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Month: June 2010

ThinkEd: Directions begging to be considered

Stuart Middleton


28 June 2010

Back from America and pleased to be home. Well pleased to be back among familiar arguments – national standards among them.

 While in the US I have been working with people who are questioning the current organisation and provision of education especially at the senior high school and early college years. What is most clear is that vocational education is making a comeback.

Well first we have to get our language up-to-date. In 2006 the US Congress changed the traditional title of vocational education to “Career and Technical Education” (in the reauthorisation of the Perkins Act) to encourage “the expansion of tech-prep / voctec  

programmes which link and align CTE offerings between high schools and two-and-four year post secondary programs. This is important. There has been a clear swing away from the opre-occupation with graduation from high school to a concern that the K-12 schooling system should result is an adequate and robust preparation for a career and employment.

This was supported by the President:

“I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college, a four-year school, vocational training, or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma

President Barack Obama, February 2009

So change is called for and radical change at that. A recent book calls this “disruptive innovations” (Christensen there is no longer any pretence that we can carry on doing what we have always done and at most make a few tweaks. These “disruptive innovations” are expected to provide both “high expectations and support, and both rigorous college-preparatory content and relevant, future-ready skill development, so that all students graduate ready for both college and careers.”[1]

In the past there has generally been a dichotomy between the provision of an academic education or the provision of a career and technical education programme (remember that is vocational education) when options are discussed. A “third way” has been proposed by a very impressive group working in North Carolina, the NC New Schools Project.

This third way that is being proposed is the provision of a K-12 education that prepares students for both college and a career or put into NZ terms, prepared students for further and higher education and a job. This will require not just a statement that this will be the purpose of schooling but a very real re-think of the school curriculum. It is simply, in the words of one of the people I met, “unthinkable that two underperforming education sectors, the elementary schools and the high school schools, can simply be left to continue as they are.”

By this he felt that the accumulated failure of some (many?) students has at some point to be addressed. If this is not possible within the existing framework of schools within the compulsory school sector then it might have to be achieved outside of it. This leads to a new rubric that is gaining grounds – multiple pathways. The “multiple pathways” is a movement that seeks to move beyond what they see as a tired debate between academic and vocational education and the traditional practice of tracking students into different high school courses.”[2]

This resonates with us in New Zealand in most respects – in large parts it reflect s our history except for the past twenty or so years. Where the challenge is for us is in the narrowing of focus – a demand that high school education should lead to involvement in further and higher education and a career and a job. To achieve this there needs to be a shift in emphasis in the elementary / primary school towards guaranteed secure basic skills in language, numeracy and digital skills. Some might argue that this is already the focus. The results don’t support that for too large a group.

The shift in the secondary school will be towards greater options in pathways that lead to a successful transition into postsecondary education and a subsequent career. We do that now I hear you say. The results don’t support that for too large a group.

And there is a challenge here for tertiary educators – 50% of students fail to get the qualification that start. So, the results don’t……  

The high schools are singled out for attention often but a response will require all sectors to respond.

[1] Christensen, Clayton M., Horn, Michael B. and Johnson, Curtis W. Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. NY: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

[2] Oakes J and Saunders M (2008) Beyond Tracking: Multiple pathways to college, career and civic participation, Cambridge MA, Harvard Education Press

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ThinkEd: Drunk with success

If the old song Ten Green Bottles was sung at an education conference it would certainly go like this:

 Ten green bottles hanging on the wall

Ten green bottles hanging on the wall

And if one green bottle would accidentally fall

There’d be 90% of the bottles hanging on the wall.

That’s fine. But the games start in the second verse:

 Nine green bottles hanging on the wall

Nine green bottles hanging on the wall

And if one green bottle would accidentally fall

There’d be 88.8% of the bottles hanging on the wall.

 Some might have thought that there would be only 80% of the bottles there now but no, in education we often tell the story by using percentages that are based on a more immediate sample rather than taking account of the starting sample. Perhaps you might say that the distortion in the above example is not great. But what about say the end of the fourth verse when there would only be six of the original bottles left. Would that be 60%?

Seven green bottles hanging on the wall

Seven green bottles hanging on the wall

And if one green bottle would accidentally fall

There’d be 85.7% of the bottles that got into the fourth verse hanging on the wall.

Now you see the pattern – we look pretty good at keeping green bottles. But in reality? This has been exercising my mind a little lately as I look at the three key markers of education that are likely to produce lasting advantage for your young people: access to two years quality early childhood education (15 hours a week), successfully completing secondary school and gaining a post-secondary qualification.

So an analysis of education success needs to consider the performance at each level in terms of the birth cohort – how many of 100 babies succeed at later ages. Also of importance is the fact that the success profiles of key groups should also be reflected and for this exercise Maori, Pasifika and Pakeha/Other are the three groupings chosen.

With early childhood education the picture is complicated by the fact that children get access for widely differing amounts of time. It seems inequitable to simply count a child as having access if they at some point enter the gate of a centre. On this basis New Zealand claims high levels of participation. But on the basis of who consumes the ECE resource the picture is interesting. We know that 28% of babies born are Maori but over the first five years of their lives they consume only 20% of the resource. The picture for Pasifika is not quite as good – 16% of babies will be Pasifika but they consume only 6.1% of the ECE resource. That means that Pakeha and other groups which make up 56% of the babies born consume 73.9% of the resource.

But regardless of their ECE access and experience, all young ones are allowed to start school so it is valid to return the group measure on starting school to 100% – the 100 babies born.

The second education advantage point – successfully completing secondary school – is one which does suffer from the ten green bottle syndrome. The results for success are often presented as success for the group that actually completes schooling. But we should go back to the birth cohort and factor in the disengaged (those who just drop out of the system for one reason or another) and we should also look at those who get success within the expected timeframe. For the purposes of this exercise I have determined to be achieving NCEA Level 2 in 12 years of compulsory schooling. This certainly is a degree of success that should enable a student to proceed to a tertiary qualification.

 This then produces some very interesting results: 13 of our 28 Maori babies will get NCEA Level in Year 12, 7 of our 16 Pasifika babies will succeed, and of the 56 Pakeha/Other babies, 36 will get there. On the basis of successfully completing secondary school on this measure, 45 of our 100 babies will get NCEA Level 2 in Year 12.

 Assuming that these 45 students go on to a post-secondary qualification we know that a very stable statistic is that half of students who start a post-secondary qualification actually complete it. So that tells us that we can expect success (on the basis of completing the qualification) for 7 Maori students of the original 28 Maori babies, 4 of the 16 Pasifika babies and 18 of the 56 Pakeha/Other babies.

Success is an outcome not only of the performance at a moment in time but also the cumulative processes that impact on different groups of students in different ways. People with greater statistical skill than me will see issues with the outline above. That is good; let those skills now be applied to more sophisticated and more accurate pictures of what happens to the ten green bottles. A good place to start would be with recognition that not all the bottles are green!

 And does the conventional approach to presenting results obscure a growing issue – the performance of Pakeha/Other in our system? Consider the above and the final result of 32% for Pakeha/Other and 25% for both Maori and Pasifika within a system performance of 29% overall. A community that cares has to care for each and every baby born.

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ThinkEd: Staying the Course or Is Retention the new Dropping Out?

Stuart Middleton


14 June 2010

Chicago USA

I have just spent a few days at a conference in Chicago – Retention 2010, an annual gathering of predominantly researchers, institutional people and representatives of that huge industry in the USA that concerns itself with the delivery of initiatives and the measurement of their success in postsecondary institutions. The most stable statistic in postsecondary education is the fact that still only 50% of students who start a postsecondary qualification actually complete it.

Immediately this is mentioned the cry goes out that this is the students’ fault and that some of the failure to complete is expected and justified. Students have goals that are other than completing the qualification. This might be true for a small group who perhaps are seeking a particular skill set that is more constrained than a complete qualification but research evidence to support this is at best sketchy.

A further group is what the USA people call “stop outs”. These are people who are working to a different timeframe than the conventional periods used to measure successful completion. On the other hand, as one speaker said, we have seen the time used to measure successful completion of a four year degree creep out to six years (seven in NZ?) – “are we headed to ever”?

One statistic that surprised me was that 80% of online instruction was undertaken by students who were seeking to get back on track making up for courses missed or failed and so on. If this is so then it mirrors nicely the early experiences of remote education offered through courseware packages. Planned to reach students who could not get to face-to-face instruction it turned out to be a real advantage for those enrolled in face-to-face education.

Then there is the group that drops out for reasons which are unnecessary and subject to institutional interventions. This is the biggest group and these are the students that we can do something for to see them stay engaged.

There are good reasons to do so. Failure is not a good outcome and damages people personally, financially, in career terms, and in terms of their engagement lifelong with education. It is also worth a huge amount of money to institutions. Improving retention rates could in fact allow institutions to meet strategic goals that they might have for growth and at the same time with some savings on recruitment and marketing.

The key point of focus in retention initiatives is the retention of first year students into the second year of their studies. The range of retention in the USA is from 54% in 2 year public colleges (the community colleges and vocational technical colleges) through to 81% in graduate PhD private institutions. (Before you get excited about this latter figure, remember that the largest category of graduate student in the USA is now ABD – all but dissertation – they ave done the papers but not undertaken the defining point of a PhD, the thesis.) Overall, one third of students enrolling in postsecondary programmes are not there for Year 2.

A major survey of institutional practices undertaken by ACT Inc and reported to the conference provides interesting reading in terms of what works in seeking to retain students in programmes: 

  • a comprehensive learning assistance programme which has all learning support under one jurisdiction and in one place;
  • reading assistance;
  • advisory interventions with selected student populations (in other words: if you know that some groups of students have identified needs take the initiative and get involved with those students before they discover this need themselves);
  • a solid set of academic advisers;
  • availability of tutors;
  • a programme targeting first generation students;
  • summer programmes and comprehensive orientation / initiation programmes.

The message seems to be – if you discover that students have a need halfway through the first semester then you are probably too late – two weeks is a better timeframe in which to be beginning to spot potential issues that will lead to attrition.

Remember, we were told, that “attrition” means the state of being gradually worn down!

It is interesting that this conference was happening in the US somewhat against a backdrop of “sale price” courses being offered over the summer. Sale Lasts for Two Months – get the course for half price! This is also happening in Britain. This makes sense for two reasons: it has to be in the interests of students to be able to get on with their programmes and complete in a shorter time frame (especially when conventional summer employment is scarce) and it has to be good for institutions to lift productivity in this easy way.

There is it seems to me to be developing quite an argument that programmes simply last too long (Phil Ker posted a comment on this on this site a while back). The trend for increasing university degrees from three to four years to capture a group (Year 3 students) who are easy picking was, I was once told by a retiring high-ranking and respected university official, came from a concern for marketing rather than compelling educational arguments.

The impact of the financial strait-jackets that postsecondary programmes strap onto students is extreme. In the US, one in every five students who fail to complete a degree will in time default on their loan, Bankruptcy is the reward for having tried.

The feeling is that getting step changes in the performance of postsecondary education would not take all that much. The institutional rewards are immense – do the sums related to the increased income from lifting retention rates from the first year to the second year by 2% and the dollar amounts are huge.

 A high ranking Presidential adviser left the audience in doubt that a growing realization about the importance of this to the whole country was percolating through to the highest levels. If we can’t lift education performance and achieve more equitable educational outcomes,  economies such as those in the western worlds will start to suffer.

Watson Scott Swail, a key leader in this field of retention studies and initiatives claims that 95% of institutions are doing the right thing for 95% of students for about 95% of the time. But remember that this is a percentage of those who get to the postsecondary start line.


ThinkEd: Rewriting the Songbook

Stuart Middleton


7 June 2009

The school songbook is being rewritten. On the Ball has been replaced by On the Brawl.

 On the brawl, on the brawl on the brawl

Forget the ball join in the brawl

Good boys and good girls, and even all sorts

Let’s make a good brawl a spectator sport……..

In this wonderful world of education we continue to be inspired by the way in which the stars line up between issues. This week we segued without interruption from the issue of school balls and boozing to rugby and boozing with a little light relief on brawling along the way.

Two girls’ rugby teams were suspended from an Auckland competition in Auckland because a brawl that started on the field between the teams became inclusive and involved spectators as well.  This is not a good thing and the response of the authorities was appropriate. Where did the girls learn such behaviour? From the boys of course!

Meanwhile what were the boys up to down south? Christchurch Boys High School and Christ’s College were getting ready for their annual match and, remembering the issues of boozing and brawling in the past, decided to breathalyse all the spectators. There is something deliciously silly about this which I can’t put my finger on. Has schoolboy sport reached the ridiculous point where the big issue is whether the spectators are in a fit state to watch the game?

Perhaps the answer is that applied by FIFA on occasion following issues of crowd behaviour, play the games without spectators. That will teach them a lesson.

The assumption that brawling is inspired by booze is to ignore the fact that on-field brawling is undertaken by boys and now girls who are sober and made drunk only by some mad and crazy brain malfunction that puts winning a game ahead of mere civilised behaviour. This is a goal supported with enthusiasm by sports talkback hosts.

The thread that joins issues together is the link between booze and schools – sport and balls. While some principals insist on deluding themselves in public by pursuing the view that what happens after the ball is nothing to do with the school, or in the case of the rugby that it isn’t the participants but the spectators and therefore that is also nothing to do with the school. It most certainly is and schools have as much a role to play in addressing this issue as does any other institution in our community.

What happened to the old rule that “this is a school event, therefore no alcohol”? Of course there has always been a bit of a nudge and a wink at the link between school rugby and drinking but by and large this has been the rule. So, which word in that contains ambiguity – I would have thought that it was clear. This very week the tragic death of a sleepwalking New Zealand  First 15 player who, after a night on the booze while on a school rugby trip to England, sleep-walked out of a fourth storey window and fell to his death.

In a previous school after-ball issue and in this rugby player death it appears that the schools are battling not only the demon of youth drinking but also the role of adults (including parents) who seem to connive at such behaviour. In one a group of parents sets out to make sure their little ones can get drink at an after ball in the other the reports are that “there was a booze culture” in the team. And parents on the rugby trip insisted that the trip continue, threatening legal action if the school called it off and brought the lads home. What chance do schools have in the face of all this?

Once upon a time we used to have junior socials in schools but they were put aside as the ability of schools to provide entertainment on the one hand young people felt was appropriate and on the other schools considered to be acceptable. Having to employ security and cope with outsiders also took some of the enjoyment out of the evening for staff.

Students at Otago were famous (or is it infamous?) for their booze-fired antics – in fact all the universities had their drinking horns and suchlike – but in the south it has reached a stage where it is both uncontainable and unacceptable and will have to go.

So with schools balls and after-balls the answer is both easy and inevitable – stop having them. The current young adolescent group has no shortage of a social life a life that would once have been unimaginable to other generations at that age and schools can no longer cope.

But school sport is another issue. We just have to win this one.

In the United States there is something of an issue related predominantly to after the games. A recent report notes that “The violence that takes over after sports is an inevitable part of major wins and losses, psychologists say, and usually involves alcohol, youth and testosterone. Add an instigator or two, and trouble brews like a chemical reaction.” In the States the crowds that attend major college sports events exceed those we get for All Black tests by far so the dynamic is very different.

Meanwhile we seek solutions in having police trail buses loaded with youngsters on the way to after-balls. We seek solutions in setting up drink/drive testing stations for those walking into a sports match. We feign surprise when schools rugby teams brawl. We turn a blind eye to the booze culture among sporting teams.

 Is this the behaviour of an advanced civilisation?

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