Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Apathy Jack writes:

Every so often someone says I should write something proper about the pros and cons of NCEA. I haven’t made a serious go of this because, you know, it bores me, but this might do as a taster...

While overall I don’t hate NCEA, one of the problems I have with it is that, well, it just doesn’t work in English. Oh, for the most part it’s fine, but NCEA marking schedules are quite remarkably proscriptive documents. They need to be to ensure nationwide consistency in marking. But when it comes to, for example, creative writing, a rigid set of guidelines isn’t always conducive to getting the best result.

At Hoodrat we had a policy of making allowances for the ineffable – writing that didn’t conform to the checklist of “Excellence” criteria, but that we knew deserved such a grade because between us we had read tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of books and knew good writing when we saw it. It is accepted wisdom among English teachers that many, maybe most, modern classics would not have passed NCEA level 1 creative writing, because the use of language and narrative that made them so revolutionary, so acclaimed, would fall outside the inflexible boundaries of the marking schedule. It was deemed necessary to occasionally mark according to the spirit of a standard rather than its letter.

One such example: We do a reading standard at level 2 which requires the students to read a bunch of stuff, then write about it. Specifically:

[A]t least nine written texts from at least three different categories - categories may include contemporary novel, pre-20th century text, collection of short stories, drama, poetry anthology, extended magazine articles, biography, reference books, website

To translate: when they talk of “different categories”, it’s basically a nice way of saying “Don’t do all short stories you intellectually lazy bastards! Read something of some weight for a change, dammit!”

The word we’ve been giving to classes for years is: you must have a bunch of different types of texts, unless you read nine novels, because reading nine novels in the course of a year is impressive when you go to the school with the lowest literacy rate of any decile three school in Auckland, so go with God, my child.

I caught up with one of mine last night at a dance performance. A perennially enthusiastic girl who came top of fifth form English last year by dint of a fair amount of natural talent and an obscene amount of hard work. She wrote on nine novels.

Only to be told by the new Head of the English Department that she would not pass this standard because her work did not meet the requirement of “different categories”. (And of course she was told this the day before it was all due in...) Of course she got it all done: She stayed up late, read a bunch of poems and magazine articles, handed it in, and passed.

Now, the HOD was entirely within her rights to do this – in fact, she was correcting a fairly gross (if entirely intentional) “error” on the part of me and the other two of the Triumvirate. However, in doing so, she was essentially telling this student: “No, don’t read lots of books! Only read shorter, easier, lower-level texts! Get dumber! Don’t have high expectations for yourself! Have the same low expectations that I have of you!”

This standard is designed to get students to read. I had Year 12s who hadn’t read nine books in their lives, let alone in the space of a year. This girl was trying to do well; trying to improve herself; trying to impress her teacher. But because The New Sheriff In Town is more interested in dotting the “i”s of the bureaucracy than in developing young peoples’ passion for reading, this kid now sees it as nothing more than a wasted effort.

Sometimes, there’s so much anger that I just don’t know what to do with it...


Rich said...

Yes but isn't that the point?

The test is asking "is this person able to read and understand a range of different texts?". If so, then they are able to use those skills in a workplace or as a basis for further study. It *isn't* asking whether the person is an exceptionally smart and hardworking student.

Apathy Jack said...

Well, sure, if you believe that the point of the education system is to churn out an assembly line of factory-built drones programmed only with basic job skills.

If you believe that, in addition to teaching them basic job skills, they should also have an education, then no, that's not the point.

Hewligan said...

Except there were heaps of "Read a range of texts" type stuff in the myriad pre-NCEA assessment schemes. So that's not really a criticism of NCEA, more one of contemporary English teaching.

Sorry, Jack, but you get a Not Achieved on your criticising NCEA assessment. See you at the resit.

Apathy Jack said...

I wasn't really whinging about NCEA, I was whinging about one of the tools they replaced me with. It's not the system I have a problem wth per se, it's bureaucrats who take the paper work more seriously than the actual flesh blood and cigarette smoke students in front of them. Sure, I have a problem with certain elements of the system, but pretty much all of them go away when you look, as I said, at the spirit of the system rather than its committee-designed letter.

Eric Olthwaite said...

I'm with Jack. Any system, and/or person in this case, that could possibly fail an English student who has read NINE FUCKING BOOKS is just rubbish.

I've talked to one of the organisers of the Explorers organisation that runs courses for gifted kids, and he says that there would be no need for them if the education system did its job.

Here we have Jack, one of the few teachers who actually sweats blood for his students to get them into reading and English as something to be enjoyed, loaning out his own books like a library, and some arse comes along and says "You'll have to get rid of some of those books you've read and look at a website and copy of the Women's Monthly magazine if you want to pass"

Eric Olthwaite said...

Here's something I found, an interview with new Australian Liberal Party Brendan Nelson. Relevant methinks.

"Many of Nelson's ideas appear rooted specifically in his personal experience - for example, his distaste for what he calls "meaningless, jargon-filled report cards".

He recounts flunking maths six weeks before his high school finals in Adelaide. "My mother got a plain language report which said 'Brendan got 25 per cent for maths'," he says.

She raided the meagre family savings to get him a tutor and he shot towards the top of the class.

"If my mother had got a report card which said 'Brendan is working towards the mathematical concepts of calculus and is consolidating his understanding' I wouldn't be sitting here today."

Rich said...

That's typical of the sort of pseudo-down to earth bollox you get from populists.

'Brendan got 25 per cent for maths' means absolutely nothing. If it was string theory then he was a genius. If it was basic arithmetic, then he was shit-thick.

'Brendan is working towards the mathematical concepts of calculus and is consolidating his understanding' tells me, at least, where he is on Maths, (reasonable for 15-year old, from my memory of school maths). There could be a bit more detail (and of course, it's pointless if the reader was crap enough at high school maths not to know what calculus is).

I'm getting a new bumper sticker - "common sense is neither"

Rich said...

I said: ..or as a basis for further study

The students that pass that unit can, I guess, go on and do other classes that require those skills.

Now I know this isn't as poetic as just saying: this kid reads heaps of books (like me as a child, and now), they should pass the unit even if they don't meet the clearly set out requirements.

But it's fairer. In other countries, students are ranked against each other and the top ones get to go to an "elite" university, the next decile to a "good" one and so on downward. We at least have the semblance of a system that says "this is what you need to do this course. Achieve that, and you're in".

That's what NCEA is there to support. It's unfortunately being eroded as high-decile schools switch to colonial-legacy exams and universities (Auckland at least) restrict entry to courses.

Now, in terms of giving kids a broader education, I'd be keen to have a day or more a week of non-assessed work where kids could read novels or whatever. We had this at my sixth form, at least for those who didn't do double maths.

That Morthos Stare said...

"I'm with Jack. Any system, and/or person in this case, that could possibly fail an English student who has read NINE FUCKING BOOKS is just rubbish."

But that's not the point; the student is failed (by their teacher(s)) because they have not read widely enough. I teach critical thinking skills; if students were more widely read and knew how to understand different texts in their context then I wouldn't have as hard a job to do. Someone who just reads nine books and nowt else isn't getting much of an education.

Apathy Jack said...

"The students that pass that unit can, I guess, go on and do other classes that require those skills."

I agree.

And the moment the Ministry of Education makes that course, I'll put my students in it.

Right now, the students can't do that other class, because it doesn't exist.

The problem I run up against a lot is the opinion that "this system works, you've just to do X and Y and Z as well", which is cool, except I'm NOT ALLOWED to do X, Y or Z. I like the idea, for example, of a day a week where we do non-curriculum stuff, but I just don't have time. I need to get my kids a certain number of credits, and I'm down to the wire already. And of course credits aren't as important as an actual education, but you try saying that at a university enrollments office...

Oh and:

"But that's not the point"

It really, really is.

Bunny said...

Jack. Follow the rules. This is your teacher in charge of Year 11 and effectively in charge of year 12 speaking. Your former HOD is a tool. That is irresponsible teaching practice. But.

NCEA is good. What I didn't understand until yesterday was why schools were offering Cambridge as a valid international qualification when it is awful. I thought to myself "Why not offer the International Baccalaureat?" Then I found out it costs twice as much to run.

Apathy Jack said...

I'm following all of the rules.


Hewligan said...

Wow but the Cambridge is terrible.

For all NCEA's faults, there should be some sort of charge of educational malpractice for anyone who could even suggest that the Cambridge would be a better option.