Policy failures make for poor reading across the nation

Opinion Article

2012 December, 15

It is not possible for people who are already supposed to be awake to get a wake-up call, but that is how federal School Education Minister Peter Garrett described this week's shocking results from the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.


Year 4 students in Australia rank 27th out of 48 countries, the lowest of any English-speaking nation. A quarter have substantial literacy problems.


In another measure, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, Year 4 performance in maths (18th) and science (25th) was not much better.


The Australian public has been getting wake-up calls for many years on the poor comparative performance of our schools internationally. Education policy convulsions regularly follow the release of disappointing data.


We must be sleepwalking if the latest results are a wake-up call.


matter how dire we deem the situation and how urgently we desire solutions - it seems never to translate into improvements.


Education is a vast and contentious field. Because we all did time behind a school desk, we all claim some expertise. Let me lay out a typology of educational expertise.


The first is teachers: people who know the practice and profession of teaching. Teachers know how to engage students in learning, they know what works. They know how to lead schools.


The second is theorists: those who gained fundamental pedagogical insights and developed strategies that have enhanced teaching and learning. There are vastly more people who lay claim to being theorists than there are breakthrough pedagogues. The most credible theorists are those whose ideas come from the practice of teaching and learning. Theories often emanate from horses' backsides but these are more accurately called manure.


The third is policymakers, those who seek to influence policies that affect schools.


My point is there are many great teachers and few genuine pedagogues. Great teachers and theorists may know much about teaching and learning, but that does not make them policy experts. Education policy is about politics, economics, cultures and systems. Just because an educator knows what should happen in a classroom or school does not automatically mean they know how to reform a school system.


Individuals usually possess expertise in one of these categories. A few may possess expertise in two. No one has expertise across the three - yet in public discourse people frequently assume expertise across the entire field.


My involvement in education is through policy; I claim no teaching or theoretical expertise.  In the commentaries about indigenous student performance specifically and Australian students generally, there is a lot of talk about the importance of high expectations. If Chris Sarra has done anything, he has imprinted higher expectations at the front of our thinking. I am in furious agreement with Sarra's starting point.


The next step, however, is to answer the question: What then must we do to enable the students we are talking about to meet our high expectations? It would be a cruel hoax if we told students "we have high expectations of you" and then did not provide them with the means to achieve.


This is where my policy thinking has been strongly influenced by two Australian educators prominent in the reading wars of the early 2000s.


Kevin Wheldall of Macquarie University was a compelling voice in the debates about the teaching of reading. In 2004 I invited him to pilot his remedial literacy program, MultiLit, in a small school in Cape York. I came to understand the centrality of effective instruction to school reform.


Wheldall's rule of thumb was that in any cohort of students, the top 25 per cent will learn to read no matter what. The middle 50 per cent will read whatever method is used as long as it is done competently. The bottom 25 per cent will never learn to read unless they receive explicit instruction in all of the constituent skills of reading.


The debate between whole language and phonics is about this conundrum: how should we approach a diverse classroom? If the instructional net used by the teacher does not have a sufficiently tight gauge, - then many students are going to slip through it.


Schools dominated by whole-language approaches to reading have been routinely throwing at least 25 per cent of our classrooms on to the scrap heaps of educational failure. It is telling that this week's PIRLS results show 25 per cent of Year 4 students are substantially failing in literacy.


The second compelling figure in the reading wars was John Fleming, former principal of Bellfield Primary School and now head of the Haileybury Institute at Haileybury College, a private school in Melbourne. This week The Australian reported gains made at Ballajura Primary School in Perth under principal David Wanstall. Ballajura has used the Fleming model for six years.


Wanstall told this newspaper: "I think we had cajoled ourselves into believing 25 per cent of our kids couldn't read at a functional level and that was OK. What we now understand is that every child can learn to read."


Fleming supports school reform across the nation through the Haileybury Institute. His model has been adopted by many schools in far north Queensland in recent years.


Wheldall's MultiLit program and Fleming's model are members of a pedagogical order called explicit instruction, which is teacher-directed; involves explicit teaching; is skills-oriented, often using small-group instruction with carefully articulated and sequenced lessons; and it involves teaching in small steps, with practice after each step and appropriate reinforcement for correct responses.


Last September the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy hosted a conference with the leading American exponent of explicit instruction, Anita Archer, who developed the "I do, we do, you do" approach adopted by Fleming.


If we are going to get school reform right in Australia, then we must get instruction right.  Explicit instruction must be a central component of any credible reform.


Getting instruction right is the first message from McKinsey's landmark 2007 report on school systems reform across the world. Those education systems that climbed the road from poor to fair, from fair to good, from good to great and great to excellent are systems that focused on classroom instruction. Wheldall and Fleming's approaches to explicit instruction are vital beacons for Australian school reform. The challenge for their models will be whether and how they can be scaled up and made sustainable across schools.


What is not often understood is the principles of explicit instruction are derived from an older set of pedagogical insights that arose in the 1960s under the name direct instruction, the program our academy in Cape York uses.


However, while there is much commonality between explicit and direct instruction, there is a fundamental difference. Explicit instruction is curriculum neutral and direct instruction specifically sets out entire instructional sequences in a systematic way. Therefore, direct instruction involves a script whereas explicit instruction does not.


The Howard government's reading inquiry, initiated by education minister Brendan Nelson, recommended explicit instruction of reading in 2005. If the recommendations of this inquiry had been implemented, Australian schools would have achieved fundamental instructional reform. Seven years on, it still hasn't happened. This is how good teaching practice, informed by good pedagogical theory, meets with comprehensive failure when it comes to policy and school systems leadership. This why we are down there with Lithuania in the reading race.

Policy failures make for poor reading across the nation