"Usually, these sorts of ratings come with lots of caveats, and people forget the caveats. People see a number and they think, ah, this is the best high school. It's more complex than that."
These words, spoken by Professor Daniel Willingham
of the University of Virginia (Guardian
, 29/12/12), caution against relying solely on league table rankings to judge schools. He also warns that tests can distort what is taught. The curriculum can become skewed towards transmitting facts because facts are easy to examine.
Willingham’s warning echoes the advice of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development*: an excessive emphasis on raw exam results in England risks teaching-to-the-test, ‘gaming’ and ignoring essential non-cognitive skills which are difficult to measure.
Education Secretary, Michael Gove, admires Willingham. He cited his book, Why Don’t Students Like School?
, in his November speech to the Independent Academies Association. On the face of it, the speech, critiqued here for its dodgy use of data
, defended liberal education. But Gove reduced Willingham’s “pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought” to one thing: passing exams. He took one of Willingham’s cognitive principles, that factual knowledge precedes skills, and used it to support his examination reforms.
But Willingham’s principle was more nuanced: knowledge is intertwined with skills and they are learnt together. Gove may show he understands this, at least when addressing an audience of teachers, but the Government’s policies undermine his rhetoric. His proposed high-stake exam reforms risk the dangers that Willingham and the OECD warn about. His praise of liberal education is undermined by excessive focus on league table position, not just of schools, but of English education in a global context (his Department’s press release
of 11 December focused mainly on international rankings of English pupils). His proposed primary curriculum risks replacing the “liberal, humane values of primary education” in favour of a “soulless bottom line of the politician
Willingham gives Gove the benefit of the doubt, "There's every indication from the speech that he understands the dangers of how his words might be interpreted, that people will take this to mean, we need rote memorisation, we need facts at the expense of critical thinking," he said. "He went to some pains to say that's not what I mean. But if people see a test as having very high stakes, there's a chance they might take it that way anyway."
Unfortunately, that chance increasingly looks like a certainty.
*OECD Economic Review of the UK 2011. Not available freely online but details of how to obtain a copy are here