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Back to school and back to the same old wars about education

By Rebecca Vassarotti - 2 February 2017 11

Back to School

This week sees Canberra kids return to school. This is a time of excitement, anxiety, hope and great expectations – for children, parents, teachers and the community.

Education is one of the biggest investments we make as a community – in the ACT it makes up about a fifth of our annual public sector spend, around $1.2B each year. We are lucky to live in a place that provides quality public education which means that most people are able to access education that is affordable and useful. At both a national and local level however there are questions about whether or not we are doing as well as we should be in our education system. Last year’s NAPLAN results showed that while the ACT performs better than most other jurisdictions, there are areas where we are falling behind New South Wales and Victoria. Some experts are questioning how well we really are doing given the assets we have as a community, suggest we are becoming complacent and assert we are not creating an environment where all our children can do their very best.

The latest bright idea from our Federal Education Minister is that we need more testing in the early years of primary school. While there is much discussion about evidence based approaches, there is little evidence to back up the claim that more testing in the early years will deliver better outcomes from our kids. The evidence about the usefulness of universal testing is patchy at best, and does nothing to deal with the issues that may be driving less than optimal results in our educational system.

As a parent of children in primary school, I know that our teachers are frequently testing the literacy proficiency of their students – they know which students are thriving and which ones need support. The experience of many parents is that what we actually need is more support when we identify that a child may need assistance. We need more opportunities for assessments that can provide assistance in pinpointing any underlying issues. We need more reading recovery programs for children who need to some one-on-one support. We need access to affordable speech pathology programs for children who need this support and affordable and accessible programs for children who may have dyslexia and other challenges with literacy. We also need to nurture the children who are doing well – stretch and extend them and create a lifelong love of learning. Fundamentally, we need to provide more resources to teachers in class to give individual attention for all our children to meet their potential.

Our teachers do a great job but are often placed in a situation where they can’t possibly do all that they need to do. We owe it to our children to move beyond the politicisation of education to an environment where there is a commitment to needs based funding, an ability to access additional support where needed and a commitment to creating a system focused on children, their future and in turn all our futures.

What do you think? Do you think testing in early primary school will drive improved educational outcomes or are there better approaches?

Will added testing in early primary years improve educational outcomes?

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11 Responses to
Back to school and back to the same old wars about education
1
BadDad123 10:42 am
02 Feb 17
#

Good points Rebecca – support for the teachers should be the primary goal – not the stress and hassle of more testing.

2
london 10:56 am
02 Feb 17
#

As a retired teacher I am torn between both ideas. While I was teaching I always thought it would be a good idea to have the same testing in Year One as in three and five because unfortunately some teachers didn’t prepare the students in kindergarten to be able to integrate quickly into Year One. This meant much of our time was filling gaps. However I think this latest ploy is to rid schools of the Gonski and will not support anyone.

3
wildturkeycanoe 11:11 am
02 Feb 17
#

Testing by itself of primary aged children will not help those students reach their potential or assist them to overcome any issues they have. One on one support is needed. A teacher is restricted in the classroom to teaching at one particular level, which is obviously the standard school curriculum for that year group. How can a teacher find the time to concentrate on perhaps three, five, or even ten different levels of ability in a class of twenty to thirty students? They can’t. The students below standard will need more attention, whilst the high end will sit in class quietly, bored with the easiness of the tasks and lose enthusiasm for learning. There is a push now for extended learning to address those with advanced ability in subjects, but the question remains, how can a teacher divide their teaching efforts. At one moment they may be teaching science, with 90% of the class able to easily learn that particular lesson. But then they do mathematics and only 60% are at level, 25% below standard, 10% needing special help and 5% who are years ahead of the rest. How can the teacher focus their efforts on four different groups in what might only be a one hour lesson? Obviously, there will be students whose needs are not met. We can not use a “One size fits all” approach to education, because it does not benefit everybody.
Now, back to testing. Our experience with this is such; We had testing done during pre-school, which revealed a reading ability akin to a year 6 student. By kindy the school was fully aware of the advanced abilities, but lacked the resources to help [had read all the books available to that year group and simply rotated on favorite reads instead of being challenged by more advanced literature]. Year 3 Naplan absolutely blitzed the competition and finally, the ICAS educational assessment revealed them being in the top 1% of the country for mathematics, reading and spelling. Without intervention by us as parents, nothing would have been done. He would have been sent to year 4 and gone through the motions for another 12 months, again losing enthusiasm for learning and wondering what the point is. Thankfully, with the cooperation of the school he has been able to skip a year, but that still is not enough to cater for his needs. Extended learning in mathematics is still needed, as he can do arithmetic at a level 4 years above their current class, five years above where he would have been if stuck in the “status quo”.
So, ultimately it is up to the parents to ensure that a child’s educational needs are met, because they are the ones who are privy to most of the results of the testing. Teachers may not know the individual student’s scores from outside testing such as Naplan or ICAS, they are given just a guide on the overall results. If students are identified as needing extra support, the teacher simply can’t stretch themselves far enough to encompass both ends of the spectrum.
I don’t know if private schools are any different, but the public system needs a revamp, instead of pushing the kids through like a factory that pumps out average humans, discarding anything that doesn’t conform to the “standard”.

4
pink little birdie 11:30 am
02 Feb 17
#

Support for the teachers.
I’d be keen to see a reduction of whole class teaching time for teachers. Each class in primary school should have 2 full time, fully qualified teachers. It would enable teachers to have more one on one time, more time to prepare, more time to support students and will reduce burnout and people leaving the profession in the first 5 years.
At the high school level there should be a reduction of teaching time to 50% teaching load and possibly 2 teachers in lower level maths and English classes.
Unfortunately it would be expensive but as it’s an investment that would pay off for teachers and students.

5
Antonia Canaris 1:33 pm
02 Feb 17
#

In a perfect world no child should need to be screened for knowledge of letters and sounds because their teacher would know each child so well. Unfortunately teachers are not aware of exactly which letters and sounds a child may not know. This knowledge is the foundation for literacy. Year 1 phonics screening with follow-up and extra teacher professional development have seen the literacy of students in the UK far surpass that of their peers in Australia.

As a special education therapist with considerable experience and professional study of reading and writing development, I disagree that the phonics screener is an unwarranted intrusion. Studies have shown that Reading Recovery is an ineffective program. So many of my students come to me in high school, often after receiving Reading Recovery instruction and yet cannot pronounce the common sounds of the letters in the alphabet.

Yes-we do need highly experienced teachers who can offer multisensory explicit literacy instruction especially for vulnerable students. And yes it is unjust that such assistance is one available to those who can afford it and are lucky enough to have proactive and well-read parents.

Yes of course all teachers should have good support. In an ideal world a teacher can adapt their teaching for the child with autism, for the child with hearing loss, for the child with moderate to severe intellectual delay, for the child with ADHD, for the child with severe anxiety, for the child with dyslexia, for the traumatised refugee child and for the child from the abusive or neglectful home. While miracles are always welcome, unfortunately it is not physically possible to be able to differentiate the curriculum to the extent needed for each and every child.

90% of students will be able to read and write with a research-based structured literacy program such as MultiLit. The remaining 5-10% of students will need a multidisciplinary approach with intensive multisensory explicit instruction in phonics, handwriting and word structure in a one on one or small group setting. It is important to work with and refer to speech therapists, occupational therapists and paediatricians when necessary.

Too much testing is not good for children but teachers can gain lot of information by analysing where students are struggling. We take our cars for check ups and we see our GP’s for regular health checks ( or should do so). Just as a doctor couldn’t possibly advise us on how to regain health without testing us, a teacher is unable to help struggling students without knowing what is their root problem.

6
DyslexiaInfoCanberra 6:15 pm
02 Feb 17
#

In response to ‘Back to school and back to the same old wars about education’ I would first like to say that I agree with some of the opinions Rebecca has expressed in this article, such as providing more support for students identified as requiring further assistance, having access to affordable speech pathology, more resources for teachers, avoiding the politicisation of education and a commitment to needs based funding. However I do not agree that the Federal Education Minister is implementing more arduous testing. In fact the Phonics check, is actually a 5 minute screen that will flag students at risk of reading failure at a critical time. Early identification is imperative to implement evidence-based strategies and interventions. For more information about the 5 minute screen please refer to the following articles, Why do we need a phonics test for six year olds by Dr Lorraine Hammond and Alison Clarke and The story of an ugly duckling. Aka Phonics Check Furphies by Prof. Pamela Snow.

In relation to the suggestion that what is needed is more reading recovery programs is really off the mark. What we need is implementation of the teaching of explicit synthetic phonics in all Australian classrooms. Reading Recovery has been found to be ineffective for students with learning difficulties, such as Dyslexia. Having little or no long-term impact on students who need the assistance the most. Please refer to the following articles for more information. The Australian: Reading Recovery deemed a failure or ABC Lifematters: Does Reading Recover work? The program is based on ‘Whole Language’ which has since been shown not to have any efficacy as a long-term literacy intervention. NSW Education in fact have decided to move away from Reading Recovery due to its ineffectiveness and cost. Sydney Morning Herald: Reading Recovery: NSW government ditches 30-year-old, $55m a year program

So what do we need? In my opinion, we need the Phonics Check and teachers need to receive pre-service training in Learning Difficulties at University, additionally they need to know how to explicitly teach systematic synthetic phonics, which time and again appears to be the most effective pedagogy of reading instruction. The phonics screen is just a start, it’s a stepping stone in the right direction. In order to learn to read, students need to grasp the five key elements of reading, phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. For more information about this see, Five from Five

https://theconversation.com/why-do-we-need-a-phonics-test-for-six-year-olds-72080

http://pamelasnow.blogspot.com.au/2017/01/the-story-of-ugly-duckling-aka-phonics.html

https://myaccount.news.com.au/theaustralian/subscribe?pkgDef=TA_SDO_P0415A_W04&directSubscribe=true&b=true&sourceCode=TAWEB_WRE170_a&mode=premium&dest=http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/reading-recovery-deemed-a-failure/news-story/64082536dba8c519a38a1f779f051667?nk=1c271bc4143239155933cfa9af9f84de-1486019333&memtype=anonymous

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/does-reading-recovery-work/7150074

http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/reading-recovery-nsw-government-ditches-30yearold-55m-a-year-program-20160920-grkv1n.html

http://www.fivefromfive.org.au/explicit-phonics-instruction/

7
Suzanne Kiraly 6:42 pm
02 Feb 17
#

Thanks for this, Rebecca. Teachers should be given the time and training to operate at their optimum level. All the research says that it is teachers who make the biggest difference – so that’s where the money needs to be spent – more time for planning great educational experiences and more high-quality professional development. Period!

8
crackerpants 6:49 pm
02 Feb 17
#

Public schools in the ACT already use PIPS testing in terms 1 and 4 of kindergarten – it assesses numeracy and literacy to gauge a child’s progress over their first year of primary school. I think that is sufficient.

9
Rebecca Vassarotti 10:03 am
04 Feb 17
#

Antonia Canaris said :

In a perfect world no child should need to be screened for knowledge of letters and sounds because their teacher would know each child so well. Unfortunately teachers are not aware of exactly which letters and sounds a child may not know. This knowledge is the foundation for literacy. Year 1 phonics screening with follow-up and extra teacher professional development have seen the literacy of students in the UK far surpass that of their peers in Australia.

As a special education therapist with considerable experience and professional study of reading and writing development, I disagree that the phonics screener is an unwarranted intrusion. Studies have shown that Reading Recovery is an ineffective program. So many of my students come to me in high school, often after receiving Reading Recovery instruction and yet cannot pronounce the common sounds of the letters in the alphabet.

Yes-we do need highly experienced teachers who can offer multisensory explicit literacy instruction especially for vulnerable students. And yes it is unjust that such assistance is one available to those who can afford it and are lucky enough to have proactive and well-read parents.

Yes of course all teachers should have good support. In an ideal world a teacher can adapt their teaching for the child with autism, for the child with hearing loss, for the child with moderate to severe intellectual delay, for the child with ADHD, for the child with severe anxiety, for the child with dyslexia, for the traumatised refugee child and for the child from the abusive or neglectful home. While miracles are always welcome, unfortunately it is not physically possible to be able to differentiate the curriculum to the extent needed for each and every child.

90% of students will be able to read and write with a research-based structured literacy program such as MultiLit. The remaining 5-10% of students will need a multidisciplinary approach with intensive multisensory explicit instruction in phonics, handwriting and word structure in a one on one or small group setting. It is important to work with and refer to speech therapists, occupational therapists and paediatricians when necessary.

Too much testing is not good for children but teachers can gain lot of information by analysing where students are struggling. We take our cars for check ups and we see our GP’s for regular health checks ( or should do so). Just as a doctor couldn’t possibly advise us on how to regain health without testing us, a teacher is unable to help struggling students without knowing what is their root problem.

Thanks so much for this comment and your perspective. I have seen the value in reading recovery programs in that they provide an opportunity for some one-on-one support for children who might need a bit of extra attention that is impossible to receive in a class setting. However, I understand you are right that in relation to them being a standard intervention for all reading issues, there are far superior programs, and MultiLit programs are much more effective. I am not against testing if we have programs to support children who we identify need support as a result of this testing. I am troubled when this is presented as the whole solution when it is clearly not. Without a needs based funding model, this is almost impossible to achieve.

10
Rebecca Vassarotti 10:14 am
04 Feb 17
#

DyslexiaInfoCanberra said :

In response to ‘Back to school and back to the same old wars about education’ I would first like to say that I agree with some of the opinions Rebecca has expressed in this article, such as providing more support for students identified as requiring further assistance, having access to affordable speech pathology, more resources for teachers, avoiding the politicisation of education and a commitment to needs based funding. However I do not agree that the Federal Education Minister is implementing more arduous testing. In fact the Phonics check, is actually a 5 minute screen that will flag students at risk of reading failure at a critical time. Early identification is imperative to implement evidence-based strategies and interventions. For more information about the 5 minute screen please refer to the following articles, Why do we need a phonics test for six year olds by Dr Lorraine Hammond and Alison Clarke and The story of an ugly duckling. Aka Phonics Check Furphies by Prof. Pamela Snow.

In relation to the suggestion that what is needed is more reading recovery programs is really off the mark. What we need is implementation of the teaching of explicit synthetic phonics in all Australian classrooms. Reading Recovery has been found to be ineffective for students with learning difficulties, such as Dyslexia. Having little or no long-term impact on students who need the assistance the most. Please refer to the following articles for more information. The Australian: Reading Recovery deemed a failure or ABC Lifematters: Does Reading Recover work? The program is based on ‘Whole Language’ which has since been shown not to have any efficacy as a long-term literacy intervention. NSW Education in fact have decided to move away from Reading Recovery due to its ineffectiveness and cost. Sydney Morning Herald: Reading Recovery: NSW government ditches 30-year-old, $55m a year program

So what do we need? In my opinion, we need the Phonics Check and teachers need to receive pre-service training in Learning Difficulties at University, additionally they need to know how to explicitly teach systematic synthetic phonics, which time and again appears to be the most effective pedagogy of reading instruction. The phonics screen is just a start, it’s a stepping stone in the right direction. In order to learn to read, students need to grasp the five key elements of reading, phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. For more information about this see, Five from Five

https://theconversation.com/why-do-we-need-a-phonics-test-for-six-year-olds-72080

http://pamelasnow.blogspot.com.au/2017/01/the-story-of-ugly-duckling-aka-phonics.html

https://myaccount.news.com.au/theaustralian/subscribe?pkgDef=TA_SDO_P0415A_W04&directSubscribe=true&b=true&sourceCode=TAWEB_WRE170_a&mode=premium&dest=http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/reading-recovery-deemed-a-failure/news-story/64082536dba8c519a38a1f779f051667?nk=1c271bc4143239155933cfa9af9f84de-1486019333&memtype=anonymous

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/does-reading-recovery-work/7150074

http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/reading-recovery-nsw-government-ditches-30yearold-55m-a-year-program-20160920-grkv1n.html

http://www.fivefromfive.org.au/explicit-phonics-instruction/

Thanks so much for these comments and the references. They are incredibly helpful and really helps to progress the discussion. You will see in a previous comment, my comment regarding reading recovery programs is recognising that it is a way to provide some one-on-one support for a group of children that need it but I recognise their inadequacy in responding to dyslexia and other complex reading challenges. I understand programs such MultiLit have a much stronger evidence base, and if we could get wider access to these types of programs into schools, that would be a great step forward.

I agree phonics is really important and recognise that screening can be useful. What troubles me is presenting additional testing as the whole solution, particularly when we know that there are not the programs to support children who are identified through this testing. We need to address the issue of appropriate resourcing, and getting support to children when they need it, no matter which school system they are accessing and independent of a family’s capacity to pay.

11
wildturkeycanoe 2:50 pm
05 Feb 17
#

crackerpants said :

Public schools in the ACT already use PIPS testing in terms 1 and 4 of kindergarten – it assesses numeracy and literacy to gauge a child’s progress over their first year of primary school. I think that is sufficient.

No it is not. Even if the child does exceptionally well at these tests, nothing is done to address their needs in the remaining years of primary school. I can’t speak to the experience of those who do poorly, who I imagine would have just as demanding needs in order to catch them up to the expected requirements. Unless there is a system in place to use the results of the tests to assist those undertaking them, what is the point of having the tests except to gauge one school against the rest? It is great if a school does well overall in a test, but what do they do with the individuals whose results are not in the school’s normal range? As we found out after many years, things will only change if the parent gets involved and pushes to have something done. Even then, it is like hitting your head against a wall. You hear the same response from the teachers year after year, but see nothing change in the classroom. No matter what plan is put into place, the teacher only has two hands and 30 hours in a week to cater for up to 30 students. That is only 1 hour a week of one on one teaching time, hardly enough to make a difference to someone who doesn’t learn at the same speed as everybody else.
This is the problem with an education system that tries to get as many as possible up to a certain standard, but achieves it by changing the standard rather than changing the students.

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