Talking Teaching

August 22, 2012

charter schools (from letters to the editor)

Usually when I choose to base a post on the ‘letters’ section of a newspaper, it’s because something that someone’s written has rather got my goat. This time - this time, it’s because I agree with the sentiments & feel they warrant a wider audience & further analysis.

The Government wants to introduce charter schools, apparently, to solve issues of under achievement. It points to students failing to achieve NCEA Level 2 as justification for this policy. In fact, if the Government actually bothered to look at NCEA data, it would see that pass rates have been rising over the past decade, something achieved without charter schools.

And in fact, the NZ Herald ran a story on this in early 2011.

Studies clearly show that the most effective way to assist schools to lift achievement levels is employing trained teachers and providing quality professional development. Charter schools can employ untrained teachers and the Government has cut funding for much of the professional development it offered.

As I’ve said previously, it’s hard to see how using untrained teachers is going to improve teacher quality.

New Zealand has a very good education system. In countries with poorer education systems than ours, with greater academic under achievement, charter schools have failed to make any significant improvement to under achievement. So, if the Government wants to make a dent in education under achievement, why import policies that have failed overseas. Failure simply replicates failure.

The evidence on success (or otherwise) of charter schools is mixed. In some US states, for example, they seem to have a marked positive effect on learning outcomes for their students. In others, not so much. We’re told that in NZ, charter – sorry, ‘partnership’ – schools will be run following best overseas practice; it would be useful to hear more about what that will entail, sooner rather than later.

In that last post, I also expressed concern about the potential for charter schools – which, let us remember, will be state-funded – to include subjects such as creationism in their curricula. A ‘Stuff’ piece by Kelsey Fletcher expands on this, describing the intention of one group keen to run a charter school to use the ‘In God’s Word’ philosophy (something that would somehow still be able to be ‘marked’ against the Cambridge curriculum – presumably only if the evolutionary underpinnings of the biology curriculum component are ignored). Associate Education Minister, John Banks, tells us we don’t need to worry (the following is from the ‘Stuff’ item):

John Banks said the ministry had received a lot of correspondence, including complaints about public funding of faith-based education. He would not comment on the trust’s charter plans. “There’s no proposed partnership to consider, because we haven’t received any formal applications, and none have been called for,” Banks said. “The first schools open in 2014, and expressions of interest will be called for next year.”

I would feel more sanguine about this whole process if the nature of charter schools, and what they can and cannot offer in their curriculum, was set out clearly well in advance. Finding out after the event is not an appropriate option.

 

August 21, 2012

academic olympics fail to gain government support

This is a guest post – I’m running it on behalf of my friend & colleague Dr Angela Sharples.  Angela is the current chair of OlympiaNZ (the umbrella organisation for the various NZ Olympiad committees) and leads NZ International Biology Olympiad. She received the Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Award in 2011. I completely agree with her comments; like her, this is an issue I have very strong feelings about & I believe her comments deserve a wider audience. (Cross-posting from SciblogsNZ.)

At a time when we celebrate all things sporting we should reflect on our attitudes towards success in all forms of endeavour in New Zealand. The Olympics showcase the world’s best in sporting endeavour and we rightly look up to these elite athletes and admire the effort and dedication it took for each and every one of these athletes to reach the top of their field. The personal attributes required for them to even participate at the Olympics are transferable to all areas of performance in life and so we celebrate these athletes, admire them and aspire to like them. They are role models that encourage younger athletes from primary school to university level to participate in the sport of their choice and to dream that with hard work and dedication they too may reach Olympic level.

The government recognises this social benefit of elite sports and funds it accordingly, through SPARC and the high performance programmes. They have their eye on the long term benefits that participation in sport at the elite level provides to the wider New Zealand community. The government also recognises that New Zealand must foster innovation through a responsive, high performance education system if New Zealand is to remain globally competitive in a rapidly changing world.  Unfortunately, whilst the government has
published any number of reports on the importance of Science and innovation in New Zealand we see very little action on establishing and supporting programmes which foster such excellence.

Just last week, the New Zealand International Biology Olympiad withdrew from hosting the International Biology Olympiad here in New Zealand in July 2014. This prestigious international event challenges and inspires the brightest young secondary school students from 60 countries (and the number of member countries continues to grow) to deepen their understanding of biology and promotes a career in science. The focus is on the importance of biology for society, especially in areas such as biotech, agriculture and horticulture, environmental protection and biodiversity. These are all areas of academic endeavour crucial for New Zealand’s economic success in the future. Hosting this event in New Zealand was a chance to showcase our innovative education system and biological research to some of the world’s top academics and to inspire our own students to develop the dedication and put in the sheer hard work required to reach this highest level of academic endeavour. It is an opportunity lost!

Unlike our sporting Olympians our academic Olympians receive little support from the government and even less acknowledgement and celebration of their success. New Zealand has performed outstandingly well in the International competitions since we first competed in 2005, winning 16 Bronze medals, 7 Silver and 1 Gold Medal. These high performing students are New Zealand’s economic future and yet few in the country are even aware of their achievement.

Until we apply the same high performance strategies to our science and innovation system in New Zealand that we utilise in sports we will continue to talk about the importance of fostering excellence in science and innovation whilst we watch our competitors on the global stage outperform us. And we will continue to lose our best young minds to countries where their contribution is valued.

August 8, 2012

more on accreditation

I spent some time recently in an interesting discussion around the question of whether tertiary teachers should be required to complete some form of national accreditation. Now, many – but by no means all! – institutions do already have something like this available for their staff, albeit that take-up is essentially voluntary. What would happen to these in-house programs, we wondered, in the event of such a national qualification becoming the norm? Would the individual organisations stop running their own systems? – a pity, in many ways, as these are likely tailored to the needs of their own staff and students. There’s also the issue of portability: whether the putative national qualification would be portable, between institutions and between countries. If this could be guaranteed, then why would teachers bother with the in-house model? This would be a negative result overall, as it would then remove any need for an individual institution to develop and maintain its own programs for its own staff.

We also wondered what form accreditation – accreditation, not a qualification – should take. Teaching excellence is not a static thing: the best teachers are always reviewing, reflecting on, revising and enhancing their practice. A qualification based on examinations are not going to adequately measure these attributes. Far better, we thought, to go with portfoliosmeasured by portfolio of work. This would be a living document as the individual’s practice should be constantly self-reviewed & enhanced, a process reflected in the portfolio.

Part of the discussion hinged on just how you define ‘excellence’. We were all Tertiary Teaching Excellence Award winners, so you’d think we’d know, wouldn’t you? But we’re all excellent at different things, so a definition proved hard to pin down. Can we define ‘excellence’ a la John Hattie’s work on secondary teaching? Possibly. Well, maybe not ‘define’, but we could certainly give examples of excellence from the portfolios of previous TTEA awardees.  could then act as basis of any form of professional development. In fact, you could argue that those awardees show something called ‘positive deviance‘ – and in this instance ‘deviance’ is something to aspire to!

So maybe accreditation would be based on a portfolio – a ‘living’ document – demonstrating someone’s ongoing professional & personal development, & built around a clearly explained concept of ‘excellence’ as it applies to facilitating students’ learning (& helping others to do the same)? Something to be think about, anyway.

quality counts – except when it doesn’t

Filed under: education — Tags: , , , — alison @ 10:40 am

A few weeks ago, writing about the ‘great class size debate’ that we have been having in New Zealand, I also touched on the question of quality teaching. There’s no question – at least, there shouldn’t be – that children deserve the best possible learning experiences, and one of the requirements for that is quality teaching by excellent, expert teachers. It’s quite tricky to pin down just what defines that excellence, but at least our current system of state sector teacher training and subsequent registration goes some way to ensuring that the people teaching our youngsters have been trained in how to go about the multitude of tasks that teachers encounter every day: planning, classroom management, assessment, pastoral care & general admin, and have gained experience in said tasks…. (and that’s before we even get to the actual teaching!).

But a couple of days ago, Minister of Education Hekia Parata & Act MP John Banks announced that charter schools – oops, sorry, ‘partnership schools’ – would be able to employ at least some non-registered teachers, along with setting their own curricula & deciding on things like the length of the school day, term dates, & teacher pay rates. This is strange – to say the least! – following as it does on a recent meeting of the Ministerial Cross-Sector Forum on Raising achievement, which “discussed… improving teaching practice with a focus on priority learners.” As well that discussion, the meeting heard from the Chief Education Review Officer, who

presented the latest Education Review Office findings on how to raise the quality of practice in New Zealand Schools.

His remarks focused on three dimensions: assessment for learning; student centred learning; and responsive school level curriculum.

Minister Parata, who chairs the Forum, commented that

The Forum will continue to discuss ideas around how we can achieve quality teaching practice.

It’s not exactly clear how allowing charter schools to use some unspecified proportion of non-registered teachers will achieve this. Concepts and practices related to assessment for learning and student-centred learning are best acquired before arrival in the classroom, not on a learn-as-you-go-when-you get-there basis. (Yes, state schools can already employ non-registered staff, under a ‘limited authority to teach’ provision, but that’s temporary and for a limited period.)

Some real contradictions here…

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The freedom of charter schools to set their own curriculum also concerns me somewhat. We already have ‘special character’ schools which teach creationism in their classrooms, for example (see herehere, andhere, for starters). It is rather irking to gain the impression that state funding could support the same in charter schools – and to date I’ve heard nothing to say this will not be possible.

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