Thursday, 4 August 2016

NAPLAN and the lost keys

There's an apocryphal story about a man (could just as easily be a woman, e.g., me) who, late one night, loses his keys somewhere between his front door and his car, which is parked in the street. He searches around under the streetlight, until a passer-by stops and asks what he is searching for. "My car keys" says the frazzled man. "Where do you think you lost them?" the passer-by asks. "Probably in the driveway" the man replies. Puzzled, the passer-by asks "So, why are you searching here, under the streetlight?" "Because the light is a lot better" replies our key-less friend.

Many responses to the release this week of the 2016 NAPLAN results are completely in keeping with the fuzzy thinking demonstrated above: It's too hard to go searching somewhere we don't want to look, so let's just keep looking over here, where we're more comfortable. 

It is disappointing that teacher educators are not coming out in force calling for a change of tack to providing more evidence-based content in teacher pre-service education. Non-evidence-based approaches such as the much-loved (by teachers and teacher educators) three cueing strategy rarely (never?) rate a mention in the commentaries around poor NAPLAN performance, and nor does a need for implementation of the recommendations of the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy.

Instead, we see condemnation of the test itself ("We're doing poorly, so the measure must be flawed - quick, whip up a frenzy about testing being bad for kids") and glib and predictable calls for more money, usually in the form of Gonski funding, e.g.

"The Opposition says it just shows the need for Gonski"

I agree that schools can always use more money, but I am not at all convinced that more money translates into better literacy teaching practices. There is no shortage of evidence that teachers lack basic knowledge about how language works so I would prefer to see any additional funding that is channelled education's way to be spent on better teacher pre-service education.

Yes, children from disadvantaged backgrounds start school from behind with respect to the social and linguistic capital that is important for early reading, but that does not make it OK to deflect responsibility for poor outcomes onto these children and their families. It is the role of educators to apply rigorous, evidence-based approaches in all classrooms, so that some of these early markers of potentially poor educational attainment are tackled head-on in the early years of school. Teachers have one hand tied behind their backs in this endeavour, when they are not equipped with evidence-based teaching approaches in their pre-service training. A few quick PD sessions once they have been practising for ten years will not turn this around, and is an inefficient use of knowledge and resources.

Gonski recommendations may be where the light looks better, but it is not necessarily where the keys to reading success for all will be found.

In the event that Gonski recommendations are funded and we do not see commensurate improvements in reading and writing skills, what then?

(C) Pamela Snow 2016

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Young offenders need specialist care, not harsh punishment

The recent airing on ABC Four Corners of the disgraceful abuse of young people serving custodial sentences in the Northern Territory has resulted in an invisible group coming into sharp and unexpected relief for the whole community. CCTV footage (not secret filming) showed horrific images of young people in solitary confinement for long periods, in conditions of harsh privation, as well as brutal physical attacks, tear-gassing, verbal abuse, and wide-ranging humiliation. All of these “punishments” were being metered out to children as young as 10, in a first-world developed nation that is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child. 
But aren’t these just “bad kids” who need to be taught a thing or two, and isn’t youth detention the place to do that?
Young people in youth detention have committed criminal offences (typically theft but also assault and other breaches), but this does not make them “bad kids”. In Australia, we strive to divert young people away from custodial sentences, not because we are “soft” on youth crime, but because the evidence tells us that periods of custody are not overly effective for highly complex, vulnerable young people. Custodial sentences might have good “face validity” but that does not mean they work, and they certainly do not work where damaged children are subjected to further damage during custody.
Young people in custody have typically experienced wide-ranging maltreatment (abuse and neglect of various forms) from early ages, and have often experienced both learning and behavioural difficulties at school. Some 50% of young people in the youth justice system have already been subject to mandatory child protection orders, and most have exited school prematurely, with limited academic achievement. There is an over-representation in youth justice settings of young people with neurodisabilities, such as autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities, learning disorders, and foetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
My own research, in Victoria and New South Wales youth justice settings also shows that around 50% of young offenders have significant expressive and receptive language difficulties. This means they struggle to understand complex instructions and are not effective communicators of their own thoughts and feelings. These factors create a perfect storm for young people  from volatile home situations where empathy, cool-headed conversations, and strong social skills are lacking.
What such young people need, if they are to benefit from a custodial sentence, is calm, predictable environments, staffed by personnel who understand both child and adolescent development and the importance of trauma-informed practices that minimise challenging behaviour, and respond appropriately to such behaviour so that it does not escalate out of control. 
As a community, we all need these young people to be in better shape when they are released, than at the start of their sentence.

What we saw on Four Corners last week was adults abusing children. If citizens treated their own children in that way, they would rightly be arrested and imprisoned, and the children would be removed and placed in the care of the state. Sadly, this is how the Northern Territory, acting as the “state-parent” treats the children entrusted to its care. 

This post first appeared as an opinion piece in The Bendigo Advertiser on August 3, 2016, and has been widely syndicated throughout Australia. 

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Justice re-investment and educational casualties: What can education learn?

Yesterday (May 21) I presented at the researchEd conference in Melbourne. If you’re not familiar with these “pop-up” conferences, the brain child of UK teacher Tom Bennett, you can read more here

My presentation at researchEd was about the notion of justice re-investment, and how this contemporary approach to an old problem could inform an ongoing problem in education – the long tail of under-achievement in reading ability. Of course there’s another connection here too, and that is the one between an early pattern of under-achievement, the emergent of externalising behavioural difficulties, and disengagement from school and learning. Sometimes this sad confluence of events is referred to as the School-to-Prison pipeline. The fact that this is even an accepted term in the literature should make us all hang our heads in dismay. 

Justice re-investment has been summarised as: “…. a new approach in tackling the causes of crime and provides a viable option as our prison expansion costs become unsustainable. It re-directs money spent on prisons to community-based initiatives which aim to address the underlying causes of crime, promising to cut crime and save money”. 

As you can see, the idea here is to be tough on the causes of crime, rather than replicating tabloid rhetoric about being “tough on crime”. In the case of youth justice involvement, there are many risk-factors and comorbidities that need to be considered, including:

    • Coming from low-SES, single-parent households, most notably where fathers are absent;
    • Exposure to dysfunctional communication / parenting, e.g., coercion, harsh punishment, and erratic discipline;
    • Parental mental health problems;
    • Involvement with Child Protection services;
    • Poor oral language skills;
    • History of behaviour / conduct disturbance;
    • Low educational attachment / attainment;
    • History of school suspensions and exclusions;
    • Developmental disability (diagnosed or not);
    • Intergenerational un/under-employment in parents;
    • Early initiation into substance use / abuse.
Many of these factors are of course observable in the classroom (particularly behavioural difficulties and low educational attainment), while others constitute the complex, often invisible background factors that children bring to school with them. These young people are over-represented in the tail of the reading achievement curve, and their experiences of education are often negative and punctuated by suspensions and exclusions, sometimes with detours to specialist education settings such as “flexible learning environments” and “behaviour schools”. Of course education systems cannot change the background factors that children bring to school with them. They can, however, ensure that reading instruction in the critical first three years of school is informed by the best cognitive science that we have at our disposal. If you don't cross the learning-to-read bridge after three years, you can pretty much forget about reading-to-learn.

To what extent then, should we simply accept, as reported at researchEd by Professor Geoff Masters (Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research; ACER) that 

“…approximately 40,000 Australian 15-year-olds (that is, one in seven students) fail to achieve an international baseline proficiency level in reading. After 10 or more years of school, these students lack the reading skills that the OECD believes are required to participate adequately in the workforce and to contribute as productive citizens in the 21st century”.
Of course we should not accept this.  It is unacceptable. It is hardly surprising, though, that the Industry Skills Council of Australia is crying out to be heard about the fact that almost half of our adult workforce lacks the literacy, numeracy, and language skills to participate meaningfully in the paid workforce.

So, instead of calls for expensive ambulances at the bottom of the steep cliff, what might it look like if we were to build better fences at the top of the cliff, and apply the logic of justice re-investment?

Here’s some possible starting points:

  • We need better application of scientific evidence (Vs ideology) in teacher pre-service education. This would entail more focus on evidence-based early reading instruction, focussing on all of the "five big ideas" in literacy instruction (phonemic awareness, phonics-based instruction, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency).
  • In particular, we need education academics to acknowledge that the first of these two big ideas are currently under-done. It's not enough to say "they are all there", or "we deliver Balanced Literacy". When someone can tell me what Balanced Literacy actually is, I will go out and research it. However at the moment, it's one of those Alice-in-Wonderland terms that education loves, because it means whatever the user wants it to mean.
  • Explicitly setting out to create a shorter tail in the achievement curve.
  • Making more targeted use of specialist support services (such as speech pathology), e.g. via Response to Intervention models;
  • Greater reliance on evidence-based interventions for struggling readers.
And here’s what I see as the barriers to progress on this important front:
  • Education academics arguing that there is really not a problem here at all, aka It’s just moral panic;
  • The ideological hold of Whole Language-informed approaches on teacher pre-service education, e.g.  
    * Three-Cuing strategies (where phonics is last, and the approach used is not Systematic Synthetic Phonics)
    * Look’n’Say approaches
    * Memorising lists of sight-words
    * Reading Recovery, Running Records etc
  • The fact that simple down-stream teacher PD is not the answer. Teachers cannot be expected to seamlessly “unlearn” the non-evidence-based approaches to which they were exposed in their pre-service education, and have been practising ever since, simply by attending a few one-day workshops. There is a science to the teaching of reading, but for some bizarre reason, our teaching workforce is kept behind the iron curtain on this.    

I can’t go past the provocative words of Rod Morgan, former Chair of the UK Youth Justice Board, who observed in 2007* that:

“It may be too much to say that if we reformed our schools, we would have no need of prisons. But if we better engaged our children and young people in education we would almost certainly have less need of prisons. Effective crime prevention has arguably more to do with education than sentencing policy”. 

Reforming our schools and better engaging our students has to begin upstream, with an acknowledgement by education academics that they are doing downstream harm by promulgating non evidence-based approaches that perpetuate the long tail of under-achievement and the steady supply of children to the youth and adult justice systems, via the School-to-Prison pipeline.

There is no justice in this at all. Education academics need to get busy building fences at the top of the cliff.

*See: Stephenson, M. (2007). Young People and Offending. Education, Youth Justice, and Social Inclusion. Devon: Willan Publishing.

Related open-access links that may be of interest:

© Pamela Snow 2016