Saturday, 22 October 2016

Could poor reading skills be the new black?

 Image result for being illiterate

It was a sunny Saturday morning today in my lovely home-town of Bendigo and I was out and about doing some errands, when my intrepid research assistant, Emina texted me, asking me if I had seen this piece on The Weekend Conversation touting the benefits of a Vocational Education and Training schemes for the nearly one-third of Australian 15 year-olds whose reading skills are below level 3 in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  Having spent the better part of my morning reviewing Speech Pathology Australia's submission to the Royal Commission into the Child Protection and Youth Detention Systems of the Northern Territory (far more than one third of youth offenders have poor reading skills, but that's another story) I was already behind on the weekend's social media, and was grateful for the alert. The research in question appears to have been published via an in-house university report, rather than a peer-reviewed journal, which does arouse some immediate concerns. However I have had a quick look at the report, and will delve further into it in due course. In all probability, though, most readers of this morning's piece won't get any further than the piece itself, so it is worth unpacking the authors' claims. In fact, I am just as interested in what they don't say, as I am in what they do.

What concerns me about this morning's piece:
  1. There is no critical commentary about the fact that one third of 15 year olds in Australia have low literacy levels. Doesn't this speak of some kind of system failure?
  2. There is no acknowledgement that industry bodies in this country are despairing about the low language, literacy, and numeracy levels of the Australian workforce, as per this Industry Skills Council of Australia report (2011): No More Excuses
  3. No evidence is provided to support the conclusion that "It seems that not every teenager with low reading proficiency necessarily becomes an adult with poor reading skills". This implies that the authors tested the reading skills of these young people at age 25 and found that a significant proportion no longer had scores below the expected range. Just because young people are employed in low or unskilled jobs (which may or may not have a longterm future), does not mean their reading skills have somehow improved post-school.
  4. It is stated that "Those from the low proficiency group compensate for studying below bachelor-level VET qualifications by choosing courses that have good labour market prospects". The problem here is that we live in a technology and IT-based society in which unskilled jobs are vanishing, being replaced by jobs that require university level training, and by definition, better than average literacy levels (see Levy & Murnane, 2004). 
  5. The authors completely overlook the fact that with better literacy skills, these young people would have a raft of educational and vocational training options. Poor literacy at age 15 should not, in Australia in 2016, see one's employment destiny set in stone. 
  6. "For schools and education departments, the message is to not only ensure access to VET, but also to support young people in making good course choices. Early career counselling is a step in this direction". Is there not a message here for schools too that more emphasis on evidence-based early and remedial literacy interventions might be a good idea?
  7. These counter-intuitive results are derived from a sample with 75% attrition, and have not been replicated (as far as I can see, they have also not been published in a peer-reviewed journal). The authors are getting ahead of themselves.

There's a popular TV show in Australia about the advertising industry, called Gruen Transfer (no, I don't know where the name comes from either). One of its most well-loved segments is "The Pitch" - in which ad agencies are asked to create a TV ad to "sell the unsellable". I reckon they should offer future contestants "leaving school semi-literate".

Surely this is the stuff of satire?

Levy, F., & Murnane, R. J. (2004). The New Division of Labor: How Computers are Creating the Next Job Market. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

(C) Pamela Snow (2016)

Saturday, 10 September 2016

More money for schools? Start with less waste.

On September 6, The Productivity Commission Draft Report on the National Education Evidence Base was released. Some of the key findings of this report are as follows:

  • Notwithstanding substantial increases in expenditure on education over the past decade, national and international assessments of student achievement in Australia show little improvement and in some areas standards of achievement have dropped.
  • Monitoring outcomes, performance benchmarking and competition between schools alone are insufficient to achieve gains in education outcomes. They must be complemented by the use of data and evidence to identify, and then apply, the most effective programs, policies and teaching practices.
  • Without improving and applying evidence to policy making and teaching in schools and classrooms, there is a substantial risk that increased resourcing of schools will continue to deliver disappointing outcomes

The findings of this report have been subjected to a Fact Check by a team at The Conversation which supports the Productivity Commission’s view, with the bottom line being as follows:

“This analysis is correct. Educational spending has increased and there has been little overall national improvement in achievement. Relatively static national achievement levels, however, mask trends of improvement in some states (Western Australia and Queenland) and significant changes in individual schools”.

Now, this is not going to be a popular position with many teacher educators, teacher unions, and in many cases, teachers themselves. There is a widespread, group-think that asserts that “all that is needed” for educational standards to improve in this country is for Gonski Reforms to be fully funded. This is a remarkably uncritical, and some might say, disingenuous stance by people who claim to use data to inform their decision-making, and more importantly, claim to care about the well-being and educational outcomes of young people in Australia.

It is virtually impossible to succeed in a western education system if you do not make the transition to literacy in the first three years of school. Yet in 2016, teacher education in Australia and other industrialised nations continues to be dominated by discredited Whole Language-based teaching and remediation approaches. This is in spite of a mother lode of cognitive science evidence that the best of way of ensuring that all (not most, all) children make the transition to literacy, is by having teachers equipped to provide systematic synthetic phonics instruction as a starting point, and then to build on early success through their sophisticated and explicit knowledge of morphology, vocabulary, narrative skills, comprehension strategies and syntactic complexity. This position is also supported by three international inquiries into the teaching of reading: The UK, the USA, and Australia. Australia’s inquiry was published in 2005, yet no state or territory has adopted its recommendations, which remain as fresh and relevant today as they were 11 years ago. Do not be fooled, dear reader, by the Trojan Horse that is so-called Balanced Literacy, an approach that is to literacy, as “healthy eating” is to public health nutrition. It is a term that can mean whatever the user wants it to mean.

As I (and others) have asserted many times, systematic phonics instruction is a necessary but not sufficient element of early literacy instruction. What we see instead, however, is widespread use and promotion of the Whole Language-based Three Cuing Strategy (for a recent critique of the mysterious way in which this became “A Thing” in early years' education, see Alison Clarke’s excellent blogpost here). Alison rightly refers to Three Cuing as “teaching the habits of poor readers”.

As if not applying the abundant evidence from cognitive science is not wasteful enough, many teacher educators and schools are enthusiastic and uncritical consumers of every kind of neuroflapdoodle imaginable: Brain Gym, Learning Styles, Multiple Intelligences, Coloured Lenses, Reading Recovery, notions of left-brain, right-brain learners, not to mention my personal favourite: brain-based learning (big eye-roll)….the list goes on and on (and is explored in detail in this forthcoming book by Dr. Caroline Bowen and me).

So – before we throw more money into what is in many respects, a wasteful, bottomless pit, let’s do an audit of non-evidence-based practices and see where some savings can be re-directed to educational approaches that do support learning success, right across the achievement spectrum, but most notably for those in the tail of the curve, for whom rigorous instruction pays particular dividends.

Money does not grow on trees, and even if it did, as the illustration at the top of this page shows, the wind would blow much of it away anyway.
I can already anticipate the reaction of some teacher educators, and sadly, some schools and teachers.