Saturday, 7 June 2014

Designers for a day

We had a pupil-free, Professional Learning day last Friday, providing us with some precious time to 'lift our eyes' a little and do some more conceptual, bigger-picture, longer-term thinking.
One of the activities that I wanted us to spend time on was looking at trends in the collated data from our self-assessments against the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.
We were able to identify some commonly-occurring areas of strength / confidence, as well as some areas for which we were relatively weak, or lacking in confidence.

I wanted us to focus on a small number of these collective weak points, with teachers each choosing one to go and do some work on with a small group of colleagues. I was hoping that we'd be able to generate some actions, ideas, initiatives, etc that we could look to put in place or trial, in order to take some steps towards improving in these identified areas of need.

I was interested and looking forward to this activity from a while out, but when I started to put a bit of thought into how I'd run the activity, I ended up becoming more interested in the process than the topic focus / content - the 'how' [we were going to work] became what I was most looking forward to, even more so than the 'what' [we were going to talk and think about]...
This was because I wanted to have a go at using some elements of Design Thinking - an approach to problem-solving that facilitates understanding, creativity and logic all at once, probably made most famous by US company, Ideo.
I was fairly cautious about not trying to go 'too big' with this first attempt at using the Design Thinking language and process, so I kept it to just a few of the elements that would be manageable and relevant to work through in a two-hour session:

We worked through each stage, stopping briefly to introduce each [including revealing constraints, such as 'rules' for brainstorming... ], culminating in each group making some mini-plans for each of the ideas that they selected to 'prototype'... 

A couple of the benefits of Design Thinking are that it is empowering - as staff are involved in working through a problem and designing a solution themselves, rather than having predetermined, externally produced solutions dictated to them - as well as that it is social and collaborative - people are reliant on their peers to generate quantity and quality of ideas, tap into different perspectives, access feedback, etc. 
We certainly experienced some of these and other benefits, as there was high levels of discussion, interest and engagement as we worked towards designing some of our own solutions to our own challenges.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Who is the most valuable..?

This is an interesting article on different approaches to implementing salaries in organisations.

In public education we are most-definitely beholden to the "civil service method: set narrow pay bands for every level of seniority, and then declare that the only way to get a substantial raise is to get a promotion... [resulting in] everybody gets promoted to a position of incompetence."
As public servants, teachers suffer from the "unspoken assumption that any given person should be paid the minimum amount necessary... The simplest way to calculate that amount is to simply see what the employee could earn elsewhere, and pay ever so slightly more than that." Hence why a common reference point in Enterprise Bargaining Agreements is what other jurisdictions are paying their teachers - governments will invariably aspire to "pay ever so slightly more" than what their neighbouring jurisdictions do their teachers... 

A really interesting concept that moves away from the type of traditional model mentioned above, is the notion of managers earning less money than the people who report to them. "... value is created by talented workers on the front lines, not by middle management..." - ie it is the teachers, who are in classrooms working with students everyday, that have the most direct influence on the quality of student learning and, therefore, are arguably the most valuable workers within the school. Those that are further removed from having this significant influence on a student's learning, are often not as valuable, particularly when compared to the high quality teachers that are making significant impact upon student learning. 
The article cites professional sports teams as an example where the 'front line' workers [ie the players] are indisputably recognised as the most valuable contributors towards the success of the team. I think there are definitely correlations with schools - teachers in classrooms are the ones 'playing the game' each day. 
Given the directness of their influence on improving student learning, perhaps it is classroom teachers who should be the best-rewarded workers within the school, rather than those with broader, but more distant [from student learning] responsibilities... 

Friday, 18 April 2014

School Reforms - do they hit the mark..?

This is a short, but interesting read from Professor Geoff Masters, touching on a small range of common [for western education systems] reform initiatives applied in recent years... 
Some of these well-known attempts at educational reform have missed the mark by way of failing to improve [or, in some cases, having a detrimental effect upon] the most significant influences on student learning - namely the quality of the teachers that work with children day to day.

Curriculum Standards provide important clarity for schools and teachers about what knowledge and skills they should be planning to develop in children, but - if too rigid and centralised - curricula runs the risk of undermining the professionalism of teachers [who become deliverers of prescriptive content, rather than skillfully selecting and applying the curriculum content that suits their unique group of students], as well as losing relevance for students for whom the curriculum pays little heed to their local context and circumstance.
National, standards-based curricula ensures more systematic and common curriculum delivery, regardless of location, school-type, teacher quality, etc - all of these should be positive results. However, enough freedom and 'room to move' needs to remain, so that students can have their individual learning needs met [rather than be 'systematically' taught exactly what their year level curriculum prescribes... ].

Performance Targets and Measures bring some important accountability to the performance of teachers, schools and systems. Over-emphasising these targets and overly-simplifying the measures of achievement and progress, leads to pressure being felt by teachers and schools to excessively-focus upon meeting targets and performing well only in what is measured. Inevitably, the byproduct of this sort of narrow, unbalanced approach is to 'down tools' in many other aspects of an education program, as more and more resources and emphasis is directed to achieving results that look good externally.

Public Transparency about school performance is closely linked to the previous point - the simpler that targets [eg: "the Australian Government's goal to be among the top five countries in the world... "] and measurement instruments [eg: standardised test results] are, the easier it is for governments and media to communicate this information to the general public. The public want transparency, but only in an easily-digestible format... 

Carrots and Sticks are being applied to make teachers and schools try harder. Rewards for schools that perform well mean they will be better-placed to... perform even more well..? Sanctions for schools that don't perform well mean they will be setback even further... 
Similar notions apply to teachers - rewards for individual teachers will encourage them to 'zero in' on that which is being measured [at the expense of the myriad of other factors that make a quality teacher], as well as make them less inclined to share with and assist a colleague.  

Achievement and Equity need to be considered as equally important. Most of the initiatives above focus heavily on raising achievement, but actually contribute towards a widening of achievement 'gaps' and, therefore, higher levels of inequity. The long-term impacts of inequity of educational achievement are significant and well-known for the broader society - unemployment, poverty, crime, poor health and a range of other problems are exacerbated by having large segments of the population that do not achieve well at school.  

So, whilst all of these initiatives have some merit and are often espoused in good faith, Masters' main point is that they are all missing the bullseye - improving the knowledge and skills of the teachers that work with students day to day. Ideally, 'macro' reforms should be enabling this work [developing the capacity of teachers] to happen more easily and effectively. At the very least, they must not make these important 'micro' reforms more difficult. 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Why funding private schools is *NOT* a smart idea

Kevin Donnelly thinks we need a private school system in Australia and that it actually helps the public school system.

"... private school parents pay taxes for a public school system they don't use plus school fees."
As they absolutely should do if they are deliberately choosing to snub the system that has been established for all Australian children. If this line of argument was applied to taxes across the board - ie individuals only contributing taxes to what they explicitly use - there would be no centralised, objective and strategic distribution of our tax money, which is what our Governments are [supposed to be] doing on behalf of and in the interests of all Australians.

"... [students] enrolled in Catholic and independent schools saves state, territory and Commonwealth governments billions of dollars every year... [due to] the additional cost to government if the private school sector closed and students had to be enrolled in state schools."
Yes, extra students in the Government system would mean extra funds required to this system, but Governments should not be 'let off the hook' here - they have a fundamental responsibility to provide education to all children and should be allocating resources to ensure this.
In reality, the greater capacity of most private school families to pay voluntary school contributions, to fund raise, to pay for school resources / excursions / camps / events,  etc, would see these students be far less of a 'burden' than the inclusion of a child from average or below-average life circumstances [most of these students are already served by public schools!].

"... while governments invest on average $15,768 per government school student in terms of recurrent costs, the figure for private school students is only $8546... [Catholic and independent schools] receive only 22.4 per cent of what state and Commonwealth governments spend on education in terms of recurrent costs."

The implied question is the wrong one here - instead of asking why private school students are 'only' invested in to the tune of $8546, the question we should be analysing is why non-government schools are receiving any government funding at all, when the people sending their children to these schools are deliberately choosing to not take up the government's offer of free, quality education in a government school.
The other side of this is that students in government schools [who take 'all comers'] typically need more investment to ensure their educational achievement. It is students in government schools who are far more likely to have challenging behaviours, identified special needs, speak languages other than English and generally come from home environments that are further removed from school environments. These Government school students are way more likely to need smaller teacher : student ratios, access to intervention programs, access to more and better-quality resources, financial support for involvement with extra-curricular programs and events, etc. 
I think this was what Gonski was largely about... 

"... the fact that [private] schools exist frees up funds that governments can then redirect to their own schools."
Except that our Governments continue to fund private schools, which is a redirection of Government education funds away from Government education!!

Donnelly then spends the remaining majority of the article pumping up the positive results of a private school education - better learning outcomes, better university entrance results, better wages in later life..... 
Given that private schools don't have to contend with the same complexity of issues that can affect learning, as much diversity in their student cohorts, and face less financial resourcing challenges [due to their ability to 'double-dip' via Government funding plus capacity to charge their wealthier parent cohorts exorbitant annual fees], it is little wonder that these children of advantage continue to maintain an advantage in their learning outcomes at school, their access to tertiary education and their post-education job success.
This inequitable, two-tier system of education in Australia encourages broader societal inequity. This maintain the status quo-type mindset of conservative thinkers results in the advantaged becoming more advantaged, the wealthy getting wealthier and power remaining with the powerful.
It is this type of conservative thought that will form one half of Christopher Pyne's review into the fledgling Australian Curriculum. I'm nervous...