Professor Peter Mortimore: Not ignorant about education

Posted: October 31, 2008 in Australia, Education, News, Politics
Tags: , ,

Professor Peter Mortimore has come out and released a pretty stern warning regarding the Australian Federal Government’s proposed educational reforms and I find that I fully agree with what he says.  Of course, any person involved in any modern educational facility can easily see the proposed reforms really make little sense (as I’ve noted previously) but let us see what the good Professor says.

Govt warned to rethink education revolution

The Federal Government’s proposed education reforms could severely damage the education system and would not improve student performance, an international education expert has warned.

Professor Peter Mortimore, a former director of the London-based Institute of Education, said the Government’s enthusiasm to embrace transparent reporting of schools’ results would simply mirror the mistakes made in England over the past 20 years.

In August Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced plans for education reforms. Part of the plan involves making federal educational funding conditional on agreement from states and territories that they provide information about the performance of schools around the country.

Speaking at the Australian Education Union-sponsored event in Brisbane last night, Professor Mortimore said if school performance was reported and made available to parents then struggling schools would suffer from an exodus of students and standards would drop.

“The trouble is that this transparency has been tested now in England for 20 years and actually the outcome is not good at all. It’s not an improved education system, it’s actually a very bad system,” he said, adding that he was “horrified” to hear of the Government’s planned reforms.

“You end up with mania, or chasing the best school which is what’s happened in England, where parents are obsessed with it and the league table is the thing that drives them.”

‘Crude league tables’

The Government’s reform ideas have been partly inspired by a system in New York, led by a former White House counsel Joel Klein, in which schools’ performances are made public.

Mr Klein said his system improved student and school performances, but Professor Mortimore said the US was a bad model to use because its education standards were far behind Australia’s.

The Government says it is not going to use league tables – in fact Education Minister Julia Gillard on Wednesday described league tables as “dumb” – saying only similar schools will be compared to each other and different circumstances will be taken into account.

But Professor Mortimore said attempts to adjust comparisons of schools generally end up being far too complicated and unwieldy.

“You do end up with crude league tables even when you don’t intend to,” he said.

“It can actually increase the gap between those who do well and those who too badly, which is bad education. Schools that take students from disadvantaged areas look bad in league tables.”

Ms Gillard said transparency was the key to driving up standards.

“[The Government] is going to give extra funding to the most disadvantaged schools to help them turn things around – by attracting high-achieving teachers, providing more one-on-one help to struggling students, engaging parents and getting the local community more involved,” she said in a speech on Wednesday.

“We will only be able to make improvements of this sort if we have full transparency of information. The Commonwealth, states and parents have to know which schools, which classrooms and which individual students need the most help so we can help them.”

Testing times

The Government has not made clear yet what schools’ performance ratings will be based on, but a focus on a national curriculum suggests that a system of standardised national tests may be involved.

Professor Mortimore warned against this type of approach.

“The problem is that teachers, who are not fools, concentrate on tests and you have this endless preparation,” he said.

He used an example of a class of students in England he met that was studying a book on World War I.

“What were they doing in the class? Were they caught up in the battle of the Somme and the battle of Ypres? No,” he said.

“They were looking at which questions got the most marks. That’s what people do.”

He said Australia would be making a mistake if it went down the road of England, where some analysts estimate students sit around 100 standard tests during their education.

“If you’re good at tests then great, you get 100 badges on your chest. But if you’re not a good learner then you may fail 100 times over,” he said.

The proposed reforms, and details are extremely scarce at the moment so undoubtedly more problems will arise, contain two main problems;

Releasing information which compares schools to the general public, including parents.  Generally complete freedom of information is a very good thing … but it tends to fall down when placed in the hands on the untrained/ignorant.  For example, I may get my hands on information which compares two car mechanics in the same area.  That information may tell me that the turnover time for one mechanic was much higher than the other on average.  What the information won’t tell me is that the poorer performing mechanics team got struck down by a really nasty case of the ‘flu for two weeks which throws the statistics completely off and therefore the comparisons are misleading to say the least.  As harsh as it sounds, it is true; quite a lot of parents get their educational information off such wastes of time as Today Tonight, A Current Affair and other such mindless drivel. Educational professionals are specially trained people who have invested a lot of time and money into becoming as highly skilled as they are; it really is best to leave education to them.

The second main problem, as mentioned in the article, is that it will lead directly to the wrong sort of teaching outcomes being strived for.  If you start introducing national standardised testing then you will get nothing but classrooms dedicated to nothing but getting the best possible scores in those tests to the direct detiment of actual teaching and exploring concepts.  The two methods are complete opposites to each other and can certainly not share the same classroom; this has been seen in other countries already such as the United States and England.  In short, ‘teaching to the test’ is not a viable educational policy and has never worked anywhere in the world.

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