Thursday, October 23, 2008

Quis docebit ipsos magistes?

Literacy tests for trainee British teachers show that those who can't spell, teach

Thousands of trainee teachers are struggling to pass literacy tests that require them to spell words such as anxiety, relieved and mathematical. More than 11,000 trainee teachers, just over a quarter of the annual intake, failed to pass the literacy test last year at their first attempt, an increase of 16 per cent since 2001. The findings have prompted concern that new teachers may be struggling with the basic skills they will be charged with passing on to pupils.

David Laws, the Liberal Democrat schools spokesman, said: "Spelling is a key basic skill. We need a renewed focus on getting the basics right. "As the number of applicants being accepted on to teaching courses rises, we need to be sure that this isn't being coupled with a decline in standards. The existing minimum qualifications for people wanting to become teachers are too low." Mr Laws said that the economic slowdown should be used as an opportunity to promote teaching as a profession and attract top graduates.

The tests, which are taken online by students training for primary and secondary schools, are designed to raise standards in the profession. Trainees can take them as many times as they want.

Although teachers must have good GCSE passes in English, maths and science and a degree to work in English state schools, the tests were introduced in 2000/01 amid concerns that teacher training did not provide a sufficient grounding in the basics. The figures, obtained by the Liberal Democrats in a Commons written answer, show that the failure rate in numeracy has also risen since the tests were first introduced. Last year 20,000 trainee teachers failed to pass the numeracy test at the first attempt. On average, around half the students had to take the test twice before passing. In ICT, 4,000 failed the test first time.

Research this year from the Spelling Society found that more than half of adults could not spell embarrassed or millennium. A quarter struggled with definitely, accidentally and separate.

The survey found that Britons blame the current state of poor spelling on parents and teachers, with three out of four people believing that spelling among children is worse now than it was ten years ago.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families said that the quality of teacher training had never been higher. "The vast majority of trainee teachers pass all three tests first time round and the bottom line is that no one can start teaching until they have passed them," the department said. "More top-quality teachers than ever before are entering the profession from industry, the public sector and universities, thanks to highest-ever pay levels, golden hellos, better behaviour and discipline, and slashed paperwork."

The Training and Development Agency for Schools said that the average pass rate across all three subjects was more than 83 per cent.



Three current articles below

Literacy skills shock for NSW public schools

Only North shore (affluent area) kids do well. Once again "modern" methods fail the poor

One in five children at NSW public schools is at or below minimum literacy levels, with little real improvement despite a large increase in Government spending, a new report has found. And children in country areas generally fare worse than their city cousins, with the gap increasing. "Compared to 10 years ago, the NSW Government has spent over three times more money on improving literacy and numeracy, yet there has been little real improvement," NSW Auditor-General Peter Achterstraat said in his report. "The problem is that children that are at risk are not being adequately identified and are difficult to track through the education system."

The report found that the NSW Department of Education should have a greater focus on the child at risk, not on the school in which he or she is enrolled, and that there needs to be better training for teachers of those children most at risk. "Our children are the most important asset that our society has, and if we don't focus more closely on them now as individuals, then we are failing in our responsibility to the next generation," Mr Achterstraat said. "Just as importantly, we have a responsibility to the community in planning a better future for NSW."

The report found that the percentage of students below the minimum level for literacy was 14 per cent for western NSW, the worst in the state, followed by 12.2 per cent in New England and 11.4 per cent in both the Riverina and on the North Coast. The best area for literacy was northern Sydney's 1.4 per cent, in contrast to 10.8 per cent in the city's south-west.

With numeracy, the percentage of students below the minimum level was 13.5 per cent in western NSW, while the best was 2 per cent in northern Sydney, and 10.8 per cent in the south-west of the city. In broad terms, indigenous students were two to three times worse than other students.


Out of control schools in poor area

Nothing that old-fashioned discipline wouldn't cure.

UP to 22 students a day are suspended from a school in Brisbane's south which can't cope with soaring levels of violent and extreme behaviour. The Queensland Teachers' Union made the shocking claim as 3000 of its members continued rolling strikes to highlight disadvantage at 54 Logan-Albert-Beaudesert schools. [A lower socio-economic area]

The union said inadequate funding contributed to escalating violence at schools in the region where students regularly assaulted or threatened staff and their peers. Smoking, drugs, truancy, abusive language and unsafe behaviours like tackling were other common triggers for suspension. The Courier-Mail recently reported suspensions were up 25 per cent at Gold Coast and Ipswich schools, which includes those in Logan and Beaudesert, since 2005-06.

"A Logan high school has had up to 22 suspensions a day," former Logan teacher and QTU organiser Penny Spalding said. "For some of those schools it's not uncommon, so (an administrator's and teacher's) workload is tremendous. "It's getting worse and I think society understands teenage behaviour is getting more challenging."

QTU president Steve Ryan said this week's strikes, which end today, were aimed at drawing an additional $40 million from the Government in a "needs-based" approach to unique problems facing Logan-Albert and Beaudesert schools.

Education Queensland said yesterday it could not confirm nor deny that a Logan school handed out 22 suspensions a day because it had no school-by-school data. A spokeswoman for Education Minister Rod Welford said he recognised the challenges of schools in low socio-economic areas. She said the department had invested $1.7 million to tackle truancy and improve outcomes at large state schools in economically disadvantaged areas.

It is common practice to put suspended students into out-of-school Positive Learning Centres, where trained behavioural teachers implement behaviour modification programs. However, when a student's behaviour disrupts the class but does not warrant suspension they are often sent to what Education Queensland has dubbed Responsible Thinking Classrooms. "Schools are having to beg, borrow and steal to run them," Ms Spalding said. "They are the lifeline of some of these Logan schools."

The union claimed the region's schools needed more behaviour management resources and staff, particularly for Prep to Year 3 and Year 8 classes. A Queensland Teachers' Union spokeswoman said the parents of some Logan/Beaudesert region students spoke little English and were not involved enough in their child's education, both traits associated with low socio-economic areas.


Leftist bigotry in schools

At one of Sydney's best private girls schools, Year 8 geography students opened their term three materials on changing global relationships to read the following definition: "Globalisation is what happens when you lose your job in Brunswick, Bankstown or Elizabeth because the company for which you work has been bought out by the Australian subsidiary of a Dallas-based transnational company that has decided to relocate its production of T-shirts to Mexico because of cheaper wage costs and lower health and safety standards."

Assuming it was a scholarly attempt to provoke robust debate, I searched the students' materials for the other side to the globalisation and free-trade story. Alas, there wasn't one. No facts explaining how globalisation and trade have lifted millions of people out of poverty, improving living standards, mortality rates, education, training and the like.

The geography teacher who stands in front of his teenage students is surely entitled to his view that globalisation is an evil force. He is not, however, entitled to use his position to indoctrinate his young charges. And that is why, as his students edge towards their final school years, facing assessments and exams that will determine their future, they should have a copy of Mark Lopez's The Little Black Schoolbook tucked away in their schoolbags. Launched last week in Melbourne, Lopez's book is aimed at exposing the bias within the classroom so that students can turn it to their advantage rather than bombing in exams by courageously trying to tackle the received political wisdom in schools and universities.

Expect howls of derision from critics who deny that teachers express and impose political orthodoxy in the classroom. But Lopez, a high school tutor, has seen many of his students submit brilliant work only to receive mediocre marks because an essay did not accord with their teacher's views on a subject. Just as I, and many parents, have watched in disbelief when students have crafted thoughtful opposition to orthodoxies such as Al Gore's position on climate change, only to be marked down for no other reason than the teacher's personal views.

Just as we have read about it in this newspaper, where educators such as Kevin Donnelly have exposed education bureaucrats politicising school curriculums by requiring a "critical-postmodernist pedagogy".

Refreshingly, Lopez's book is not a whinge about the classroom being infected with Marxist, feminist and postmodern perspectives. Instead it offers up constructive lessons for students to beat the bias in the system. That means more than learning conventional study skills. It means being street-smart enough to recognise the limitations of some teachers. And it means knowing that some teachers will ask for a well-argued essay but reward essays that reflect their own biases.

One of his Year 12 students was asked to do a research essay on Lenin's New Economic Policy. His first draft was a well-researched, well-argued essay that received a C. Lopez told his student to go back to his notes, work out his teacher's understanding of the topic and then redraft the essay to omit everything that differed from his teacher's opinions. The teacher awarded the redraft an A grade.

In many respects, Lopez's book is a depressing read. We should not need a book that advises students that "your campaign for straight As must begin by establishing a psychological profile of your examiner. Make your teacher's bias your friend, because if you do not it will be a formidable enemy."

We should not need a book that explains the continuing effect of the 1960s counter-culture on teaching and school curriculums. Or a book that draws on real-life experiences within the education system to help students identify how political ideology affects the examination and assessment, how to hunt for clues from prescribed reading materials and decipher questions to work out what answer would align with a teacher's views.

Or a book that helps students identify the politically correct answers: if you are asked to take a side in the "women in combat" debate, argue in favour, using feminist grounds of equal opportunity. "In a dispute between animal rights groups and duck hunters, if you side with the hunters you are a dead duck," he writes.

But students do need precisely such a book. Better to be aware of the realities and learn to play the game. Those who have used Lopez's advice have used it wisely. "Rather than being buffeted by fate, these students took responsibility for their education and succeeded," he writes.

Neither should we need a Senate hearing into academic freedom. But, again, reality trumps hope. In his submission to the inquiry a few weeks ago, historian Keith Windschuttle revealed why he is detested by his academic opponents. There is no emotion, no hyperbole from Windschuttle. Just a devastating list of facts, quoting academics to prove the politicisation of scholarship and skewering any pretence of objectivity. He cites Australian historian Henry Reynolds, who admits that his first major work, The Other Side of the Frontier, "was not conceived, researched or written in a mood of detached scholarship". And this from Reynolds: "History should not only be relevant but politically utilitarian."

Windschuttle exposes feminist historian Marilyn Lake for admitting "the writing of history is a political activity". He reveals how the search for truth was abandoned by academics who treat the alleged genocidal activities in Australia as equivalent to the Nazi Holocaust. Name after name, extract after extract, the bias of history teaching by prominent Australian academics is laid bare.

The inquiry is a Stalinist exercise, say critics. Wrong. Windschuttle is no fan of government intervention. He told The Australian that it is a fundamental tenet of Western civilisation that institutions must remain independent of the state. The purpose of the inquiry, like Lopez's book, is to expose political orthodoxy in the education system. Sunlight, after all, can be a powerful disinfectant.

We should name and shame academics who breach their scholarly duty to objectivity. And university vice-chancellors with spine should do more to promote intellectual diversity rather than caving in to the rigid orthodoxy of political academics.

That said, overzealousness won't help the cause of exposing classroom indoctrination. Nitpicking over trivial episodes won't either. It will only serve to undermine the genuine cases of blatant political bias that should be exposed.

In an ideal world, the classroom and lecture theatre would not be used as tools of indoctrination. In the real world, it happens too often. Students may as well know about it, understand why it exists and learn how to play the game to win. If that process improves the education system by reminding educators that they, too, are being assessed for their intellectual rigour or lack of it, so much the better.


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