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, (1978) The Politics of Educational Change. ) Within any one period of educational change and reform that you have studied, consider the multiplicity of factors which contributed to the success or failure of that reform and comment critically on the possible implications of that reform for current and, where appropriate, future education provision
ESSAY TITLE: Rewarding results in reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic: Literacy and numeracy today and during payment-by-results in Irish primary schools (1872-1899)
Abstract (500 word limit) Education policy in Ireland and abroad has recently taken a noticeable shift towards high accountability practices. This has been with the intended aim of improving educational quality, and in particular, literacy and numeracy standards. In Ireland the government’s Literacy and Numeracy for Learning and Life document (DES, 2011), has brought about a raft of changes to curricular time allocations, standardised testing, reporting of results, and teacher education. Similar changes have included new draft National Curriculum documents in England (DfE, 2012), and the No Child Left Behind (2001) and Race to the Top (US Department of Education, 2009) initiatives in the United States. The present essay turns to the objectives and outcomes of the payment-by-results scheme in Irish primary schools (18721899) to identify parallels with current policies, and chart where these policies might ultimately lead. Payment-by-results involved an examination of students on a range of regimented and highly detailed criteria, carried out by local inspectors on an annual basis (Coolahan, 1981). A teacher’s core salary was supplemented based on the success or failure of individual students in his or her class. It is argued that the motives behind the establishment of the scheme were, at best, mixed, involving budgetary and religious considerations before educational ones. However, it is maintained that despite these motives, the final policy had a noble aim of raising literacy and numeracy levels from a very low starting point. On balance, it is concluded that payment by results failed to bring about a true increase in these abilities, but rather led to a narrowing of the curriculum, rote learning and poor pedagogical practice. Similarities between this reality and the everyday classroom reality of modern policies are highlighted. Stemming from this comparison, three main lessons are proposed for current policy and practice. The first is that careful thought and due process is required in maintaining balanced curricular programmes. Hastily implemented policy changes may compromise the integrity of established curricula. Secondly, it is argued that increased accountability and assessment procedures alone will not raise educational standards, and may in fact have unintended consequences. Finally, it is argued that proponents of merit pay need to carefully evaluate historical evidence before proposing remuneration schemes that appear to make ‘common sense’. In sum, it is argued that mistakes that have been made previously in educational reform should not be re-made, and that benign intentions may not lead to benign results. The disconnect between the objectives and outcomes of the payment-by-results scheme makes this clear.
Rewarding results in reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic: Literacy and numeracy today and during payment-by-results in Irish primary schools (1872-1899) A fundamental disconnect can emerge between the aims of an educational reform and the actual outcome it produces. Few periods of Irish educational history illustrate this discrepancy as clearly as the payment-by-results (PBR) regime which dominated National Schools between 1872 and 1899 (Coolahan, 1981). PBR involved payment of teachers based on their students’ performance under inspectorial examination, and made a substantial mark on teaching and learning at this time. An examination of the factors which precipitated this scheme, how it was implemented, and the various agents involved in its administration provides an insight into how its successes and failures came about. While it may be easy to claim that lessons learned from this period bear no significance for modern-day practice, it will be shown that this belief is a naive one. Particular points should be borne in mind in light of recent developments in the teaching of literacy and numeracy, and teacher pay and productivity. Payment-by-results: Its origins and outcomes The original thinking which set in train the results programme did not appear to have the educational standards of Irish children in mind. The two main motives behind reform at this time were a Treasury drive to effect savings, and a desire to alleviate pressure being placed by Catholic leaders relating to denominational education (Hyland, 1986). Thus two of the main operators in education - those who funded it, and those who held great influence at local level - were driven by non-educational motives. PBR had been implemented previously in England and Scotland, championed by Minister Robert Lowe as a means of making education more efficient (Nelson, 2001). It is interesting to note that a similar desire for efficiency has been expressed by Irish Education Minister Ruairí Quinn, who has claimed that teachers are “nowhere near productive enough” (McConnell, 2012). A productivity drive was not the only factor at play. Walsh (2011) notes the letter of Cardinal Cullen in 1867 as a key event in the decision to reform the national system of education. This letter did not concern itself with literacy and numeracy levels, but rather the role of denominationalism in model schools. Gladstone, the British Prime Minister, was involved in the appeasement of Irish Home Rule proponents (Boyce, 1990). Similar appeasement of the Irish and their Catholic leaders would appear to have triggered the 1868 education review, rather than a concern for teaching and
learning. Thus the initial motivation for change was not very promising, and no doubt tinged the nature of the reform which followed. Placing these motives to one side, the subsequent investigation adopted a genuine air of concern and alarm about the standards reached by the children of Ireland (Hyland, 1987). Moves towards a high accountability, results-driven programme of education appeared to have the best interests of literacy and numeracy abilities at, or near, its roots. The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Primary Education, commonly shortened to the ‘Powis Commission’ after the namesake of its chairman, reported that “the progress of the children in the National Schools of Ireland is very much less than it ought to be” (cited in Hyland, 1987). The solution to these woes, unsurprisingly, was to implement a teacher payment model which depended in part on pupils’ performance in tests of literacy and numeracy. The “labyrinthine” and highly specific learning programme which was eventually drawn up by Sir Patrick Keenan (Coolahan & O’Donovan, 2009:45) placed a heavy emphasis on reading, writing and arithmetic, along with minimum attendance requirements. Peering through a modern lens it is easy to deride a curriculum that was reduced to such basic skills. However, given the level of concern expressed by the Powis Commission about these competences, and issues as rudimentary as school attendance, it would have been futile to attempt the implementation of a broader curriculum at this point. Unfortunately the means chosen to implement the report’s goal of increased numeracy and literacy went astray, guided by precedent set abroad. The connection etched between children’s standards and teachers’ payment had the beneficial effect of improving teachers’ meagre remuneration (Coolahan, 1981). However, it led to a classroom climate which focussed excessively on rote learning and terminal examination, and little long-term understanding. Students who met the minimum attendance requirements were subject to examination by the local inspector, and teachers were paid a certain fee for each child who was deemed to have met subject requirements. Coleman (1998:189) notes the fraught nature of teacher-inspector relations that the results-pay contingency brought about, citing an Irish Folklore Collection source: “The masters used be in mortal terror of the inspector in those days”. With the modern-day focus on differentiated practice, it should be clear that expecting children of varying abilities to achieve identical achievement criteria would have been problematic for teachers. A litany of procedural abuses emerged as a result of these strains, including falsification of attendance records (Coolahan & O’Donovan, 2009). The blame for
tipping the balance in this direction laid largely with those who devised the scheme; not the teachers who attempted to earn as respectable a salary as was possible. The individuals who held the most influence at the time included the Commissioners of National Education, the Resident Commissioner Sir Patrick Keenan, and other national figures, Patrick Weston Joyce numbering among them. These individuals may be forgiven for embracing PBR at the outset, especially given its contemporaneous influence abroad (Akenson, 1970). However, allowing the system to control teaching and learning for thirty years was inexcusable. Keenan and Joyce were keen proponents of PBR (Coolahan, 1989), both of whom held considerable sway among the educational hierarchy at the time. Coolahan and O’Donovan (2009) detail a series of head inspectors meetings which took place up until 1882, after which all parties appeared to deem that the programme was running appropriately. It is clear that those in charge were either unaware of the realities of the system, turned a blind eye, or were wary of undermining a system which had been endorsed so fully by Keenan. Indeed it is possible that a certain degree of groupthink1 was in operation at this time. While certain characters later acknowledged the failures of PBR (P.W. Joyce in particular; Coolahan,1989), it is regrettable that this did not happen at an earlier date. The Treasury played no small part in diverting attention from the quality of learning during PBR. Striking parallels can be seen between the influence financial affairs had on educational policy during PBR, and the limitations budgetary austerity places on education today. These limitations are re-iterated by Irish Education Minister Ruairí Quinn at every opportunity. This has most notably included much criticised addresses at annual teacher union conferences, where he asserted that calls for investment in education show a lack of understanding of Ireland’s current financial woes (Flynn, 2012a). Akenson (1970:324) suggests that during PBR “the treasury would often become the final arbiter on priorities and policy”, demanding budgetary cuts, and restricting how voted money was spent. While Hyland (1983) claims that this Treasury influence was to be expected, it cannot be denied that its influence at this time was far from a positive one. The net result of the dynamics within and outside the National Commission meant the prevailing curriculum and methodologies went without adaptation. Of course it must be acknowledged that PBR was not a complete failure. It led to greater progression through school levels and increased focus on teaching (Hyland, 1987). Improved
Groupthink can be defined as a “strong concurrence seeking tendency that interferes with effective group decision making” (Forsyth, 2010:40)
literacy levels are also cited (an increase of 19% according to Hyland, 1987), though one must wonder if the method of establishing these figures was as flawed as that used during the results programme. Perhaps the most notable achievement was increased attendance (from a daily average of 37% to 65%; Hyland, 1987), this being a prerequisite for any form of instruction to take place. With an increased school-going population, the foundation was laid for further curricular development at the end of the century (Walsh, 2007). However, these strengths did little to compensate for the failure of PBR in other areas. Lessons for modern-day policy and practice Three main lessons can be gleamed from the results era. The first relates to educational policy and best-practice pedagogy, and how they are implemented in classrooms. The Irish primary curriculum (Department of Education and Science [DES], 1999) places significant store in the child’s multi-dimensional development, this also having a statutory footing in section 9 (d) of the Education Act (1998). Caution is required in appending policies to the curriculum without due consideration. It could be claimed that the current numeracy and literacy drive (Department of Education and Skills [DES], 2011a) radically shifts the focus of primary education towards two narrow competences. While these moves are less severe than those proposed in the draft plan (DES, 2010), which sought the removal of drama as a standalone subject, the possibility exists that they will detract from the child-centred development which is core to the curriculum. Even the nomenclature of current policy indicates a philosophical shift. The 1999 curriculum refers to the subjects of English and Mathematics, which suggest a broader understanding and appreciation of the subject matter than the terms literacy and numeracy, which connote rudimentary skills. Ireland is not alone in going ‘back to basics’ (Paton, 2012). Recent draft plans proposed by England’s Education Secretary Michael Gove would see teachers following specific and highly detailed spelling lists (Department for Education [DfE], 2012a), and an introduction of more advanced mathematical material at earlier class levels (DfE, 2012b). The precise and regimented nature of these changes has been criticised (Vasagar, 2012). It is interesting that this lack of flexibility is very similar to the highly specific standards required for students to pass the inspector’s examination during PBR. Given Ireland’s curricular and statutory priorities, one might dismiss claims that a restricted, rigid and rote education could become the norm again. However, the main pedagogical resource at the time of PBR reflected similar philosophical priorities: “The best teaching is
that which leads the child to think or work so as to acquire knowledge or conquer difficulties by his own effort” (Joyce, 1887:85). The influence of P.W. Joyce’s handbook, an indicator of best-practice at the time, did not prevent the narrowing of the methodologies used during PBR. The 1999 curriculum recommends active and broad learning, but there is more than a slight incongruity between this philosophy and recent policies. This needs to be resolved at the earliest opportunity to maintain the integrity of the primary programme. The second lesson is that assessment and accountability alone will not bring about increased standards. High-stakes assessment during PBR failed to truly improve educational quality. Rather, it led to rote learning and a complete lack of creativity or flexibility. While the Irish government’s current strategy (DES, 2011b:5) refers to the need for “balanced” assessment, it contradicts this requirement by prioritising summative test results above all others. Recent newspaper headlines like “New literacy and numeracy tests could lead to primary school ‘league tables’” (Flynn, 2012b) clearly illustrate the attention these results will attract. The falsification of records could reoccur, as much of the responsibility for test administration and marking lies under the teacher’s control. The risk of false examination marks has already been highlighted by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (Donnelly, 2012). It might seem counterintuitive that an increase in teacher accountability will lead to lower student achievement, but PBR clearly showed that this was the case. A more recent example of the failure of high-accountability measures is provided by the United States’ controversial No Child Left Behind (2001) act. Commentators have claimed that the standardised testing it requires fails to measure true student achievement (Orlich, 2004) and that it leads to narrowing of the curriculum and ‘teaching to the test’ (Berliner & Nichols, 2007). Thus in current times, precedent set abroad is as likely to mislead Irish educational policy as it did during PBR. In the Irish context, standardised tests have been found to disproportionately disadvantage pupils from working class backgrounds (MacRuairc, 2004). The expectation that all children sit the same test, and be judged on the basis of their performance on this same test, bears an unwelcome resemblance to the undifferentiated standards imposed on children and their teachers during PBR. It is perhaps ironic that the country whose performance we would like to emulate, Finland, has the lowest levels of external accountability due to the complete absence of an inspectorate (OECD, 2010). Ireland is currently attempting to mimic Finland’s success through increased external accountability (DES, 2011b). Policy makers need to rebalance the means being used to achieve our educational goals.
The third lesson to be learned is closely tied to the second. Comment on teacher pay has become alarmingly aligned to the type of remuneration implemented during PBR. Calls to make pay increments contingent on performance have been made recently by Ivan Yates (2012) who claims that we should “incentivise good teaching with financial reward”. This is not the first time these measures have been touted (Walsh, 2005). Similar moves are currently afoot abroad, including US President Obama’s decision to back payment of teachers based on performance rather than seniority (Hechinger, 2012), and specific performance programmes like Race to the Top (US Department of Education, 2009). While the latter initiative does not advocate payment based on summative test results alone (US Department of Education, 2010), they play a role in teacher evaluation nonetheless. Research illustrates that investment in teacher salaries is closely associated with high educational performance (OECD, 2012), but the failure of PBR demonstrates that the way this investment is carried out requires attention. Teaching requires the use and integration of many varied, ill-defined and complex competences (O’Doherty, 2009), which cannot easily be targeted for merit pay. Any remuneration system based on criteria like standardised test scores, inspections, or peer evaluation will likely lead to the problems experienced in Irish schools during the late 19th century. Commentators need to be aware of the historical evidence relating to teacher pay, accountability, and education quality in proposing changes that seem to make ‘common sense’. One might think that little of significance can be extracted from PBR for current practice, but this is not the case. The reality of teaching and learning during PBR was very far removed from its initial objective of improving standards and accountability. Education reform today may appear rational at face value, but may cause unintended consequences if implemented hastily. There is no doubt that current drives for productivity, accountability, and more focused literacy and numeracy teaching have the best interest of learners at their heart. However, benign intentions will not necessarily lead to benign results, and historical evidence from PBR should make this clear.
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