Confusion in the Ranks

Confusion in the Ranks: how good are England’s schools? Report written by Alan Smithers for The Sutton Trust. From Executive Summary:

The most recent international league tables of pupil performance differ considerably. England languishes well down the  list in PISA 2009, stars in the Pearson Global Index 2012, and lies somewhere in-between in TIMSS 2011. This report seeks to explain the differences and highlight some underlying consistencies.
There are three main reasons for the different rankings:

  • Countries are ranked on scores which may not be different;
  • Different countries are involved;
  • The tests differ and some countries are ahead on one but not the other.[…]

Secondary School Pupils

We can see how these differences play out if we look in detail at the maths performance of secondary school pupils as an example. PISA 2009 has England joint 27 out of 65 countries and TIMSS 2011 tenth out of 42.
If we want to be at least 95% sure that a country has performed above England, then there are 20 above England in PISA and six in TIMSS.
Of those countries, five are above in both: Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.
Eleven countries were above England in PISA, but did not take part in TIMSS: Belgium, Canada1, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Macao, the Netherlands, Shanghai, and Switzerland.
Four countries were above in PISA, but not in TIMSS: Australia, Finland, New Zealand and Slovenia.
Russia was above England in TIMSS, but not PISA. […]

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Report is a detailed analysis of the use of  international league tables in political debates.

Content and method

Three letters published in a recent issue of TES  (1 Feb 2013) under the heading

The junking of chunking is bad news for maths pupils highlight what, in my opinion, remains, a serious flaw in the current debate on mathematics education: confusion between the content and methods of teaching.

Letter 1:

The recent speech by education minister Elizabeth Truss and subsequent articles about mathematics (“Time to knock chunks out of KS2 maths, minister says“, 25 January) fill me with fear for the next generation of primary children.

Her straw man argument mischievously rubbishes well-tested methods currently being taught. So-called “gridding” and “chunking” are logical learning developments which help children later to understand formal written long multiplication and long division respectively. Teaching these new methods has relieved the problem of the failed maths teaching of the past century: many children who were taught traditional methods of calculation, without understanding how they worked, had little confidence in their arithmetic and became fearful of maths.

I would instead draw ministers’ attention to the most significant problem facing maths education now – the lack of high-quality maths teachers who are willing to enter and stay in a profession which is endlessly dictated to according to the career aspirations of rising ministers, eager to impress their political masters.

Ralph Manning, Lecturer in primary mathematics education, University of East Anglia, and primary teacher.

 Letter 2:

It would be very optimistic, or educationally naive, to imagine that we could find one definitive method for multiplication and division and that all children could successfully learn it that way.

Finding the most “efficient” method may be an easier task, but there is a difference between efficient and effective when one considers the individuality of pupils. The chunking method often requires more steps but that may be a trade-off for other disadvantages that some children experience, most notably the tendency not to try the task at all if it is considered “too hard”.

That was the less worrying part of the article. The bit that is truly fascinating is the way in which children and teachers will be encouraged to take a narrow view of learning maths. Children’s efforts will be judged on a basis that can be summed up as “no marks for thinking differently from me”. I feel that we are entering an almost Orwellian world where “Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think”.

Steve Chinn, Bath.

Letter 3:

Your article on primary maths raises the issue once again of whether or not politicians should be able to prescribe teaching methods. The legal situation is unclear. The Education Reform Act 1988 does proscribe the education secretary from prescribing teaching methods. But there is an ambiguity. Is doing long multiplication by traditional methods part of the content of the proposed new curriculum or is it one of the methodologies by which that curriculum is taught? If the former, then it can be prescribed  by the government. If the latter, it cannot.

If challenged, Michael Gove would probably say that he won’t be prescribing how traditional long multiplication is taught but that it will be taught. I’m afraid the system lost the chance to challenge this issue when it capitulated on synthetic phonics.

Colin Richards, Spark Bridge, Cumbria.