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Monday, 31 Oct 2016

NSW Education Symposium 2016: BOSTES President's speech

BOSTES President Tom Alegounarias addressed the NSW Education Symposium 2016 on Friday 28 September 2016.

You can read a transcript of his speech "Response to Professor Geoff Masters – Making a difference in the classroom" below.

Since the 1980s, there has been much talk in education to figure out ‘what works’ in the classroom. It has built an ever-growing mound of information and materials about what teachers should be doing to improve their students’ learning.

Data is abundant. It is often shaped into arguments of what works. Effectiveness models are commonly developed, often packaged, and then propagated through our schools and systems. We, in head office, like to allocate acronyms to them.

Then as teachers we gather in conferences and huddle in workshops to reflect on the effectiveness of the packages.

And inevitably we begin reflecting on ourselves.

Sometimes this evolves into vocalising a sort of agony over our shortcomings and how we compare with other better places.

We end up gawping at East Asian systems and their commitment, and we do the Finland Fetish.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. The record shows that change and improvement occurs.

But it is uneven and incremental, and sometimes even counter- productive.

And the global data, if the data is a fair reflection of effectiveness, is sometimes dispiriting.

Geoff has presented coherent and well-reasoned areas for action to improve learning.

His work derives from research and goes well beyond a simple description of characteristics of effective schools or systems. There is no clinical list of behaviours to adopt.

He captures key points of leverage, outlines useful directions for policy and practice, observes trends and locates the point of relevance in our context.

Importantly, Geoff’s points pass the BBQ test, or staff room test, in that the suggestions are practical and make sense.

But the question remains…

How do we make these things happen where they are not happening? How can we spread improvement?

What are the characteristics of a policy framework that will encourage improvement and the best possible practice?

Let’s start by acknowledging how you don’t get improvement.

You don’t get it by mandating best practice through regulation or policy edicts from head office.

Effective classroom practice is not a policy domain open to direct regulation. It is, if you like, a subjective condition, not an objective condition.

It’s not like putting up a school hall, though it turns out putting up schools halls isn’t that easy either.

So let’s say building a road or new railway line, or imposing parking fines to change behaviour, where there’s a direct link between the policy intent and the outcome.

Effective teaching requires individual recognition, understanding, and then commitment.

Effective practice is about building culture and capacity. It is about hearts and minds. And may it always be so.

So how does the NSW education reform project align with this principle? Let me count the ways.

You heard from Minister Piccoli yesterday on this government’s reform approach. It has been a period of positive activism, characterised, I would say, by a clear-eyed approach of first principles.

For me, there are three common threads of this period of reform:
1.Establish high standards
2. Build a culture of evidence and analysis
And 3, within the context of these, Trust the profession.

From 2018, all teachers will have to meet accreditation standards for the first time. The teaching standards first introduced in NSW now form the basis of the national professional standards.

The standards are supported by evidence guides. What might it look like in the classroom. What sort of evidence should be readily available.

But the point of the standards cannot be simply a check list of preferred activity. It can only be a common reference point for professional engagement and judgment.

The stakes are and should be high.

Standards, yes, regulate, but do not define practice. They are a necessary reference point for the heart of any profession – expert judgment.

Teaching standards are a foundation for a professional infrastructure. Take recognition of outstanding teachers. There are currently about a thousand teachers in the pipeline for recognition at Accomplishment or Leadership. Based on judgments made by fellow teachers, outstanding teachers will be paid more.

On the basis of the requirements of the standards, expectations can and are being placed on those wanting to study teaching and then graduate as teachers.
Agreements are being struck between school systems and universities on the common obligations of an effective practicum.

All teachers are required to engage on the question of their professional learning. The compliance issue is 100 hours of professional learning.
The professional issue is: What professional leaning?

Teachers are required to maintain a standard, but they also have a right to ask of their principals, what have you done for me lately? Professionally, that is.

It is about exercising judgment.

Of course, the value of such judgment is a question of evidence and expertise along with engagement. There is a hierarchy in this evidence:
data or information, knowledge, judgment, expertise. It is not just about numbers but empirical evidence is crucial.

In 2011, as one of his initial acts, the Minister established the Ministerial Advisory Group on Literacy and Numeracy chaired by Ken Boston. It was asked to answer one objective question – what works?

In 2012, the government established the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation as an on-going resource for research and data. It is also a cornerstone of a professional infrastructure that might sustain itself into the future.

When the Minister commissioned GTIL and the reform of the HSC, the first actions required were a collation of evidence and research.

The issue here is one of leadership in building a culture of evidence-based practice.

And the point of highlighting culture is that it is not a policy or a regulation, let alone an edict. In this context, it is an expectation among peers.

Evidence-based practice relies essentially on a modernist, scientific ethos. The ethos applies equally to developing effective policy as it does to teacher practice.
The ethos is this: the expectation that another professional having regard to the same evidence will likely come to the same conclusion.

That is verifiable evidence-based professional practice.

This should be our ambitious standard if we are to suggest that certain literacy interventions are effective or not.
It should also be our implied standard when determining how well a student is travelling in their individual learning of literacy … or numeracy … or history.

And what we should do next.

That another professional having regard to the same evidence will likely come to the same conclusion.

Such an ethos is self-sustaining, it is collegial, it is a protection from undue external direction or misdirection.

That is, it is the base of a professional culture.

So what do we have to do, to achieve this? Where are we on this journey?

Firstly, we have to learn to love the ethos of evidence and analysis. The dominant nature of the profession’s engagement with evidence over time could be better characterised as scepticism rather than analysis.

I’m pleased to recognise that I’m already late in making this call. The profession generally is eager to find and use relevant data and recognise expertise.

But there is, I would say, some way to go.

And I am well aware of the pitfalls of undue faith in the idea of the ‘objective’.

Critical thinking is an asset of the profession when well applied. But there is no way forward without a professional commitment to the values of shared analysis of evidence.

Secondly, and I would say most crucially, is the need to build expertise in data, measurement and analysis throughout the profession.
Student assessment is a core and defining function of teaching.

And yet, key concepts for understanding the data and information gathered in assessments are not familiar let alone well understood.

And in using the term assessment, I don’t just mean tests but all types of assessment and the technical criteria such as validity and reliability.

All the professional rhetoric today around tailored teaching, meeting individual student needs, diagnosing a student’s zone of proximal development, of multi-levelling programming …
– all the approaches we regard as quality teaching –
… are premised on a teacher’s capacity to effectively assess students…
… and then understand and respond to the information provided in the assessment.

And yet, analysis of BOSTES Proficient Teacher accreditation reports indicates that the area of practice in which new teachers are least confident is student assessment generally, but data analysis specifically.

A perusal of initial teacher education programs suggests relatively little work is undertaken in this crucial domain for new teachers, and I suspect it has always been thus.

This leaves us less equipped than we should be to undertake the sorts of classroom practice that Geoff refers to.

It also leaves us open to unconstructive intervention and direction in areas such as testing and the publication and dissemination of test results.

It is not enough to scream that NAPLAN, for example, was always intended as a diagnostic assessment, when its reliability as a diagnostic tool at a student level is limited.

Broad and deep knowledge and expertise in measurement will help us build capacity. It will equip more of us to address the issues that Geoff has described – to independently and collectively build cycles of review and improvement.

It will also help build the authority of the profession and protect it from counter-productive political incursions.

Finally, it must be recognised that an underlying requirement is time. This is multi-faceted and I address it simply and only as a professional issue.

As in all aspects of life, the new technologies make some things more possible for teachers, and then create pressure to do more.

To make classroom practice more effective, to sustain and build professional capacity and practice, our organisational structures and processes must allow time to analyse, to judge, to adjust our teaching based on analysis of the data.

This time is crucial across the profession, in schools, teacher preparation courses, teacher mentoring and supervisory processes, in all professional structures.

We may have a structure and a momentum, a firm government’s policy foundation, and broadly excellent practice, but the effect we’re searching for…
…building leadership and capacity to achieve the outstanding goals we have set for ourselves…
…is still ahead of us.