prioritise the jobs with longer timeframes (if possible) or have an absolute standout and matched application ready for common positions (LA teacher, HOLA, SS, Deputy) for specific contexts (disadvantaged, LSC, high performance etc).  If you win, be prepared to have a disgruntled staff member that may have been promised the position, but the risk of appeal was too high to give them the position.

The twelfth unwritten rule is to let it be known to safe leaders that you are seeking another position and to keep an ear out for you.  Leaders talk and can put a good word in for you.  In many cases they will be asked about you off the record and be able to assess you against other candidates. Pick your time for leaving in advance, so that you leave on good terms (not just leaving because you hate everything and are discontent with the profession) and these references show you in the best light.  I don't know why performance management records are not available during reference checks - it's likely to avoid union issues and potential for bullying, but would make the process fairer if done properly as it would give an indication of your performance over time.

The last rule is a written rule but one worth keeping in mind.  Do your basic research and as with any job, tailor your selection criteria to it.  The Business Plan (school website), Annual Report (schools online website), school demographics and comparison data with your current school (mySchools website) have information that provides feedback on how your experience aligns with school requirements.  This is not projection, (where you are required to interpret this information and apply it in the new context - which biases the process), but allows you to identify what experiences you have may apply in your new context and outline those to put you in the best light.  Also if you are a grad, get into the grad pool.  No I mean it, do it now, it's a palaver but we are looking for you.

Not doing these things means that you have to hope that the school you are applying to runs a fair panel.  I've been lucky as the unwritten rules leave a bad taste in my mouth (leading to me trying to buck the system and write applications that allow the reader to see if I am a potential match from what I have done rather than construct a matchy application that may stretch the truth) and I am a big fan of centralised staffing (despite the inherent weaknesses of centralisation) as practices such as those above, to my mind, are counter productive and could be relatively easily overcome using performance data instead.

Good luck and I hope this helps.

Ps: Here's an earlier post after my last interview process in 2012.