Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Can't teachers be part of the solution?

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It's been a pretty depressing week in Australia for people interested in trying to find ways of improving outcomes for students in Australia whose performance sees them lagging behind (a) others in this country and (b) international peers. The latest PISA and PIRLS results are depressing enough in themselves, given the continued decline they reflect across the core areas of maths, science, and literacy. Perhaps more deeply worrying though, is the highly divisive debate that has erupted on social media platforms such as Twitter regarding how we can trade our way out of this mess.

In recent days I've witnessed every kind of logical fallacy, straw man distraction and ad hominem attack imaginable, largely from the loose alliance of education academics whose staunch opposition to discussing classroom practices is something that can only be likened to climate change denial for its anti-intellectual, anti-science stance.

I have been busy over the last two decades, doing my bit research-wise in the oft-referenced "long tail of under-achievement". My research concerns young people in the youth justice system, those in Out-of-Home care, those in flexible/alternative education systems, and those in disadvantaged schools and communities (and very often all four categories coalesce of course). These are the young people who need to encounter an education system that is primed and ready to teach them, and to quickly catch them up on key developmental assets (such as vocabulary and world knowledge), so that they can join the mainstream of successful learners.

Let me be very clear in expressing my support for fairer education funding models in this country, and in particular for students with additional needs. However, as I have noted previously on this blog, no amount of money will change what teachers are taught in their pre-service education, nor what they do as a consequence, in their classrooms. Take for example, the science of teaching reading - yes, there is an actual science behind the optimal ways of ensuring that all, not just some children make this magical transition in the first few years of school. Little of the cognitive science seems to make its way through to teacher pre-service education, however, being supplanted by Whole-Language favourites such as Three Cueing and a huge emphasis on sight-words as a starting point, rather than the early systematic teaching of essential decoding skills. I can produce many online examples that show that peak teaching bodies have not grasped the nettle of what evidence-based phonics instruction actually means, preferring instead to park the Trojan Horse of so-called Balanced Literacy outside the classroom door. I am not doing so here, however, because my point is that the knowledge-to-practice pipeline is severely clogged by ideological waste, and that is in no way the fault of classroom teachers.

My interactions with classroom teachers are invariably lively, positive, mutually informative, and underpinned by genuine curiosity about how to best work together to do things better/differently in order to strengthen student outcomes. Unfortunately, my interactions with some education academics leave me pondering the proposition that we can't expect teacher pre-service education to actually teach beginning teachers anything much at all. The sense of nihilism is breath-taking.

Can't teachers be part of the solution?

The view that solutions to our current challenges all sit in either funding and/or political fixes seems particularly disempowering to classroom teachers, who are confronted on a daily basis with the challenge of trying to engage struggling learners, many of whom develop secondary behavioural and/or mental health problems as a consequence of their academic under-achievement. These make school an unhappy place for everyone, teachers included. Suspensions, exclusions and early departure are the offerings for vulnerable students with inadequate academic runs on the board.

So (we would be told) these students do poorly because of who they / their parents / their communities are, not because of how they have been taught. This reflects the so-called "soft bigotry of low expectations" I have referred to previously.

Teachers cannot become serious players in changing the outcomes for vulnerable learners until education academics, teacher unions, and literacy peak bodies are prepared to place children at the centre of the debate, rather than their own ideological patch or bias. This means acknowledging that there are some cherished classroom practices that are not serving all children as well as they should, particularly children who are starting from behind. These children will continue to under-perform on any academic (and life)  measures without the best instruction current educational science has to offer - irrespective of whose ideology this aligns with.

I'll bookmark this post, because I am pretty sure we'll be coming back to the same depressing responsibility-evasion when the next round of international data is released.

(C) Pamela Snow, 2016

Friday, 25 November 2016

Why is a Phonics Check a good idea in Australia?

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This week, the Centre for Independent Studies released a report authored by Dr Jennifer Buckingham, arguing the case for a Phonics Check at the end of Year 1 in all Australian schools. The rationale behind this call lies in the underwhelming engagement of (a) states/territories and their education sectors and (b) Faculties of Education in taking seriously the recommendations of the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (NITL). The reasons for this resistance are largely ideological and have been discussed elsewhere on this blog. If Australia was a high-performer with respect to literacy outcomes, then we would not be having this debate. We could all content ourselves with the knowledge that whatever it is that early year’s teachers are doing, it is working, so there is little need for us to interrogate their knowledge or practice. However that is not the case. 

Where is the evidence that reading performance in Australia is problematic?

In addition to PIRLS data on low literacy levels of Year 4 students in Australia, we also have Australian Bureau of Statistics data on poor literacy rates in this country. NAPLAN results have been flat-lining since 2008 and it is estimated that 40,000 15 year-olds (1 in 7) do not achieve baseline proficiency in reading, a failure rate that is echoed in the Industry Skills Council of Australia's 2011 report No More Excuses, which cautions that low language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) skills threaten our capacity to compete economically as a first-world industralialised nation (p.1):

Literally millions of Australians have insufficient LLN skills to benefit fully from training or to participate effectively at work.

The situation looks as if it could be getting worse, not better: the LLN performance of Australian students has, over the past decade, worsened in comparison to other OECD countries. 

So – we have multiple sources of evidence that we are under-performing, and our situation may be getting worse rather than better. 

Teacher educators have had more than ten years to be pro-science and show leadership in engaging with the recommendations of the NITL, however progress remains glacial and highly uneven. I suspect many of them hoped the NITL would simply go away if they didn’t talk or think about it. Perhaps the hope was that so-called Balanced Literacy would appease/fool enough politicians and policy-makers and then any remaining attention could simply be deflected to school funding debates.

Ironically, in the meantime, many schools continue to engage with pseudo-science and non-evidence-based approaches, which rarely if ever seem to be called out by education academics.


How could a Phonics Check be helpful?

Many stakeholders who are concerned about children’s unnecessary academic under-achievement and ultimate failure are on-board with the evidence that a Phonics Check is an appropriate intervention to raise awareness about, and address:
  • Uneven knowledge on what effective phonics instruction actually means (incidental Vs analytic Vs synthetic - they are all different and not equally effective).
  • The fact that teaching below the word level in a systematic way helps children to learn and apply critical de-coding skills that we all need in order to be effective and efficient readers.
  • The role of effective phonics instruction at the outset in setting the overwhelming majority of children up for academic success – not just those who come from linguistically enriching home environments, with shelves groaning with often-read books.
  • The role of accurate and timely feedback on student learning to inform and influence teacher practices.
  •  The importance of getting early instruction right, rather than applying costly band aids after the fact, when early instruction has not been optimal, as per Dr Misty Adoniou’s perplexing suggestion that rather than a Phonics Check, we should wait until failure is deeply entrenched at Year 4.
  •  The importance of rigorous translation of research evidence into classroom practice. We don’t need more evidence in this space; we simply need more on-the-ground application of the rich body of evidence sitting at our feet.
The quality of what transpires in classrooms is not simply a matter for the judgement of teachers in the classroom, their employers, or their unions. If we applied this lack of logic and accountability in medicine, there would be riots in the streets, and banner headlines in our newspapers. We expect medical practitioners and their educators to engage with evidence and to ensure it is translated into practice. Patient safety and wellbeing is rightly placed above doctors’ ideological preferences and egos.

Why is it then that children’s educational wellbeing is not placed above the taboo of talking about uneven quality in teacher education and practice?

(C) Pamela Snow, 2016

Friday, 18 November 2016

Could better reading instruction save lives?


There has been enormous media coverage in Australia (Victoria in particular) in the last week about the latest round of riots in a youth detention facility.  I am not in a position to identify the no doubt complex chain of events and background circumstances that led up to these riots, however it is worth noting that:

·         Victoria has a strong history of policy leadership in youth justice. We have a unique "dual track system" that enables (indeed encourages) magistrates and judges to sentence 17-20 year olds to youth detention facilities, rather than sending them to adult prisons, as occurs in all other Australian states and territories, and indeed in most jurisdictions in the developed world. When I have mentioned the dual track system to overseas conference audiences, I see eyes widen and heads shake in wonder. That is because these colleagues recognise that sending young people to adult prisons accelerates rather than slows their progression into serious, recidivist criminal activity, and removes them from prosocial influences such as education and vocational training. 
·         Victoria has the lowest youth detention rate in Australia. This means, however, that those young people who are in custody are the most complex in terms of trauma exposure, child protection involvement, histories of school suspension and expulsions, and low academic achievement. Research by my group also shows that some 50% (conservatively estimated) of young offenders in Victoria have a previously undiagnosed language disorder, and there is an association between severity of offending and severity of disorded language skills. Language disorder was also more common in those young people who entered youth justice via a period of Out of Home Care on Child Protection orders. In a more recent study we conducted in NSW, 87% of the youth offender sample had experienced school suspensions and expulsions. As a means of changing their life trajectories, I think we'd have to agree that these approaches deserve a giant "FAIL"
·         Some 80% of the young people at Parkville Youth Justice are on remand. This means they have not been found guilty of current charges in the Children's Court and so are less likely than sentenced counterparts to engage in education and offender rehabilitation programs. The system needs to be better resourced to do a better job.
·          Given the time it takes many cases to be heard in the Children's Court, the remand period may exceed the ultimate sentence, meaning that these young people are then "discharged" from a volatile, unpredictable, and stressful environment, back into the community - another volatile, unpredictable, and stressful environment. 
These are just a few of the reasons that media commentators and armchair experts should not be leaping to simplistic solutions that play to the well-loved "tough on crime" old jukebox favourite. If punitive approaches worked (which they do not), we would not need to be having this debate. 

So - what might help? 


It might help if we thought about the school-to-prison pipeline and the intervention levers that can be pulled "upstream" to improve the life prospects of young people who come from low-SES, vulnerable families and communities, and who have been subjected to the soft bigotry of low expectations* from an early age. 

While ways of effectively approaching the sad, complex, and often seemingly hopeless lives of young people in custody are as elusive as they are thin on the ground, we are not lacking in evidence about how to lift improvement in a key protective factor for vulnerable young people: making the transition to literacy

Children cannot succeed academically if they do not make this transition, and they need to do so in the first three years of school, to prevent a yawning canyon opening up between them, their achieving peers, and the rapidly increasing language and literacy demands of the school curriculum. 

Ironically, we do not need more research to know how to do a better job of teaching reading. We simply need to do a better job of applying the abundance of high-quality research that has been reported, replicated, and supported in three national inquiries (the USA, Australia, and the UK). My interactions with teachers, as well as research of which I am a part, affirms time and time again, that pre-service teacher education is not equipping teachers to teach reading in ways that are consistent with the recommendations of these national reviews

Consider this alongside the evidence that young people who are starting from behind when they enter school derive a disproportionate degree of benefit from explicit teaching of phoneme-grapheme links at the start of their reading instruction. It's time to take a serious look at the school-to-prison pipeline and the role of early years practices in protecting at least some children from this most dangerous of trajectories.


Could better reading skills save lives?


I'll leave the final word on this to Rod Morgan, the former Chair of the UK, Youth Justice Board:

It may be too much to say that if we reformed our schools, we would have no need of prisons. But if we better engaged our children and young people in education we would almost certainly have less need of prisons. Effective crime prevention has arguably more to do with education than sentencing policy” (2007).

(C) Pamela Snow, 2016