Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Teaching to the test

From the beeb:
"Too many schools are "teaching to the test" in mathematics, stifling genuinely stimulating thinking about the subject, a report suggests.
Education watchdog Ofsted looked at 26 schools, sixth forms and other colleges in England and found that about half of lessons failed in this regard."
Amongst the problems here, according to the Ofsted report, is a shortage of subject specialists, which left some groups taught by people not qualified in mathematics.

First there's the question of why England has a situation where subjects are being taught by people who have no academic qualification to do so? This is not the case in Scotland where a teacher's qualification has to be verified by the GTC before you can teach the subject. There are no unqualified maths teachers here simply because you cannot teach in a Scottish school unless you have studied mathematics at university.

However, while probably desirable from an educational point of view, if England were to adopt this system, it would do nothing to overcome the shortage - quite the opposite. This touches on the debate concerning this government's largesse towards the public sector and the question as to where, exactly, has all the money gone? Because it doesn't seem to have produced much in the way of improved performance in either health or education. If you accept the logic of the market - which this government at least professes to do - the conclusion you'd have to draw is that mathematics graduates are not being offered enough in the way of wages and conditions to attract them to the teaching profession.

Before you laugh incredulously, allow me to explain: we have a 'mixed economy', if I may use that old term, and this does not mean that the state and the private sector operate in two completely different spheres, as some seem to imagine. Rather, the government 'pre-empts' the market by collecting taxes and then uses these to compete in the market for scarce resources. The logic of this, which few politicians (any?) seem to accept, is that you have to match the wages and conditions offered in the private sector to mathematics graduates if you are to attract them into teaching.

Here, obviously, the existence of alternatives is a crucial variable. As a social science graduate with no discernible skills, living in a city where opportunities are much more limited than in London, I am almost certainly over-paid for what I do. But this clearly does not apply to a mathematics graduate living in London. They can actually do stuff that might be relevant to the business of producing goods and services, they have many more opportunities, and the education sector is trying to attract their labour with poorer wages and conditions than I enjoy. As well as being paid less, the English teacher has no agreement on minimum class contact time in the week, along with larger classes, greater indiscipline, and more bureaucracy to contend with. Why put up with this shit when you could get a job where you might actually earn enough to purchase somewhere to live that is bigger than a rabbit-hutch? English maths graduates have clearly been asking themselves the same question, which is why - I'm lead to believe - the average maths graduate lasts one year on average if they are teaching in inner-London schools.

That greater public spending has gone largely on merely retaining staff, and that it hasn't even managed to do that properly, is a fact that few politicians will accept. The other has to do with this notion of 'teaching to the test'. Teachers do this simply because there are too many tests. The obsession with quantitative measures of performance, introduced under the Thatcher years and re-enforced with a vengeance under Major, has done a great deal of harm to education in this country. The logic behind the league tables and all this 'key-stage' nonsense the English system does makes a superficial sense: the system is supposed to produce students educated in maths - and league tables are supposed to verify this is being done properly. But given that jobs are lost and schools can sink or swim on the basis of this information, schools and teachers have an obvious incentive to 'teach to the test'. This is an effect the present regime has quite independently from whether enough appropriately qualified personnel can be found to fill the posts in English secondary schools.

You're left wondering why there seemed to be no-one in the Thatcher governments, or in Major's, and now with this one, that understood some basic principles of sociology. Max Weber is on hand to explain the problem here. Ends, which he was sceptical as to whether you could say the given ones are more rational than the alternatives, nevertheless can be pursued by means that one can say are more or less rational. However, a tendency he identified in practically everything he wrote, whether it be about the 'Protestant Ethic' or his ideas concerning bureaucracy, is that means are inclined to become ends in themselves. This is surely what has happened in education? It is perfectly reasonable to attempt to verify whether educational services are being delivered properly but the sheer weight, and quantity, of quantitative methods used for doing so has produced this situation where students experience 'teaching to the test'. There's little point in Ofsted complaining about this because the system they administer, which was championed by the pupil-shagging Chris Woodhead, is designed to produce this. Blair and his groupies don't get this, so one would expect that this will continue until somebody twigs where the problem lies.

I'm not confident that this will happen any time soon: we're all neo-liberals these days; the problem is, neo-liberals have nothing sensible to say on the subject of education.

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