Friday 13 May 2016

The fatal conceit

A new report out last week finds that the six year investment and increased focus on literacy and numeracy skills within primary school has resulted in less than anticipated results. On average there has only been a 1% improvement in results per year. The literacy and numeracy standards have done little to improve literacy or numeracy.  

The Herald notes:

Thousands of children begin secondary school each year without the reading, writing or maths skills needed to make it through. In a new series 'The Primary Issue' we look at what more can be done to raise achievement for all Kiwi kids.
Primary school pass rates have virtually flatlined despite an six-year government literacy and numeracy "crusade" costing more than $250 million.
Data shows a quarter of children entering high school are below the National Standards in reading, writing and maths.
Of the almost 60,000 students who began Year 9 last year, 17,900 were unable to meet writing requirements, 18,500 were behind in maths, and 12,700 could not read at the expected level, meaning they would have to be rapidly "caught up" to have any hope of passing a high school qualification.
The figures remained largely unchanged over three years, rising an average 1 per cent across all year levels since 2012.


Side note: If you think primary schools are not doing so well, wait until you see the statistics on high school!

The fatal conceit
I have much to say about this (as usual!). There are three reasons why top-down educational initiatives don't result in improved learning.  I could reference tens of Government initiatives that received huge funding yet made little real impact.  Think, 'No child left behind' and 'Closing the gaps'.  I'll briefly outline the most controversial reason here and look at the other two later.

Friedrich Hayek penned one of the most thoughtful books ever written called 'The Fatal Conceit".  In it he described what in his mind is the grandest of conceits - the notion that a top-down remote leadership approach will impact the conditions of an established culture to which they don't belong (think the classroom).  The notion that a remote decision-maker, far away from the situations in which the interactions occur, will be able to control what the teacher does in-the-moment is a conceit. He of course was describing the economical conceit of socialism, in which an external decision-maker will decide what your habits, interests, and worth ought to be, however his argument is valid.  In addition, the approach used in NZ education functions under exactly the same paradigm.  External bodies attempt to dominate what occurs in remote cultures (the classroom).

Understanding why a remote body cannot change in-the-moment interactions requires accepting that a classroom has a culture.  Culture can be described as 'knowing when to do something, and how to do it'. Classrooms are powerful culture machines.  A large body of research finds that classroom cultures powerfully influence behaviour. Children, adults and teachers act very differently inside classrooms than they do outside.

Remote decision makers cannot influence what really matters, which is the in-the-moment interaction between the teacher and the learner.  This in the moment interaction is partly what Giroux called 'the hidden curriculum'.  The hidden curriculum refers to what is really learned in classrooms.  It can be argued that it is within the interactions that learning occurs (think symbolic interactionism and negotiated meaning).  Not even close decision-makers can influence this - think about the effect of learning advisers, PD professionals, and think of Nationals new super teachers that mentor other teachers.  These are the interventions that people who are removed from the situation think will work.

Because decision makers cannot directly influence the classroom culture, they have to create secondary levers, which according to Hayek, they actually believe will make a difference. Thus, they use the following tools: policy, curriculum, resources, classroom design, assessment practice and targeted funding. They do so under the false belief that these make a significant difference to an existing culture. Unfortunately the lesson of history (AGAIN) reveals that these have a negligible impact on actual learning.  I want to scream this from the rooftops, if only someone would listen.  

Policy, assessment, funding etc, are the areas that the decision-makers have control over, so this is what they attempt to implement. These are all top down approaches.  An apt metaphor might be: trying to fix a motor using two long sticks held in either hand.  Always at a distance, never accurate, and lacking the dexterity to enact real change. 

If only the Ministry of Education had learned from the Tertiary Education Commission's strategic attempts to improve adult literacy and numeracy. They have adopted almost identical methodology, and the results (although currently obscured) are not at all impressive. An estimated 160 million dollars has been invested since 2008 into adult literacy. An estimated 260 million dollars has been invested into the schools national standards. We have new resources, assessments, frameworks, policy, new qualifications and personnel - but learning gains? Almost nil. 

I'm sure most educators who do not work directly with learners day in and day out will disagree with this post. However, for those who are in the classroom, most will agree.  The top-down initiatives simply do not penetrate the culture enough to make a difference to learning.

So, let me clarify where I stand.

First, we need good policy, we need effective frameworks, we need appropriate useful assessments. But these are support structures, not effects in themselves.

What we desperately need is:

Highly, highly, highly trained teachers and tutors.  The research constantly shows that teachers make the difference. Highly trained, experienced, passionate teachers win every time.  They are the best people to make decisions - train them so they make good ones.

If that money had gone into training, retaining high achieving tutors, holding tutors accountable and rewarding them for real learning gains for all learners, we would not still be at the starting line after spending half a billion dollars.

A way forward 

The Content Knowledge for Teaching Mathematics (CKT-M) tool measures how well teachers and tutors know the content they are teaching.  This tool is used internationally and predicts learner outcomes. I.e. the higher a teacher scores on the tool the higher their learners achieve. In other words - wouldn't you love to know the score of the teacher of your children?  

We could develop a similar tool, or use the existing tool, and quickly begin to measure and improve teachers and tutors skill levels.  Perhaps it is simply too easy.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post...! Love it. I think you're secretly an anarchist...