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John Simkin

A Decline in Academic Standards

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I first began teaching in 1977. It is my view that for the next eight years or so we saw a significant improvement in academic standards. This was mainly due to comprehensive education. During this period I taught in a true comprehensive school that included mixed ability teaching groups. Some of our best students would have failed their 11+. However, our mixed ability system enabled us to build up their confidence and by the time they reached the age of 18 they were ready for a university education.

Around the mid 1980s I saw a change in direction. This was partly the result of changes in culture. Even the brightest students began to find it more and more difficult to find the time to read books. This was partly due to technological changes. There were now more demands on their time with the availability of computer games, televisions and videos in their bedrooms, etc.

However, I think teachers were also partly to blame for this. We accepted defeat on book reading far too easily.

I also began to observe a decline in their ability to express themselves orally. This had always been a problem for students from certain types of background. By the mid 1980s it was becoming a problem from middle class students. One of the major factors in this was a change in eating habits. My questioning revealed that it was extremely unusual for my students to eat evening meals with their parents. Instead they tended to have their meals on trays in their bedroom (usually while watching television – and it was not the news they were watching).

Research has shown that for the child, talking with their parents plays a vital role in their intellectual development (the first five years are the most important). It seemed that the pressure of time had made it more and more difficult for parents to spend time talking with their children. I believe this has had a dramatic impact on student’s language skills. This is most obvious during conversations with students. However, it can also be seen in their written work.

Despite what I have said, official statistics show that there has been a substantial improvement in student achievement since the mid 1980s. This can be seen by looking at exam results, SAT test scores, etc. Are these statistics reliable? Have teachers joined forces with the examination boards, government agencies, etc. to fiddle the results? I believe they have. In fact, given the situation they found themselves in, this is not surprising. The main reason for this is the introduction of league tables and the increased power of government inspectors. If teachers do not take part in this scam, they face the prospect of having their school closed down.

The teachers’ role in this conspiracy has been to concentrate their teaching on helping the students pass the test. Therefore, the emphasis of what goes on in the classroom has changed. It has become less about education but more about exam grades. Most of us have become very good at it. We have been helped by those who set the exams. It is in the interests of examination boards to make it as easy as possible for their candidates to get high grades. If they don’t do this, schools will arrange for their candidates to transfer to another examination board.

I know of several chief examiners who have come under pressure to make it easier for students to get higher grades. Others have commented on this after they have retired from the job. When these stories appear in the media, government ministers and officials from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority are quick to say that people saying such things are attempted to undermine the success of teachers and students. But what about the devaluing of student achievement in the 1970s? For example, I believe that ‘A’ level students I taught in the 1970s who got Ds would have got Bs if they took the exam in the 1990s.

As a result of this grade inflation, students are getting to university who are completely incapable of this level of work. Many drop out but some keep at it and eventually acquire a degree. This is I suspect another example of falling standards.

Most of this evidence is anecdotal. However, research published by Michael Shayer at the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) seem to suggest that these observations are indeed correct.

In 1976 a group of academics began measuring student intellectual abilities. These tests on 10,000 children were designed to “assess a child’s exact ability on the Piagetian scale.” These assessments have been carried out on regular intervals over the last 30 years. Shayer’s research shows that children in Year 7 (11-12 year olds) are now on average two or three years behind where they were 15 years ago. In other words, there is a marked decline in a children’s developmental skills.

The fall in ability is more marked in boys but girls have followed the same trend. The research team have looked at their stats and compared them with other forms of school testing. Shayer concludes that there is considerable evidence of teachers teaching to the tests. This has improved test results. However, all this tells us is that students can perform well in tests without understanding the underlying concepts.

This is supported by Paul Black’s research at King’s College. He has studied the academic performance of children all over the world. He argues that when the “stakes are high, teachers teach to the test”. He gives the example of the US, where every state is above the national average in its test scores. He points out that we need to ask what the tests test. “Do they measure what’s important or what doesn’t matter?”

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An interesting and important debate...

A few comments...

When it comes to family eating habits, the issue is not just who’s around the table. The pressure on parents themselves to perform, as employment has tended towards demands for increased output, has meant that students’ diets have deteriorated. Processed food has replaced ‘ingredients’ in most household shopping trolleys, with noticeable effects on behaviour, attention and tiredness.

Of course teachers have adopted ‘goal-seeking behaviour’. Most human beings do in similar circumstances. In similar fashion, many in the non-prestigious universities have endured pressures aimed at reducing unit costs. ‘Unitisation’ and ‘Semesterisation’ have had similar impact on university courses – ‘thinner’, grade inflation, clearer criteria, teaching to test.

Significantly, these developments were initiated by the Tories at a time when to many they seemed (and probably felt) invincible. The lack of effective response by trade unions and the Labour Party as Kinnock and then Blair tore the remnants of a conscience from most of both.

The results are as John notes. The number of ‘good’ students who overuse ‘you know’ and ‘like’ in oral contributions, and the written ‘could of’ is indicative of the fundamental linguistic problems.

There’s a further debate to be had about ‘what matters’ and another about how to test it. However, I’m intrigued about how every state scores above the average.

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Yes, it is an interesting debate. Here in Tasmania (and in several other Australian states) we do not have exams until Yr 12 and even then they are only part of the assessment for entering uni. Therefore at least until the end of Yr 10 we do not teach to tests or exams. Assessment is ongoing and done by the individual teacher against criteria/standards.

The standardised testing we do on literacy and numeracy is generic and they are not "taught to". So, the argument re teaching to tests shouldn't apply, yet I believe most older teachers here would agree that our academic standards have fallen and they are certainly worried about them falling further with our new Outcomes Based Education sysytem which has done away with subjects in favour of "key outcomes" such as "World Futures" and "Well-being"' and Numeracy instead of Maths, and Science not being taught as a separate subject at all, but that's another story.

So, I think the other arguments John gives are valid here - lack of parental interaction, less time for reading, less NEED for reading, more reliance on TV for information, less need to talk. It's perfectly possible, if not desirable, to get all your information from TV or radio by just listening and much of your communication through texting. Much of teenagers PC use is also not of the reading kind.

I was a full-time working mother of three boys between 1964 and 1986 with a workaholic husband, but we always had meals together and we always talked to them. We took them travelling and had a holiday house where they camped out and trout fished regularly with their father. He was very hands-on and taught them building skills, mechanical skills and repair skills. I encouraged them to cook and they all did cooking at school. It was damned hard work and took lots of energy - I really think this is what is missing in today's parenting. They too are often in front of the TC or PC or otherwise occupied in their jobs and seem to think that a full timetable of lessons in tennis, gymnastics, violin, Irish dancing or whatever, are actually more important than being there with them.

Australia does very well in PISA and TIMMS and our govt congratulates itself accordingly, but like John's comments on exam standards, are we just doing well in the egg and spoon race or in the final of the realy?

Sorry - typos! Should be TV or PC and RELAY in the last line.

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Having just read the latest OECD report on how students who use computers more are better at academic studies, I will have to take back what I just said about tennagers and PCs. I can't get the article to copy on to here but you will probably know where to access it.

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Despite what I have said, official statistics show that there has been a substantial improvement in student achievement since the mid 1980s. This can be seen by looking at exam results, SAT test scores, etc. Are these statistics reliable? Have teachers joined forces with the examination boards, government agencies, etc. to fiddle the results? I believe they have. In fact, given the situation they found themselves in, this is not surprising. The main reason for this is the introduction of league tables and the increased power of government inspectors. If teachers do not take part in this scam, they face the prospect of having their school closed down.

Yes of course the statistics are unreliable, standards have declined and we are all playing a quite bizarre set of games with our paymasters to perpetuate the illusion that they have not.

What John has only hinted at however is the root cause of the decline in standards which is of course the introduction of the "market" and market forces into education provision.

Intelligent observers of what has gone on in the National Health Service since market forces, league tables and targets have been introduced have not been slow to make the accurate observation that such processes distort clinical practice. Waiting lists are manipulated, certain types of patient get treated quicker, some patients who may slow the achievement of the "target" are not taken on, decisions are made not on the basis of the best interests of the patients but rather assessed on their impact on the institutions performance indicators.

Should we really be surprised when marketisation similarly distorts educational practice so horribly? I know of a local Head teacher for instance who appears incapable of seeing beyond examination statistics when assessing the performance of his school, the wellbeing of his pupils and the performance of his staff. I fear he may not be alone.

It is not surprising either that examination boards compete with each other to make their products easier for their "customers" as there is a massive amount of money at stake. Neither should we be surprised when the individual teacher chooses the exam board with the lowest standards as his or her pay is going to be largely determined by the statistics he or she is able to demonstrate at performance review. How many schools I wonder also make the strategic decision to opt for non rigorous "vocational" options for their schools (double award gnvqs etc.) because they artificially bump up their school's league position?

How many students even studying at advanced level have time to develop an interest in their subject and perhaps even do some general reading before yet another examination hoves into view?

What is it like for a student to be constantly crammed for examinations?

As professionals we have badly lost our way.

The ideological commitment to market forces runs so deep in education it is difficult to see a way out. But before colleagues here start wailing that I am negative and anachronistic I would just like to point out that an anachronism can also be ahead of his time :please

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But I still ask the question - why have our standards here also fallen when we don't teach to exams, don't have league tables, and don't have "marketing" of schools as a commodity? There have to be other factors involved.

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One area I'd look at to answer Jean's question is the general air of conformity within the teaching, curriculum-writing and textbook-producing communities. One of the problems with turning education into a commodity somewhere in the world is that the ethos of that kind of education tends to infect everywhere else too.

There's a lot of talk about accountability … and the easiest way to be accountable is to produce something that is measurable to show to your accountants! This has meant that textbooks have tended to turn to exercises and questions with easy-to-define answers and outcomes … and it's a brave teacher who turns away from the textbook and challenges the simplistic thinking that a lot of educational administrators (and the politicians who're breathing down their necks) demand.

My daughter's going through secondary school in Sweden, which also lacks league tables, grades (until the very end of the system), etc, and yet the teaching and testing in most of her subjects is more or less the same as in those systems which do have those things.

One question I love putting to teacher trainers is "who decides on the pedagogical policy of your institution?" Sometimes I phrase it as "who decides how people learn things here?" My answer is "the caretakers" - because they're the ones who put the desks in rows, with the expert on a lectern at the front. Now, it's true that anyone *can* refurnish a room (I often start a session with teacher trainees by having them cart all the furniture out into the corridor, so that they can see what a classroom really is), but hardly anyone *does*.

In other words, my answer to Jean's question could be formulated in this way too: tradition, and the power of the dominant ideology in the world.

Edited by David Richardson

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An interesting response, David. But even that can't be the entire answer. Sorry, to have to press this issue, but we have not used set text books here for a very long time and teachers have been free to teach the curriculum in all sorts of imaginative ways. When I say curriculum, I use it very loosely because we don't even have a national curriculum. For the last 15/20 years we have had various "statements"of learning, some called Tasmanian Key Intended Outcomes" on literacy, numeracy etc. And in secondary schools we have had a set of fairly loose syllabus descriptors for each subjest with a set of criteria with which to judge outcomes. So, even that can't be the full answer to the problem.

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One area I'd look at to answer Jean's question is the general air of conformity within the teaching, curriculum-writing and textbook-producing communities. One of the problems with turning education into a commodity somewhere in the world is that the ethos of that kind of education tends to infect everywhere else too.

There seems to be two major things going on here. As always, the dominant ideology plays a major part. This ideology changes as the capitalist system changes. It attempts to respond to the needs of the economic system. As Marx pointed out, this is not always a perfect match and those who are aware of the flaws in the system attempt to use this to undermine or even overthrow the system.

One of the major functions of the education system is to prepare the “masses” to accept low paid, low status, occupations. It does this by convincing them that they have had their chance but failed and therefore deserve the form of employment they eventually obtain. The main way that this is achieved is through the examination system. The ideology of comprehensive education actually fitted into the needs of the capitalist system in the 1960s. The economic system needed to recruit more people from the working class to do middle class jobs. Therefore it needed an increase in the aspirations of the working class student. The result was comprehensive education. This suited the capitalist system for two reasons. (1) It increased the number of people capable of social mobility. (2) It helped to convince those who failed to achieve social mobility, that it was their own fault.

The needs of the economic system changed in the 1980s. We saw a decline in middle class jobs. Therefore, the children of the middle-classes found it difficult to find work that reflected their class background. The working class found it difficult to find work of any type. Working class social mobility virtually came to an end in the 1980s.

This was a problem that comprehensive education could not solve. Politicians in the Conservative Party blamed the comprehensive system itself for the problems being encountered by capitalism. That somehow it was the ideology of “equality” that was causing the problems. In reality, comprehensive education had little to do with “equality” as “success” was still linked very closely to class background.

Conservatives had a major problem. Ideology had moved on. The public would not accept a return to the 11+. Only the very daft could be convinced that you could have grammar and comprehensive schools side by side. Thatcherism came up with the idea that what you needed was more tests and examinations. The big new idea was that children would be tested and ranked as soon as they entered the school. This ranking system would continue throughout the child’s education. In fact, it became the new dominant ideology. This was combined with the introduction of league tables. This was a vital ingredient of these reforms. Teachers came under constant pressure to teach to the test. They became very good at this and results dramatically improved. This of course had nothing to do with an improvement in educational standards. In fact, these had actually fallen as a result of the changes. This was inevitable as teachers found it increasingly difficult to find time to teach what they considered to be important.

In opposition the Labour Party had been committed to overturning the educational reforms introduced by the Tories. However, once in power, they kept these changes. In fact, Blair, a public school boy who is fully committed to an elitist educational system, thought that Thatcher had not gone far enough. He is now trying to reintroduce the old grammar school system (see the proposed new Education Act). However, there are enough Labour MPs who still believe in comprehensive education and it seems that Blair will need the support of the Tories to get it passed in the House of Commons.

The second important factor is the cultural changes that are taken place in society. These are in themselves linked to the needs of the economic system. For example, the need for both parents to work long hours in order to bring in a reasonable income. This has resulted in parents spending less time with their children. Children now spend more time with portable televisions, computers, video-games, mobile phones, etc. This has resulted in a decline in language and social skills. In fact, it has completely undermined the socialization process and is contributing to a whole range of social problems.

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The first part of your response doesn't apply very much here because as I've said we don't have exams, league tables or a teaching to the test regime, but I do agree with the points about social changes and lack of communication.

I also believe that many teachers, at least here, under the age of about 45 who went through the first round of comprehensives, did not always get as good an education themselves as happened previously and this had dramatically affected what they are able to teach.

I am constantly appalled at teachers who do not have a thorough knowledge of the language and how it works and are not well-read or even interested in reading and have limited history and geography and politics.

One of our officers at the union is about 38 and she is quite definite that she did not receive in her comprehensive high school, what she now considers a sufficient education and is conscious of the fact that us "oldies" have a much wider and deeper knowledge of literature, history, politics etc and that she often cannot join in work and dinner party conversations. You can easily say that there may be other contributing factors, but she is adamant that she believes she was not taught "enough" at school.

A few years ago I had a trainee English teacher who didn't know the difference between a novel and a playscript. I had another who had barely heard of Hitler. How can these people then transmit knowledge to their students?

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A good example of our changing culture and decline in academic standards concerns the decision to close down the magazine, Smash Hits. Aimed at 13-14 year old girls, it was started 28 years ago. Sales have declined over the last ten years despite a great deal of money used to promote it (cover gifts, TV advertising, expensive redesigns, retail promotions, etc.)

Emap, the company that published the magazine, decided to carry out some research into why it no longer sold. They discovered that youngsters no longer “read” magazines: they just look at the pictures and captions. They are only interested in buying magazines where the main emphasis is on the pictures.

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Teachers don't appear to read either. I answer at least four telephone enquiries every day from teachers who have bought a popular software package from my business, asking how to do certain things with the software - all of which are clearly explained in a comprehensive, indexed manual that accompanies the software. It's known as an RTFM problem in our trade.

Some years ago - way back in the 1980s - a colleague of mine who taught Russian at university level told me about the first history lesson that he conducted (completely in Russian) to a group of students of Russian aged 18-20. He decided to make it easy for them by talking about a familiar event in British history, namely the battle of Waterloo. Noticing the blank looks on the faces of most of the students, he switched to English, asking the students what they knew about Waterloo, Wellington and Napoleon. They had only ever come across these names in the context of a station, a type of boot and a type of brandy.

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Some years ago - way back in the 1980s - a colleague of mine who taught Russian at university level told me about the first history lesson that he conducted (completely in Russian) to a group of students of Russian aged 18-20. He decided to make it easy for them by talking about a familiar event in British history, namely the battle of Waterloo. Noticing the blank looks on the faces of most of the students, he switched to English, asking the students what they knew about Waterloo, Wellington and Napoleon. They had only ever come across these names in the context of a station, a type of boot and a type of brandy.

But isn't that, at least partly, our fault? In the rush to make subjects "relevant" to students, we seem to have thrown out any idea of teaching chronology in history. Teachers are, as far as I can see, free to pick and choose whatever topic they like to teach at GCSE and A Level, so kids may know a great deal about Jack the Ripper or the state of the drains in Salford in 1844, or the religious practices of the Plains Indians, but they know nothing at all about the French Revolution, or Bismarck, or Garibaldi...

I'm not saying that the new approaches to the teaching of history pioneered by people like John S and JDC haven't greatly enriched students' awareness of the past, but I do think some pretty important babies have been thrown out with the bathwater.

The same sort of thing seems to have happened with the teaching of modern foreign languages. Let's not teach grammar because the kids find it "boring". Oh, dear, the kids still find it boring? Well, there's only one thing to do then -- let's have them do gardening, or food technology, or graphic design instead... OK, we'll end up with a generation of school-leavers who can't speak any foreign language, but they'll have had fun, and that's the main thing, isn't it?

Some of these decisions were completely out of the power of the individual teacher or even head of department to influence, but some of them weren't.

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I couldn't agree more. But why did systems let it happen? Was it a consequence of the Dr Spock school of child-rearing? Or was it that in comprehensives and mixed ability classes it became harder to engage less able students in straight chronological history or grammar and teachers had to find less academically focussed methodologies?

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