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Trades Academies, research and reflection

A recent report on Trades Academies is pretty luke warm in its assessment of their success in terms of retention and progression.  A key methodological feature is the comparison between the group of participants and a comparison group of students which are matched to them.

I have a hesitation about one aspect of the matching and that is the use of “disengaged” with its particular definition. In my view, you cannot be a “little bit disengaged” – not any more than a US student can “drop out of school a little bit”.

In New Zealand the word “disengaged” has become our way of describing what the educators in the USA call “drop-outs”, the Pacific calls “early school leavers”, the French call “abandonnant l’école, the Finnish “avhopp från skolanand the Chinese “. Everyone knows what it means and agrees that it is a bad thing!

To have matched those in the research on the basis of “disengagement” is, I think, a risk. That risk might be acceptable but the meaning attributed to the term is not. It is quite clear that this means:

“School engagement: whether had one or more instances of disengagement from school or not (stand-down, suspension, serious truancy)”

If we accept that “disengagement” has come to mean what “drop-out” means in the USA, to start using it to include such episodes as stand-downs and suspensions and truancy is to water it down and this is a great pity because “disengagement” in the sense of having disconnected from a school is a very serious and damaging thing.

I have developed and use a taxonomy of disengagement that notes three kinds of disengagement.

Physical Disengagement:
The student is no longer at school

Virtual Disengagement:
The student is at school but nothing to speak of is happening in terms of learning – poor or no positive outcomes are likely.

Unintended Disengagement:
In this category, disengagement is delayed and occurs when a learner achieves to some degree but has a basket of credits that are not robust enough (or perhaps even the right credits) to sustain further study.

But none of these categories admit those who are stood down / suspended in themselves or even serious truants on the grounds that many well-behaved and, indeed, capable and successful students are likely to be and are included in each of these categories. Selective truancy is  a deliberate tactic used by many students especially in the senior years and might best be described as tactical attendance. One hopes that the other matching criteria dulled the impact of engagement as a matching tool.

The other issue I have with the report is not the fault of the researcher. To include the MIT Tertiary High School into the group generically described as “trades academies” is misleading and inaccurate – it just doesn’t fit there. Yes, it is a secondary / tertiary programme but there are key differences that mark it as unlike any of the trades academies. Its target student group is distinctive. The merged nature of secondary and tertiary curricula is totally different in that secondary and tertiary programme components are not consigned to different days nor to different locations both of which are features of the traditional trades academy model. The location of the programme is completely and wholly in a tertiary setting – the students are expected to act as tertiary students, all day every day. Finally, The MIT Tertiary School is a four-year programme and not the 38 day programme that Trades Academies are able to offer within the time allocation given to trades academies.

And there is another difference – this targeted group of students achieve both high levels of NCEA and technical qualifications within the programme that can take them into many higher level qualifications including degree level study. NZQA reports the 2014 NCEA results as Level 1 – 100%, Level 2 – 91.8%, Level 3 – 83.3%. What a pity that such stunning success is not reflected in a study of trades academies.

Hon Steven Joyce got it right when, in response to the report, he noted that it was early days and that it was difficult to get good data.

Make no mistake about it, trades academies are already demonstrating an ability to excite students about learning and to open up for many, pathways to success that the conventional school programme is unable to do. Time will show that early access to technical and vocational programmes is a key to success for a significant proportion of students. This research report does show an emerging trend towards increased retention despite its rather coy conclusions and there can be confidence that an impact on successful outcomes will follow.


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Talk-ED: Back in the USA!


Headed off to the USA and the sense of excitement never lessens – 12 days, two conferences, a number of institutional visits and, of course, catching up with “the network” of people engaged in some of the same areas that consume our interest – disengagement, priority learners, continuity within the system and so on.

The best of what is in the USA is as good as it gets in the world, the worst is unspeakably bad and there is a huge mountain of stuff in between.  I like to think that I get to see the best.

That’s why I think the discussion about Charter Schools in New Zealand has been one of lowest quality which defies the evidence (see previous paragraph!).  They make that mistake in the US as well.  The education research industry is huge but like so much of the education research throughout the world (should I qualify that and say “Anglo Saxon world?).  It gets done, researchers meet to report their research to other researchers.  The elegance of the methodology can be breathtaking, the discussion cerebral and well-informed.  The trouble is that by and large classroom teachers are left largely unaware of the research and its implications for practice.

And they have little choice but to continue to do the same old thing with the same old way to get the same old results even with some misgivings.  It isn’t the fault of teachers, it is the result of a research industry that is driven by its own imperatives rather than by what is best for students.

I first came to this conclusion in 1983 when I returned from a year at the University of London Institute of Education working with the great and sadly now late group that consisted of Harold Rosen, James Britten, Nancy Martin, John Dixon, Lesley Stratta and a wider group of acolytes who were changing the face of English teaching.  They were doing this by immersing themselves with teachers in their practice and in their daily lives as teachers rather than other applied linguistic researchers.  Indeed, the researcher on the other side of the corridor, the Department for the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language may have been a tribe in Papua New Guinea for all the sharing that went on.

At that point in my life I made a decision, the life of a researcher was not for me.  I preferred the life of a broker of research.  It’s not about showing how clever we are, it is all about what impact we have.  Give me a number of research studies and I shall tell you in five bullet points what they mean for practice.  And there is not enough of this happening.

Fortunately, New Zealand has an impressive list of exceptions to all this.  John Hattie has through his work brought vast tracts of research into the orbit of teachers.  His Visible Learning is a touchstone for many a discussion.  Wait!  Before you indulge yourselves, check out what the research says.  Russell Bishop is another who has had impact –  takes the research and turns it into action in classrooms and schools through a deeper understanding of culturally sensitive pedagogy.  Instead of simply setting up an agenda, Bishop has given teachers a technology for better performance and better results.   Marie Clay was another – her research into reading translated onto a programme for “reading recovery” that captured the interest of the education world internationally.

This is not to devalue the worth of good educational research but without that second wave of simplifying and popularising, without the processes of translation into practice, change would not happen.

In the area of disengagement there is a bucket load of theory and research. It is just that it appears to have little impact on keeping students in school.  This will be a key interest in the next two weeks.  The statistics in the USA continue to go south while the researchers head north to conferences – I promise you that on my return I shall in one blog (800 words) summarise where the thinking is at, without smoke and mirrors, wire or trapdoors and in a language that runs the danger of being understood.

That is a little bit flippant, I know, but I do long for a simpler world where those who know can explain to those who don’t know what it is we all need to know.  And in education it will be all about how we do a better job for someone else, the student.  One day the penny will drop that this whole industry is not about serving those who work in it,  it is entirely about others. But is that very different from most businesses?

Ahh, the USA looms closer and closer – that magical land of the best, the worst, the greatest successes and the greatest failures.  It will be good to visit UC Berkeley when I catch up with those I worked with in 2007 and 2008.  And to enjoy those quirky features such as the parking sign – P for Parking,  NP for No Parking and those spaces marked NL – those parks reserved for Nobel Laureates!  I shall do this on my way to Oakland to visit community colleges serving some of the most disadvantaged students in the US.  Talk about contrast!!!


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