They Can Be taught – If… Part Two of a response to Daily Prompt

This post is a two-parter, sorry, as the daily prompt We Can Be Taught…
In part one I explained New Zealand’s education changes

They Can Be Taught – If … If What?

Since those changes I described happened, I have watched teaching decline in my posts at three of the last four schools at which I taught until I cried to my own needs “Enough with this s**t! Get out now before the stress kills you.”

I’d begun my teaching career in the days of the annual standardised Progressive Achievement Tests, held in the fifth week of every new school year in February (so, testing took place in about the first week of March most years. The four untested weeks were an opportunity for pupils to regather what they could retain from previous years after a six to eight week summer and Christmas break.

In Year Three/Standard Two pupils were tested in Listening Comprehension. This gave teachers an indication of what the child might be able to achieve (given good teaching). The next test the child would be introduced to was Reading Vocabulary, in the following year (Year Four/Standard Two).
A high listening comprehension score with a low vocabulary score told the teacher “this one can be taught to read, given work on building the number of words he/she can read (recognise – no “sounding out” or phonics here, thank you very much). A low listening score with a high reading vocab hinted to the teacher the child’s hearing might have needed testing.

The next English-based PATest was Reading Comprehension, in Year Five/Standard Three.

A teacher who was carrying out the PAT methodology correctly should have been using the provided rubrics to turn Class Percentiles and Age Percentiles to Levels. Sadly, many teachers only looked at the percentile scores, and thus were ever ignorant of exactly where their pupils were along the path of progress.  Level One was “matched” to Standard One, and as such up to Level Six matching Standard Six (Form Two/Year Eight). The PATests continued to Year Ten/Form Four. All PATests were multi-choice – one right answer, three misleaders, tick the box.

Mathematics PATests came at Year Six (Standard Four) and were not matched to a class level. But with a deal of time and effort, the teacher who cared would be able to analyse the child’s answers, and discover at what level of understanding the pupil was learning: in order – Recall, Application, Understanding, and Problem Solving.

In Year Seven /Form One pupils were introduced to the Social Studies PATest. Teachers who cared enough could analyse the child’s answers and discover which social science was the child’s forté or which was their downfall. However, none of the Secondary school teachers with whom I worked bothered looking at anything except the Age Percentile and the Class Percentiles. None of them even knew about the conversion to Levels of the English-based tests, and didn’t want to learn or know.

Throughout my career, at all levels, lazy or carefree or ignorant teachers ignored the English levels, the Mathematics skills, the Social Studies sciences skills. I would each year spend hours each evening analysing and converting percentiles to levels to discover what each pupil needed to be taught.

I began visiting the classes of my previous year’s pupils after marking was done, and check on their Levels, Skills and Soc Sci Skills. My major focus was on their Level in the English tests, and the understanding breakdown in Mathematics. All the teachers I would call on could show me only the English tests’ Levels (a compulsory value for records). None would have analysed the Math or Social Studies results.

Could those pupils be taught? Not if they were in those classes.

But I know for a fact that pupils taught in my classes would in a year advance more than the one expected level. Lagging readers would always advance to at least the level expected for the Year they were finishing. How did I do it?

By firstly learning for myself about the pupils’ abilities and needs, by ignoring the record cards passed up from their previous year’s teachers, and by focussing my lesson plans and activities to work with each pupils’ needs and interests, and sheer hard work and dedication.

Was it easy? Yes, at first. Then came the changes I described in Part One, and interference in my class programme.

I used to be able to, for example, in a class History unit covering How People Cope With Disaster by studying the Ballantyne’s Store Fire, allow a child to discover the same understanding by instead following his interest in ships by studying the wreck of the Wahine, and all on a decision made in the instant.

After the changes I had to create individual learning plans for each pupil, defining for each topic of study exactly how my programme would meet the individual learning goals of each pupil.

Now, if I wanted to modify the topic to suit the one kid who was fascinated only by, say, big earth-movers and savage wild cats, I would have to submit a request for permission to deviate from the class plan – three copies, in advance time enough for the Chairman of the BOT and my Senior Teacher and the Principal to consider, seek parental approval, and allow or not.

By the time this process was complete, our class programme would have in most cases moved on to the next pre-scheduled topic, and the individual pupil had given up and lost interest – again.

As a Principal Teacher of a small country school, in my first three months there it received its first ever review visit from the Education Review Office. The team overlooked my planning, my records, my management strategies and policies, and gave them all the big “thumbs up”, and the advice to not get caught in the trap of over-assessing pupils.

After an illness which caused the little red-neck community to be swayed by one parent that I was not fit to be in their classroom, they constructed a dismissal. I then moved on to teach as HOD of the Intermediate department of a private girls’ boarding school of christian character. That’s when the creeping ooze of unreal demands on my time began.

So stressful was that school, so poisonous was the staffroom (‘You’re only a Primary Teacher.”) that my body responded by drawing on body mass to keep me going. I would begin each  school year at 50 kg – but finish it at 40kg.  I was always tired, but I continued to ensure that each pupil I taught – even the senior students – got my very best in terms of meeting their needs and following their interests. I continued to recalculate Percentiles to Levels, to analyse test papers to learn each pupil’s skills (the only teacher doing it).

So – They Can Be Taught – If they have a teacher who treats each learner as a unique individual with specific levels of English ability, specific needs and abilities in Mathematics and core curriculum areas.  If they have a teacher who is observant – who can read a pupil’s expression, recognise bewilderment and instantly give a different style of explanation. If their teacher can socialise with the pupils in out-of-class time, chatting about the lessons. If the teacher can teach the pupil How To Learn for themselves, How To Study by themselves. If the teacher makes “homework” (not compulsory in New Zealand) relevant to the topic of study and not a meaningless work-sheet of meaningless busy work.

(And that’s a topic of itself, is study.)

They Can Be Taught … If – Part One of a response to daily prompt

This post is a two-parter, sorry, as the daily prompt We Can Be Taught…
fired up my boiler about the diminishing standards of teaching in New Zealand.

They Can be Taught! Part One –
– the Background of New Zealand “Education”

Bear in mind, this from my experiences teaching and lecturing in New Zealand, which has seen changes in the education system since I began school in 1956. Yes, I’m an “oldie”, but after thirty-odd years (also could be read as thirty odd years) of teaching, working with near-on fifteen hundred pupils and students and some remedial clients, on this topic – I’m an “oldie-but-a-goodie”.

Before I get started on children being taught, I’ll let you see the changes our wonderful government department has foisted on schools and teachers over the years – did you spot a sarcasm in there? Good, you’re intelligent too.

Government funded education is provided to learners from age five up to about age seventeen, when they finish the last year of secondary school. Compulsory education, however,  runs from age six to age fifteen. Most mothers push their babies off to school at five – as quick as they can – whether they’ve been prepared by a pre-school facility or not.

Children are in NZ enrolled on or soon after their fifth birthday, which means there is a constant arrival on a single New Entrant for the Junior teacher to initiate to the classroom running.
In some countries, children are enrolled in one or two specific “intakes”, giving the new entrant teacher a whole class of terrified babies to adjust to school protocols etc. I feel we have it right, here.

Principal teachers who turn away a five-year-old who is obviously unable to cope are rare – a near extinct species. In all the Primary schools I taught at, I only met one – the child in this case had not been toilet trained, had never before been separated from his mother, and knew only about eight words – his name, “I want” with pointing, “No”, “Cuddle?”,“Gimme!”, “Hate you!” with hitting. My Principal told Mum directly to withdraw her son until he was school-ready or aged six. Brave man, that.  Whether the mother or a preschool prepared him for school wasn’t the school’s say. At six, there’d be no turning a child away, no matter how poorly prepared for school life he/she may be.

In the ‘50s and up to the ‘80s, classes were as follows:

Junior Primary, comprising Primers One to Four, each of a half year, for children aged five and six. Sometimes Primer One would be extended for a pupil, to have Primer Four completed conveniently at the end of our school year, in December.
Middle Primary, comprising Standard One to Standars Six, for children aged about seven to twelve.
In about the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, Standards Five and Six were separated away into the new Intermediate level, and renamed as Form One and Form Two, for children aged eleven and twelve.

Secondary Schooling begins at Form Three (it’s puzzling how it was always Form Three even back in the day before Standards 5 & 6 were renamed Forms 1 & 2), at about age thirteen, and continues to the end of Form Five for Compulsory Education (at age fifteen) then onwards to Form Seven (about age seventeen).

In the mid-80s, classes were all renamed  as Years. Year One at age five, Year Thirteen at age seventeen. Most Years 7 & 8 pupils attended separate Intermediate schools, as before. Those of this stage who lived ‘way out in the country would have been the Senior Primary pupils at a country Full Primary school, or been bussed into town to either an Intermediate, or to be enrolled as Junior School pupils at a Secondary School. Which, by the way, and for the sake of readers in the US, we call Colleges.

At the same time, the department of Education became a Ministry of Education, which removed the schools’ teaching Syllabus – a prescriptive document for each subject, prescribing exactly what a pupil had to be able to accomplish if they were to be adjudged as having reached the Standard of their class.

The new, replacement,  teaching documents became descriptive Curriculum Statements. One for each subject, but now describing the sort/s of activities which a teacher could provide pupils with as learning experiences. Two class levels made up one Curriculum Level at Primary and Intermediate classes, and at no point was there any guide of what we as teachers were to set as the pupil’s achievement aims.

As an example:
In the now defunct Syllabus, the wording in the Standard Four Arithmetic syllabus (age ten) was something like…
“The child will have reached this Standard when he/she can perform a division of a six-digit number by a three-digit number, using this form and method:

 The Curriculum Statement for Mathematics puts it something like this…
“The pupil will have experienced practical activities relating to demonstrating the properties of division.”
And suggests such activities as…
“Given a set of small objects, the child will be asked to form them into groups, of the same count in each group, and tell how many groups of that count there are.”
And that is for Curriculum Level Three – Years 6 & 7 (ages ten and eleven)!

The new Ministry let go control of schools by creating each school as a self governing body, which would be Managed by the Principal teacher and Governed by an elected Board of Trustees. The B O T would comprise representatives of the local (parent) community, and one teacher representative and the Principal.

The Min of Ed also created an Educational Review Office to periodically inspect schools and ensure compliance with their rules and guidelines. Or to act in an advisory capacity to schools whose communities were beyond their depth in the role of school trustees, and to (sometimes) offer support to teaching staff whose communities tried to impose personal agenda on the running of a particular classroom (often that in which the trustee’s own child was enrolled).

And it All went Downhill from there…