Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Reading is cool (but misuse of data and ghettoising of students is not)

NB: I wrote this post about 2 weeks ago but never go round to editing and posting it. I'm currently almost completely brain-dead, so here it is,  only vaguely edited and very, very late.

I always find it really hard to decide what to write about on my blog - not because I can’t think of anything to write about, but because I find it difficult to decide which topic to explore. It’s also quite challenging accurately estimating a topic I can explore and discuss in one post without spending over one and a half hours writing and editing it…

So, this post’s potential topics of discussion were:
a) streaming and how it sucks
b) John Hattie’s work and how it’s actually valuable despite the fact that it’s been twisted by the National government to serve their selfish, stingy purposes
c) Literacy and how it’s really important yet really complex

‘a)’ This would be a reactionary (but very well-informed) post in response to working in a school that streams its students. Just to clarify, streaming is when you rank students from top to bottom (usually on English, Maths and/or Reasoning Skills) and then place students in classes accordingly. This means that there is always a ‘bottom stream’ classes (or maybe classes) and ‘top stream’ classes, and everything in between. This year I teach one of the two bottom stream classes; they are my form class and I teach them English. My class can be challenging to teach, but every student in there is an individual with so much potential, and so much to offer. They might be, academically, at the bottom of the cohort, but I am confident that, with the right guidance, they can all do very well in school, and do very well in whatever they choose to do with their lives. So I’m glad I teach them, even though I hate streaming. So, if I like my class so much, why do I hate streaming? 

Because it labels them. The students in my class have been labelled ‘bottom-stream’ and ‘low-ability’ since day one at high school. I never told them they were one of the 'bottom' classes. They figured that out themselves. Many of my students have low self-esteem, and the streaming isn’t helping.

Because it disadvantages them. Teachers know from Day 1 that they are a bottom stream class and they set their expectations accordingly. To add to this, students in bottom stream classes are not sitting in classrooms where they have high achievement modelled to them by other students.

Because streaming in itself has not proven to actually raise the achievement of students in streamed classes.  Many schools stream students - often making the lower-stream classes slightly smaller than a top-stream class- and then expect these ability groupings to somehow raise the learning and achievement of these students.  Very little extra support for the students and teachers is provided. And that’s stink. Teachers need training and support if they are to lift up the literacy and numeracy levels of students who have been working well below where they should be for quite some time. The teachers of these classes are not simply ‘teaching content’ (not that I would argue teachers of any classes are - see the NZ Curriculum - but some high school teachers still believe that is their primary role). Also, just to bring it back to the research,  John Hattie’s work has shown that streaming has a 0.05 effect size. BOOM. Which brings us to b)

b) Teachers love to hate on John Hattie. Don’t get me wrong - I can certainly see why. His research has essentially been used by the New Zealand government to increase class sizes in schools across the country. My largest class this year has 29 students in it. Some of my friends (in other schools) are teaching classes of 35. There’s no need to explain how hard that is, eh.

Class sizes are determined by the amount of funding each school receives from the government. Thus, more money = more teachers = smaller class sizes. So it’s obviously going to result in a big thumbs down from teachers for any research that supports a government taking money away from schools and making their workload significantly larger than it is already.

But I’m going to defend Hattie here, kinda. He’s not to blame for how the government has used his data. Hattie’s research looked at the most influential factors in relation to student achievement. Feedback was at the top of the list with a 1.13 effect size (and I don’t see the government pouring training into professional development on Feedback…). He NEVER said that class sizes don’t matter. He just calculated that class size has a -0.05 effect size (see Physical Attributes of the School). He was looking at student achievement, not teacher workload, teacher stress or teacher mental health. Obviously, this is not a particularly holisitic way of looking at education, but student-centred research is certainly valid - after all, aren’t we in it for the students? (Aside: if you haven’t read Russell Bishop’s student-centred research then you should - it’s all about student voice, using student narratives, and it’s super valuable; I don't have a link, sorry. Anyway, the National government then took that piece of Hattie’s data and de-contextualized it for its own purpose - to provide less money for schools. BLERGH. And now onto c)

c)  Literacy is my passion. To summarise, literacy is the ability to read confidently, to write coherently, and think critically about the written word. I know that ‘literacy’ is a pretty broad term in that it can also include the ability to understand all forms of communication, but I guess the literacy I’m most concerned with is the skills of reading and writing. A large proportion of students I teach have relatively low literacy levels. Students should, according to the NZ Curriculum, be reading and writing on the cusp of curriculum levels 4 and 5 when they enter Year 9. Many are in fact reading and writing well below this. And this has huge implications for these students’ achievement, and their happiness, at high school and beyond. Therefore, literacy is all connected up with self-esteem. And it’s also all connected up with privilege and socio-economics, and power too. That’s all pretty heavy stuff, so I think I’ll leave this topic for another day…

So it appears that I have (briefly but fairly satisfactorily) explored two of the three biggest educational issues swirling around in my head right now. 

To conclude:

I actually really love my school but as long as it streams students and then does very little else for those students in the bottom streams, I don’t think it is working towards better learning and achievement outcomes for students.
Teachers need to stop the hating on John Hattie and instead look at the research and what it actually means and question how it has been manipulated by the Right (although I always encourage suspicion and questioning of those held up on a pedestal).
Literacy is so important that I’m going to have to write at least one or more post on it. 

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