This blog is inspired by a person whose opinion I value greatly. With all the drama surrounding the PISA rankings, it is increasingly obvious that many on twitter with an interest have taken a side and then lectured to each other. The only ones listening though seemed to be those who liked what they heard, although that may be a bit unkind. My recent conversation with a valued friend was far and away the most enlightening view on the whole fiasco, and indeed challenged my thinking.
When the PISA rankings were released the drama quickly unfolded in the media, which surprised exactly no one I imagine. Then, the go-to argument quickly settled on the suggested national phonics check. There were howls of outrage from teachers and some academics. The thrust of the push back argument was that teachers already do this so why waste time and money on what would surely develop into a task for monitoring teachers. (I personally can’t see the value in the phonics check, but what do I know?). Those against the phonics check quickly counter-punched with the less than equitable funding in Australian education as a major reason for our apparent PISA disaster. (Both sides seemed to yell out ‘silver bullet’ to each other, but that’s twitter for you.)
Some in favour pointed to the extraordinary results coming out of the U.K. since they introduced the national phonics check. I’m wary of drawing much from results from other countries but open to suggestions. My knowledgeable friend made the point that the U.K. results are ‘statistically unusual’ and are what happens when you turn a ‘measure into an objective’.
The thing is both sides are a little bit right. More equitable funding is a worthwhile goal, as is trying to get teachers and leaders to improve their practice. From my oracle, “PISA comes out, we’ve slipped again, and no one has a project. Just folks shouting at each other, with no attempt to build consensus. If you want to find out where the problems are, it is SA, Tas, NT. But it is about much more than the funding, it’s the meeting of the school system with these external factors that need to be investigated. We don’t understand why social/cultural realities in these states impact achievement. What happens in school? What should they do? What are they doing that works well? What could they do better?”
I’m lucky enough to work with people who have gone into ‘under-performing’ schools to help with literacy programs/coaching. Their stories are perhaps surprising to some. There are schools with no consistent phonics programs to speak of. There are schools with no structured reading program. There are schools with no consistent language across their campus regarding literacy. Instead of arguing about the phonics check, perhaps we could acknowledge that not all school systems have literacy nailed down, (including phonics) and like any other profession some educators need lots of help. ( I know I’m constantly thinking I should be doing better, but that’s another story.)
Could those arguing for the phonics check broaden their outlook and acknowledge that phonics is embedded in most ITE courses? Could we agree that once teachers start their career, schools of education have no control of the teaching practice of their graduates? The best phonics teaching in the world doesn’t guarantee anything in the wild.
Some insightful words again from my learned friend. “We had these conversations (in school improvement versus out of school improvement) 10 years ago. We continue to have them. Nothing changes. They are both right, ……………….. but are only a bit right. They need each other, but can’t see it. Two worlds. And as you say, kids end up unable to read. Which is a tragedy. And we never come together to forge a plan.”
From my point of view I think this might be our problem then. Two worlds, divided, and sneering at each other, while we have kids in high school that can’t read. We need to get phonics teaching right, and equitable funding organized and much, much more. But most of all perhaps we need the two worlds to become one. Patronizing? Maybe. Idealistic? Possibly. Worth a shot? Absolutely.