So, if there exist problems in school education in Queensland2, what are some solutions? Here’s my short list, just off the top of my head, and without a lot of detail – I’m happy to explain any of the features in more detail if anyone asks.
- Rationalise the phases of schooling and lock them in, don’t keep fiddling around the edges. Prep/kindergarten would be an extension of early years child care, done in a different way and a different place from schooling, but with explicit learning goals. Then Grades 1-3, 4-6, 7-9 and 10-12 would be separate phases, with appropriate teacher preparation programs for each phase.
- An external, externally marked exam at the end of each of these phases, focused on conceptual and higher-order thinking questions and basic skills rather than factual recall.3
- Opt out of the national curriculum framework as an essential precondition for being able to:
- Plan clear, detailed syllabus documents that specify in detail content to be taught and skills to be developed at each year level. Lock in the syllabus for the 10 year period 2010-2020 and don’t mess with it at all. Everyone in the system has certainty about what students need to know and be able to do at each level, and doesn’t have to redevelop programs every time the QSA sneezes.
- Reintroduce the possibility of students repeating a year of school if they are not performing at the appropriate level for that year but students who are repeating receive intensive remedial help and support both in their regular class with a teacher aide and in withdrawal classes to ensure that they ‘make it’ next year.
- Smaller class sizes – a maximum of 15 in a class in all age groups. Much more support from specialist teachers in learning support and from teacher aides or ‘associate teachers’.
- Increased staffing levels at all schools, both to reduce class sizes and to increase time within the school timetable for collaborative planning between teams of teachers. Reintroduction of support staff such as school nurses, counsellors, teacher-librarians, tech support, learning support teachers… so that classroom teachers can focus on teaching and be well supported.
- Dramatic reduction in levels of bureaucracy, red tape and paper-shuffling required of teachers: partly through the reforms to curriculum and assessment described above, and to the way we deal with students with special needs described below, and partly through added support staff to handle some of this non-teaching work in schools. Getting bureaucrats in the department to have to justify every single demand they make of teachers in this way to some independent authority would also have value.
- Reintroduction of ‘special schools’ (under whatever name) for students with extensive intellectual and behavioural difficulties. Integration of such students into regular classrooms has been tried, and found to reduce outcomes and support for both those students and the other students in the class. It also creates huge extra paperwork burdens on teachers.
- It’s probably not possible at this point in our history to reintroduce the cane or other forms of corporal punishment in our schools – and it was got rid of initially partly because it had been abused. But discipline needs teeth – the criticism that misbehaving kids are hamstringing education and there are no real consequences for them has merit. I suggest a withdrawal disciplinary classroom in each school, constantly staffed by the scariest and most skilled of the Deputy Principals, to which any student who disrupts learning is immediately sent without question or discussion. They stay there in silence until all their work is done and they are ready to apologise and be readmitted to their class. No appeals for parents are allowed – this is an internal school disciplinary matter.
- Extensive support for indigenous students and the most at-risk students, with remedial teaching and teacher aides and other forms of support, but also with compulsion to attend regularly and participate fully in the activities of the school. Socioeconomic status is probably the single strongest indicator of academic performance, and all these initiatives aside, probably explains much of Queensland’s lag on the tests. If we’re serious about doing better, we have to get serious about poverty.
- Dramatically reduced emphasis on literacy and numeracy as decontextualised skills, and increased emphasis on developing literacy and numeracy integrated across all school subjects. Requirement for all students at all levels of schooling to read one age-appropriate (or above) book per month at home and report on it to the school. Parents accountable for ensuring that this happens.
- Reintroduced drill and practice on times tables and other basic mathematical skills – calculators aren’t the villains here, but there’s no substitute for having that stuff available at the top of your mind for everyday numeracy.
Some of these ideas take us back to older practices, some forward to newer ones, and many have never really been tried. But they’re drawn from experience of what works and from international experiences, including those in places like Finland that do very well.
These initiatives would involve large amounts of new funding into the system, but would not dramatically increase teachers’ salaries: they could continue to increase in line with salaries in other industries. What it would do is increase teachers’ job satisfaction and autonomy, and their ability to do the thing they got into the profession for in the first place – teach students and help them learn and develop – rather than mire them in behaviour management and endless bureaucracy that doesn’t directly serve students.
Oh yeah, all ideas expressed here are my own, and do not reflect the ideas or policies of the University of Queensland, the School of Education or my dog Buffy.
There will be another post here tomorrow focusing more directly on recruiting, retaining and rewarding the ‘best and brightest’ in the teaching profession, and on ways to deal with underperforming teachers and schools.