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.