Winning the PISA Race – how hard can it be?

The Australian Government has justified expenditure on school funding reforms on the basis of our falling relative performance on the OECD international Tests  – the most well known of which is the PISA testing.

I appreciate the point that investing in equity in education will – if well invested  – also improve outcomes in terms of educational excellence. This is obvious  because the biggest “gap in performance”, in terms of the distance between performance outcomes and performance potential, is not with those students already financially, socially and intellectually indulged.  They already achieve at levels relatively aligned to their potential.

No, the biggest performance gap is among those students who start school behind their peers, have less access to early learning experiences through quality childcare and preschool programs, experience less family stability, have parent(s) who are struggling to support their children in terms of quality time, financial and home stability and exposure to quality educational experiences, go to schools with a concentration of students in similar circumstances, have less than their fair share of highly experienced teachers, experience higher levels of staff turn over, more greenhorn principals and poorer, educationally relevant, school facilities.

Its great that we have at last acknowledge that ‘ their loss’ is our loss – the loss of so many potentially creative successful citizens, employees, managers, and leaders.

However, I am not a fan of using PISA as a proxy for measuring this Return on Investment.  It is misleading. It could  distort our investment priorities and our school and classroom priorities.  Many others have written about this.  It is also a moving target as results could improve in absolute terms but still slide down the list in comparative terms. So in this sense it is also risky.

We  know that according to Campbell’s Law as soon as you make a god of a particular metric, it becomes distorted as everyone games the system.

So here is my ‘real politic’ set of options for clever gaming the system to achieve this goal painlessly, while minimising unintended consequences and with no risk.  Choose your game-plan Australia.

Suggestion No. One:  Just test the ACT.  It has the lowest proportion of low ICSEA schools, no schools with a high Indigenous population, no remote or very remote schools, many of its ESL population are foreign dignitaries, it has a high level of preschool attendance, and it is the National Capital.

Shanghai is held up as a PISA star but it is important to note that as large as this city might be it is still only a city.  It is not China and it is obviously a key centre for politics, business and industry.  Its results are unlikely to be reflective of China as a country.

Suggestion No. Two:  Establish a group of specific purpose ‘benchmark’ test schools across Australia.  This proposal is based on the logic of Charter Schools in the US.  Any student ‘above a minimum competency standard’ would be eligible to apply – after-all populating them with geniuses would be too obvious.  Selection could be based on an application and a ballot that ensures a spread of SES and other student demographic features – so they could be seen as schools that are representative of the Australian population.  They could be well funded using the Gonski parameters of course.  In applying to these schools parents would need to understand that – a) commitment is required of them and their children and b) teaching would be focused on the PISA testing areas as a priority.  For some parents this could be seen as a ‘ free private school’ – a good deal.  Students who pull the results down could be gently, informally counseled out – all off -the-record of course.

Suggestion No. Three:  Pay schools by results.  Schools could apply to be test sites and paid reward funds for high PISA performance.  How they achieved this would not be questioned and neither would their decisions about spending their rewards funds.

Suggestion No. Four:  Pay teachers by results.  Teachers could apply to be test classrooms and paid reward funds for high PISA performance.  How they achieved this would not be questioned and neither would their decisions about spending their rewards funds.

Suggestion No. Five:  Pay parents/students by results.  Parents/students could apply to be test subjects – quite outside the schooling process and paid reward funds high PISA performance.  How they achieved this would not be questioned and neither would their decisions about spending their rewards funds.

Suggestion No. Six:  Exempt all ICSEA schools below 850. I have heard an unverifiable rumour that Canada exempts its ‘reservation’ schools from the PISA testing sampling, but in Australia we over-sample for our own data collection /policy purposes.  We should cease this immediately and select our sample schools from schools that will not pull our results down.

Alternatively we could drop this PISA goal altogether and instead put our full backing into supporting teacher capacity development, building quality support tools for teacher feedback and self reflection based on classroom practice, reduce face to face teaching time in order to increase teacher planning and collaboration time, restructure teacher career pathways around the teacher standards, develop comprehensive strategies for improving the equitable distribution of highly experienced teachers across schools and implement Gonski.

We are already doing a lot to support this better pathway.  All we really need to do is change our goals and reconsider high stakes testing.  I know which way give us the best returns on investment.

Please Julia Gillard Don’t let Bill Gates Undermine the Work of AITSL

Sub Title:  We must not sacrifice teacher self-reflection and ‘safe’ learning to the god of performativity

In an article on this blog a few weeks ago I warned about the important difference between the  work that the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) is doing to develop high quality and useful tools to support teacher initiated professional learning, development, peer mentoring and coaching  and what Bill Gates would like to do with such tools.

Bill Gates met with the PM yesterday and will be watched by millions on QandA tonight.  If he talks about  his TEDX message about the value of videos of teachers in classrooms, student feedback instruments, portfolios of teachers work, walkthroughs or other tools for ‘measuring’  or ‘ judging’ teacher performance for rewards or for compulsory performance review processes,  think about what he is actually saying.

He is saying that the best way to improve teacher quality and drive improved teacher performance is to test it/ assess it/ judge it/ weigh it.   Does this ring any bells?

Now I ask everyone to think about this sort of policy approach from the point of view of a newish teacher.  Would  you improve more in a system a) that encourages a pro-active  teacher initiated approach to professional development with high levels of peer collaboration, opportunities for self reflection and peer discussion on problems and areas for development using the latest high quality support tools,  or b) in a system that used all these same tools to measure you  – where every measurement was recorded in a performance grading process?.  Would you be enthusiastic about using video of your teaching or a student feedback survey on your semester project in order to reflect and hone your professional craft if you knew it could then be taken and used for formal performance assessment process which go into your records for all time?

Its a no brainer.  If you want to built the professional knowledge and skills of teachers then work with them, support them, give them a ‘safe place’ where development needs can be acknowledged along with high quality frameworks to support this.

There will always be a small proportion who will not rise to the challenge – who are probably in the wrong profession but lets not design a performance improvement framework around ‘weeding out the bad’.  This lowest common denominator approach sabotages the very goals of improvement.  The best way to manage this problem is to focus on school leadership.

Tony Mackay  Chair of AITSL wrote about this here, rather more tactfully and only recently

Australia is not a basket case in school reform. We have achieved something no other nation has so comprehensively managed: Australia is one of the first countries in the world to have a national set of professional standards to improve teaching in schools.

 Others have tried to develop national standards and failed. We have done it, getting the education sector – federal, state and territory governments, universities, non-government schools, employer groups and unions – to reach agreement on an end-to-end system for teacher quality.

 No other country possesses an exactly equivalent body to AITSL. Every few weeks the institute receives inquiries from overseas governments and education authorities wanting to know how Australia managed to get agreement on national standards from so many disparate groups involved in schooling. They have come from as far afield as the New York City school system, the Canadian province of British Columbia, Scotland, the Middle East and elsewhere.

 So how did AITSL achieve what has eluded our overseas colleagues? We …. learnt from [others] mistakes. …

Mandated standards will never work unless you get school systems and teachers on board to make them work. So we listened to teachers and school leaders. We set up a comprehensive national network of advisory groups, public seminars, forums and focus groups. We involved 6000 teachers and school principals in helping us shape the standards.

Undermine this at your peril.

What have schools got to do with neo-liberalism?

Neoliberalism is not a term that everyone is happy to use.  Some see it as ideological jargon and for others it might describe what is happening but its use by education academics seems to get in the way of teachers and practitioners hearing its central message.

My own view is that the basic assumptions, frameworks and processes of neo-liberalism have been so well incorporated into our economic frameworks, social policies and thinking, that unless we name it and unpack it, we cant talk about what is happening sensibly or view things through any other lens.

In this blog I want to point out just how deeply school education has become infected with the neoliberal ideas.

So what is neoliberalism?  In a recent post by Chris Thinnes[1] the following definition is used

[Neoliberalism is] …an ensemble of economic and social policies, forms of governance, and discourses and ideologies that promote individual self-interest, unrestricted flows of capital, deep reductions in the cost of labor, and sharp retrenchment of the public sphere. Neoliberals champion privatization of social goods and withdrawal of government from provision for social welfare on the premise that competitive markets are more effective and efficient

Now its not hard to see the relevance of this to school reform policies of the US, UK and increasingly in Australia:

  • School choice and competition – highly entrenched in Australia
  • MySchool providing the information to support parents voting with their feet and forcing schools to worry more about student test performance than about the school learning and well being environment
  • high stakes testing – creating commodities out of smart kids and relegating others to a ‘take a sick day on testing’ status,
  • performance pay for teachers – introducing competition where there needs to be collaboration and team building
  • competing for a place in the PISA top 5 – turning school quality into an international productivity competition

Thynne’s post, The Abuse and Internalization of the ‘Free Market’ Model in Education, shows how school policies and practices promote individual self-interest over the common good and the market as the arbiter of values.  In this he is not unique. But Thinnes also reminds us that its fundamental ideas exist at a much deeper level – how this way of thinking has become the air we breathe in school policy and practice, even within the field of education.

His very first example emerges from comments made by both teachers and students about the challenges and opportunities of collaborative or group work in classrooms:

The problem with group projects is that somebody might end up doing all the work, but somebody else will get the credit

 It’s too hard to grade each student when you’re not sure how they contributed Collaboration is great, but somebody ends up not carrying their weight

When you try to help each other, the teachers sometimes treat you like you cheated

The message coming through from these comments  is that although student collaboration might be important to learning in theory, “the assessment and affirmation of individual contributions, achievements, and accomplishments is what matters most in our schools”.

Thinnes observes that

The persistence of such beliefs should come as no surprise to any of us, who find ourselves in a society with an education system that has embraced prevailing myths about competition, meritocracy, and economic and social mobility in its education policy. It should strike us with a great sadness, however, for those of us who question and resist those myths in our classroom practice and learning communities.

This internalization of neoliberal commitments to the individual achievements of our students and teachers, and the market competition of our schools, is naturalized even in our most informal, everyday conversations about education. It is enforced by many of our classroom practices. It is celebrated in many of our school-wide rituals. But I find it perhaps most disturbing when it frames our thoughts, subconsciously or purposefully, about how to improve our schools.

Unfortunately we see evidence of this in the Australian context wherever we look.

The only two items mentioned in the 2013 budget speech in relation to Indigenous education and closing the gap were scholarships for individual Indigenous students to attend elite schools and the Clontarrf Football academy.  Neither of these offer any systemic strategies for improving Indigenous education.  It seems we have decided to give up on structural systemic improvements in Indigenous education, in spite of appalling and systemic failure  – particularly in remote contexts.  The vast majority of Indigenous students and their families are left untouched by these two strategies.  In fact it is possible they will be worse off as the more aspirational students  – those who can contribute to the quality of learning in a classroom  – are plucked out and removed.  And  of course the fact that both these strategies result in the funding of non Government bodies to deliver the programs has not even been seen as odd or of concern.

Today in the Canberra Times Tony Shepherd argues that wealthy parents who choose to suck of the public teat by going to public schools should be charged a levy.  This only makes sense of schools are considered a commodity – a product and students it customers. This is a total repudiation of the fundamental democratic purpose of schools but the impact of neoliberal thinking and its saturation is to make these seem like a logical and sensible idea.

Thynne ends his article with the following message

The end-run of the logic of the ‘free market model’ and its application to schools is simple: the repudiation of schools as we have come to know them; the abandonment of democratic principles on which they are based; and the service of a technocratic vision of education as matrix of individual relationships with private providers….

This internalization of neoliberal commitments to the individual achievements of our students and teachers, and the market competition of our schools, is naturalized even in our most informal, everyday conversations about education. It is enforced by many of our classroom practices. It is celebrated in many of our school-wide rituals. But I find it perhaps most disturbing when it frames our thoughts, subconsciously or purposefully, about how to improve our schools.

We should take note before it is too late.

Teacher Self Reflection Tools: a double edged sword

I have been pleasantly surprised with the work the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) has undertaken to develop a number of seemingly high quality, well tested and useful self reflection and learning tools for teachers to support AITSL’s core work of building the capacity of teachers and school leaders. For example The 360 student feedback tools[1] the teacher standards illustrations of practice[2] and the teacher self assessment[3] tools all have real potential to be useful for teachers who are taking responsibility for their own learning and development in schools that support and encourage collaboration, mentoring and peer support.

In fact I would like to suggest that the work of AITSL has the potential to be a very important counter point to all the US borrowed corporate reforms represented by NAPLAN, Performance pay and all the rest.

But to be effective the work of AITS needs to be able to stand apart from all the less worthy reforms.  The self-reflective tools are a very good example of these challenges. If they can be kept apart from the evaluation, performance management tendencies of corporate reform and be quarantined for the use by teachers and their schools for authentic professional learning, they have the potential to be very significant tools for building collective teacher capacity.

If however they are captured to be used as part of the new performance management practices that are being imposed on teachers, all the wonderful work involved in developing them will go down the toilet.

Anthony Cody talks about these same tensions in the US context.  In a recent blog[4] he responds to a Bill Gate TEDX talk on the value of videos in classrooms. According to Cody, Bill Gates rationale for promoting video cameras in schools goes as follow

… there’s one group of people that get almost no systematic feedback to help them do their jobs better. Until recently, 98% of teachers just got one word of feedback: “satisfactory.” Today, districts are revamping the way they evaluate teachers. But we still give them almost no feedback that actually helps them improve their practice. Our teachers deserve better. The system we have today isn’t fair to them. It’s not fair to students, and it’s putting America’s global leadership at risk.

Cody notes that Gates slides from feedback to evaluation without pause as though they are one and the same.

Do you notice something? He starts out talking about feedback, but then slides into describing a formal evaluation process. There are LOTS of ways to enhance feedback that could have nothing at all to do with our evaluation systems ….

They are not.  There is a world of difference between:

  • Professional learning:  as teachers working together, observing each others practice; using tools that give them information about their practice for them to use as they see fit; reflecting on their practice alone or in teams; trialling changes; reflecting; and giving mutual feedback; and
  • Performance review: where external parties apply standards to an assessment of practice

The problem is that as soon as a tool is captured for use for the second purpose – performance review – the less likely it is that teachers will trust it and see it as useful.

But this slide happens all the time.  And we are in danger of this happening with the tools developed by AITSL.  This is because we are focusing on the wrong things.  The Commonwealth Government tells us that what we need is a national best practice performance management framework and high quality tools.

Linda Darling Hammond on the other had argues that it is not a good framework that is lacking.  Rather what we lack, is time – time in schools for teachers to collaborate, to work with others to reflect on their practice and a culture where this is expected not as a fearful evaluation process but as an integral part of professional development

As I see it the work of AITSL could go either way and I just hope that it is possible to corral some of the best of their work and make sure it is not captured to serve the performativity agenda, For as Anthony Cody says:

Right beneath the surface are these seeds of possibility, waiting for the right conditions to come about. You take an area, a school, a district, you change the conditions, give people a different sense of possibility, a different set of expectations, a broader range of opportunities, you cherish and value the relationships between teachers and learners, you offer people discretion to be creative and to innovate in what they do, and schools that were once bereft spring to life.