“Today I spoke to your child about the importance of following school rules when attending an excursion. It would be appreciated if you could work in partnership with the school and talk about the importance of following these rules…
Today your child
- walked away from the Year Four group and was not visible by her teacher
- ignored explicit instructions from her teacher and picked up a jumper on the footpath
- attempted to touch hot bitcherman (sic) when crossing the road at the lights.”
Bitcher-woman indeed. Gotta watch those jumpers.
More talk about selective schools in the paper this week. Special information was released to the Sydney Morning Herald “under Freedom of Information” (actually easily available on the Department of Education website). Most of the academically selective schools in NSW have an extremely high percentage of students (on average 80%; going up to 95%) whose parents are first generation migrants – mainly from Asian countries, and mostly from China. Much surprise, discussion and concern in the opening pages of the paper (SMH 13/9/10).
So where are the bright-ish non-Asian kids going now that they can’t cut the mustard in the selective system? Well, to private schools it seems, thus “raising the performance bar beyond the reach of students in mainstream schools” says one expert in the area.
Do selective schools give their bright students much of an advantage over any other school? Probably not much more than they would if they were at a regular public school.
Some educationalists argue there is a ceiling for top students, comparing their performance to a 100-metre runner – the closer they approach the 10-second mark, the more difficult it is to improve by even a small amount. (SMH 14/08/10)
Very bright kids are probably going to do very well wherever they go to school. Though for kids who are genuinely gifted and talented it is possible that being with other bright possibly quirky kids is more comfortable than mixing it with the regular ones.
Selective schools are places where nerds are free to be nerds. (SMH 01/04/10)
I’m not sure if that’s a good thing in the long term, but in the short term it makes their parents feel less unhappy about their persecuted fledglings battling away through a system that is not set up to deal with their inquiring little minds.
But in terms of overall benefit to society, there doesn’t seem to be any factual basis for thinking selective schooling is a particularly great idea for us overall.
And do those parents who shell out $5,000 to $25,000 per year in private school fees feel that they get a good return on their investment? It’s a bit hard to tell because if you’re paying fees, particularly if you’re paying very high fees, you need to believe that you’re getting something very special for your kid.
The facts would suggest that it’s not really the case. While students from private schools tend to gain slightly better university entrance results, these results may have been artificially inflated by an increased access to support and resources in high school (Gittinomics p 65). At the end of Year 1 at University, the kids from government schools are outperforming those from private schools. Studies that show the major impact on children’s learning isn’t the material advantages provided at whichever schools we chose to send our children to – rather “it’s the skills of the mother – measured by the extent of her formal schooling – that are a critical factor in determining children’s achievements.” (Gittinomics p 67)
Are we setting up an elite class of Asian people through our selective system? Probably not – they’re most likely going to do well anyway, with their parents (perhaps their highly educated mothers?) urging them into high levels of achievement.
Are the non-Asian, slightly less intelligent or hard working children, whose parents don’t earn enough or push them enough, going to end up in ghetto-ised, comprehensive schools, filly-fallying around doing hospitality and recreational studies? Maybe. Does it matter? Probably not. The leisure industries are likely to be a focus of economic development in the next fifty years and we need someone to run the holiday resorts of the future.
But both of those issues don’t interest me as much as looking at what actually make schools better for as many kids as possible – Asian, white, rich, poor, smart or not so smart. Call me old fashioned, but having 2 children go through the school system has taught me that the two things that have the biggest impact on your kids at school are the calibre of the teachers, and the interests and focuses of the other kids and the kids culture in the school.
I’m not sure that we can do much about our kids’ relationships with other kids and their cultures. Apart, of course, from being the best parents we can be, not abdicating responsibility for our kids to schools, and for the females amongst us, getting as much education as we can.
But I think we can, as a society, do something about teachers.
Why can’t we give our children’s teachers more incentives to be absolutely fantastic in their jobs? In my experience of the say, 25-30 teachers that my kids have had in the public school system, I’d say there’s been 3 or 4 who were inspiring, got their pupils enthused about what they were teaching, and set up genuine relationships of learning. There’s been about the same number who were really, really terrible – lazy, personally undisciplined and in a couple of cases, dysfunctional and disturbed. And the rest of the teachers were sort of ok.
I’m interested in how we can increase the number of inspiring teachers, and lift the abilities of that vast majority in the middle. Noel Pearson advocates “direct instruction” or explicit instruction as one way that we could help increase the skills of the majority of teachers.
…it is based on the principle that there are scientifically established methods of effective instruction which, if used with fidelity, will produce learning success. Whether a student learns is not only a question of teacher commitment or effort, but also of whether the teacher has employed effective methods of teaching. (Quarterly Essay #35 p 54)
I’d like to set up selective systems for teachers rather than students. I want potential teachers to be competing for teaching places, and only the highest achievers being allowed this important job of teaching our kids.
I don’t care if we need to provide more money, more autonomy, less deadening bureaucratic processes, more competition, more status and respect or whatever. Maybe it’s time to artificially increase university entrance marks for teaching so that it’s really hard to get in – so that only the most creative, intelligent, hard working and high achieving young people become teachers. Let’s dip into the pool of young people – Asian and non-Asian, selective, government and private schooled – who currently aspire to become lawyers and financial analysts. Let’s make teaching a sexy, challenging, rewarding career.
The teacher who sent me home the note at the beginning of this post is unfortunately not in the top percentage of teachers, not a high achiever, not empathetic or insightful (and she can’t spell). I don’t really want her teaching my kid. A good selective system would encourage that teacher to learn more, try harder and think more about her job and doing it well. It might also help her with her spelling. Or it might encourage her to choose a less important job – like futures trading perhaps, or corporate relations.
This week’s action
1. I’m writing to the new Ministers for Tertiary Education and Schools, and the Australian Education Union to express my views about how we might encourage better teaching in our schools.
2. I’m writing a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in response to the article in the paper on selective schools on 13/08/10
The lucky recipients are:
Senator Chris Evans Minister for Tertiary Education, Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations
Peter Garrett MP Minister for Schools, Early Childhood and Youth
AEU Federal President – Angelo Gavrielatos
AEU Federal Secretary – Susan Hopgood
Patty, Anna & Stephenson, Andrew. Top school’s secret weapon: 95% of students of migrant heritage. Sydney Morning Herald 13/9/10 pp 1-2.
Patty, Anna. The real top schools: state’s secret list revealed SMH 14/08/10.
Tovey, Josephine. Selective schools: gifted kids’ choice SMH 01/04/10.
Pearson, Noel. Radical Hope: Education and equality in Australia Quarterly Essay #35 2009.
Ross Gittins Gittinomics: Living the good life without money stress, overwork and joyless consumption. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, 2007.