Wednesday, 17 July 2013

For serious curriculum reform look west, Mr. Gove!

Gove’s ‘tough and rigorous’ new National Curriculum, which will be dis-applied to children in Academies, Free Schools, Private Schools and SATs years in mainstream schools, is the very antithesis of rigorous in conception. It adheres to no known knowledge of child development and follows no known educational research. It’s a hotchpotch of personal prejudices which have been repeatedly ‘cleansed’ by officials in his department. 

The idea that it will somehow bring us up to international standards and help our international competitiveness is, frankly, arrant nonsense. PISA, the education division of the OECD is quite clear that it is children who can apply high level thinking, communication and problem solving skills in rapidly changing contexts that will be the movers and shakers in the modern world and contribute most to economic performance. Other than in Science, England is not producing too many of these …interestingly PISA doesn’t even think much of our private school system which it says creates little additional value when you strip out the socio-economic privilege of its participants.

The one major country which has been doing worse than England is the USA. The home of psychometric testing and CAT scores performs poorly at Grade 8 (15) in all subjects with its international competitors and there is increasing concern that the memory and drill approach to education is leaving children totally ill-prepared for college and careers. Teachers have, according to surveys, lost all faith in the effectiveness of assessments and the curricula, which vary from state to state.

This deep crisis in education has now been acknowledged by 42 states and the District of Columbia, and the federal Government. They have bought into a set of Common Core Standards. These will, initially in Maths and English, set the benchmark for student performance. What is so interesting in this attempt to establish a national curriculum is the determination – even rush – to abandon old concepts of education and to go for depth rather than breadth, analytical skills rather than memorisation of facts, and team working and collaboration instead of individualised learning and assessment.

The big issue though, recognised by the federal authorities in a way that seems to have escaped Gove, is that to transform teaching and learning and the curriculum, to create higher order thinkers you have to radically reform the assessment system. The federal Government has weighed in with $50 million to develop new assessments, and a key feature of the grant is the ‘crucial integration of instruction, curriculum and assessment.’ Coming from an English context, the sheer common-sense of this is breathtaking! 

The new assessment system will be ‘performance-based’ and will ‘require students to demonstrate higher order thinking through problem-solving, essay writing and research projects. It’s a very different architecture from the type of assessments the states give now’, according to Michael Chester, the Massachusetts Education Commissioner whose state was central to developing one of the assessment development agencies.

The International Centre for Leadership in Education in its overview of the new generation of assessments says: ‘These assessments will range far beyond the usual multiple choice and short answer questions. Instead students will have to apply their knowledge to real world situations through performance events. They will have to work in inter-disciplinary situations. They will have to use technology with facility. Some performance events will take weeks to complete… For teachers this new form of evaluation means developing a dull understanding of performance events; how to construct them and how to evaluate student work. In addition the new assessments require teachers to make substantial use of formative assessment techniques. Final results for each student will comprise a combination of performance events, in course assessments and more conventional standardised tests.

The implications of these changes, say the authors of the overview, ‘are nothing short of a complete retooling of American education’.

Commentators are unanimous in their view that the Common Core Standards and the new assessments will place a huge challenge on students and teachers alike. But what is amazing is the unanimity amongst educators and political leaders of the need for it to happen. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise that the US is now marching forward, whilst Gove is pushing us in the opposite direction, in curriculum design, instruction and assessment. Far from putting us at the top of the international education and economic tables, Gove’s changes are going to leave us floundering in the Little League. 

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