Miles Berry tweeted an image of a timetable for a UK Year 6 class. The timetable almost entirely English and Maths, save from three periods of PE. I have no way of judging the authenticity of the image but the ensuing discussion was extraordinary and that’s what I want to address.
Clearly, it is wrong to inflict such a timetable on students. I am an advocate of explicit instruction but even I will accept the argument that we should avoid using explicit instruction 100% of the time on the grounds that students should experience some variety. Different subjects naturally introduce variety into a school curriculum. Maths and English with just a little bit of PE is cruel and unusual.
Yet, rather than outright condemnation, there were those who agreed that such a timetable was wrong but sought to rationalise it as a response to accountability measures and the ‘current climate’. In the UK, Year 6 students have standardised tests in Maths and English at the start of May. The authors of this timetable, if it is genuine, are somehow trying to game this system by cramming English and Maths in the preceding weeks.
E D Hirsch has written about a similar issue in the US in response to the No Child Left Behind legislation in the early 2000s. He noted the number of elementary schools that were denuding their curricula of science, the arts and humanities and argued that this is self-defeating. Reading comprehension is best served by growing students’ general knowledge through the teaching of these subjects rather than endless drills in ‘finding the main idea’ of a text in metastatic guided-reading sessions. I would suggest that the same goes for writing. Instead of constantly performing to inane prompts, it would be better to practise writing about proper subjects.
Yes, it is a good idea to practice questions of the same style as the standardised test and to rehearse the conditions: we want these tests to give us an accurate reflection of what’s going on rather than simply freaking-out kids who haven’t seen anything like them before. And it’s a good idea to practice some grammar in the weeks leading up to a grammar test, otherwise it will just tell you that many students struggle to remember something they haven’t done for a while and you don’t need a standardised test to tell you that. But distorting – butchering – the curriculum so that it pretty much only contains English and Maths is plainly, morally wrong. If I were a parent then I would alert the authorities which, in the case of England, would probably involve a complaint to Ofsted, the schools inspectorate.
I find it odd that evidence of these sorts of practices leads some to conclude that we need less accountability. What on earth would the a curriculum look like that was designed by such teachers in the absence of accountability? I suspect it wouldn’t be up to much. Unprofessional behaviour is seen by most people as a reason for more regulation. When bankers rigged the LIBOR interest rate, nobody concluded that this was evidence of too much accountability. If the fault was with the system then that fault was that the system wasn’t regulated well enough.
If we wish to be considered a profession then we must be seen to act with constancy and in the best interests of students. Instead of blaming mum and dad for all our woes, we need to take charge and ensure that we are using the best evidence available to inform the decisions that we make. Gamesmanship at the expense of our students is not only wrong, it probably won’t work very well anyway.