Saturday, April 28, 2012

Teachers under surveillance

In the latest issue of the Eye, there's a lovely little satire on teachers and reading:

by Our Education Staff Michael Whiteboard
BRITAIN's top teaching union, NOTREAD (the National organisation of Teaching Representatives, Educationalists and Deputies) last night voted unanimously to go on strike against government plans to teach pupils to read and write before they leave school at 16.
Said union leader Phil Literate, "It is an outrage and a total attack on the professionalism of teachers everywhere to suggest that they are in some way failing because so many children finish their education without the totally obsolete and outmoded so-called skill of being able to read."
The Phonic War
The Department of Education denied that they were trying to undermine teachers.
Said the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, "All we are trying to do is bringing in a test for 5 year olds in which they have to show they are capable of reading a passage from the Guardian in which all the letters are jumbled up so that word recognition alone can enable them to decipher the meaning of what Mr Rusbridger has been writing."

Private Eye, No 1312, 20 April - 3 May 2012

Friday, April 27, 2012

Another head teacher takes the pledge

What is it with these heads that can’t stop crossing themselves and averring that they are not going to tell six-year-olds they are failures? As if any teacher in their right mind would declare a child a failure if they didn’t pass a test, any test. If anyone is declared a failure, it ought to be the heads who are responsible for not making sure that reading and spelling is taught properly in their schools.
The latest head to set his face against DfE’s new phonics screening check is Steve Iredale, who also happens to be the new leader of the National association of Head Teachers.
He is reported as saying that "it is an absolutely nonsense test with nonsense words", which is where he also pledges not to tell children they are failures. What rot! It comes to something when people like this have to resort to aunt Sallies like this.
He goes on to express his scepticism about whether the test will be a true test of children’s reading ability on the grounds that ‘in one school it was noticeable that the brighter children paused when they came to a “nonsense” word thinking they must have heard it wrong and trying to conjure up alternative spellings to turn it into a real word’.
Very scientific, Mr Iredale! We’re not told how many children did this, or how Mr Iredale came to the conclusion that children were doing what they were doing - after all, they were ‘brighter children’ and presumably had been told that many of the words weren’t real words. Not that there’s anything wrong with children pausing to consider whether they are familiar with a word they are reading. They come across such words all the time in the course of their reading.
The problem, as I’ve pointed out before, is that very many heads haven’t a clue how to teach reading and spelling. Nor have they ever bothered to read the research on the subject.
For Mr Iredale’s benefit, read Nick Gibb’s lips! No more unacceptable illiteracy rates! The check is a check on how well children can decode. This involves the sub-skills of blending, segmenting and being able to link print to sound, as well as understanding some simple concepts, such as knowing that letters are symbols for sounds and that we can spell all sounds in the language with one, two, three, or four letters. Learning these skills, understanding these concepts and knowing which sounds in the language are represented by which spellings are not arrived at by most children unless they are taught explicitly and systematically. And even those children that do manage to work out for themselves how the writing system relates to the spoken language would learn much faster if they were given expert, properly directed instruction.
Oh, and another thing Mr Iredale, if a child can’t decode, they have no possibility of divining meaning from a text.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Brand? but by no means bland!

I had to smile the other day. I was listening to programme on Radio 4 reporting on the Home Affairs Committee, which happened to be hearing evidence about an inquiry into drugs by the police, when who should pop up but Russell Brand?
Regardless of the content of what Mr Brand had to say, and some of it I thought was very sensible, what stuck out like a sore thumb, apart from his dress sense on such an occasion (!), was the way in which his speech is so liberally sprinkled with glottal stops '?'.
I notice today that Gordon Wells’s phonetic blog devotes a posting to exploring the question of how far we can expect to see the use of the glottal stop extended. Almost infinitely if Mr Brand is anything to go by!

'Making the grade' in the USA

An article, 'Making the Grade', in The New Republic (TNR) early this month really helped clarify for me the issue of hiring and firing of teachers in this country.
First, let me say that The New Republic leans towards the Democratic Party in the USA and can be very sharply critical of anything rightwards of centre-right in US politics, although, having said that, TNR isn’t afraid to criticise adversely Obama’s policies when they think he’s on the wrong track.
In their April 5th issue, the focus of the Op-Ed was a bill presented to the Virginia Legislature on tenure for public (for which read ‘state’) teachers. TNR described the move as ‘an attempt to rectify what is perhaps the least sane element of our country’s approach to education’.
Once teachers in the state sector in the USA achieve tenure, it is virtually impossible to sack them for ‘the rest of their careers’. Sound familiar? It should because it mirrors very closely the situation here in England.
TNR analogises the position of teachers to that of university teachers, who also receive tenure. However, while it is important for university professors to have a certain degree of protection, given their important role in exploring ideas, which may not always be palatable to powerful vested interests, this can hardly be argued as being the case for school teachers.
Is there then a case for making it as difficult as it is to sack underperforming teachers? TNR concedes that it is very difficult to quantify success in teaching. However, this is also true of many other jobs, yet measures are put in place to establish whether employees are performing satisfactorily or not. So, why should teaching be any different?
Given that the job is one of the most important in a society for which education and training are so vital, we need, they say, to ensure that ‘the most able, talented people are doing it – and doing their best work at all times’.
In England, as in the USA, the Labour Party, as the party of the centre-left, continually drags its feet on reform and is too reluctant to criticise the teachers’ unions. That is not to say that unions don’t have an important part to play in defending members against over-zealous heads or local authorities or other such circumstances when the occasion demands.
For their part, the Conservative Party, like the GOP (Republican Party) in the USA, has too often confused their desire to raise standards and get rid of bad teachers with deprecating state education as a whole.
The article ends by making the point that, ‘for liberals, there is nothing more important than public education. Great public schools are the way a liberal, democratic, capitalist society makes good on the promise of providing genuine opportunities to all. Which is why liberals should steadfastly resist any impediments to improving the quality of education in our country.’
There's still a very long way to go before we get right the balance between the consumers and the producers in education.

Friday, April 20, 2012

What keeps the anti-phonics lobby awake at night

There’s an opinion piece published in the TES today (20 04 2012) in the ‘What keeps me awake at night’ column, imploring Mr Gibb to ‘read up on phonics’.
Sadly, it’s yet another witless little anti-phonics diatribe from another benighted simpleton who advertises his ignorance of what phonics is from the start. He tells us that ‘synthetic phonics is where you blend two letters together to make one sound’ and then gives as an example ‘g’ and ‘r’ to make ‘gr’. Sorry, Anonymous, but you fell at the first fence. ‘Gr’ is not one sound; it’s two! And, if that really is the abysmal level of your understanding of what ‘synthetic phonics’ is, you really have no right at all to pontificate on the subject.
After that, it’s downhill all the way. There’s the usual assertion that reading is more than just phonics – as if teachers of synthetic phonics don’t know this. Of course, we do! We teach children to decode accurately so that they are able to read anything and everything. How long shall we be patient with this fool who ties his ear to no tongue but his own?
The evidence on the need for teaching phonics is not contradictory. It is overwhelming and has been for the past forty to fifty years. Unfortunately, until Mr Gibb came along, no government minister of any stripe was apprised of this and most, with the connivance of the various education departments, encouraged the teaching of the mixed methods which have been so comprehensively discredited by the research.
Most teachers are not experts in teaching phonics. Not by any stretch of the imagination! This isn’t because they are bad teachers. It’s because no-one has been training them in how to do it. That’s what Mr Gibb is attempting to address.
Poor Anon forgets that, when using the Dalek simile, the very word was made-up. The Grinch can hardly contain himself.
Amendment to the original posting: I initially believed that the author of the particular 'What keeps me awake at night' piece in the TES was David Marley. Mr Marley is in fact the deputy-editor at the TES and was not responsible for the article. As he has since informed me, the column was written by an anonymous contibutor and I have therefore made the necessary revisions.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The shape of things to come?

I haven’t posted about anything from The USA’s National Public Radio (npr) for some time now but one of their latest pieces really caught my eye this morning. It’s titled ‘From Silicon Valley: A New Approach To Education’ and, although it’s not exactly new, it should scare the beejesus out of higher education sectors everywhere.
Stanford University in the USA has been running an online course in ‘machine-learning’ – for free! Over a hundred thousand students enrolled and tens of thousands completed the course. They also did the same tests as the Stanford students and thousands passed.
What’s more Stanford, in co-operation with the Michigan, Penn (Pennsylvania) and Princeton, are planning to roll out more of these courses. Naturally, to be successful, they have to do more than teach computer science; so, to prove it can be done, next autumn they are going to offer a course in modern and contemporary American poetry - Wallace Stevens's 'Sunday Morning' , mmmm, sounds wonderful! Al Filreis, poetry prof from Penn University is going to be the person taking on the challenge.
And, you may be wondering why they are doing this: “By providing what is a truly high quality educational experience to so many students for free, I think we can really change many, many people’s lives,” says Daphne Kohler from Stanford.
And if you think this applies only to higher ed, you can think again. Take a look at, for instance, the Khan Academy, which offers free online tuition in a wide range of subjects.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Teach Primary on Y1 phonics screening check

The latest issue of Teach Primary has published a short piece I wrote for the magazine about the new Y1 phonics screening check. See also my previous blog postings on the subject here, here and here.

If you would like to read it, it's sent out free to all primary schools and is also available from WHSmith.