Wednesday, December 04, 2013

New Study: Not Such a Large Head Start

For decades the federal government has claimed that our youngest children, particularly those brought up poor, would be best served by getting an early jump on the formal educational process. This notion led to the Head Start program, which serves children in the year or two before the normal commencement of kindergarten.

Yet for years, studies have proved that the Head Start program and other similar efforts are a colossal waste of money because the early advantage given to these children is erased in the first few years of standard K-12 schooling. This argument has been borne out in another large, 3,000-child study, based on successful and unsuccessful applicants from 2009 to Tennessee's Voluntary Pre-K program. Now that the children have been tracked and the the study's results evaluated for performance through first grade, the authors found that, in most areas, the children who did not attend the Pre-K program were academically ahead of those who attended.

The study's authors “found that the effects of [the program] … observed at the end of the pre-k year had greatly diminished by the end of the kindergarten year and the differences between participants and nonparticipants were no longer statistically significant." Why is this important?

Consider that the Obama administration wants to make "high-quality preschool available to every single child in America,” and imagine the cost. You can also imagine the need for thousands of additional (unionized, of course) “educators” as well as the millions of children immersed in government-sponsored indoctrination at a very precocious age.

With this administration we've learned results don't matter, but employing power and control does.


PISA: Poor academic standards – and an even poorer test

Britain’s schools may be in a bad way, but the Programme for International Student Assessment rankings are hardly the best judge

The news that the UK had done badly in the new OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables was leaked over the weekend, and greeted with a blast of triumphalism by the Opposition. They swiftly blamed the fact that our teenagers lag behind their counterparts in the Far East on Michael Gove’s reforms: “All his frenetic, attention-seeking changes have not delivered the step change in standards we need,” wrote shadow education minister Tristram Hunt in a Sunday newspaper. So much for celebrating success.

Politicians seeking to gain the advantage like this is unhelpful. While it’s never good news for Britain to fare badly in international comparisons, those politicians setting such great store by, and attempting to settle scores using, the PISA results should realise that a minimum of five years is needed for any educational reform to work, and 10 years is nearer the reality. Since the Coalition has only been in power for three and a half, it seems a tiny bit premature to blame Mr Gove for the current league position.

What PISA has delivered is, in fact, a snapshot of those teenagers educated under Labour: after more than a decade of reform and an increase of £30 billion in funding, one in five 15-year-olds in Britain has failed to attain even the minimum standard expected for their age group in maths and literacy.

But before we get too carried away, we should address another serious problem: PISA’s credibility as an accurate assessment of how we teach our children. In my opinion, these tables are based on unsound methodology, from their statistical base to the way they are administered. And I am not alone in having doubts. During my recent year-long research project into how the world educates its most able children, several representatives from one of the high-scoring countries in the league confessed that they taught to the test in order to achieve a good score. If an, admittedly fairly random, sample of teachers is to be believed, many countries do so.

The PISA test is a two-hour examination taken by more than 500,000 teenagers in 66 different countries. There is a standard list of questions sent out, but the students aren’t required to answer them all and so the “Rasch” model is used to standardise the extremely varied material. The method and analysis have been seriously challenged by leading academics. The exam paper has to be translated into numerous different languages, and serious reservations have been expressed regarding the quality of the translation and embedded cultural bias therein.

Another of the test’s weaknesses is that it only measures the achievement of pupils who are actually attending school; it excludes the growing number of those who are taught at home and tells us very little indeed about educational achievement in those countries where significant numbers of children do not attend school. An attempt has been made to allow for the different cultural, social and economic backgrounds of those sitting the test, and the principal or head of a participating school is required to submit their own report in support of their pupils, but, again, a number of commentators have raised questions about the accuracy and legitimacy of any such judgments.

PISA’s defenders may howl in protest at any criticism, but the truth is that they are brief tests that can be taken in circumstances that would not meet the standards of our British examination boards. They are not adapted to allow for local curricula, and there are reports of children in the UK asking why the test had questions in it that they had not studied. Some countries will make little or no fuss over PISA, while for other countries the tests are a major event.

The main reason why these league tables achieve such prominence is that they are terrifically media-friendly. Uniquely, they purport to give an accurate picture of the standards of education achieved across a whole country, and across the whole planet. In the world of education, where there are too many statistics, too many of which appear to be contradictory, they are leapt upon as a far more accurate guide than they actually are.

Michael Gove, meanwhile, who has pointed out that these results are a verdict on the last government, has been taken to task for paying them too much heed. He’s damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. Those shouting so stridently that he is making too much of them would shout just as loudly that he was ignoring evidence of failure if he failed to acknowledge the results.

The fact is, we don’t need PISA to tell us that we have real problems in some of our schools as well as in the attitudes of some of our children, and I see no sign that Mr Gove has done anything other than use the results as part of his diagnosis of what is wrong with the patient. Yes, UK education has problems. No, PISA is not the be-all and end-all. And what precisely are the Opposition, who are so good at telling us what they will not do, proposing to do to make things better?


Australian Primary school bans leather footballs

A SCHOOL has banned children from using leather footballs and soccer balls after concerns were raised about possible head injuries.

Only 'soft' balls are allowed in the playground under new rules introduced at Albert Park Primary School.

Experts have backed the move but warn parents and teachers not to be lulled into a false sense of security.

The school introduced the new ball rules in a bid to lessen the impact of stray balls which hit students in the head.

Assistant principal Sue Pattison said the school's almost 450 students shared an oval little bigger than a basketball court, increasing the chances of an accident.

About 480 students are expected to attend the school next year.

"We still want kids to be able to run and play - it's an important part of having a break - but to do it in as safe an environment as we can manage," Ms Pattison said. "It's really just about prevention of major injuries."

The soft balls, introduced last term, are constructed of foam or have a foam layer under the skin.

Students who bring their own equipment must comply with the requirements.  Regular basketballs and tennis balls are allowed.

"We didn't actually have a major increase in incidents but it is a proactive decision because it's a busy yard," Ms Pattison said.

Under Education Department rules the parents of any child who suffers a head injury must be notified.  Albert Park contacts parents even if children are hit with a softer ball.

Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health neurosurgeon Prof Gavin Davis said softer balls were likely to reduce minor head injuries like lacerations and fractures but may not necessarily reduce concussion.

Concussion was more commonly caused when children fell over and hit their head or if it collided with another child's body part.

"It's an admirable intention to reduce head injuries with a softer ball," Prof Davis said.  "In general the principle is sound - in application it's not always the case."

"Education about recognising and acting on concussion was vital, he said.

Kidsafe Victoria executive officer Melanie Courtney said use of soft balls was an "innovative" way to ensure safety in a cramped playground.

Victorian Principals Association president Gabrielle Leigh said it was important each adapted to their settings to ensure student safety.


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