Bagging the standards

Note to UK readers – this may seem like a parochial discussion but the new College of Teaching in England intends to develop professional standards. This could be your argument in a few years.

I am not a fan of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST). I have written about them before, focusing particularly on the illustrations of the standards that the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) have placed online.

Last night, I described the standards as ‘dodgy’ on Twitter and was taken to task by a principal from New South Wales who said I was ‘bagging’ them from the sidelines and that my opinion could be easily dismissed because it is not based upon experience.

Far from being on the sidelines, these standards apply across Australia, including in my own school where they are used, for instance, to evaluate graduate teachers. Yet I hesitate to point this out because I really don’t think a person needs direct experience of something in order to criticise it. If that were the case, I would need to have attempted to implement a one-to-one iPad program before I could venture an opinion on the subject of one-to-one iPad programs. Which seems like a daft line to take.

And far from my information being second-hand and based upon what I’ve been told, I’ve actually read the standards. You can read them too via this link and, once you have done so, you have every right to form your own opinions about them, wherever you are.

My criticism of the standards is not through knee-jerk negativity – the colloquial ‘bagging’ of the title – but it is a position that I have reached for a number of important reasons that I would like to outline.

I remember hearing Professor Royce Sadler speak a few years back in Queensland. He made a point about the kinds of assessment rubrics that we use in education. They tend so say things like “demonstrates a sound knowledge of…” and then, at the next level, “demonstrates a proficient knowledge of…” Teachers aren’t really using these rubrics to make judgements. They are imposing their own ‘concept of quality’ onto the rubrics. This is why you have to have meetings to discuss and agree what ‘proficient’ versus ‘sound’ looks like.

Sadler contrasted these kinds of standards with engineering standards that are able to specify exactly what width of steel is required to make a particular housing. The two kinds of standards are very different.

The APST standards are like other rubrics that we find in education. For instance, how would you determine whether someone was at ‘proficient’ or ‘highly accomplished’ on standard 1.1?

Proficient: Use teaching strategies based on knowledge of students’ physical, social and intellectual development and characteristics to improve student learning.

Highly accomplished: Select from a flexible and effective repertoire of teaching strategies to suit the physical, social and intellectual development and characteristics of students.

Yet subjective judgements such as these are now going to form the basis of teacher performance-related pay. This is a feature intrinsic to rubrics of this kind. Although a rewrite might make me a little happier, the same criticism would apply. You can’t fix this problem by writing a better set of standards.

However, it is still worth looking at some of the specifics because these cause their own problems. For instance, you could not find a more elastic term than ‘differentiation’ as it is used in education and yet differentiation is at the core of another of the standards. Teachers are required to, “Differentiate teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities.

What does this mean? I often go over some homework questions with a section of my class while the others continue with an exercise. On one level, this is differentiation. But it is not differentiation in the way that it is usually imagined in education. This other version of differentiation is about planning multiple activities and then grouping students so that different groups of students complete different activities (see AITSL’s own illustrations here and here). Such differentiation also has an unfortunate history of leaning on ‘learning styles’ theories as this document from the New South Wales Board of Studies demonstrates (learning styles theories have been comprehensively debunked).

There is little evidence to support this kind of differentiated instruction. One large-scale trial in the U.S. found no effect. This is astonishing given the fact that education research usually generates a positive effect for pretty much any kind of intervention. The researchers concluded that the teachers in the study didn’t implement the program properly. So it either doesn’t work or is so hard to put into practice that teachers cannot do it even with the support of academics and the impetus of a large research project.

I have no objection to individual schools trying to make use of differentiation. There are many forms of differentiation and circumstances may even make the grouping of students unavoidable – imagine a mixed-grade classroom in a small country school. But why write it into a set of standards in such a way that all teachers are supposed to implement it? At best, generous evaluators will tick a box as teachers pay lip-service to the concept. At worst, we will be requiring large numbers of teachers across Australia to adopt a teaching method for which there is no strong evidence at all.

That’s why the standards are dodgy.

[You can read a more thorough discussion of differentiation here]

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5 thoughts on “Bagging the standards

  1. Hi Greg, I clicked on the link and read the standards; my overriding thought at first was, ‘This is a bit much.’ I think all teachers could tap into all of the standards at various points, but the ideal that all of them are being demonstrated all of the time just seems so impossible. For a start, I couldn’t even remember them all, let alone make a conscious decision to overtly demonstrate them to onlookers or remember to collect evidence that they are being done!

    Another key problem for me: rather than have a look at what children are writing or ask them a few questions along the way in a lesson, we are required to make a big song and dance out of mini-plenaries because this overtly ‘demonstrates’ teaching and learning. Everything is just so contrived.

  2. I couldn’t find the part in the differentiation study about no improvement – I didn’t read all that far on my phone.

    But the entire conclusion is a begging the question fallacy.

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