Notes on a Scandal

Put the seatbelt on – this is going to be a bumpy ride!! 

I recently saw the film “Notes on a Scandal” starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett. Loved Judi Dench – the way she can encapsulate various shades of meaning and convey a depth of manipulation into a single glance is absolutely amazing. It was also amusing (frightening??) to be able to recognise certain teacher personality-types portrayed in the film. I must admit that I couldn’t quite get a handle on Cate Blanchett’s character and was unable to determine believable reasons that led to her relationship with the student. It was, however, a riveting film and one I would recommend to others.  

Also this past week I have been reading in both The Age and The Weekend Australian, with mounting horror, the announcement that Julie Bishop intends to coerce the allocation of performance-based pay for teachers, starting in 2009, from the states (amongst other things) at a meeting next week by linking it to federal funding of education.  

A scandal, according to my dictionary, is a disgraceful action or event; a sense of outrage emerging from an action or event. Performance-based pay is a scandal in my opinion. Here are my notes on it: 

My focus for this posting will, unapologetically, be on what I think the effects would be on mathematics education (particularly assessment) if performance-based pay becomes a reality. For a list of very interesting general questions regarding the detail of the administration of such a scheme, I recommend Judith Wheeldon’s article in The Weekend Australian of April 7-8. It is important to keep the specific concerns to which she refers uppermost in our minds when considering this proposal and not allow ourselves to focus solely on the ideology and hence get carried away by rhetoric – this issue will be won or lost on the details of its proposed implementation. 

My primary concern with performance-based pay is linking it to student results. Results for what sort of assessments?  Results on their own – in the form of grades – do not necessarily measure understanding; at best you can say that they measure how well students can perform at doing the type of assessments used. And, certainly in mathematics, it can measure determination and self-belief rather than understanding or it can measure the level of study done rather than understanding. To improve results is relatively easy to accomplish – you just change the assessment device. If students do better with straight content questions (and they do) then we could just test them on this and provide revision questions almost identical to those that will be on the test. Teachers (or schools) who want to demonstrate, quantitatively, that their students’ results have ‘improved’ could manipulate test results in such a manner (and some do so now). Any questions that require students to transfer knowledge from one context to another can be omitted from the test. But does this comprise a mathematical education? 

I have recently had discussions in my school about assessing students in such a way that encourages rather than discourages. Of course we should be encouraging (and we are). But giving inflated results is not the best nor the only way of encouraging…and certainly not the most valid pathway that would lead to lasting and authentic encouragement that morphs into self-belief and self-motivation. I am anxious that we don’t give students (or their parents who frequently say “but she was getting As and Bs last year”) an unrealistic view of their performance. One of the major problems in mathematics learning is encouraging students to become more resilient learners. To give a ‘false positive’ doesn’t aid this desire one iota. I am overjoyed when students, especially those who find the subject very challenging, develop the confidence to ‘have a go’ at questions they see as being difficult and start to be creative in their thinking; rather than just copy down a technique and try to learn everything by rote. 

We shouldn’t manipulate assessment to provide ‘feel good’ outcomes all of the time. Part of education (not just academic education) is developing resilience…ways of coping when things don’t always go our way. I view education in the old ‘liberal’ sense – a broadening of the mind and assisting students in becoming more mindful of the way they live their lives and the manner in which they see the world around them. To be quantitatively literate in today’s world is to receive a mathematics education – not a mathematical training in how to do certain test questions. This, under a performance-based pay scheme that seeks to include student results as a measure of good teaching, will increase the teacher’s pay but will not necessarily advance the student’s mathematical understanding nor the teacher’s professional learning. I fear that it would put the emphasis on things other than ‘good’ pedagogy and education. Real issues to do with mathematics teaching and learning will get overshadowed by issues connected with devising tests that would be used to provide ‘evidence’ (not necessarily authentic) of students’ ‘improvement’.  Torture numbers and they’ll confess to anything”~Gregg Easterbrook   

What I consider to be important in mathematics education at the moment is to develop assessment tools that authentically reflect what kids know about the ‘big ideas’ and essential understandings of mathematics in the context of specific topic areas. Quality assessment data should be based upon best practices, answer important questions, and benefit the students and schools by providing evidence that is useful to both in informing future learning. Too many assessments in mathematics at the moment focus on testing skills acquisition to the exclusion of thinking and understanding. I am very anxious that a performance-based pay scheme that has students’ results as an evidentiary component will encourage more of such assessments and compromise much-needed reform in the teaching and learning of mathematics.  

I am alert and I am very alarmed.

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About Linda

I have been involved in secondary mathematics education in Victoria, Australia for over 25 years.
This entry was posted in Assessment. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Notes on a Scandal

  1. Pingback: Lamp Store

  2. Linda says:

    Thank you for your comment. With a tag such as yours, I’m hoping you may be able to shed some light on this issue!!

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