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Saturday, 18 March 2017

Quacks Like a Duck: NZ's Education Debate Moves On (at Last)

Introduction

Pisa has been in the Herald again... this time to attack the practice of streaming. In fact, it's a bit broader than this because the Herald seems to want to make a big conversation given that their headlines are "Dumbing Down a Generation" and "Streaming a Weapon of Maths Destruction".

As you might expect, the Herald says a lot of the easy and boring stuff everyone says. There's the old line about league tables (not officially published) and there are references to international comparisons. However, in truth, the focus is NZ's decline relative to NZ. That's new and very good to see (well, in truth, it is old news but whatever). Similarly, the focus on streaming suggests that they want to move the questions away from NCEA (although, naturally, it does get some criticism). There was also some stuff I didn't know, like:
But our gaps in reading and maths [best versus worst performers] have narrowed because our top students have slipped more than our bottom students. Our bottom 10th actually scored higher in maths in 2015 than in 2012, while our top 10th's scores dropped.
or, and I here preserve their surprise, there is this:
Surprisingly, Australia and New Zealand are the eighth and ninth most equal OECD countries on the Pisa index of socio-economic status, based on parents' education and occupations and their books and other possessions in the home.
However, on that last point, they do follow up with what we already knew about resilience:
So our wide gaps in 15-year-old achievement are not because our students start less equal than others; they are because our schools are less effective at closing the gaps that students start with.
So, on the whole, a lot better than much of their education coverage but there are some things I would like to quickly talk about... these were remarks made by a Warwick Elley (described as an Emeritus Professor of Education by himself here... not sure of where, though, possibly Canterbury) in the context of Anglosphere Education policy changes, manifest here in NCEA and National Standards.

The First Thing
Focused teachers narrowly on teaching what is tested (only reading, writing and maths in the case of national standards), so students are flummoxed when faced with Pisa's tests of broader knowledge and skills;
I think Elley distinguishes this from a later point on the grounds that this is pedagogical. However, I am not sure and if the issue is pedagogical then the solution, too, is surely pedagogical. That is, the solution is to teach differently and talk about stuff that may or may not be on the test or is, in fact, just related. I know some teachers do this... which is why my economics teacher once talked about comparative advantage even though that wasn't an idea in our assessment. The trouble is that it's not just pedagogical in the sense that teachers are listeners and fall prey to the "Is this examined?" trap? Maybe, in that sense, the issue is the assessment... in which case this is really no different at all to the third thing.

The Second Thing
Encouraged schools to steer weaker students into easier NCEA subjects that they can pass, such as statistics instead of algebra, so they can't cope with Pisa's harder questions;
On the other hand, maybe different is okay.

I took calculus at school, rather than statistics, and can't tell you that I ever had any easier internals than the two we did that year. The externals were definitely harder but I don't think they were particularly good preparation for university maths. Maybe it was because maths is poorly taught via lectures. Maybe it is because the word problems don't translate well to the way maths is taught at Auckland. Maybe I just ignored certain signs... and was able to ignore difficulties in certain areas because the same marks could be obtained via other aspects of the standards. Who knows?

But what this does is beg an interesting question... does Pisa actually assess what we care about? It's important, we have decided, that pupils know certain things. Do we lack ambition or just have different social priorities to Pisa? I can say that I definitely don't want to live in a world where pupils are convinced that a valid response to a regression model is 78.5% of statistics are made up on the spot. If the alternative is that they have to use trial and error to figure out how much fencing they can afford, I can live with that. On the other hand, I don't think that this is a trade-off we're actually faced with. Both are teachable.

I think the more concerning idea is like what happened in drama in year eleven. Based on our term two exams, some of the year was told to not do one of the external standards. That kind of channelling is more concerning because it means we might teach both statistical reports and algebra but the pupil only learns one of them as they're only assessed on one (the apparently easier stats stuff). And when pupils do this of their own accord (the SNA problem I've mentioned before) we see that the issues are deeply ingrained. Punishment is probably the only option here. (What of the psychological impacts of failure? Or is learning to fail something we don't do enough of?)

The Third Thing
Broken up subjects into small chunks for NCEA credits, rather than helping students achieve the deep understanding that comes from seeing the big picture;
I call this standards-as-silos. Basically, what I learn in AS 1.1 is irrelevant to AS 1.4, even if both are in the same subject, taught in the same school. The exceptions are rare and happen when the research standard (1.1 etc.) and the writing standard (1.2) are dovetailed in history. Maybe there are other exceptions. I... don't really know them... possibly things are generally more subtle and unconscious.

I think breaking things up into standards is broadly equivalent to breaking things up into concepts. The trouble is that sometimes these concepts (not the same as small chunks) relate to things that need to be integrated a bit more. Indeed, I would like to see a world where we try and get candidates to synthesise pretty much everything they know (hopefully I'll elaborate on this soon)... like scholarship on steroids.

What we can do, in the meantime, is develop an common assessment task, like that one external maths internal, that is done just after the exam break at a special end of year week of school-time (it's a long holiday, dammit). What would happen is that for each subject, some question (or questions) is (are) posed that require(s) tying together, over a couple hours (and in a communal fashion, like a history internal, where appropriate), the strands individually part of the various standards. It wouldn't be graded like a normal external but it would be marked... meaning feedback is provided and the thing would be be returned later on in January (after/with the scholarship results?). Attempting it (i.e. one of five or six versions for each course*) would be necessary for counting the credits from the subject towards the level certificate and it would have a credit value attached too, but this wouldn't really be the point. The main thing is that pupils do it and try hard on it without making it a make or break thing. That is hard but we ought to try.

*This means you can have schools sort out the timetable so that it works for them rather than having to have another exam timetable.

The Fourth Thing
Allowed our top students to relax as soon as they reach the standards or gain 80 NCEA credits, instead of stretching them to achieve their full potential;
You know, the SNA problem is really nasty. On one hand, what it means is that the above is bollocks. If people just relaxed, getting some NAs or whatever because you already have Excellence wouldn't happen. Indeed, in principle, the SNA problem arises because the candidate hasn't already got an Exellence endorsement because, believe it or not, but getting 50 credits at E out of 80, 70, 60 or however many internal credits a candidate has available is actually a lot more difficult than doing so from 160, 140, 120 or whatever credits all up. That is to say, only for candidates with massively internal assessment (i.e. none of the "traditional" subjects) does NCEA allow this. On the other hand, the SNA problem is indicative of a failure to stretch... that's obvious.

Now, the other part of this thing is a repackaged version of "four grades isn't enough to motivate people" that further misunderstands how NCEA works. The standard is achieved... he's telling us that top pupils aren't motivated to do better than achieved. I think that is bollocks. If you're a top pupil with no excellences? Sorry, you're not a top pupil. Come back when you walk, talk and quack like a duck. Heh, ducks. See... that's funny.

The Fifth Thing
Intensified competition between schools, so the best schools attract the best teachers and students at the cost of declining quality in other schools.
Yeah... I don't have anything "quick" to say about this. No, wait, I do... I agree wholeheartedly with this link between competition and quality... but I don't pretend to know which changes are responsible for this bent in NZ.

The Last Thing

Here we'll move on from Elley's comments and talk about streaming:
The reason [less streaming is associated with better Pisa scores] is not hard to see. Streaming predetermines children's performance, removing challenges they might have faced in a class of mixed ability, foreclosing the possibility they might be a late improver, permanently lowering, or raising, their confidence in themselves.
Basically, ask yourself if you're okay with the reason that drugged-up drop-out Joe doesn't become a physicist is that ten years earlier he was in the stream that was never asked the extension question, "Why isn't Pluto a planet"? I'm not okay with that and if you are I rather suspect you should get yourself checked for an empathy disorder... which is, on reflection, the sort of phrase that suggests I should too but I feel it needs to be said, implications be damned.

That being said, I did think I had talked about streaming on this blog before and that I'd been fairly positive about it. When I think about streaming as I experienced it, I have fond memories, basically. Indeed, there are two models. One of which I feel is defensible, the other of which I feel is practicable and hence that is why it is done.

Model One

When I was at primary school we had, every year, reading groups and often also maths groups. In each group we got (slightly? substantially?) different work to the other groups, with the work being aimed at our level. Basically, this means you could have some sort of general lesson on the mat or wherever and then you could split everyone up and teach in contained units. In other words, there is no such thing as aiming at the middle (see: either article) because each group creates a pool of variation around however many teaching levels the teacher deems appropriate.

In principle, of course, there is no reason why the groups couldn't be formed and collapsed as necessary. The way I think about it is that learning and teaching are two different things. And to extend those who need it, the isolated groups work well and to help those who need more help, the groups are great then too. The groups can be teaching and learning instruments. In practice, of course, groups are going to be fluid and possibly even aspirational. In year four a friend of mine and I tried quite hard to move up a maths group... he made it, I didn't. And in year six, I sat close enough to the front to be able to pay at least some attention to the teaching of the maths group above us. But, obviously, these are formed groups... our friend Joe is only going to hear about Pluto if everyone gets the extension material or if he's close enough to someone who has got it. We can do this by collapsing the groups.

The collapsed state of these semi-informal instruments is why I would defend this model. We can have four tables with six people sitting at them, right? That's 24 pupils altogether. That sounds like a realistically sized and set up classroom, right? And you can see how if we have four pupils in the top group, it's possible that when we're not treating them as a group that we can have them at a different table each... allowing them to help their fellows or just plain exposing their work to the same. Obviously it is important to do both things... have the formed groups for extension/assistance and the collapsed groups for learning, communication and co-operation.

Model Two

This strikes me as the kind of streaming most relevant to the discussion at hand: the 28 "brightest" pupils, then the next 28 and then the third 28 and then all the way down to the end of the ranking. I liked this as it worked out for me. My stream consisted of people behaviourally and intellectually akin to myself, which made things better for me and for our teachers. However, this was obviously at the cost of having mixed ability classrooms with mixed ability work... with the exception of the handful of upwardly mobile people that our school eventually deemed needed movement. And, in truth, after the third lot of 28 the school just jumbled everyone in together excluding the people who needed the absolute most help (the cabbage stream as I am sure everyone knows it by, even though, now, it seems most cruel a designation... obviously in the real world the label was "development" not cabbage officially). Basically... um, I can't really comment on how varied the abilities really were being isolated in my advanced class... and by year eleven where streams broadly ceased due to new subjects, seating plans seem childish... so one hopes that a friend group is mixed ability.

Conclusions

This is a difficult post to wrap up. I have sort of left the streaming bit, probably the most interesting thing, unresolved. That is, thus, one of the conclusions I need to write here. On the other hand, combining the various parts of this post into a coherent piece without basically going, "No, bad Elley" is challenging because, you know, that's not how it was written. All the same, I think the title gives us some room to at least start thinking about what the above means.

As I noted in the introduction, when we've tried to talk about education in NZ, it has traditionally boiled down to "Bad NCEA"... often with the hilarious suggestion we adopt a system indistinguishable from NCEA (see any Herald comments section ever). And when we try to talk about Pisa specifically the same goes: actually interesting stuff is sidelined in favour of ideological anti-NCEA remarks and hysterical reactions to movement up and down a dubiously constructed ladder. But here we have a debate about what it is we're doing that is focussed on an improvement, at least implicitly: let's get rid of streaming.

On reflection, the truth is very simple: it's hard to defend streaming. A lot of work needs to go into disputing the conclusions that the OECD has come to about streaming, and theoretically speaking one only finds reasons to dislike streaming. But streaming is very much something that forms a core part of NZ's educational experience. It doesn't happen like it does in Germany with gymnasia and the like, but it does happen in its own way. And the reason is really easy to understand: it's practical. It is so much easier to find clusters of similar abilities and teach to that cluster than it is to jumble everyone in together. But, at the same time, it is also apparent that we could cluster within a jumble. I know that my socks are a mess when I pull them out of the dryer... but I can work with the result if I pair them up, or even lump them into the various models (e.g. stripey, plain, grey). It sounds stupid, but it is pretty much the same idea if we imagine my socks as being one classroom and your socks another. Yet, the analogy ultimately fails because while no-one wants odd socks, collapsing the in-class groups is fundamental. Otherwise, we just have a less practical version of macro-streaming. In short, it will walk like a duck, quack like a duck and look like a duck... but we'll tell ourselves we've solved streaming.

NCEA is also something we should worry about thinking we're solved. Elley's point of view seems hysterical and I think that it's important to temper it with a more reasonable outlook. However, it remains that there are real concerns with NCEA. I increasingly find myself sympathising with those who would critique its insular standards-as-silos approach. And, despite what I said just above, 50 credits seems too low a level to award excellence or merit. I think it needs to go up to 60. And the SNA problem continues to get no media attention... but four years out of school by the end of this year means that I no longer have my finger to NCEA's pulse... it may be they've done something about it. Yet, it stretches all credibility to ask us to believe that top pupils lack all intrinsic motivation to do well: that an A just rolls off their backs, like water. This was why I questioned most strongly Elley's characterisation. But, on the whole, an honest analysis would favour NCEA... recalling the curriculum is the issue if we are teaching too much statistics and not enough algebra: not NCEA.

I don't know what a mature education debate looks like. I don't think one exists. It seems to me, in whatever country, education debates are ideologically fraught... this is particularly true if we think about the US and like it or not, discourse is informed by what we have convinced ourselves we're interested in watching. But I feel like we've at least come close today to this mythical form. It seems far too much to ask that it continues, but one can at least hope, that it is not one's own contribution that causes the regression. However, I feel like an NCEA-educated citizen would be able to identify the features of this blog that lend that last sentence its distinctly hollow ring. And that's a good thing. The curriculum that NCEA assesses may well teach maths poorly, but it theoretically imbues its pupil with the knowledge its society needs it to have. The knowledge, for instance, that is useful for a citizen of a democratic age in a modern state. We can't lose sight of that. We can't forget that maybe Pisa and its like don't have goals that necessarily correspond with what we need. But maybe that's just me. Although, I think, a mature debate recognises these kinds of contexts. And I think the Herald's just shown signs of wiping the sleep from their eyes.

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