Monday, 15 May 2017

Principal as psychologist

To be an effective school Principal requires skilful behavioural management of staff.

The main focus of this is related to recognising effort and success related to the learning of the students that is the core business of the school.

This key focus sits in a context of staff members who have personal lives and personal needs.  They thankfully bring a lot of differences one from the other with some needing more overt recognition for what they do than others.

Workloads and the related physical and mental health of staff figure in the behavioural management.

The Principal needs a sensitive antenna to sense when a staff member is in need of help.  Relatively minor items come through one's door for example when managing a rural school where staff often board with one another you can find yourself dealing with complaints like he is eating all my food or she has her boyfriend in to sleep over and I don't like it.  These matters are usually easily resolved.

Then we move to the more serious events like a staff member in distress because their marriage is breaking up or they have lost a close family member or they have been diagnosed with a serious illness. The Principal needs to support, counsel and generally assist and in some cases bringing in expert help.  I have been thrust into counselling on marriage breakdowns and on one occasion even having left that posting the concerned partner chased me up in my new posting.  I had no magic bullet but one does the best one can.  I recall standing by the bed of one of my staff who had just lost a baby in child birth and holding her hand and trying to channel my strength to her to enable her to cope.  Who did I think I was : God, but you just have to do the best you can.

In terms of the core business of the school noted above one of the most difficult situations is to have a teacher who is performing poorly. You can't let it go on as the students are suffering in one form or another.  There are tried and tested processes for managing this based on natural justice and due process but one has to be ready for the worst case whereby the only option becomes dismissal.  During this often lengthy process the tension across the school is electric.

May the Force be with you!


Gaps in the continuity of education for each student

It troubles me deeply that some students proceed through the syllabuses of a curriculum designed in year levels whereby they move on to the next years prescribed syllabus work even though they may not have mastered the prerequisites for that new learning.  Where this occurs there is not true continuity in the learning and gaps begin to accumulate.  The students so affected become disillusioned and sense that they are behind their age peers.  They can in many cases suffer slurs in the playground about being slow.  I am not referring to students who may need special education because of serious conditions like cerebral palsy or Downs syndrome or hearing loss.  I am referring to this who plod along in the normal stream of school placement.

In my experience in any age cohort there are three groups that emerge in the early years of schooling. The first is the group who can sail through the work prescribed for the year level in less than the academic year schedule and are looking for extension.  I call them the Panthers.  Then there is a group who generally take the whole academic year to master the prescribed learning for that year level.  I call them the Jaguars.  Finally there is the group who cannot master the prescribed learning for that year level within the academic year.  I call them the Leopards.

As the students move on to the next year of schooling and the next year level in the prescribed learning the receiving teachers need information as follows:

  • For the Panthers they need to know details of the extension work done.
  • For the Jaguars all they need to know is that these students mastered the prescribed learning for the preceding year and are ready for the new year.
  • For the Leopards they need to know what was mastered and what is left to achieve.

All this is based on a principle of not watering the standards down.  In my experience teachers have trouble with this because they worry that as the years go by the chances of the Leopards becoming Jaguars decreases.  I've experienced the effects of putting high school Leopards on watered down courses and this creates difficulties for high school graduation in terms of the perceptions of the wider world outside the school, especially with regard to employment.

For primary/elementary schools this mastery principle cannot in my view be applied to all syllabuses as it would be too much of a challenge for the generalist class teachers.  I counsel restricting the principle to literacy and numeracy syllabuses.  For the remainder of the syllabuses carry the Panthers, Jaguars and Leopards along together covering the appropriate year level prescribed work but not demanding mastery.  Let the students experience the learning and by judicious elicited feedback from students build a sense of whether they are building a foundation for the specialists secondary school teaches to work on.

Professional educators and parents reading this blog will soon come to the view that the mastery principle could mean Leopards working on year level work for a year level below their normal age year level.  So be it.  This is much better than students developing confidence-sapping gaps in their literacy and numeracy learning.

My position requires an innovative Principle who can sell this to the parents and any external authorities who demand testing and reporting in terms of the traditional A, B, C, D and E ratings.  This will be a tough gig in my own country Australia where all students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 must annually do compulsory testing in literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN TESTS) as well as another schedule of compulsory testing for science.  These results are published on the Myschool website so parents can assess their school's effectiveness.  These NAPLAN tests result in coaching in schools in preparation for the tests and the evidence grows that they cause a lot of stress for teacher and students.

I've elaborated on the mastery principle in other writing that I am currently undertaking :  a small practical book on school effectiveness.  Maybe one day I will bring it to publication.  I do it now because I loved being a career educator and especially a school Principal.  It keeps me in touch and hopefully my brain in good condition as the years build up.

May the Force be with you!


Thursday, 4 May 2017

Australian Prime Minister announces large increases in spending on schools

Malcolm Turnbull the Australian Prime Minister (PM) has just announced large increases in spending on schools to be allocated on a needs basis.  He is reported to have also admitted "that spending billions like this had failed already" the reference being to the falling performance of Australian students in reading, science and maths (Andrew Bolt, "School cart before the horse", The West Australian, 4 May 2017, P10).  Bolt also indicated that the PM "revealed he hadn't yet figured out how this money would make students smarter."

Bolt's point was that the PM should "find the best way to lift standards and only then tell us the cost". My friends would be amazed that I have quoted the ultra conservative Andrew Bolt as I am not often comfortable with his views.

For international readers of this blog I should indicate that our Federal Government politicians are in a constant state of panic that Australian students are being outperformed by students of many other countries in maths, science, reading and writing.  This has occurred in a context of Australia wide regular compulsory testing of students in these areas.  Each year the years 3, 5, 7 and 9 are tested in literacy and numeracy and the results posted on the my school website for all to see.  Science testing is done on another schedule. Schools coach students for these tests and as I walk around shops that sell educational books I see coaching manuals that schools can use.  For  me it is the tail wagging the dog.  The results of this compulsory testing are used to enable schools to devise strategies to improve student learning however they are also used to judge the effectiveness of schools.

I strongly suspect that this testing regime creates pressures on teachers to move students to new learning when they have not mastered the prerequisites for that new learning.  Even with the best teachers on the planet this is a recipe for disaster.  In my own state of Western Australia we now test year 10 students in literacy skills and they must pass this test to obtain high school graduation.  This test is in addition to the compulsory testing regime mentioned above.  For me it is an admission that we have  failed badly in the earlier schools years and I have given what I suspect to be the reason.

We now have an Australian National Curriculum (ANC) which from all of my experience over some 40 years I find to be an exciting document. I'd relish the chance to be a Principal again with the responsibility for implementing this curriculum in my school.  Part of what I would do is to create time where teachers can together work through the prescribed learning outcomes of the syllabuses to ensure that they on the same page about what they mean and what mastery would look like for these outcomes. The ANC contains work samples that would assist with this process.  I've done this sort of inservice work in schools and the teachers move very quickly through the syllabuses and in so doing learn a lot from one another as well as defining the standards that mean mastery. Many believe this is amongst the best forms of inservice for teachers.

At the primary (elementary) school level I only recommend this for maths, science and literacy skills as the generalist class teacher model could not handle a larger inservice load of this type. At the secondary school level subject departments would just need the specialist teachers to focus on their specialist learning area (subject).  I might expand on how I would treat the other learning areas at primary (elementary) school levels in a future post as there is too much detail to do so in this post.

Then within the school there would be a dogged insistence on mastery of prerequisites before a student is moved to the new learning that requires these prerequisites. This would require considerable courage by the school Principal in the face of the pressures of the compulsory testing regime described above.  Convincing parents to support such an approach would be a challenge.  The results of the compulsory testing program could still be valuable as another source of diagnostic data to guide the next moves for each student but it should not stop the application of the mastery principle.

If my approach is applied in schools we would see less of the students with cumulative gaps in their learning.  These gaps mean the students begin to struggle badly as they proceed through the school years.  My mastery principle rests on my faith that in general we have great teachers out there in the schools.  The inservice I have described will make them even greater.  Principals could spend some of this extra school funding described by the PM creating these inservice opportunities which cost money and time.

I need to comment on two further points made by Bolt.  The first is his criticism for the push for smaller class sizes which he views as a "pro-union con which led us to hire more teachers - inevitably including many of lower ability - simply to bulk up the numbers".  He goes on to write" Consider:  would you rather have your child in a class of 25 led by a gifted teacher, or in a class of 17 taught be someone who barely passed their own exams?" He calls for more thought being given to setting higher admission cut-off levels for teacher training courses.  He also shows a liking for principals being given more power to hire and fire.

On the point of class sizes, 25 in my experience would be very acceptable and there was a long struggle to reach that number which is not uncommon in contemporary schools.  17 would be heaven but unnecessary. We have come a long way from the classes of 50 and 40 that I and others faced as teachers.

On the matter of principals having more power to hire and fire, in my own state of Western Australia there is a comprehensive movement to make centrally controlled government schools independent.  My understanding of this independence is that principals can hire and fire.  What Bolt does not understand is that this is a very time consuming process requiring considerable expertise.  For small to medium size schools it creates a big drain on a principal's time and could well blur the focus they need to have on the learning of the students. The great joy of being a school principal is taking ultimate responsibility for the learning of the students no matter how large the school.

May the Force be with you!


Friday, 28 April 2017

Science teaching in elementary/primary schools

Any effective curriculum will require coverage of the physical, biological, plant and environmental sciences.

With the little ones it is likely that their imaginations will be fired up by a lot of observational experiences of living creatures plants, insects, spiders (arachnology), birds, reptiles, mice, rats, and domestic animals. Two essential pieces of equipment are the magnifying glass and the magnified lid bug catcher.  Looking and describing.  A lot of chat about patterns on say insect bodies, spider bodies, the internals of flowers and so on.  The microscope doesn't go amiss as soon as the children are able to manage it.

Formal assessment at this level and at middle primary level and even senior primary level are in my view irrelevant.  It is all about working through the prescribed syllabus learning outcomes for each year level, if that is how the syllabus is constructed, so that when secondary school comes along the students have a fertile grounding for more formal studies.

On the student reports to parents there is an explanation of what has been covered over the reporting period. No student is behind as they are all having the same learning experiences.  Of course during the learning experiences the teachers will be questioning to ensure that generally the class members are cottoning on or getting it if you will.

This approach will be a big call in Australia where students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 face the annual government required compulsory NAPLAN (National Assessment Program-Literacy and Numeracy) tests. Science Literacy is also tested as part of the NAP over a a three year cycle using sample assessments. For example, in 2015 a sample of year 6 students was tested online.  The good news is that the test items are now tending to be based on the science syllabus of the relatively new Australian National Curriculum.  Brave and innovative Australian primary school principals would manage the above informal approach for science despite NAP Science literacy compulsory testing.

At primary school level why have some syllabus areas quarantined to the above sort of informal approach?  The prime reason is to enable a more formal approach to be adopted in the English language literacy skills and in mathematical skills. In these vital areas each student would be required to master the prescribed learning outcomes before moving to new learning that required such mastery of these prerequisites. I have written much on this in a small, practical book about what makes an effective school and live in fond hope of publishing this online in the not too distant future. I include IT literacy and would you believe Physical and Health Education in the bracket of formally tackled syllabus areas.

May the Force for innovation be with you!


Saturday, 22 April 2017

Science labs in primary/elementary schools?

Science is an exciting subject but sometimes a little daunting for the generalist classroom primary/elementary school teachers.  In Australia some primary schools are dedicating a classroom to being a science lab.  This enables the teachers to have access to more resources.

Is this an effective use of learning space?  What do others think?  Is it widespread in the USA?

May the Force be with you!


Monday, 10 April 2017

Compulsory testing for first year entrants to formal schooling

Some time ago I penned a post opposing this.  I am thrilled today to read that the following groups have come out in serious opposition to this Australian Federal Government trial of compulsory phonics testing:

  • 20 academics for four Western Australian universities;
  • The Australian Government Primary Principals Association; and
  • The deputy Executive Director of the Association of Independent Schools of Western Australia.

(Source:  Hiatt Bethany, "Academics reject test on phonics", The West Australian, 11 April, 2017, p14)

I gave my reasons in my previous post and which was a copy of a protest email to Simon Birmingham the Federal Minister for Education.  I received a reply largely explaining what I already knew.

As a Principal I would know that my teachers of these new school entrants would be diagnosing the children's English language skills when they entered school and on the basis of this diagnosis set the plans for moving the children forward.  Some new entrants will have comprehensive English language skills others will not.  Teachers know what to do, although one has to think that the Federal government has minimal confidence in the professional skills of Australia's teachers.

May the Force be with you!


Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Decided to reopen this blog as missing it already

Back again.  Can't help myself.  I say again that I just loved being a career school educator especially my time as a Principal.

Watch this space.

May the Force be with you!