Monday, September 14, 2009

The need for sociable behaviour

Should unsociable behaviour be accepted in our schools?

I suppose this is the question that arises when we consider the role of schools in the community. Is it the primary role of schools to teach curriculum, do schools have a responsibility to teach children the limits imposed on citizens post-childhood or is it primarily the role of parents?

The Curriculum framework and its values places the answer firmly, for better or worse, with schools teaching sociability, with some parents unable to fulfil this role for many reasons. If a child comes socially ill-equipped for school, then it is up to the school to enable the child.

The statement, "this is the home environment mimicked at school " and "he only reacts this way until he knows a teacher" I don't really accept. To swear at the wrong person outside school or threaten violence with little provocation is to invite violence or incarceration in return. To condone such behaviour in school is to ill-equip these children for their time post school. A teacher is the token of authority in a school and all teachers deserve the same respect, whether known to the student or not, in the same way a policeman or judge is given the same respect in the real world. The alternative is to bring the justice system into schools - something to resist as it is a downward spiral or students to continue challenging authority in later life with dire consequences.

With declining community values, the acceptance of swearing and abusive language around (if not at) teachers, the abundance of emotional bullying by students of peers, the lack of effective strategies to deal with such bullying and the deferral of action until critical incidents occur is not teaching these kids respect for authority (in fact it is diminishing it), improving respect for others or ultimately creating respect for themselves.

I suppose it comes back to the niceness aspect of social interaction and the drift of community away from respect of the nice and considerate person to the glamorisation of the abusive idiot. Hopefully the pendulum will again swing back soon.

Sooner than later - as the perception that state schools have a bullying problem and an inability to deal effectively with students with social issues scares many parents away from our sector.

It is worrying.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Independent public schools

Wondering if your school has applied for independent public school status? Wonder no longer!

Click here!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Restricting the damage from League Tables

Here's acknowledgement that ACARA will make mistakes when implementing league tables and that league tables have caused issues in other countries for those implementing them. I hope the Federal government realises the potential effect on public schooling straight after the damage done through the tragic implementation of OBE in WA.

This being the case Dr Hill (head of ACARA), it would be a good idea to limit the damage and make sure league tables actually work in one state/territory (I'd suggest NT as that's where NAPLAN shows the biggest issue is) before inflicting it on the rest of the nation. It is utterly irresponsible to do otherwise. We need to learn in education circles from the OBE fiasco... (Learning in education?? Don't be stupid!!) Oh and by the way, progress is not the best indicator of effective change in a school, if your progress is defined by invalid statistics.

On that topic, well done WA, we've taught to the test and improved our NAPLAN scores (see Saturday's West, 12 September p.7). There is still an absence of statistically valid evidence of curriculum improvement and retention of skills and knowledge beyond the test - at least none that I have seen. I wait to see the improvement in year 10's next year that should follow great NAPLAN results (highly unlikely due to changing demographics within the suburbs I teach due to increasing concentrations of refugees & 457 working visas) - I hope I get a performance pay rise too for being "super effective" as our results improve dramatically once normal demographics return and urban gentrification continues.

I hate to say it, as I'm as impatient for change as anyone but let's get the league table concept right (I don't see how but I'm open to rational argument) before implementing anything systemically across the nation. This takes time, which means political time lines of four years with political implementation periods of 2 years against educational timeframes of 14-16 years before success can be measured effectively. I hope someone other than government is given ownership of this issue (institutions, Curriculum Council, WACOT listen carefully)
, someone financially or legally independent from government interference needs to control the education debate. I can't believe I'm promoting three ineffective bodies but the government nonsense has to stop, the damage is potentially worse as Party politics swing with the latest trend.

Bring on the next batch of teacher bashing - we're whingers standing the way of progress. What would we know, we only teach, have degrees and live the education debate. We can't run when policy is wrong. Blaming teachers for poor results in the whole of WA is a cop out - after all teachers are not responsible for the systemic mismanagement of education over a long period of time, government is. We could probably also blame the union movement for something - that's a trendy way to shift blame too.

Politics is again in the way of common sense and we will again have to jump through hurdles for political necessity rather than good practice. Whatever damage is caused should be placed squarely in the lap of Julia Gillard and the Labor party (in the same way they will celebrate any successes). It's a big risk given the failures in other countries that could easily be mitigated through running a simple prototype and having statistically sound evidence of the positive effects first. The teaching fraternity cost the Labor party the state election in WA. Perhaps federal Labor too are forgetting (or have been ineffectively OBE taught) lessons learned in History classes.

Update 8-10-09: Here's another link about validity of league table findings.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Class sizes

There was a passing comment on the end of the Channel 2 news stating that the only net effect of smaller class sizes was more teachers. This is a bit of a bizarre statement.

There is no problem with bigger classes as long as you accept the following:
  • Classes must be fairly homogeneous - the is no way an average teacher can run 5 IEPs and manage students running a differentiated programme with 5+ levels of students effectively in a class of 30+ (and this is a likely requirement in a state high school with large class sizes)
  • Discipline must be more rigid - expect more suspensions, timeouts and exclusions
  • Intervention time per student is reduced - 30 students in a class + 15 mins instruction time per hour leaves a maximum of 2 minutes per student intervention/interaction time
  • Marking time is increased or assessment frequency is reduced
  • Decreased knowledge of individual students
  • Increased chance that at risk/abused/neglected students will not be identified
  • Additional needs students will need to be segregated out of the mainstream
  • More teacher assistants will be required to manage the learning programme
  • Reporting becomes more onerous
  • Higher rate of disengaged students - dropout rates will be higher / graduation rates lower
The net result is that more students will fall through the cracks in the system. If you check the high performing schools in WA, class sizes are smaller and for good reason. It works.

To say that class sizes need to increase is ignoring the specific needs of low SEI schools that require individual intervention plans to redirect students back into the mainstream, or for plans for students that need higher levels of intervention (students with parents on working visas, refugees, indigenous students, additional needs, ESL, limited schooling, truants, drug and alcohol dependents, abused, single parents).

To accept blanket statements 'bigger class sizes is better' is like saying education was better in the 60's. It is possible to have bigger class sizes if you accept that the compromises above are acceptable. Australia is a tolerant and respected nation where people from all backgrounds can succeed in life - the basis of this premise is fair education. To offer low SEI parents a sub-standard education compared to high performing schools is breaking a promise with the nation.

It's not a fair go.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The importance of community support

I listened to an inspiring sermon by our local minister last Sunday on the importance of community and how he was inspired by those he had worked with. This is ever so true in teaching as without support of the school community it is easy to become disheartened and contrariwise, with the support of community it is ever so much easier to stay inspired.

I'm hardly a chapter quoting churchgoer, but as he pointed out in his sermon, it's hard to find a like minded group of people honestly consistently wanting to do good in the community outside the church without an agenda. He maintained that you found it in the vocations such as teaching and nursing, but sometimes it feels like the system wants employees because they are easier to manage.

During the week I was asked to address our local parish as to why I teach and how this fits with gospel values. Teaching tends to be a vocation that gets under your skin and doesn't let go. I remember the teacher that made a difference for me - and probably doesn't even know it. He was the one that prodded me and kept me working when I would have rather slept at the back of the room. He had no real reason to try, there were more capable students, more engaged and less ornery. I'm glad he did - without his efforts in year 10, I wouldn't be able to write a sentence, nor structure my thoughts in any coherent manner.

When I entered teaching, I had a strong urge to return to the community what it had given me. Escape from poverty, a wonderful family, a successful career, an education, a home, a love of life and now a beautiful daughter. I felt I had a responsibility and an opportunity to do some good. Although opportunities arose to further my career or pursue further self development - teaching felt like the right thing to do.

My background tends to be what guides my teaching. When I am tempted to focus on an engaged student, I think what my life would have been like if I had been allowed to drift along doing the bare minimum. Giving students a prod, reminding them of their responsibilities, encouraging them. Finding students that have potential to do more. Encouraging a student to finish school. Talking to a student that hasn't been spoken to all day. Pointing out where students have failed to help others avoid the same pitfalls. Sharing my own success and failures. Inspiring as I had been inspired.

Another aspect of the decision to teach was the birth of our first child. As a parent, you are the front line of education with everyone else supporting cast. I needed to be a better parent and understand the teaching process. If I had the opportunity I needed to do something if I intended to raise a child.

Watching Mackenzie around the community, one observes her as a contributing member of society at age 6 months. It takes a very funny show (maybe a couple of times a year) or a talented comedian that has spent years honing his craft to give me a belly laugh yet she can make random people glow with joy with just a innocent smile. Ensuring she keeps that outlook and dodges cynicism and materialism is an awesome task. Teacher training and church involvement is just one element of that responsibility. Teaching is an opportunity to extend that responsibility outside the home.

A simple example is the child that swears without thinking, that makes inappropriate comments for effect or that wears suggestive clothing at an early age. Self image is so important at that age, telling a student to be a lady or giving them back the image that it is ok to play and be childlike (and to enjoy it!) is one of the pleasures of teaching. They look at me strangely when I say, 'you're too young to have a boyfriend - you should be playing with your dolly' or when I sit and play board games or basketball in the yard. It frustrates me when I watch kids play grown ups, iPods in ears or messaging each other via Facebook (don't get me started here - any organisation that redefines friend into acquaintance denigrates human relationships and interaction). Coming from an IT background I've seen the end product of people that cannot communicate - programmers are a classic modern phenomena and usually useless in society. We need to allow and model the framework to laugh and play, communicate ideas and ways of venting frustration in a modern world where both parents work and little time is actually spent developing these skills.

A year 10 student once said to me, in despair, how do I become a nice person. It was a heartbreaking moment. My response was to surround yourself with nice people. She did and it worked, a young child grew into wonderful young adult, that I'm sure has lapses but now thinks of them as the exception, no longer the norm, she no longer seeks to push boundaries unless to find improvement within herself. That has always been my outlook, we're not perfect. Find people that you can grow with, from my grandmother who lived "the gift is in the giving" to longstanding friends I have known forever.

I also tend to think that without the 'do-gooder' vocational teachers in education (as opposed to the 'I'm in it for the money and lifestyle' teachers) we lose something in the public system. Although values based education is 'embedded' in the curriculum, typically it is a token effort or bastardised by lobbyists such as the feminist and environmentalist movements. Values is not teaching care for the environment, it's creating an attitude where it is a natural response to care for others (and thus care for the environment). The value of 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you' is much deeper than female salaries are too low, glass ceiling issues etc. Without an underlying message, trendy modern issues are a load of wafty nonsense that is irrelevant to a child's self. The idea of building your self concept on treating others as you would be treated (regardless of how they treat you!) is a fundamental in nonsecular education and something sadly missing in public education. We need to treat the cause not the symptoms. Back to my original point - without our 'do-gooder' teachers students would have little evidence that people do do good without rhyme or reason, only for the satisfaction that it is a pleasure to do so.

That's not to say there aren't big buzzes in teaching too - the moments when the lights go on and the sparkle appears when a students gets something they've struggled with for years, when a student says they're only in school because of your classes, the student that proudly says they want to be the first in their family to make to university/graduate/past year 10 (and does it), a disengaged student argues that they deserve a better grade, a truant starts turning up to school, a student starts offering answers in class, a student says that maths is their favourite subject, when they write you down as their favourite teacher in the yearbook, when you are offered classes others are more qualified to teach, when you design a summer school.. and the kids come.. and enjoy it.. during the school holidays for 5 days!

The interaction with the minister was enough to move my thoughts from issues within the school back towards improving my teaching practices. That's the importance of community involvement - it's a process of inspiring others as 'discipleship' inspires those in the church. Everyone plays a part in the community - especially media (it's why I'm frequently critical of them and their search for sensational byline and headlines)! We have to be careful to not only focus on the negatives and criticise; but to seek ways to make each other better emotionally, intellectually and in developing higher levels of motivation in our teaching practitioners and practices.

ERG and the effect on schools

There's much talk about the place about being Erg'd. The expert review group comes to your school and makes adjustments to your teaching programme to improve results.

I'm beginning to wonder if being Erg'd is equivalent to being Nerfed, a common term in gaming and computer circles. To Nerf something is to take an overpowered component and effectively make it useless or less effective to empower some other component.

In talking to others, one concern about being Erg'd is the adjustment made to the school teaching offerings. If Erg suggests that a school is teaching above it's cohort, the inferences is that higher subjects get dropped from the curriculum - the usual suspects (level three subjects, Physics, Chemistry, Specialist Maths, History and the like) as class sizes for these subjects are small in a small school. As a parent you need to be aware if this is happening at your school, as your brighter student will be most affected. To gain access to more difficult subjects your student will be offered to be bussed to an adjacent school (and away from teacher and peer support) or through SIDE (distance education), not have the subject offered at all or be encouraged to take an easier or alternate subject.

Classes like Maths specialist and 3CD maths that require small class sizes in any school instantly get scrutiny. Sometimes we forget that to get league table support we need to support these kids most as they attract more capable students to the school and best publically demonstrate the true ability of the school to educate. They need specialist support in special learning environments (with relatively small class sizes!).

To maintain subject selection within smaller schools, other solutions are being trialled such as combining year 11/12 cohorts and running classes with mixed offerings (such as 2A and 3A in the same room). In some cases both at the same time. These have their own set of problems such as students with different ability, motivational and maturity levels and that finish/exam times are different for year 11 and 12 classes.

Issues for teachers from being Nerfed also arise as teachers unable to teach the upper range subjects (such as 3A and beyond) get pigeonholed and are not competitive when competing for transfers. This is equivalent to the issues faced by middle school teachers now on EIP as they have limited ability to teach upper school NCOS. When an application says needs 3A and beyond or G&T experience, the teacher can't apply. There is no compensation for this employment loss of capability (other than the hard to staff bonus) and teachers need to consider moving after a fairly limited time if they wish to continue developing their teaching skills (which again puts more pressure on HTS schools). With increased freedom to 'chose' teachers in independent public schools this becomes more of an issue.

When a school is Nerfed, further parity is lost between the independent and public system. This is something that needs careful consideration beyond the 'best use of resources' argument. Yes we currently have more kids that need academic support at lower levels - but it becomes ever more important that our top end is encouraged to grow and we as a sector show that we can effectively support bright students in all of our public schools without compromise.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Week 8 rolls around again

So here is week 8 again.. and this time week 8 term 3. This is the time where students and teachers are tired and under the stress of preparing for exams. If the nasties are to appear it usually is this week.

Here's to hoping it's all smelling of roses for a change!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Half cohort

The half cohort is continuing to have impact on WA high schools. As predicted schools are losing FTE and may have to compromise their ability to provide a complete curriculum due to reduced staffing numbers.

Last week the union advertised in the West that 500 teachers would lose their jobs. Even after releasing temporary staff, 2 nearby schools have 10 teachers permanent on EIP (forced movement to like schools when permanent staff not required)- these teachers are likely to be supernumerary next year as there is not enough growth in public schools to satisfy the excess. They will likely go on "stress leave" as the concern of not having a job and being identified as the teacher "not required" will be more than many can reasonably bear.

It will be interesting to see how DET handles this problem, whether with a high handed approach (direct the insurers to investigate how "stressed" teachers they really are), how it investigates the EIP process on appeal, how it checks process and over-rides school decisions or whether it lets the whole matter ride and takes what benefit it can from those that choose to leave the system. A likely conclusion is redundancies two years from now when supernumeraries are still in non-permanent positions.

For many new graduates the situation is a bit grim as the positions normally taken by them will be taken by the supernumeraries.