Problem? What problem?

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If you can spare the time I recommend watching this ABC TV report I’ve linked below. If not, well here’s a quick summary. The literacy and numeracy of primary (elementary) school children in the Australian state of Tasmania is well below the standards of the rest of the nation and similar OECD nations.

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-02-19/education-experts-sound-alarm-over-tasmanian-literacy-levels/5270968

This is fascinating! In fact, I am so fascinated by this that I’m going to rant about it this week. It’s a situation that everyone can learn from. Everyone. Not just Tasmanians, not just Australians, this applies world-wide. Here’s why.

When you take out some of the contextual specifics of this story, what you are left with, is a community, proud of its identity and comfortable with the quality of its education, being forced to confront accusations of gross underperformance.

That can happen anywhere and frequently does. What happens next though is anyone’s guess.

I think most of us would like to think, where a problem is identified, there is a reasonably straightforward process towards improvement. First admit there is a problem, investigate what issues are at the root of the problem, plan a strategy to amend the problem, and then get on with it.

That is NOT what happens in education. Tasmania is a case in point.

1. Folks, we have a problem …

It is a fact that Tasmanian kids have a lower standard of literacy and numeracy than is reasonably expected. The international study referred to in the piece is PISA and the graphs at the bottom of the write up come from NAPLAN. Both studies are rigorous and when they indicate Tassie is significantly below the norm than that is precisely the case. The data is undeniable.

But you just watch Tasmanians try. They will question the validity of the testing and if they can’t get far with that they will question what ‘outsiders’ know about the way we do things here. The older generations will point out that the system was just fine for them and that it’s a system full of traditions they don’t want to loose. Meanwhile Politicians will spout a bunch of parochial slogans in an attempt to keep or win votes. All these reactions were clearly present in the report. The problem will exist in a tense state of recognition like a big pink elephant at the dining table around tea-time without a place set for it.

And I don’t blame them! This is what people do when empirical data implies they are dumb or negligent, or inept. Could anyone seriously believe the general populace of the Island would smile gratefully and say “Oh, thanks so much! You know, we did wonder if we were not up to scratch.”

I’ve seen students, parents, teachers and whole school communities do the same thing when results suggest they’re mediocre.

Heck, I’ve done it myself!

So my first reaction to this report is a genuine hope that people can get past that quickly. The good people of Tasmania are not mediocre, their literacy and numeracy standards are but this can be fixed.

2. Really? What sort of problem?

Even with good will though, fixing this is still tricky. The data points clearly to a fault but does not clearly identify the root cause of the problem. At best, it can imply a few possible reasons. Here are some to name but a few.

  • Education may be a low Government priority.
  • The education system may be underfunded and under resourced.
  • The schools or teaching techniques may be antiquated.
  • Socio-economic considerations may play a part.

It’s interesting to see that while the cause could be all sorts of things, the above TV report notes it is not money. I suspect the problem in not disinterest on the part of the Government either. The case that long-term economic prosperity depends on high standards of education is pretty much set in stone.

I also think it’s interesting that the well respected economist Saul Eslake isn’t looking at finance in his appraisal of the reason as well. Based more on personal experience rather than professional expertise, he lays the blame directly at a small town mentality that he believes is a cultural trait state-wide. I think he may be on to something there.

3. Ok … so … er … what’re we gonna do about it?

The basic contention of the report was there is an over abundance of small schools in Tasmania and most of these should close down and kids sent to bigger ones.

Yep, a state with a parochial small town mentality is sure to love and embrace that suggestion. Of course, this might end up being the key change but I am a little cautious on this as I’ve seen the same thing done in greater Melbourne to little success.

I see suggestions like this from policy makers often. They like to build things, invest in things, or (as in this case) close things. It is something they have greatest control over but it doesn’t lead directly to improved literacy or numeracy because none of these solutions are impacting directly on the teaching and learning in the classroom.

There’s only one thing that directly impacts on that … teachers and learners.

It is possible, indeed probable that by making fewer schools there will be a greater proportion of effective teachers influencing more students. It is also probable that teachers who were operating in smaller schools will have less administrative demands and distractions in a larger institution and thus able to focus on their teaching more. These are positives.

BUT if Saul is right, and the root cause of these results is culturally embedded, the results will continue to show the problem remains.

It’s a beautiful place, Tasmania, and the people there can point to a long list of reasons to be proud. I hope that in the years ahead they can add the way they deal with this issue to that list.

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