Tuesday, June 28, 2011

National Curriculum and reporting

The lack of curriculum standards in WA worsens with the implementation phase of National Curriculum continuing to be a lukewarm affair.  Schools continue to drag their feet with implementation for fear of 'disadvantaging' students that have received an Outcomes based education over the past generation.  It is very clear now when comparing to national curriculum standards that WA education in mathematics has fallen behind other states. 

Report time has illustrated that next tier of issue in WA during National curriculum implementation.  The ongoing issue of students being given A grades that clearly have not met the C grade descriptors continues as schools grapple with how to assess their students.  A student that has not passed a test all year is given a C, students that have not reached 75-80% are given A's.  We no longer can say someone reaching a certain 'level' is an A (OBE levels have been abolished), nor can we say students are meeting C grade descriptors (these relate to national curriculum and students are clearly not reaching these - and schools are generally resistant to make the required changes to curriculum, homework and discipline policy to reach these new standards).  The Curriculum Framework gives little guidance to grading years and assessment.  The scope and sequence is a document rarely referred to.  The exemplars are sparse and difficult to apply over a range of years where schools vary greatly in materials taught from term to term.

Some areas (including large amounts of algebra and geometry) are missing from student capabilities as they have not been taught to any standard from years 7-9.  This is not good enough.  I would suggest it is not that students cannot learn this material - teachers lack guidance on what should be taught.

If your student has been taught and is not fluent in linear algebra in year 9 they are not a C student.  Ask them to draw y = 2x +1 for you or for the same equation find y if x = 4 or state the coordinate where it intersects with y=-x.  Similar tests can be made in quadratics in year 10.  Try some basic geometry with traversals and parallel lines.  If you really want to see the issues in WA mathematics test order of operations (2 - 4 ÷ 8 * 2 + 3 = ) across year 8 students and staff at a school.  I know I did and was horrified.

It is no wonder that students are not getting the intrinsic reward for effort to gain an A (it takes little effort and little demonstrated competence for a student with some ability in middle school classes) and these students cannot clearly relate to their grades - there is simply little direct reward for effort and little real consistency from year to year.  I may be a national curriculum skeptic, but we need to escape this no mans land we live in at the moment.  Implement it or not - but make a choice and let's get on with it.

Oh - and the answer to the order of operations problem above is 4.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Schools have usually had quite fixed hierarchy, with about ratios of 1:7. Each 7 people have a direct line manager. In recent years I've begun to suspect that this is breaking down into more flat management structures.

In mathematics departments there are a number of structures that can be put in place. A common and traditional approach is to have a head of department(HoD) responsible for managing staff and curriculum(gaining .2-.4 FTE to do so) and then each year group being allocated to a teacher. The HoD manages performance issues, consistent judgements, liasing with admin and some behavioural issues. The HoD position is a level 3 position of responsibility within a school.

An emerging approach (in the last 10-20 years) is appointing a teacher in charge (TiC) and devolving responsibility for curriculum leadership, staff management and all of the HoD roles to admin staff such as team leaders. TiCs handle budgetary matters and the day to day issues of a maths department. No FTE is applied to such a position and a small monetary amount is given in addition to wages. Although this approach works in the short term on the momentum of past leadership (or if a person is found wiling to work a HoD role under the auspice of a TiC), it falls short when leadership is required to implement change. This model tends to lack responsibility for identifying and rectifying issues, leading to direct confrontation with admin over key issues where normally they would be resolved intra department. It also has the potential for conflict if the TiC is seen to be overstepping the bounds of their role.

A third model, worse than the TiC model is to rely on the professionalism of each individual teacher to self manage and monitor all processes via admin. The main issue with this model(prevalent in very small schools) is that admin does not have the skill to ensure that relevant curriculum is being followed, causing disjunct programmmes from year group to year group. It also causes feelings of isolation and dislocation from the collegiate group.

If regular time is not allocated to making a department work, they can be seen as dysfunctional rather than lacking leadership.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


From hits on previous pages, this is an active topic in teaching.  Leaving teaching college, we were all informed of the negative nature of streaming and how research showed that there was no benefit to students.   As discussed previously Hattie's extensive research showed that the benefit was small in mathematics.  Yet teachers of mathematics continue the demand for streaming and respond with extensive anecdotal evidence that shows otherwise.

Like many mathematics teachers I now agree with the anecdotal evidence.  If we don't stream, the average effect for all students is probably the same or better than streaming.  This, for catholic schools is a sensible position, where the rights of the individual can be compromised for the rights of the whole.

Yet, contrariwise, streaming has a detrimental effect on our top students as behavioural and academic requirements of the next tier, take away required teaching time, curriculum focus and effort from the top tier of students.  Only a small percentage of experienced teachers can prevent this effectively.  My observation is that top students, in an environment of top students, excel in a way that they cannot in heterogenous classes, especially in senior school when maturity kicks in.  It is not such a problem in higher SES schools as the gap between higher and lower performing students is much smaller.  It makes little sense not to stream in state schools as in upper school our marketing is driven by the performance of our elite (eg in league tables and media reporting) rather than by performing social good (as is the drive in other education sectors).

In low SES public schools, it also raises an equity position, as the brighter students are negatively effected by students that have no wish, need or demand for higher education.  For a considerable time, looking after our high performing students has been difficult as demands for average results has driven teaching away from the demands of excellence.  Furthermore, the retaining of ill suited students into traditional upper school classes has had a detrimental effect whilst schools devise suitable courses and exit points for these students.

At the other end of the spectrum it also raises equity issues for underperforming students that have little or no hope of meeting C grade standards (without help beyond that which is typically available in a heterogenous classroom).

It is a shame that this is not as readily recognised, as it is only from a drive for excellence does the majority have an aspirational goal and those in direst need receive the attention they require.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Retaining specialist teachers during half cohort changeover

Retaining specialist teachers when the half cohort reaches senior school is another challenge for state schools across WA.  Small schools will reach critical numbers where staff/student ratios will fall below that required to run core subjects.  Where year 11/12 student levels drop below 150, it is difficult to create a staffing profile in low SES schools that allows for students to access a range of stage 3 courses and also importantly for teachers to have access to these classes to ensure career progression.

A simplistic scenario for a maths team in a small school.

15% of a cohort is capable of completing stage 3 courses.

15% of 150 is about 23.  Assume all students are in a maths course.

17 in 3AB MAT combined year 11/12 (1 class)
6 in stage 3 3CD MAT year 12 (1 class)
3 in 3AB MAS combined year 11/12 (1 class)
3 in 3CD MAS year 12 (1 class)

To run these courses requires .8 FTE.

Assume all remaining students complete a maths course

62 in 1BC/CD MAT year 11/12 (3 classes)
42 in 2AB/2CD year 11/12 (2 classes)
22 in 2CD/3AB year 11/12 (1 class)

To run these courses requires 1.2 FTE (assumes 1DE/2AB does not run)

3 year 10 classes ~ 90 students

To run this requires .6 FTE.

Total 2.6 FTE (if MAS classes are allowed to run 2.2 otherwise)

This requires loss of a senior school teacher (.6 to be made up by teachers teaching out of area) or a senior school teacher teaching .4 in lower school.

This leaves schools in a precarious position of having limited capacity to overlap in cases of sickness or unexpected absence, limits subject knowledge into the hands of relative few and places load on senior teachers with regard to curriculum requirements such as small group moderation, curriculum monitoring, student preparation for exams and subject guidance.

I think to some degree risk management of increasing dependence of some schools on relatively few staff is an issue that requires urgent attention.  Where schools decide to drop MAS subjects, the ability for the school to direct students at earlier stages in preparation for these subjects diminishes as teachers may be unaware of the curriculum links to MAS courses.

When the half cohort passes through and senior school numbers again rise(and we now face the case of multiple half cohorts due to the lack of a decision to move year 7 to high school), we will also face the issue of a need for teachers in senior school, but will lack the numbers of experienced teachers to fill the roles due to teachers in the system lacking opportunity to teach upper school classes during half cohort years.

It is concerning.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Graduation figures

Maintaining 100% graduation is a constant battle in state schools.  It is a combination of students understanding expectations, good subject selection practices, identifying students at risk, providing intervention to put students back on the path to passing and providing effective alternate paths for those that will not pass regardless.

If any of these practices fail, 100% graduation becomes unlikely.  It is not something that is easily rectified when it fails and if anyone in the process underestimates the importance of their role, the graduation measure falters.

Some would say that 100% graduation is a furphy and strictly speaking it is.  All students should not graduate.  There are those that are intellectually incapable of reaching any standard set, those with insufficient support at home, those with behavioural and motivational issues, those that have failed due to sickness should not pass.  Seeking high graduation rates has one positive effect in that it promotes support for those that need it most, those most likely to fail.  Seeking 100% graduation in low SES schools is an incredible drain on resources and to my mind a bit of a folly.  Low SES schools face too many of the issues every year raised above and without parachuting every student out that looks like failing (which I think is wrong because struggling students deserve a chance to defeat the odds if they are determined), low SES schools are unlikely to consistently reach 100%.  Anything in the high nineties would seem acceptable.

One issue that is often grappled with is late assessment and avoidance of assessment.  Common strategies to overcome this include parent contact, mentoring, detention, suspension, deputy intervention.  Older style strategies (used in years prior to year 12) such as deducting marks for lateness and requiring medical certificates are pursued less often as this puts students at risk far quicker than allowing students extra time to complete stage 1 assignments, especially if they are likely to reach the required standard by the end of the year (but have only failed due to penalties).

I have grappled with the fairness of this approach for a number of years and have come to the conclusion that allowing students more time (and giving more "incentive" to complete assignments) is fair.  Students in low SES schools lack academic, intellectual and emotional development.  The extra time allows development to take place and maturity to kick in for many cases (and thus we do get them over the line).  It's a lot of extra work for senior school teachers to coerce, coach, encourage and force students to complete work at the end of the year - but it means that students leave school with their year 12 certificate, something that is difficult to get later in life if they don't pass the first time.  Repeating year 11 and giving students time to develop further is another effective response.  Students that do their work, are still likely to do better and will go on to greater things.  Those struggling do not deserve to be punished further.

It's counter intuitive, but I do believe it is right.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A good day

I don't normally look forward to being left in charge of the maths team but in short spells it can be quite enjoyable. There was a nice feeling in the team today that was jovial, yet productive. There was a combination of teaching students, assisting colleagues, developing skills in student teachers, finalizing marking prior to reporting and generally working collaboratively to promote learning.

The feeling of collegiality is something that can be lost under the pressure of deadlines. Opportunities to work together in a fun environment can be lost to immediate demands. It's nice to finally reach that time in my career where content and instruction practices become easier to achieve, freeing time such that intervention becomes more of a focus.

It's hard for practicum teachers to see the road ahead. We look at them and see the types of teachers they are growing into, a horizon they can't always see. If they can better understand how it gets simpler(if not easier), perhaps we can improve the retention rates of our young teachers. We need to make that collegiate environment that aids their transition.


Monday, June 6, 2011

Leaving marking behind cont..

It was a nice idea leaving marking at school rather than bringing it home.. but it hasn't worked..

I'm just sitting here thinking about it.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Taking marking for a holiday

A common problem of many teachers is taking a wad of marking home over the weekend and my best solution to date has been to bring it back unmarked and untouched. It's the 'taking exam papers for a holiday' solution.

Being focused on improving the middle can be a trying task. I really enjoy marking.. I really do.. Those around me though... not so much...

I've tried getting up early, doing it late at night, whilst the baby sleeps, a bit at a time, reserving a whole day. Marking the best ones first, last, randomly. They all end with foul tempered dad, saying multiple bad words with lengthy time considering how to improve mean scores further, talking to myself like the mad cat lady.

But.... I think I have finally solved the problem...

Don't take it home!!


...I feel better already :-)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The importance of tone and volume

The teacher voice is something that many teachers are told they need to learn.  I think sometimes the 'teacher voice' is a catchall phrase that practicum teachers can have some difficulty learning.. I know I did as a practicum teacher.

Being soft spoken, it is something that I had to approach.  My first teacher instructor was a shouter - to her classroom control was maintained through a combination of fear and volume.  It was something that I was poorly suited to and found difficult to emulate.

My second teacher instructor maintained her classroom through warmth and caring.  She had an ability to develop a rapport with her students and her classes liked her - much of this I would attribute to her sunny, kinaesthetic Phys Ed inspired background.  Not being the warmest of people myself and a little awkward at times in new social occassions,  it too proved difficult to emulate, although I did take much away from that practicum that I have tried to incorporate into my teaching.  I could see how her approach made it easier to break down barriers and reach that zone of intervention.

My third practicum was nearly my undoing, where the teacher instructor was a disciplinarian - a person I highly respect for the results he achieved in his classroom.  I also taught the class next door once a week and found enforcing this approach was difficult - as setting bounds on classes not seen often was difficult - and is a regular issue in teaching high school.  Whilst being observed in this class, my practicum nearly terminated after a lesson failed to achieve lesson outcomes due to behavioural issues.

Yet from each I was able to take a little bit of what I wanted to do (and what not to do) and established my own style of teaching, authoritarian but with a degree of warmth used to encourage students to achieve above their own understanding of their ability.  Raising my voice a little into assertive tone brings attention quickly - raising my voice above this brings looks of shock and silence for half an hour.  I think my students realise that I care about their performance as long as they are pursuing the methods I describe for success and realise that I care about non compliance when it effects their grades.

Anyhow, assertive delivery is a powerful tool in the arsenal of a teacher.  Use of the tone usually requires a number of things
  1. establishment of an attention spot at the front of the room
  2. a quick scan of the room (seeking eye contact and indication that instruction will follow)
  3. a pause (to give students an opportunity to finish and look up)
  4. a statement to gain attention (eyes front, pens down, look here or similar statement) delivered without intonation at a slightly high volume level than instructional voice (a voice that can be heard at the back of the room).
  5. a second scan of the room to identify non compliant students in conjunction with a number of low key responses for students that need additional attention (hand signals, name, indication to neighbour)
  6. a willingness to discuss consequences with students and move students permanently that do not respond after multiple processes
Once attention can be gained and maintained easily, delivery of materials becomes considerably easier.  It's not really the obscure secret many teachers make it out to be nor is it an optimal strategy for all teachers.  It is one of the more successful strategies for practicum teachers to use during practicum where more reliable and effective rapport based strategies really take too long to successfully implement.

Being predominantly a rapport based teacher, I do empathise with practicum teachers that are not 'type A' individuals sport stars and fashion victims that students immediately warm to.  My fear with the current practicum system is that many of the highest potential teachers are lost to the system as they do not have the time to develop a reputation amongst the student population as a great teacher rather than as a new cool teacher.

I love being a math teacher - as sportiness and fashion are rarely problems for us.  No expectation of being cool here :-)