Welcome

Welcome mat


This is the homepage of Greg Ashman, a teacher, blogger and PhD candidate living and working in Australia. Everything that I write reflects my own personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of my employer or any other organisation.

My podcast lives here

I have a book out for new teachers (which some experienced teachers have also enjoyed):

The Truth about Teaching: An evidence informed guide for new teachers

Watch my researchED talks here and here

I have written a couple of pieces on Australian education for Quillette:

The Tragedy of Australian Education

Australia’s PISA shock

Here is a piece I wrote for The Age, a Melbourne newspaper:

Fads aside, the traditional VCE subjects remain the most valuable

And here I am in the Australian Financial Review:

Ideology crushes teachers’ ability to control classes

Read my articles for the Conversation here:

Ignore the fads

Why students make silly mistakes

I have also written lots of other things, some of which I have forgotten about.

My most popular blog post is about Explicit Teaching:

What is Explicit Instruction?

To commission an article, click here

This is my LinkedIn page and Filling The Pail has a Facebook page here.

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Emily Hanford

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-fvjgw-ed2981

Emily Hanford is Senior Correspondent with APM Reports at American Public Media. Over the last few years, Emily has been researching, broadcasting and writing about reading instruction in the United States and it is fair to say that, as a result, she has shifted the dial on the discussion there. In this episode, Emily talks to Greg Ashman about how she became interested in reading instruction and what she has learnt from her research. Along the way, Emily and Greg discuss explicit and direct teaching, balanced literacy, the nature of the evidence on reading, models such as the simple view of reading and what teachers have told her about how they were prepared to teach reading.

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Moral leadership

You should do this because it is the law,” has never been a good argument. Presumably, whatever it was became a law for a reason. Why not go with that reason?

Schools in liberal democracies have a moral duty to reflect those liberal democratic principles, whether or not this duty is enshrined in law. Schools are there to educate, not indoctrinate. It is not the business of schools what students believe, at least not secular schools. It is the business of schools to present students with what is and what others have said about it. The students can make up their own minds.

This is, of course, a challenge. Some deeply political beliefs seem obvious, true and not in any way political to the holders of them. And in this current climate, we can forgive a little confusion.

On my podcast, Calvin Robinson tells a tale of the day after the Brexit vote in Britain. A known supporter of Brexit, Calvin was asked to stay quiet on the topic by school leaders – which he was happy enough to do. But then, everywhere he went, teachers were bemoaning the result of the vote to students and even offering counselling. It’s as if the possibility of there being a legitimate pro-Brexit view – despite a majority of people voting for it – did not even cross the minds of these teachers.

I find navigating these issues simpler than most because my approach is as much about science as the liberal arts. I do not care whether a student actually believes in Newton’s first law of motion – the kind of question constructivists fret about – I care whether they know, understand and can apply it. It matters not to me whether my students are young earth creationists, as long as they are well acquainted with The Big Bang and evolution by natural selection.

Once we accept the job of museum guide rather than priest, we can take the same approach to all issues – the only moral approach.

But what issues?

Surely, the mere selection of topics or books to study constitutes a series of political judgements, whatever we then say about these topics and books? Yes, it does. And that’s why such decisions must not belong to individual teachers. Political questions of this kind need addressing by political means. Ideally, this would be done at the national level with all key stakeholders – not just a bunch of education academics and bureaucrats – represented and a perpetually provisional compromise reached that satisfies nobody.

Short of the political will to do this – and we are far short of such a will because politicians find it convenient to think of education in technocratic terms as the development of literacy and numeracy – individual schools need to develop defensible principles for selecting content – principles that aim to consider an appropriate diversity of perspectives.

Ultimately, there are decisions to make. And so the balance schools seek should look to the wider community and the perspectives it reflects, including the ones less fashionable among overwhelmingly left-leaning teachers.

But where does that end? Do we have to teach units on ‘conspiracy theories of the internet’?

I don’t think so. Traditional subject areas have their own filters. We can legitimately present the consensus view of scientists or historians, provided we make clear that it is only a view and that our students are not required to accept it. Indeed, we should encourage students to question consensus views and we should ask them to write essays both for and against the same proposition.

And ideas to be studied should reflect a degree of academic commitment on the behalf of those who hold those ideas, not just every random thought burp a bloke in the pub once emitted.

We should, I believe, have more political and religious education. Framed the way I describe, learning about Judaism or Islam or classical liberalism or critical theory is more interesting and enriching than typical issues-based PHSE or citizenship or social studies lessons that are as ephemeral as they are lacking in value to most students.

Will there be complaints from parents? Probably. But with a clear set of principles in place, enacted by teachers, school leaders can field those complaints and back their teachers. Individual teachers do not have to stand alone and explain their book choices. Developing principles and systems and then communicating them are what school leaders are for.

The best schools know this because they have moral leadership. This does not mean their leaders are perfect human beings. Far from it. And it’s very unlikely that such folks put ‘moral leader’ in the Twitter bios. It just means that there is a foundation to what they do – the curriculum is an enactment of a set of carefully chosen principles.

And now is the time for moral leadership.

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A gift for Trump

At this distance, it does not look like Biden can lose the coming presidential election. There would have to be a lot of shy Trump supporters misleading pollsters for Trump to be able to turn around Biden’s poll lead.

Nevertheless, the Democrats should still avoid complacency and Trump knows where their weak spots are. In particular, they should not be providing Trump with free gifts such as the one that has allowed him to make a new announcement on ‘patriotic education’. According to NPR, this is ‘a largely political move’.

If you read that NPR piece, you can see any commitment to non-partisan reporting is long gone:

“The president’s remarks reflect a growing outcry among Republicans against recent moves to tell a more evenhanded version of the nation’s history, including its early foundational reliance on slave labor and the longtime disenfranchisement of and systemic racism against racial minorities.”

Evenhanded? I’m sure Alana Wise, the reporter, believes this to be true and this is a sign of a wider problem.

In reality, the 1619 project that is in Trump’s sights, along with the adoption in the classroom of corporate-style diversity training, complete with notions of white privilege, white fragility and contemporary academic redefinitions of terms such as racism and white supremacy, reflects a highly partial and particular view that is alien to most American voters.

No doubt, the ‘patriotic’ recommendations flowing from Trump’s proposed commission would be even more compromised. Trump offers no real solution to the politicisation of K-12 education. He cannot, because he is a populist who politicises everything. Yet why give him this opportunity? Why gift him this chance?

Partly, it is a sign of a deeper malaise in a profession that has sadly lost its way. We have been sleepwalking into a new normal where graduates are so submersed in the ideology that informs initiatives like the history-bending 1619 project that they simply think it’s right, true and perhaps even obvious. They don’t view teaching that the true origin of the United States is in the first slave ship to reach its shores as any different to teaching that The Moon takes about 27 days to orbit The Earth.

Teachers and education bureaucrats perhaps need to check their privilege, go to a local bar and see what the people they live amongst really think.

In policing, there is a concept of policing by consent. It is a notional bargain where the public consent to be subject to the powers of the police in return for the police acting fairly, with integrity and transparency. Such a principle is hard to hold on to against the forces of corruption, both of money and of power, but it is a sound platonic ideal.

Public education also works ultimately by consent. In return for forcing parents to send their children to school, teachers agree to act with integrity and fairness. Generally, we are held in high regard for doing a job many cannot imagine doing. We are the subject of news stories and even Hollywood movies where we are portrayed as inspirational and going above and beyond the call of duty. In the movies and in the real world, we often become the sole safe and stable adult in a young person’s life.

But we will start to lose that consent if we are seen as partial and politically motivated and if such an accusation has substance. If we start teaching opinions as facts and facts as opinions – perhaps because we can no longer tell the difference – we will lose our sacred right to care for young people. If we replace critical thinking with an unswerving adherence to the tenets of critical theory, we will conjure demons to oppose us.

If education had a set of principles of objectivity to point to: principles that were embedded in shared, transparent mechanisms for choosing curriculum content, Trump would not be able to level his charges of partiality.

As it stands, whatever happens in November, I hope it will be cathartic. And in the period of reflection to follow, I hope for the restoration of measure and balance.

Donald Trump does not need the help of teachers.

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Humpty Dumptyisms

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’

Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

The social sciences are full of Humpty Dumptyisms – words that you are pretty sure mean one thing but, under examination, appear to mean something quite different to the people who are using them.

This causes a problem in translation. Although I am sure this is quite unintentional, it can lead to misleading headlines when journalists popularise the research. This then results in misunderstandings among the public at large.

For a while, I thought Humpty Dumptyisms were a particular issue in education research. Imagine, for instance, a researcher found that an intervention improved the quality of teaching or the quality of teaching for new career entrants was as good as, if not better, than their more experienced colleagues. A regular member of the public would be forgiven for thinking that this means the the students of these teachers learnt more or perhaps learn concepts at a deeper level.

However, in both of these cases, the learning of students was not measured. Instead, the quality of teaching was defined by meeting a set of debatable criteria on a lesson observation rubric.

So the concept of ‘quality teaching’ is a Humpty Dumptyism – rather than meaning what we might imagine it to mean, it means what the researchers choose it to mean – neither more nor less. It has a meaning that is one or two steps removed from the commonplace meaning, with the chain of inference linking those steps open to challenge.

I now realise that Humpty Dumptyisms are not confined to education research. Take, for instance, the concept of ‘racial resentment’ that has been doing the rounds of Twitter, including the finding that white evangelical Christians score particularly highly on measures of this construct:

You may think this means white evangelical Christians are resentful of people of other races or perhaps resentful of how their own race is characterised. However, the questions used to assess this measure instead relate to attitudes to personal responsibility and oddly conflate the experiences of Jewish and Italian Americans:

These questions certainly tell us something about attitudes to race and beliefs about whether Black Americans face particular obstacles to their advancement. But resentment?

Again, ‘racial resentment’ means what the researchers choose it to mean – neither more nor less. The chain of cause-and-effect that links these questions to commonplace conceptions of resentment is unclear.

The message for those of us who care about the veracity of claims is clear. There is unfortunately no substitute to going back to the original research when social science claims are made, particularly ones that are popularised on social media. In particular, the ‘methods’ sections of such papers are vital because they demonstrate exactly what was measured, rather than what the researchers chose these measures to mean.

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A right to professional comment


Teaching will never be a true profession until there is an assumption, enshrined in law, regulation or simply accepted practice, that teachers have a right to comment on matters related to their professional expertise.

At the moment, this is not the case. Employers are able to write codes of conduct or policies that effectively muzzle teachers from commenting. Anecdotally, the most heavily enforced such code of conduct applies to public school teachers in New South Wales. Section 13 applies to, “Managing your political, community and personal activities,” and makes the reasonable point that employees of the NSW Department of Education should make clear that any political comments they make are not on behalf of the department. However, the guidance goes further and gives examples of inappropriate public comment that include, “public comment about… dissatisfaction with current Government policy.”

Again anecdotally, I have heard of NSW teachers being admonished for simply sharing my Sydney Morning Herald article on the new NSW policy on suspensions on social media. This seems extreme.

Why may the silencing of teachers be a problem? Back in 2017, I wrote a post about ‘L3’, the NSW department’s early literacy initiative. I had been nudged in this direction by teachers and other professionals working in New South Wales who thought that L3 did not align with the best research in reading instruction and that, furthermore, it introduced a number of practical problems. I was confident enough in these criticisms to claim that, “L3 will undoubtedly collapse at some point.” Last week, the NSW Centre for Education Statistics (CESE) and Evaluation finally released a highly critical report and L3 has been killed-off by the department as a result.

If teachers were able to criticise L3 back in 2017 or earlier, we may have reached this point sooner and less public money may have been spent on an ineffective policy. I am not claiming that all teachers are of one mind and that all teachers would have been critical of L3*. According to the CESE report, many teachers liked it due to the fact that at least it provided some materials and guidance on how to teach early literacy, a topic that appears to be largely neglected during initial teacher education. However, we could have had an open, transparent discussion with the arguments on both sides tested, evidence exchanged and weak arguments found wanting. I find it likely that this would have resulted in earlier moves to address the weaknesses of L3, either by modifying or replacing it.

Without teachers, public discussion about education policy lacks critical information and a key perspective. Voters who essentially have the role of ratifying education policies at the ballot box, have little hope of hearing this perspective. Fundamentally, that is not right.

This is not a call for teachers to be able to criticise named individuals, identify children or otherwise settle personal scores with impunity. Such a scenario may be the fear of managers and bureaucrats, but the freedom to comment on matters of policy can easily be distinguished from personal attacks and score-settling by creating suitably framed guidelines. I doubt many teachers would seek to use a right to professional comment unprofessionally and the small number who did should be relatively easy to deal with.

And there would be added benefits. Once teachers become the recognised authorities on teaching, rather than platitudinous pundits or academics with an ideological axe to grind, they might start to be invited to panels and events to talk about education. Rather than the current tendency of the media to occasionally pat teachers on the head for being unsung heroes while otherwise ignoring them, we would see teachers on the news commenting on education in much the same way that lawyers comment on the law or doctors comment on medicine. This would enhance professional status more than most initiatives designed to do precisely that.

And if that does not persuade you, think of the simple efficiency of teachers being able to point out the obvious practical flaws in a policy prior to it being implemented at significant cost and thereby saving a politician the embarrassment of failed policy in an area they are likely just passing through and are only lightly acquainted with.


*There are those who may claim teachers’ views are already heard via unions or other professional organisations. Some such organisations do a better job than others, but the fundamental problem is that what we often require is a debate between the different views held by teachers. Moreover, a union official with a full agenda relating to conditions of employment and a background in teaching senior biology may not make the case about an early reading program in the same way as an early years teacher with skin in the game.

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E. D. Hirsch

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-nb8uz-eb16f7

E. D. Hirsch Jr. began his career as a literary theorist. As a result of this work, he became aware of the importance of background knowledge for reading comprehension. However, when he looked to the education system, he found knowledge was undervalued. Since then, he has worked to highlight the importance of knowledge though his numerous books, including the best-selling Cultural Literacy, and the Core Knowledge Foundation that he set-up to further these aims by developing the Core Knowledge Sequence, now used in many schools in the US and beyond. In this episode, Don talks to Greg Ashman about knowledge, education, the importance of a ‘speech community’ and commonality more generally, as well as his new book, How to Educate a Citizen.

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The Emperor’s New Theory


What could be wrong with a bit of diversity education, or perhaps teaching young people about the history of slavery? Surely, we can all agree that racism and slavery are bad? Why would we not want to teach young people about these evils so they may avoid them in the future?

It’s a reasonable pitch that I can imagine few teachers disagreeing with, but what many do not realise is that by inviting the salesperson making the pitch into your school, you are also inviting a spectral presence you may not be aware of.

There was uproar recently when James Lindsay, author with Helen Pluckrose of Cynical Theories, essentially trolled Twitter by stating that 2+2 does not equal 5. This may seem to be an obvious fact, yet a number of people, including mathematicians, took the bait. Probably in an effort to look cool rather than anything more calculating, they arrived on the scene to point out that if you redefined the meanings of ‘2’, “+”, “=” and “5”, redefined the meanings of numbers more generally, or perhaps referenced chickens or angles or gazpacho soup or something, you could indeed make 2+2=5.

What many of them did not seem to realise, until it was too late, was that Lindsay was drawing on a quote from George Orwell’s 1984.

“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable what then?…

…And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien, and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote: Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

Why does this matter? Why might a mathematician think it is cool to deny reality? Who are the cool kids whose approval they seek?

Well, rewind to 1619. Another piece of common knowledge is that the United States of America was founded after breaking free from Britain following a revolutionary war . The date of this foundation was 1776. However, the New York Times now claims that ‘the country’s very origin’ was in 1619, when a slave ship reached the British colony of Virginia. This new date and this new origin story is necessary to ‘understand the brutality of American capitalism’.

What 2+2=5 and 1619 have in common is a view that reality, particularly the reality described by the humanities but also, as we are now seeing, the reality described by mathematics and science, can be bent by force of will. This is not the first time adherents to an ideology have believed such a thing and, no doubt, it will not be the last.

In this case, the ideology is Critical Theory. Helpfully, a professor who teaches a course in Critical Race Theory at Brown University in the United States, has made the course materials available online, including a set of PowerPoint slides from an opening lecture. These slides outline various ‘tenets‘ of the theory. These include the tenets that Critical Race Theory, “Recognizes that racism is endemic to American life,” raising the interesting question of whether Critical Race Theory applies outside the US, and that Critical Race Theory, “Presumes that racism has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage.”

In this sense, Critical Race Theory is the opposite of a scientific theory. We are required to uncritically accept that correlation is causation, despite the imagined protestations of statistics professors. Are we allowed to openly question, for instance, whether racism has contributed to the fact that students with an Asian background are more likely to be accepted into top Colleges in the US, or is this fact to be ignored because it does not fit the Theory?

Because fictions need to be maintained.

One way is to ignore evidence that proves them to be false. Another is to deny the role of Theory: “It’s just a bit of diversity training – who could possible be against that?” Another strategy is to impugn the motives of anyone who questions these tenets. Maybe they are racist or, at the very least, perhaps we can claim their commonsense arguments and stating of the obvious should be seen as a manifestation of right-wing thought: “This is an argument made by the alt-right. This is a right-adjacent trope. Bad people have also made the same claims as you. Commonsense is fascist. Freedom of speech is far-right.”

And it works surprisingly well. The small minority of true believers have most of the rest of the chattering classes silenced for fear of offending them and being targeted as a result. And so totalitarianism seeps and oozes its way in to society and schools are particularly vulnerable.

The way this ends depends upon those who have remained silent up until now. Will teachers speak out against the 1619 project? Will parents object at attempts to make mathematics more subjective and activist? We will see.

Once upon a time there lived a powerful emperor. A crafty weaver came to his court and offered to make him a set of new clothes – the most magnificent ever seen. A couple of weeks passed. The emperor and his officials visited the weaver but never saw anything on his loom. Each time, the weaver remarked on how beautiful the cloth looked, but the emperor and his official said nothing for fear of looking stupid. Finally, the day came to present the finished garments.

“Look how magnificent they are, your highness!” the tailor exclaimed.

The emperor was confused. He could not see any clothes. Noting the confusion on his face, the tailor explained that they were so fine that only refined, intelligent and elegant people could see or sense them.

The emperor smiled, nodded and allowed himself to be dressed by the weaver.

A great parade was arranged for the emperor to show his new clothes to his subjects. As he slowly processed through the thronging crowd, there were looks of confusion and even mild amusement, but nobody said a word.

Until a little boy pointed at the emperor and cried, “The emperor has no clothes!”

As quick as a flash, the weaver shouted back, “Claiming that the emperor has no clothes is a right-wing dog whistle!”

What happens next in this story depends entirely upon the crowd.

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How decisions about education are made and what you can do about it

When I was at secondary school, I remember my teacher making an important point about representative democracy. In reference, I imagine, to opinion polling, she suggested the majority of British people at that time were in favour of reinstating the death penalty for murder but that there was little prospect of this happening. Why? Because decisions are not generally made by majority opinion, even in a democracy. Instead, we elect people to examine the issues on our behalf and make those decisions for us. Democracy is limited to periodically changing a government or local council if you don’t like the sum of its works. That’s the difference between a representative and a direct democracy.

In complex, modern states, we also have a kind of second order representative democracy. There are too many issues for even career politicians to contemplate – or, as I suspect, a number of issues they would rather not contemplate – and so these are handed over to commissions and agencies, with the politicians’ role to give these agencies their authority or rubber stamp their decisions.

You may consider this a bug or you may consider it a feature – it is often justified by referring to the expertise of those involved. To an extent that we could argue about – and perhaps should argue about more – it seems necessary. Otherwise, modern states would be ungovernable. The key point is that although we are in a democracy, the decisions that concern our daily lives do not necessarily reflect majority opinion. Instead, they tend to reflect the opinion of a relatively small group of people whose role is to think about a relatively small set of issues.

We all know the kinds of conditions where this system breaks down – the union that reflects the views of people who are inclined to turn up to union meetings as opposed to those of its members or the internecine disputes of the local parish council. We should also be aware of the dangers of ‘capture’ where an activist minority manages to take over one of these decision making groups by being more energetic, fundamentalist or sanctimonious than their peers.

So, what does it take for such a system to work well?

I would suggest that there are two important criteria. The decision-making body must be so comprised as to:

  1. Be in possession of all existing knowledge relevant to the decision
  2. Represent a range of political outlooks

The latter is a fraught question. Some political outlooks are fringe or just plain bizarre. However, if it is a strong current in popular opinion, it should arguably be represented. For instance, a decision involving state regulation should hear from those who broadly favour bigger government and those who favour the opposite, both of which are legitimate, widely-held views.

It is clear that many decision-making bodies fail on this second, political criteria. However, decisions made about education often fail on the first and this is because two relevant sources of knowledge are often neglected – knowledge gained from robust education and educational psychology research and, of perhaps more concern, the practical knowledge of teachers.

Decisions about the structures and funding of education tend to be taken by politicians with little input from teachers, but it is unclear how much teachers would be able to contribute to that discussion. On the other hand, decisions about exams, curricula, teaching initiatives and so on tend to be made by academics and bureaucrats. These decisions would benefit from the knowledge of teachers. And yet, at present, teachers are largely excluded from the discussion.

If politicians are considering reforms that will improve teaching, they should evaluate policies as to whether they will add teacher knowledge to the decision-making process. They need to be wary of initiatives like the UK’s College of Teaching which was ostensibly just such an initiative, but that ended-up being captured by non-teachers. So politicians need to think bigger.

One way they can do this is through manipulating structures – an issue they perhaps better understand. The question to ask is: How may we design this system so that regular classroom teachers are fully involved in, and perhaps leading, the decision-making process about teaching methods, the curriculum and assessment?

In the meantime, it is up to teachers to elbow our way in. We should submit our thoughts to public consultations and turn up to hearings. Perhaps more importantly, we should challenge bad decisions and the often dodgy research used to justify them. We can do this within our networks and through blogs and podcasts, taking the opportunity to speak to a wider audience when it arises. This is not always easy. Teachers are busy and some policies intentionally seek to silence teachers. But we have a duty to do what we can, when and where we can.

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Quality teaching?

On Thursday, we learnt some perhaps unexpected news, courtesy of Queensland’s Courier Mail:

“New teachers perform just as well as their colleagues with several years of experience but performance drops after four or five years in the role, according to a new Queensland study.”

Gosh. Old teachers just don’t cut it. And they tend to be expensive. So, should we go out, sack them all and replace them with fresh-faced graduates?

The research in question was completed by academics from Australia and the US, with the 80 teachers involved in the study drawn from primary schools in Queensland, Australia. Helpfully, the research paper is open access, but when you begin to read it, something a little strange becomes apparent.

The paper addresses the question of whether teachers’ years of experience make a difference in the ‘quality of teaching’ and in the literature review of previous research on this issue, the authors discuss, “Evidence from studies using indirect measures,” the most common of which is, “student performance in standardised assessments.”

I would have thought that student performance in standardised assessments was a pretty direct measure of teacher quality. How could you claim, for instance, that you had improved teacher quality in any meaningful way without seeing an improvement in students’ test results?

Instead, the researchers measured ‘teacher quality’ by use of a lesson observation rubric, specifically the CLassroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) developed by one of the authors.

CLASS also happens to have been one of a number of classroom observation rubrics evaluated by the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project funded by the Gates Foundation. Analysis of these rubrics established a number of common features. However, these were only weakly correlated with student gains scores i.e. the gains in performance students made on standardised tests. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the strongest of these weak correlations was for the classroom management aspect common to all of the rubrics.

If you examine the CLASS rubric in detail, it is clear that some highly questionable assumptions are embedded within it. For instance, the statement that, “Teachers’ interactions with students and classroom activities should place an emphasis on students’ interests, points of view and independence to encourage student responsibility and autonomy,” would suggest that whole-class, teacher-led explicit teaching would be marked down. Similarly, ‘concept development’ measures, “the teachers’ use of instructional discussions and activities to promote students’ higher-order thinking skills and cognition, as well as the teacher’s focus on understanding rather than on rote instruction.” This suggests that a teacher drilling students in grapheme-phoneme correspondences or maths facts would not attract a high score.

And yet, having interviewed plenty of graduate teachers over the last few years, I can imagine them expounding these viewpoints because that is what they are taught at university. Effective teachers then have to unlearn much of this ideology in their first few years of teaching.

I therefore suspect that this is what has happened to generate the results of the study. It is not that graduate teachers are somehow higher quality than teachers with ten or more years of experience, it is more that they are better aligned with the philosophy that informs the CLASS rubric.

I would add that this seems like a deeply eccentric way of addressing the quality of teaching. Imagine making an assessment of the quality of surgery by observing surgeons’ interactions with patients while not taking into account measures such as recovery or survival rates. Imagine considering such measures to only be ‘indirect’ indicators of quality.

And this is nothing new for Australian education. A few years ago, headlines were written about a randomised controlled trial that demonstrated that a professional development program improved the ‘quality’ of teaching. Again, this was measured by classroom observations and not by the performance of students on assessments. The professional development program presumably taught teachers what was on the rubric.

And yet for journalists and the wider public who are not well-versed in the methods of education research, or who perhaps assume that researchers must be using a valid approach that leads to meaningful conclusions, such claims appear authoritative.

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Strange behaviour

Following my largely well-received op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald on the New South Wales government’s new proposals on suspensions and exclusions, I could have predicted some push back from activists. I thought I would take the chance to respond to a few of the points raised.

Firstly, whenever I write about behaviour in schools, I am placed in something of a double-bind. If I refer solely to behaviour and do not mention disabilities and disorders, activists will claim I have ignored the challenges faced by many of the children who are at risk of suspension or exclusion. Alternatively, if I do discuss disabilities and disorders, I will inevitably be accused of conflating the issues of behaviour and disability and of somehow implying that all children with disabilities are badly behaved. It is effectively a gatekeeping strategy to ensure that only those with a particular perspective can legitimately discuss these issues and so I largely tend ignore such comments now and I suggest that you do the same.

However, a particularly odd instance of this played-out over my use of the word ‘behavioural’ in the piece. I wrote that, “Students are being labelled at an ever-expanding rate with a range of disabilities and disorders, many of which are behavioural, such as oppositional defiant disorder.” I meant that these disabilities and disorders often affect behaviour, consistent with the dictionary definition of ‘behavioural’.

However, disabilities and disorders have various technical classifications. A number of activists decided that I had somehow classified Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – which I do not mention in the article – as a ‘behavioural disorder’ whereas it is more properly categorised as a ‘neurological disorder’ or perhaps a ‘neurodevelopmental disorder’, thus exposing the depth of my ignorance on these matters. I did not make this error and I am happy to accept whatever technical classifications experts prefer. Moreover, it appears the Victorian government’s ‘Better Health’ initiative is somewhat confused on the issue so activists may want to focus their attention there.

I was also asked a number of times to provide evidence for the, “Students are being labelled at an ever-expanding rate,” part of that sentence – something I felt was self-evident to anyone working in education. When I wrote the piece, I had in mind the expanding number of conditions in the diagnostic manual ‘DSM 5’ and the lowered threshold for diagnosis that has accompanied the most recent edition. However, subsequent to publication, I became aware of a number of other sources that more directly confirm this claim.

For instance, writing again in the Sydney Morning Herald, Angelo Gavrielatos, president of the New South Wales Teachers Federation, claimed that the number of students with a disability is six times greater than in 2002. And today, education journalist Jordan Baker is reporting on evidence commissioned for the NSW government that projects a continuing rise that will severely challenge capacity in NSW public schools. However, specialist teachers are already in short supply with, “56 per cent of learning and support roles in mainstream schools,” not permanently filled. It is in this context that we need to read comments from campaigners who suggest teachers should stop whining or change careers:

One of the odder moments concerned a statistic which, on face-value at least, did not seem to change the argument a great deal.

I think the point of this statistic was to claim that the majority of suspensions are only for repeated rule breaking that is disruptive to teachers and peers and that this somehow illustrates that suspensions are out of control. It is interesting to ponder what specifically should be done about students who repeatedly break rules in such a way that it disrupts teachers and peers. That’s a big question with no simple answer. However, I was keen to examine the source of this figure. Dr Quin pointed me to a number of sources, but none seemed to mention the 70-90% figure. So I asked if he had made it up. He said he hadn’t, but when I asked again for the source of it, he pointed me back towards the original articles that didn’t mention it.

So, I still have no idea what was going on there.

What nobody did, as far as I am aware, is refute any of the main points I made in the article. They didn’t like terms I had used, such as ‘vociferous activists’. They clearly didn’t like the fact that I should write about this issue at all. Some called me a conspiracy theorist, although I am not sure why. Others asked me to provide evidence for claims I did not make:

I will therefore interpret the fact that nobody could refute what I actually wrote, despite all of this effort, as a sign that I might be on to something.

What also became increasingly clear was the activists’ lack of interest in trying to persuade me, or any of the other teachers involved in the conversation, of why we may be wrong. I am speculating here, but I think that activists in this field are not interested in engaging with teachers because they think their aims can be achieved by convincing politicians and bureaucrats to change laws and regulations. Teachers only matter to the extent that our arguments get in the way of such changes and so when this happens we need to be discredited rather persuaded.

I think this is a poor plan. Whatever changes are made to policy, teachers will be needed to enact them. If these changes make teaching impossible then the best teachers will vote with their feet and move on. A workable policy needs the engagement of teachers from the outset.

With that in mind, the NSW proposals that prompted my article are currently under consultation. I have heard anecdotally about NSW public school teachers being warned for simply sharing my op-ed on social media. So, we are embarking on a consultation where the professionals who will have to enact the policy are effectively prevented from expressing a view.

That cannot end well.

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