ACER, and Masters’ Level Nonsense

We’ve never written about the Australian Council for Educational Research, except in passing. Unlike VCAA and ACARA, for example, ACER has not appeared to be omnipresently idiotic. For the most part ACER just professionally goes about its business, quietly screwing things up.

On occasion ACER’s CEO, Professor Geoff Masters, decides to be less quiet, and this is typically a mistake. Such was the case a few days ago, with the publication of an article by Age Education Editor, Robyn Grace. Her article is titled,

Level up: Why this expert thinks age-based school grades should be abolished

Grace’s article is rather aimless, quoting a number of would-be experts spouting a mixture of platitudes and nonsense. The headline act, however, “this expert”, is Professor Masters. As Grace’s title suggests, the Professor makes a complete idiot of himself.

Grace’s article begins,

School students would progress through levels similar to music lessons or video games, rather than aged-based grades, under an overhaul of education aimed at moving away from the “conveyor belt” model that can leave many students behind.

Professor Geoff Masters … has proposed a revision of schooling, saying the system is stuck in a 19th-century, assembly-line model that pushes students through grades at a fixed pace without considering their individual proficiency.

The problem is the very large range of students’ abilities and knowledge at a given year level:

Masters … said there could be up to six years’ difference in the levels of knowledge in each class, which was impossible for many teachers to manage.

What’s going on? Well,

[Masters] said the current system was beholden to an overloaded curriculum that dictated what children would learn according to their age, rather than their readiness, then automatically pushed them to the next stage at the end of each year.

Ignoring his unexplained and thus meaningless whack at an “overloaded curriculum”, Masters is not yet addressing the critical and underlying problem, the reasons for students’ lack of readiness. After Grace includes some par for the course references to PISA and NAPLAN scores, Masters gets to this, badly:

Masters said the best predictor of where students would be at year 9 was where they were at an earlier age. … [Masters] said the key to helping children learn was early intervention, then constant monitoring to assess their progress.

“I think part of the problem has been that we haven’t done that as well as we could.”

Well, yes, early intervention and subsequent monitoring is good, and better intervention would be better. But why is so much intervention required? Masters fails to deal with the reality that Grace just pointed out via NAPLAN and PISA (and, much more importantly, TIMSS), that we are not simply considering a few stragglers who need intervention. Rather, we are dealing with an entirely dysfunctional primary education system, which is screwing up the majority of kids, and which is forcing attentive parents to do it themselves or to pay a small fortune for third party tutoring or to pay a very large fortune to obscenely expensive private schools.

But let’s get on to Masters’ other, genius solution.

Masters said school tutoring programs had addressed the problem to some extent,

Well, no, not much, but go on:

but the entire schooling model needed examining.

So far, so good.

“Think about what happens in music, for example, where you can be at grade four piano whether you’re six years old or 86 years old, because grade four piano means something in an absolute sense”

Uh oh. Is Masters really suggesting putting lagging teens in with precocious toddlers? Well,

“I’m not suggesting that we’d suddenly have a 15-year-old sitting down with an eight-year-old.”

Good …

What I am saying is that we need to better recognise the variability that currently exists within year levels. And we need to do more, not just push it back on to teachers and say you solve the problem. We need more systemic responses to that reality.

Ah. In other words Masters is suggesting absolutely nothing of substance whatsoever, except to end year level curricula, which amounts to throwing in 15-ers with 8-ers or something just as demeaning and demoralising. But sure, it’ll get the straggler kids off the conveyer belt, and on to, well, nothing; they can sit where they are and not learn the same stuff, year after year after year. But at least it’s not a conveyer belt, right?

Masters, to put it bluntly, is out of his mind. Kids do not intrinsically vary that much, not in such massive numbers. So, what is required, obviously, for all kids, is an expectation of an acceptable level of mastery at each year level, and a testing of such mastery. This simply does not happen and until it happens we are doomed to listen to clown-experts such as Masters proposing nonsense-genius solutions that they cannot even voice in a coherent manner.

How can can such nonsense come out of something like ACER? Well, ACER is apparently in charge of the next round of PISA nonsense. And, Masters is the guy who claims we’re all spending too much time on the basics. And, ACER is currently deep in with LEGO, on how we can play our way out of our educational malaise. So, after all, no surprise whatsoever.

It is clearly time to pay much more attention to Professor Masters and to ACER’s nonsense.

33 Replies to “ACER, and Masters’ Level Nonsense”

  1. Holy God those linked ACER-LEGO articles are overflowing with the kind of unsubstantiated hot garbage that we had shovelled down our throats at uni and were expected to not only believe but enthusiastically spruik.
    How did we get here?

    1. Yeah, I know. I came across that LEGO crap while backgrounding myself for the Masters’ level crap. I thought of leaving it for a separate post, but figured I’d never be able to stomach doing it.

  2. What size shoe should a 12 year old boy wear?

    I agree with Masters’s observation that it is a mistake to expect that students at a certain age should be at the same stage in their learning. Every day I encounter students who are either out of their depth in their classes or for whom the work is very easy.

    However, I can’t think of a satisfactory alternative system.

  3. This argument is not new.

    Which means it really isn’t news.

    Even if it were possible – assuming student X is at level Y across the board is nonsensical, so student schedules would be quite an interesting puzzle…

    If you (being the student, a parent of said student or the school at which said student is enrolled) notice a problem and want to do something about it – go for it. There are lots of ways this can be done; do more homework, ask more questions, hire a tutor or three if you want, they will all (hopefully) have some measurable impact relative to the effort put in. Rearranging the school is not really a solution.

    1. All your suggestions are fingers in dykes. But at least you’re not suggesting to build a new, stupid dam, à la Masters.

  4. Terry Mills’ comment gets to the heart of the matter: “I can’t think of an alternative solution.” The crux of the matter is whether you think that schools serve a collective function in society that serves to give it cohesion. Of course, if children studying music or involved in sports, it is fair enough that they operate on their own schedule; in each, they will find their own community. But I do not think that the project of public education should be fragmented, because a school should be the one place where children are exposed to different experiences, different options and those from other backgrounds, because that is the world they are going to grow up in.

    We are partly in the situation because we have been too parsimonious in our support of schools, failing to provide adequate resources and to honour the staff who work in them. More importantly, too many people no longer see public education as a common public good. For children who are having difficulty, we need to provide support, perhaps even individual support, so that they can remain and grow with their peers. At the elementary level in particular, holding kids back risks stigmatizing them.

    1. Thanks, Ed, but I disagree, or at least disagree with the emphasis.

      Yes, the onus is upon Masters to come up with a better alternative, and of course he offers nothing but blather. But I really think this is secondary, at least in Australia. The primary question is why there is such a large spread of abilities in most given classrooms. This spread is not just instances of a few outliers in either direction. The spread is thick, and I’d suggest way, way thicker than can be explained by innate ability or a few tiger moms. Masters does not seem to even consider this, except to suggest more and better “intervention”, which is damage control more than anything. Masters does not appear to contemplate that there may be systemic issues with early (and late) school education.

      You are right, of course, that the under-funding of public education is a serious problem. But, again, I don’t think this is the main problem. Yes, it’d be great if the government stopped throwing money at disgustingly wealthy schools. But it’d also be great if the money that there is was spent on properly staffing schools with competent teachers, rather than blowing millions on computers and other edu-gimmicks. It’d be great if the government emphasis was on the mastery of the three Rs, rather than endless crap lessons playing with computers and “21st century skills”, or infantile instruction on “social and emotional learning”.

      As I wrote, I think the fundamental problem is that (especially) primary schools have no proper expectation of progress. They *hope* for progress, of course, and if the kid is not progressing then they’ll indicate this to the parents in the reports, albeit in very punch-pulled language. But do the schools really take a lack of proper progress properly seriously? I do not see it.

      Masters’ PhD is apparently in educational testing. Presumably he failed to include a chapter of the effects of not testing kids.

      I find it absolutely obscene to have the head of ACER suggest such not-the-point garbage. When you combine it with his PISA-inspired “too much basics” nonsense, and ACER playing with LEGO, it is beyond obscene.

  5. Let’s be incredibly blunt: The curriculum expectations of students in Australian schools are remarkably low.

    The issue is *not* that the standards required (let’s avoid any discussion of the suitability of said “standards”); it is that there is no reward for success nor consequence for failure.

    There are more than enough information and decision points where it is evident to the school, student and family that a student is not attaining the required levels; it is the response at a system and individual level to this outcome that is the problem.

    Why should a student alter their behaviour (increase their effort) if there is no difference in the result? There is a clear reason for those with a low time-preference, but students (and more unfortunately parents and increasingly teachers) do not have this perspective.

    Many of the individuals in the system have “succeeded” in the system, they perceive no need to change the system, despite the progressively worse outputs.

    Professor Masters does perceive that the system is, metaphorically, grinding to a halt. ACER does provide data that clearly illustrates the problem of lack of achievement of learners (PAT). The problem is that everyone, including Masters, is talking about the “machine” of education and discussing which conveyer belts, gears or components need to be changed, when the issue is the primary operators – the students (and their attitudes). No improvement in process will result in better outcomes while there is no ownership at the individual level. You could build the perfect tool for a job, but if the worker will not exert themselves, the job will not be completed.

    To respond to Ed Barbeau, we don’t “hold them back”, we are pushing them forward when they are demonstrably not capable of their current level. This is evidently a form of cruelty; in no other arena do you push an individual into a higher requirement when they cannot perform at the current standards. This actually stigmatizes the student by placing them amongst those who have attained the required competence and then excludes them through their lack of readiness to access the material that the group is studying.

    1. Thanks, CC. I think your critical line “No improvement in process will result in better outcomes while there is no ownership at the individual level”. The individual, in increasing order of responsibility, is the kid, the teacher and the parent.

      I think there is also an issue of the “standards”, not simply that so many students fail to attain those standards. Given that the Australian standards are so low, the problem of failing to meet these standards hides the severity of the problem.

      1. Marty, you have cut to the quick – that is my perspective on the central issue.

        However, I dispute the order of responsibility you express; particularly as you have centred our discussion on elementary/primary levels of learning.

        In elementary levels, the primary responsibility must fall on the parent, with gradual transfer to the student as they increase in maturity.

        The teacher has a different realm of responsibility, when acting as a teacher. The problem is that many don’t; and it may be that they can’t due to their own mathematical training and development.

        1. I think I did suggest parents had the primary responsibility: my order was increasing.

          Another problematic aspect for teachers is that they are under instructions to be euphemistic. Telling the unvarnished truth about a struggling student is inviting trouble.

          1. Teacher education is one of the problems, but the greatest problems seems to be two Ss (SS): “Salary and Selectivity”. These two Ss appear to be in the recipes for improving maths teaching in several countries. If you go deep in the initial literature about the famous “Finish Miracle” in education, they are both mentioned there.

            It was not less hours at schools, less homework, lack of testing students, etc. as some people wish us to believe. Teachers probably could teach maths in ways that students could understand the concepts and operations in the school curriculum.

            1. Thanks, Solange. I have never read much on the “Finnish Miracle”, but my understanding is that the miracle is less of a miracle than is typically claimed.

              Undoubtedly, having teachers with stronger mathematical background would help, and better salaries would help attract such candidates. I’m not convinced, however, that S and S are the main issues in Australia.

              First of all, even strong teachers generally struggle to teach well, because of the poor curriculum, poor exams, poor (or non-existent) textbooks, poor pedagogical orthodoxy and poor school leadership. Secondly, all that poverty, wrapped up in a Gordian amount of red tape, makes everything-about-the-teaching-except-the-kids pretty unattractive. Better salaries cannot do much to mitigate that.

              1. “better salaries would help attract [AND RETAIN] such candidates”

                Govt ignores the fact that retention is the main issue.

                “poor curriculum, …. leadership”
                Add unclear/vague curriculum advice to the list. Two examples from the study design (examples among a legion):
                “points of inflection” (Maths Methods).
                All of “Vector and Cartesian equations (Specialist Maths Units 3&4).

                If the DET actively head hunted, recruited and paid competent people, many items on that list could be deleted. Instead, we have the DET choosing from mutton dressed as lamb (mutton that thinks it’s porterhouse) to call the shots. Industry doesn’t wait for lamb to come to it, industry actively head hunts and recruits.

            2. According to Google:

              -The average teacher salary in Finland is €46,580 (77,708 AUD) a year

              -The average teacher salary in Australia is 84,817 AUD.

              -The average salary in Finland for everyone is €45,684 (76,223 AUD)

              -The average salary for everyone in Australia is 72,741 AUD.

              These figures may be a bit inaccurate or dated, but it seems clear that we pay teachers higher in Australia than in Finland.

              1. The average class size in Shanghai China is also significantly higher than the average class size in Australia.

                Does this mean we could fix the issue by paying teachers less and increasing class sizes…?

                Or, do we need to look more carefully at the data?

                1. Careful what you say, RF. Some muppet might think that’s a good idea (the former!) and the next thing you know …! Educational bureaucrats have a stupid habit of cherry picking.

  6. I would be interested to know more about the evidence of holding kids back a grade. The collective wisdom seems to be that is bad because it hurts self-esteem and kids switching off to the school system altogether. I haven’t ever seen a school try it. As a Year 10-12 teacher I can see the solution of just keeping them on the conveyor belt isn’t doing anything for them and makes the classroom pretty difficult to manage. Of course better quality instruction/intervention earlier would be the best case solution for most of these kids, still reckon there’d be a few who wouldn’t make it.

    1. Thanks, YT, but I think describing it as “conveyor belt” is buying too much into Masters’ nonsense. Sure, kids are going through year after year, many learning bugger all. But, as I keep saying, I don’t believe it has to be so for so many kids. Sure, as you say, there will always be students who fall behind. But they needn’t be in such huge numbers.

      I think keeping kids back is very much a non-solution. I’m not one for mollycoddling, but being kept back would have to be hugely demoralising. And, if the kid didn’t learn enough the first time, what reason is there to believe they’ll succeed the second time? I think judgments such as “not mature enough” and “not ready” and “needs a bit more time” are usually cop outs, the failure of the teachers/school/parents/system to take responsibility for not having taught the kid.

    2. I’m going to go a bit against the grain, and say that there’s nothing wrong with just keeping students “on the conveyor belt.” As much as we like maths here, most people don’t need maths in society beyond being able to budget and pay taxes, and roughly a third of students don’t do mathematics in their VCE program. Forcing kids to stay behind a year just to achieve competency in a skill they won’t use seems cruel. Allowing kids to drop out of math before year 10 or so also doesn’t seem like a good option, because that’s cutting off future opportunities which they might regret later. People always do have the option to “catch up”, and I have seen a decent amount of people “catch up” from failing math in middle school to achieving reasonable success in further maths or even math methods.

      I’m not saying that the current state of primary mathematics is acceptable in anyway, though.

      1. I would contend that if the education system is working properly, students should have a functional level of literacy and numeracy by the end of Year 10. Years 11 and 12 then allow students to either specialise (humanities or sciences including mathematics) or to follow a trade. A crude ‘model’ but hopefully it gets the point across.

        In practice, many students do not have a functional level of literacy of numeracy by the end of year 10. This is a big problem. The problem obviously starts somewhere. Where the problem starts is where the solution must start, and then continue from. This will not be easy or quick and it will not be cheap. Unfortunately, easy and cheap and quick is what bureaucrats look for. Look at Victoria’s solution to the teacher shortage – Make teaching degrees free for the next 2 years (‘cheap’, easy and quick). I predict this will go nowhere near solving the shortage.

        1. I don’t think the solution need be that expensive or is intrinsically difficult. But, as long as experts such as Masters advocate playing games, we’re gonna be screwed.

          1. Re: “I don’t think the solution need be that expensive or is intrinsically difficult.”

            I tend to agree (although I’m not so sure about the former). The question then is why has the ‘solution’ not been implemented? Are there vested interests/ideologies actively and convincingly subverting the ‘solution’?

            I think it can be argued that the more certain people and groups are listened to, the worse things get. The question then is why do they continue to be listened to?

            You can sell snake oil to most of the people some of the time and some of the people most of the time. But to have all of the people buying it all of the time …!?

            1. It seems to me to that education and, more broadly, the humanities lost its way decades ago. Once a perverse orthodoxy takes hold, and the believers and beneficiaries of this orthodoxy hold the positions of power, it can be difficult to dislodge. I think this is what Rundle is referring to when he talks about the knowledge class.

  7. What I read and heard is that Finnish teachers had similar salaries to medical doctors at the time of the “Miracle”. Besides, living costs related to housing, health and transport were very different to what happens in my country and in countries like US. Fair comparisons need to acknowledge many social variables.

  8. I see Dr Brian Schmidt has dipped his toes in the water:

    He takes a dip from time to time. Whether he’s talking about students not being able to solve a quadratic equation or not being able to calculate 15% of $80 (or not able to solve a simple problem in mechanics) is unclear. Nevertheless, the guy has a point. If Governments can’t sit up, take notice and act when someone like Schmidt speaks (a ‘Mr Doesn’t Get Any Bigger Than This’) , there’s little hope that things will change in any meaningful way. Education will remain wooful.

  9. I’d be interested to see the following comparisons:

    1. Spread in educational attainment in australia v spread in IQ.

    2. Spread in educational attainment in Australia v spread in other countries.

    Are the differences in these two areas as dramatic as some of the comments here would suggest?

    There also seems to be some tension in the commentary here between the proposition that parents must take primary responsibility, and the claim that problems are mostly the result of poor quality teachers and a poor quality school system. Can’t both be true.

    I actually have some sympathy for Master’s core proposition. Music-like grade progression could actually have the effect of increasing accountability for all. At present, the obvious utopianism of year level standards incentivises everyone to turn a blind eye when progress does not occur. It really is tractor factory stuff.

    It does seem unfair to criticise him on the level of detail and explanation given that the information appears drawn from a single newspaper interview. That which is unexplained is not ‘thus’ meaningless. It’s just unexplained.

    1. Hi Joe,

      I have no sense of 1. Is someone in the comments suggesting something?

      On 2, I think you have to be careful of the meaning of “educational attainment”: there are better and worse measures. I think if you look at TIMSS, including not just the “rankings”, but also relative national scores, and also the actual questions that students can/cannot do, you get a pretty clear picture.

      Yes, of course both parents and the education system can be blamed.

      As for Masters, I have no sympathy for him whatsoever, and it is entirely fair to whack him. In the first place, if you’re gonna propose a revolution of the education system, you have an obligation to give some sense how that revolution will work, and how it will be better: Masters offers nothing. In the second place, Masters is an idiot. He wants to revolutionise the system without even properly determining the fundamental causes of the current failings. To hell with him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 128 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video, document, spreadsheet, interactive, text, archive, code, other. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded. Drop file here