Tuesday, December 21, 2010

PISA has Gove leaning Eastwards

The reverberations from the PISA bombshell continue with the New York Times picking up the story. The relentless improvement of education results in countries like China, Singapore and South Korea are undoubtedly exercising the minds of our politicians.
The NYT article quotes Andreas Schleicher, director of the OECD's testing programme, as describing Britain’s performance as 'stagnant at best'. To rectify this Michael Gove says that he intends to reform the education system to make it more democratic and stresses the need to 'learn from the best-performing countries'. To do this, his intention is to toughen up the examinations system, 'using tests from China and South Korea as benchmarks', and he insists that he will 'explicitly borrow from these tiger nations'.
On a slightly less reassuring note, the article goes on to quote Nick Gibb as blaming 'text messaging and social networks' as the possible culprit for pupils' lack of interest in reading for pleasure. This is surely not the case. Text messaging is and should be regarded by teachers as only another genre of written language, with its specific conventions like any other genre. I would venture that the reason why many children choose not to read for pleasure is because they find it very hard to do and, in general, children who find something difficult to do tend to avoid it. To get children reading for pleasure, we need to teach them to read so proficiently that their reading is automatic and they have immediate access to meaning.
So, stop worrying about text messaging Nick and train teaching practitioners to teach reading and spelling proficiently from the start.
By the way, if you want to see what standards are like in maths at primary level in Singapore, go to SingaporeMath.com Inc and view the placement tests. Scary, huh?
*With thanks to Catherine Johnson of kitchen table math, the sequel, for drawing my attention to the NYT article.

Friday, December 17, 2010

No excuses! All children can learn to read and spell

Despite the lame excuses of Michael Welsh yesterday on Radio 4 and Dr Bethan Marshall today in the Telegraph, there are plenty of examples of schools situated in poor areas having huge success in teaching all children -that's boys as well as girls! - to read and spell.
Michael Gove says that the Coalition is particularly keen to get hold of solid evidence to show which reading methods work. Below is a table showing the results for fifty children taught using a linguistic phonic approach to the teaching of reading throughout Key Stage 1.
The test used was a simple, properly normed and standardised spelling test. What is immediately striking is the fact that only one child has a spelling age below his chronological age. This means that 98% of the children are performing above their chronological age. What is also quite extraordinary is that 90% of these children are already at least ten months ahead of the average chronological age for the class and that 64% are more than two years ahead. What is no less remarkable is that 44% of this cohort scored at the ceiling of the test (11 years).
In other words, not only is this school teaching pupils at the lower end of the continuum to read and spell successfully, they are also doing outstandingly well at the higher end of the continuum. there is still a continuum but it has been shifted massively to the right.
The school lies in a relatively poor area of Milton Keynes. It has topped the league tables in Milton Keynes in SATs for years and, just over a year ago, it came nineteenth in the league table for the country for the number of Level 5s in the English SAT.
How did the school achieve this? The answer is both simple and complex: simple because the school made it their policy to ensure that the teachers in Key Stage 1 were all properly trained to teach literacy; complex because training teachers to understand the way the alphabet code works in English and teaching them the specific skills, conceptual and factual knowledge needed to enable their pupils to learn to read and spell proficiently required resources and effort.
And the programme? Sounds-Write.

Wuns mor deer frends, ...

How enormously irritating it was this morning to listen to Mike Welsh of the National association of Head Teachers talking to John Humphrys on the Today programme about new government figures showing that one in ten boys leaving primary school at eleven have a reading age of seven or below.
'There's nothing new here,' declared Welsh. He's right, though not in the way he meant it. For far too long there has been this same long tail of underachievement, which Welsh failed to explain other than to suggest that most of this is due to children with special educational needs. So, that's it! It's the fault of the children not the fault of senior managers, like Welsh, who fail to recognise that it's the methodology that's the problem.
Later in the programme, Michael Gove made a number of points that give an indication that he and Nick Gibb are on the right track. He firmly advocated systematic, synthetic phonics; he placed emphasis on evidence that programmes designed to teach children to read and spell actually work; and, he insisted that testing was one way of finding out whether schools are doing their job – after all, he said, 'Do we want our children to learn to read or not?'
He also insisted that government needs to follow through. The last government seemed to believe that if it issued a decree, then everyone would jump to it. They commissioned the Rose Review and then sat back and failed to ensure that it was implemented. As the results show only too clearly, despite the billions of pounds spent on improving standards, very little has been done to boost the fortunes of so many children entering secondary education without the ability to cope with a secondary curriculum.
Michael Gove and Nick Gibb have said that they are going to ensure that things improve. The problem is that they haven't spelt out how they are going to do it. As I've argued so many times before if teaching practitioners are going to teach children to read and spell proficiently, they must receive the proper training and that training must be in a programme that works.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

"The countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow." Barack Obama

Following the publication of performance tables by the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) today, the blogosphere in the USA is a-buzzing with debate about the decline in standards over there too.
'Your child left behind' is one of the latest postings on Kitchen Table Math, a clearly ironic response to the US government's 'No child left behind'. The title of the posting is a reference to the recently published article in the Atlantic magazine, in which Stanford economist Eric Hanushek and two colleagues raise the same kinds of serious questions as many are beginning to raise over here.
Two of the more important conclusions Hanushek drew were that: 'more money does not tend to lead to better results; smaller class sizes do not tend to improve learning'; and that even the 'most-advantaged students ... do not compete favorably with average students in other well-off countries'.
Massachusetts comes out as the best performing state, which isn't saying much, though it's a lot better than lowest performing Mississippi. Why? Because they have for some time been much more focused on outcomes and because they have raised the standards required for people entering the teaching profession. For example, new entrants to the profession are now required to pass a basic literacy test before they can enter the classroom.
In response to Catherine Johnson's posting on the Irvington Parents Forum posting, in which she has 'pulled' some of the more significant points made by Hanushek, I noticed that Matthew Tabor had this to say:
"Here are the 40 finalists of Intel's Science Talent Search 2010:
I'll list off the first series of surnames:
Christensen, Yeung, Anand, Shahmirian, Ye, Suh, Jakpor, Liu, Nelakanti, Gandelman, Rudolph, Puranik, Fein, Li, Sharma... etc
We can look at finalists in the famed Westinghouse competition and a dozen others if anyone's interested.
Here are the surnames for Michigan State University's Cardiovascular Fellows:
There are 9 fellows and their surnames are Ghanem, Mughal, Gadeela, Viqar, Vedre, Chandra, Skaf, Pervaiz and Shamoun. They might be members of the Francis Cooke Society - descendants of Mayflower Compact members - but probably not."
It is information like this that is exercising people's minds and encouraging them to think carefully about the way they are educating their kids.
Finally, Hanushek concludes his piece in the Atlantic with this little gem:
"Early last year, President Obama reminded Congress, "The countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow." This September, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, visiting a local school on the first day of classes, mentioned Obama's warning and smugly took note of the scoreboard: "Well," he said, "we are out-teaching them today."
Arne Duncan, Obama’s education secretary, responded to the premier's trash-talking a few days later. "When I played professional basketball in Australia, that's the type of quote the coach would post on the bulletin board in the locker room," he declared during a speech in Toronto. And then his rejoinder came to a crashing halt. "In all seriousness," Duncan confessed, "Premier McGuinty spoke the truth."

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

More news of falling standards from PISA

I hesitate to put this posting on the blog because it feels like, well, here we are again! What do you know? Britain is still falling behind in the world rankings in literacy, maths and science.
The latest performance tables, based on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), shows Britain dropping from seventh to seventeenth in reading and from fourth to fourteenth in science. In maths the picture is even worse: we are now ranked twenty-fourth, which is below the international average. The latest round of tests was taken in 2009.
The data, according to the Telegraph correspondent Graeme Paton, are based on 'on independent tests taken by 400,000 15-year-olds worldwide'. Of course, the Coalition will make hay of the fact that the decline has taken place in spite of the fact that the previous Labour government spent well over £2 billion on the literacy and numeracy strategies.
Over the last ten years, Britain participated in 2000, when a 'stronger performance' was reported, 2006 and 2009. For some reason the country didn't participate in the 2003 tests. In 2006, standards in all three subjects had already fallen and, it seems, things have gone downhill since then.
What Paton is arguing is that unless we wake up and realise that Britain is competing within a global market and that our competitors – many of whom speak a range of languages, including English – are forging ahead in the world rankings for literacy, science and maths, our line of travel southwards can only continue.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

'The truth will out'

For advocates of phonics, it can be especially galling to see reputable newspapers and magazines giving space to the claims of the Whole Language lobby, whilst denying advocates of phonics a right to an adequate reply. The question is: what to do about it?
In 'The truth will out', published in the New Scientist (15/05/2010), Michael Shermer has a number of suggestions:
First, let denialists be heard! Consider their arguments and, as he maintains, 'if they have anything of substance to say, then the truth will out'. However, having had the debate, and many phonics advocates feel that the debate has been conducted ad nauseam over the past forty years, what happens when healthy 'scepticism morphs into denialism'?
Shermer gives the example of the Holocaust: in the case of the Holocaust deniers, having engaged them 'in debate and outlined in exhaustive detail the evidence for the Nazi genocide' to no avail, he simply threw up his hands 'and moved on to other challenges'. Many scientists have done the same in the context of the global warming debate.
However, Shermer is also quick to point out that 'throwing up your hands' and walking away 'is not always an option'. And that is pretty much where we are with the Whole Language lobby. Their shifting of the debate towards a much broader perspective on what is constituted by the term 'literacy' is seen as an attempt always to avoid the huge amount of scientific evidence in favour of teaching the alphabetic principle. As Stanovich (2000), puts it: 'A beginning reader must at some point discover the alphabetic principle: that units of print map onto sound.'
In this kind of scenario, Shermer is adamant: 'Those who are in possession of the facts have a duty to stand up to the deniers with a full-throated debunking repeated often and everywhere until they too go the way of the dinosaurs.'
So far, so good! What we should not do, though, is try to suppress debate. Shermer argues that because we can never be certain of knowing the 'absolute truth', we should always be prepared to think about where we might need to alter our ideas. In fact, within phonics, there is a continuous and vigorous debate about whether the code should be taught from print to sound or from sound to print and, indeed, whether the orientation makes any difference. [I think it does and I'm an advocate of the latter.]
No matter what, we should never resort to censorship. Shermer reminds us that exercising tolerance towards those in a minority means that you stand a better chance of being heard when you are in the 'sceptical minority'.
The best way to rebut the arguments of Whole Language advocates is to confront them with evidence. Sounds-Write has, since its inception, been collecting evidence of its success as a programme for teaching young children to read and spell. You can read the report-back to the schools participating in our data collection here