Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sundry Education Things

Apathy Jack writes:

On my “Ask Jack” (“Get a stupid answer?”) thing a week or so back, Olthwaite commented after I had stopped paying attention, so my answers to him come as part of their own post.

1) Your thoughts on school zoning.

I honestly don’t have many. If I was forced to choose a side, I’d say I was “for”. Sure, it means that some poor bastards have to send their little geniuses to, say, Hoodrat Academy for Higher Learning instead of Francis of Assisi Grammar School, but maybe that will get the gentrified bastards to buy into their kids’ education instead of moaning when teachers ask for a pay rise every seven or eight years.

2) Your thoughts on vouchers.

I’m (warily) for them. I said above that it would be nice for parents to take more of an interest (a vested one would be nice, too) in the education of their little carbon-dioxide factories, and this would allow them to vote with their wallets.

Now, of course, I do see the down side: I’d be out of a job.

When a school is failing (like, oh I don’t know, mine is, for example) it takes years to reverse the trend. Even if Hoodrat’s many, many problems disappeared overnight (and they probably won’t, so you get to keep laughing at my pain for a while yet, you bastards) it would take at least three or four years before the negative public perception of the school was even dented. This means that all of that filthy voucher lucre is being spent on other schools. Vouchers reward schools that are doing well, which is the way things should be, but they also add an extra layer of complication to schools that are trying to pull themselves out of the mire.

3) On a scale of 1-10, how useful has your teaching degree been in preparing you for real-life teaching?

I don’t want to rate it like that, for much the reason that you wouldn’t give the foundations of a house a rating out of ten. You need them, but you like your house to have walls and a roof and shrine to Christina Aguilera and so forth.

My teaching course was one year long. We went into schools after about three months. After the first day in class, I may as well not have gone back into a lecture theatre. That having been said, those three months gave me the grounding to be able to get up in class that first time.

4) The name of that comedian who did the guitar competition you were telling me about.

That would be Stephen Colbert’s Rock and Awe Countdown to Guitarmageddon. If you go here it should cycle you through most of the show. (Don’t even bother if you have dialup.)

5) Looking at Warwick Elley's article linked to here


would you agree with him that there are subjects that NCEA will not work with (I note he says "I started challenging NZQA in 1991 to give an example of a clear and explicit standard in English or History or Science. I am still waiting."), and that in the NCEA compatible subjects the number of levels (merit, excellence etc) needs to be increased.

I can’t seem to open the article proper, but there are two parts to that excerpt which I’ll comment on:

Firstly, are there some subjects that NCEA won’t work on?

NCEA as a system can work with almost anything, but there are subjects where is certainly isn’t a good idea. The most obvious (to me, at least) is English. NCEA is proscriptive, and has a series of very rigorous guidelines. That’s fine when you’re, say, writing an essay or a research report. However, when you’re writing a story or a poem...? When we mark in my department, the English Trimurti always leaves a certain amount of leeway for the “ineffable” – things that are good because, you know, we recognise great use of words, but that don’t fit into the rigid marking schedule. Now, this is against the rules, but it’s a reality. It’s been mentioned at one English teacher conference that I went to that half of the authors we think are good enough to teach to seventh formers would not have passed NCEA creative writing, because the avant-garde styles that make them such geniuses would have broken the guidelines.

Secondly, should there be more than three levels?

Yes. Achieved, Merit and Excellence are fine as far as these things go, but there’s one enormous problem: To break it down into percentages, an Achieved is 45-64%, a Merit is 65-84%, and an Excellence is anything higher than that. Now, there’s a big difference between a piece of work worth 45% and one worth 64%, yet they both get a grade of Achieved. I have been in the situation (many times) where a student who is hovering around the low sixties will complain to me not that he got a low mark per se, but that he got the same mark as that kid who handed in a 45% project. I’ve always wanted at least five levels. Hell, I couldn’t tell you the difference between an essay worth fifty-five percent and one worth fifty-six, but there is a huge difference between some of the work being given the same grades.

6) Do you think the blogger comments box is the most useless thing in the world?

No, it gives The Internet something to do. If The Internet didn’t have blogger comments to distract it, it would look around at the pictures of elves on the wall of its parents’ basement, and realise it had to take its own life.

7) A question of your own choosing.

Alright: Why is there suffering?

Answer: Because of the Sin. Your sin, specifically. So I’d like you to write a letter to God and explain to him – politely now – that it’s all your fault, and that he should lay off me and give me nurses to inject me with hamburgers.

As to the viability of performance based pay, you’re right when you say that the only problem is that there are variables that have to be taken into account. The problem is that there are an insane number of variables. Attempting to catalogue them all would be a full time job for probably more than one person per school.

Also a while back, Dreamer asked me to comment on this article. The short version is that this guy’s pretty much on the money, but only to a point.

I was having this conversation with a colleague today: one of the problems new teachers face is that they don’t realise how dumb most children are.

Now, before you jump up and down about such a blanket statement, let me explain. Yesterday, one of our new English teachers tried to have an in-depth discussion with her Year 9 (third form) class about the merits or otherwise of Sylvia Plath. The immediate results of this were that I had round up the students who were roaming the corridors having walked out of the class, get all of the students in the class to sit in their chairs, and get the few actually sitting down to stop yelling and playing on their cellphones.

Why such an extreme reaction to poor little Syliva? Not just because she’s rubbish (although that probably was part of it) but because these barely literate thirteen year-olds were being asked to do something they simply didn’t know how to do. You can’t appreciate the language features of a poem if you don’t know what the phrase “language features” means.

This teacher assumed that such a thing was self-evident. What she had forgotten was that the reason it is self-evident to her now is that when she was in third form, some teacher spent a long while teaching it to her.

Kids need to learn a basic amount of how the world works. The way the school system is currently run is probably not the best way to ensure that happens, but I can’t think of a better way to do it. (That’s not to say there isn’t one, and I’m sure you’re clever enough to think of it; what I’m saying is that I’m quite tired and my head hurts, so no thinking for me tonight...)


Josh said...

Re: the number of levels, as I said in my comment on the other thread, doesn't the "to break it down into percentages" kind of thinking completely miss the point of standards-based assessment? I thought the whole point was for the students to simply demonstrate that they can do something (with the Merit and Excellence levels tacked on at the last minute so we can acknoweldge when they can not just do something but do it well), and that marks on a scale relavive to other students had nothing to do with it?

Rich said...

I'd agree with Josh. You don't get marks out of 10 on a driving test - they aren't trying to identify potential Schumachers - just verifying if you can or can't drive.

As I understand it, the idea of NCEA is the same - there is a certain level of achievement you need that qualifies you, for instance, to do a university course. Reach that and you can go. Which for me is much better than the UK system where you try and rank the students in the order and Oxbridge gets first pick, then Bristol, right down to Luton at the end...

Apathy Jack said...

Yes and no. NCEA is meant to test if you can do something or not. But any vet can cut open a mammal - I wanted the guy who fixed my hernia last year to be able to do it really well.

Sure, in the real world they won't be giving you a percentage grade, but employers will want to know which one of the thirty applicants for the job got the highest grades in the specific subject that has to do with the job being offered.

Hewligan said...

You know, that's almost completely untrue. Most of the jobs I ever had cared about which qualifications I had. No one's ever cared about what my grades were.

There are some places that do, I know, but really they're the exception, not the rule.

Rich said...

In IT, qualifications (of the uni/school variety) only really count in your first job. Most people don't even put their secondary exam details on their CV over the age of about 25. (Given that most IT workers are from overseas, there would be little point - I have no idea how the 16+ exam system works in China, for instance).