Archive for February 2019

Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, does it engage the audience?

In the 18th Century Joseph Haydn composed as symphony that ended in an usual manner. Towards the end of the last movement the each of the players in the orchestra stops playing. Snuffs out the candle on their music stand, and leaves in turn, so that at the end there are just two persons letft, Haydn (the conductor) and his concertmaster playing a muted viiolin. I always think of this rather unusual ending when I am dealing with student completion and disengagement. Just as audiences were puzzled at the time by the departure of the musicians. most of the analyses since are pretty arcane.

It is a truth that despite the huge literature in student disengagement there is a similar level of mystery about the disengagement of students – many untested assumptions but a smallish set of known plausible reasons. And many of the analyses are just as arcane as those disentangling Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony. It remains something of a mystery. Just why do students get up and leave?

A few years ago a study was published and amongst the statistics gathered on students undertaking diploma courses and their progression over time, was something of a surprise. “Over 40% of those leaving without a diploma had passed every course they enrolled in, some 21% of those who started [a diploma].” The report suggests that some students possibly enrol without any intention of getting the qualification but rather are seeking opportunities to undertake parts of the programme they particularly want or need. It further speculates that many might have already gained a qualification and that their study at diploma level is in the nature of filling a gap or seeking a particular area of knowledge and skill or perhaps to update their knowledge and skill in a clearly targetted area within the field.

These are untested assumptions somewhat and there might well be a different set of motivations. It could be:

• that they make the decision that they are in the wrong course;

• that they are not being engaged in the course and in the direction that it is taking them;

• that something has changed in their lives and the end of a semester or a year seems like an appropriate time to make a change;

• that the award of the qualification is not a matter of importance;

• that they simply didn’t have the requisites for the programme;

• that they are displeased with something or other – the content, the teacher, the fellow students, who knows?

• and so on….

I always find it hard to accept the argument that students are happy with a partial qualification – “they have got what they came for!” “they don’t need the qualification, just parts of it,” – that kind of thing. And if there is a smattering of truth in this, what efforts are put into perhaps suggesting that qualifications are important and better if they are complete. Yes, the students who are early leavers from the programme will be qualified by a set of skills and a body of knowledge that they have accrued from their partial completion – that is not to be ignored. But when it comes to shifting employment the piece of paper becomes important. And if we are satisfied that not all of the qualification is necessary for the student to claim expertise and skills then questions are raised about the qualification.

Georgia State found that they increased successful completion of qualifications through the use of Academic Maps. This is a simple process in which the students receives a schematic outline of the totaa programme, its courses, the requisites and the order in which the programme parts might be undertaken. Discussion with an academic advisor sees the student complete a potential track they will undertake not just for the semester but for the whole qualification. It’s the old story – the end is where you start from. Knowing how to navigate the journey is a prerequisite for understanding the logic and progression of the ways in which the courses are put together to constitute a qualification. Without understanding the relationships between courses that constitute the programme the student could simply be blundering through ticking off papers/courses but not really understanding the whole picture. If this is so, student could well end up with an incomplete but full kete.

The reasons for passing all the papers but not completing the qualification could be as much a mystery as the departing musicians even though the outcome is not as dramtic as there being only one violin (muted at that) and the conductor. Whjy do students get up and leave the stage?

The Sad and Sorry Stubborn Stat. – Education’s Dirty Secret

It is hard to believe it but it is true. In the United States of America, 7,000 high school students drop out of high school EVERY day that the schools are open. Every hour 1,400 drop out, each minute 12 drop out, each 5 seconds somewhere in the US a young student drops out. As this avalanche of drop-outs continues unabated, the cumulative totals are horrifying – 35,000 a week building and building like a rolling snowball to reach  around 1.4 million dropouts each year.

How would New Zealand look if the same proportion of students were to drop out of school? There are around 15.1m high school students in the US and about 285,000 students in New Zealand – that’s 53 students in the US for every one of New Zealand’s secondary school students. So if New Zealand students dropped out at the same rate as their counterparts in the US we could expect to see about  5,400 drop-outs (or “disengagers” as we prefer to say) per year in New Zealand.

Now that seems to be about right if the long-held assertion is to be believed that 20% of New Zealand school students are not at school at the age of 16 years.

So why is it that both the US and NZ seemingly have about the same rates of dropping out of  or disengaging from school? It is one of those stubborn educational statistics.

The terms “drop out” and “disengage” are used interchangeably in much of the literature but I suggest that there is a distinction between them. “Drop out” is an event while “disengage” is a process . There is a subtlety to “disengage” but a brutality in “drop out”. In my view, disengaging is a process that exists in three different manifestations.

“Physical Disengagement” occurs when the student leaves the programme to not return. The signs might have been there but they have either not been noticed or they have been ignored. Some of these signs of this could be erratic attendance starting with a pattern of lateness. Following both of these up to ascertain reasons and mitigations if done early enough, could effect chmanges in behavioiurs that will see the student survive in the programme.

“Virtual Disengagement” is when a student exhibits a semblance of interest, understanding and enjoyment. Seemingly all is going well. But in reality nothing much is happening in terms of learning and the growth of understanding and skills. You can be certain that this is aone of the reasons for low results, assignments that miss the mark, work not completed and so on. The signs are there and often early. It beggars belief that students can spend months of their lives in an ever-increasing density of fog around the course and the content in it. But these students smile, they do not cause issues for those who teach and they might and probably will not ask questions. But they become disengagers, at some point and sadly on too many occasions this is at the end of the course.

Good teaching and quality interactions equitably distributed throughout the group will alleviate some of this.

Finally there are the “Unintended Disengagers” who are often the younger students and especially those attempting to manage the school-to-tertiary transition on their own. They believe that they know what they would like to do but have not developed strength in the subjects (for that is the curriculum currency) that are essential. If tertiary providers knew with certainty what the requirements for entry were, and these included soft skills and dispositions, and if these were communicated to secondary students during the early part of senior secondary, unintended disengagement could be minimised.

Georgia State places high value on students enrolling in the right course which achieves the same result but in a way retro-fits the student to the course rather than the other way around. Could NZ reduce the 5,400 total of disengagers? By some measures it is a large total (equal to 6 secondary schools) but when spread over 374+ secondary schools with 25,000+ teachers a little effort by all could well do the trick. But we would then have to address the issues of the 400,000+ in tertiary institutions!

Or do we just push on ignoring the stubborn stat. and feed more students into the NEETS / Unemployed / Under-employed?

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace of change in Education

Discussions coming out of the Tomorrow’s Schools reviews have certainly become more about yesterday’s issues than any future shape for our education system.

It is unhelpful to be too tied up in the current state of education administration that has for thirty years been loosely based around a set of “reforms” expounded upon at length (in the Administering for Excellence Report), rather scrappily and incompletely transformed into a policy (Tomorrow’s Schools) and then only partially implemented. Successive governments have certainly indulged their appetite for leaving their mark on the nine-year slices of power they have had to play around with the educatuon of our children since then.

The current proposals championed by Bali Haque but, to be fair, hatched up by a larger group he led have created a new round of swirl based largely on the old issues.

The one that is getting a lot of attention is the proposal to have a set of regional hubs. We already have these in the form of the education ministry’s Regional Offices. But these are probably responsible for too large an area in terms of numbers of school students in some cases and and the tyranny of distances in others.

Tomorrow’s Schools had in it a proposal for Education Service Centres which would have achieved the increased assistance to Boards without distorting the roles the Boards have as a voice for communities. It has never been impossible for one board to have responsibility for two or more schools, it just hasn’t happened. Clusters are not new. And this idea is not a new one!

I recall a sound approach in South Auckland with the Southern Secondary Schools Service Centre providing great services to a number of primary and secondary schools clustered around the Papatoetoe district. This came out of the 1960s, flourished through the 1970s and 1980s and went on well into the 1990s under the Tomorrow’s Schools school service centre model. It provided a service and the Principals, staff and boards of the schools concentrated on doing their best for educational standards and engagement. It worked well.

Scandanavian schools are better than our schools largely, it seems, because thay have moderated the negative impact of having extreme social differences in the characteristics of their schools. One outcome of this is that here is none of the bragging about and flaunting of privilege that marrs the current discussions. There is a pride in the education system generally rather than the obsessive elbowing by individual schools that is going on in the New Zealand discussion.

There has been a leit motif through the discussions that have followed the release of the report that suggests an intention to tackle the social differences reflected in the current structures for administration which are possibly exacerbating them. This will require us all to work towards a more balanced involment of communities that will not only be good for “us” but will also be good for “them” and make us better as a country, stronger as an economy and prouder of our efforts to get NZ back to a point where all citizens have a chance.

With the softening of students numbers and the many reviews that are under way in education, it would be a lost opportunity if we were to ignore sensible change simply because old habits die hard. They way we are going it is likely that the principal actors will do little more than strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then be heard no more.