The following letter was submitted to The Australian for possible inclusion in the edition of Thursday 3 March 2016 but it was not selected for publication.
Safe Schools and time for literature
Jennifer Oriel suggests that the Safe Schools program is robbing school students of exposure to writers like Oscar Wilde ("The Left falls into Queer extremists' trap", Mar 2). I have heard no indication from contacts still teaching in schools that this program is being conducted in time normally programmed for English.
It is worth remembering that a homosexual love affair sent the author of The Importance of Being Earnest to prison and the experience drove him into an early grave. I know none of the details of this program but it's hard not to get the impression that some of its opponents would consider Wilde's fate to be entirely appropriate.
Past President, Australian Association for the Teaching of English
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Page 3 of The Australian of Thursday 11 February 2016 included a story with a headline that asserted "One in two teens fail reading, maths". In response, I submitted the letter below:
Maths weakness widespread
Your education editor interprets an OECD report to open her story with the claim that "half of Australia's high school students have flunked the minimum international standard in maths, reading or science by the age of 15" ("One in two teens fail reading, maths", Feb 11).
The figures reported in the story do not support this conclusion. A side bar headed "low-performing 15-year-old students" shows Australia's scores as 20% for maths, 14% for reading, and 14% for science. It is not logical to add these three figures because, across the country, many of the same students would feature in each of these low-performing groups.
This embarrassing story illustrates that some of the paper's staff have a problem with numeracy. Is the school system to blame for this?
And no, I don't really expect that this letter has any chance of publication.
When the letter, needless to say, was not published I sent this email to the journalist, Natasha Bita.
Feedback on your "One in two teens fail reading, maths" story
Dear Ms Bita
Below, by way of feedback, is the letter that I submitted in response to your story on Page 3 of Thursday's edition.
Here I inserted the letter above.
And there I was starting to think that The Australian had moved on from its long standing practice of routinely misrepresenting aspects of school education in the country.
Immediate Past President, English Teachers Association of Queensland (ETAQ) and the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE)
Ms Bita replied:
Lovely to hear from you again.
To clarify, the OECD figures show that 56,673 Australian students were low-performers in maths, 41,000 in reading and 39,322 in science. This adds up to 137,000 students - roughly half the total number of 15-year-old students.
Have a great weekend,
And I then responded
You do not seem to grasp that it is inappropriate to add such figures or the percentage equivalents. This would only be valid if you could guarantee that no students featured in more than one group. Otherwise, you would be counting the same students two or three times. Is your message below just playing a straight bat to any criticism or do you genuinely not understand this point?
I am also disappointed to note that, towards the end of the story, you identify Kevin Donnelly as "the executive director of the Education Standards Institute" without pointing out to readers that this impressive sounding organization is really just Dr Donnelly. You do understand, I hope, that it is just a one-man operation. Is this lazy journalism or are you deliberately seeking to mislead readers?
Incidentally, who promoted him from plain "director" to "executive director"? And how many professional staff do you think Donnelly directs in that important-sounding role?
Stories like the one on Thursday are the reason that many people who work in education refuse on principle to buy The Australian. I suppose it is just as well that the paper doesn't aspire to be a profit-making concern.
I also responded as shown below to another letter in the paper on the same general topic.
Statistics interpretation error repeated
David Syme (Letters, 13/2) writes that "half of Australia's high school students have flunked the minimum international standards in maths and reading by the age of 15". In doing so, he repeats the invalid claim made by the education editor ("One in two teens fail reading, maths", 11/2) and shows that his grasp of basic statistics is as flawed as hers.
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On Monday 18 January 2016 The Courier-Mail had the following front page headlines:
Revealed: Adult illiteracy crisis cruelling our nation.
THIS SPELLS DISASTER
In response, the following three letters were submitted during the week but none found its way into print. This was not surprising. In my experience, papers seldom give space to criticism of their own practices.
Overblown language about literacy
Your sensational headline "THIS SPELLS DISASTER: Adult illiteracy crisis cruelling our nation" perturbed me at breakfast on Monday.
Later in the day, however, I skimmed through the Australian Industry Group report that apparently "revealed" this so-called national crisis. Chart 4 on Page 10 shows Australia ranking 5th in adult literacy proficiency out of the 23 nations surveyed. Only Japan, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden scored better and the differences appeared minimal. There is always room for improvement on the literacy front but the word "crisis" seems a poor choice.
If there is indeed a crisis here it probably relates to the composition of appropriate headlines rather than to any deep malaise in society.
Inflated language in headline
Monday's front page headline used the words "disaster" and "crisis" in relation to a report on adult workplace literacy (C-M, Jan 18).
A chart on Page 10 of the Australian Industry Group report shows Australia ranking 5th in adult literacy proficiency out of the 23 nations surveyed. Only Japan, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden scored better. There is always room for improvement on the literacy front but the words "disaster" and "crisis" are surely not justified.
Inflated language does nothing to promote sensible consideration of important issues.
Motivation for literacy
In commenting on what Monday's front page claimed to be a crisis in workplace literacy, John Tadman (Letters, 22 Jan) approvingly described caning as an effective motivation for learning in primary schools.
If there really is a crisis, perhaps we need a system of corporal punishment in workplaces to motivate staff to improve their levels of literacy. This might sound extreme but would surely be worth it to avoid the impending national disaster predicted in Monday's headline.
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Literacy and numeracy testing for prospective teachers
The new test for prospective teachers is intended to guarantee that teaching graduates are in the top 30 per cent of the population in personal literacy and numeracy skills ("Grapple for the teacher", Dec 1).
This is a commendable aim but I would like to be similarly assured that all candidates for public office are also in the top 30 per cent.
Come to think of it, a much cheaper alternative to expensive elections would be to have all candidates sit for a test designed to measure their capacity to serve the public good. The candidate with the best pass in each electorate would be awarded the seat. With the Australian Electoral Commission planning to close polling places to save money, perhaps it is time the test option was given serious consideration.
Literacy and numeracy test for prospective teachers
Your story on the trial of the literacy and numeracy test for prospective teachers quoted Professor John Hattie, chair of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, as saying the results would put pressure universities "to improve their courses to ensure students were taught basic literacy and numeracy skills" ("Teaching students fail basic skills test", Dec 1).
This surprised me. Surely it is wasteful for universities to be required to devote time to teaching basic skills. Isn't that the mission of the primary and secondary stages of our education system?
For universities to function efficiently, students in all discipline areas should enter with acceptable levels of competence in basic literacy and numeracy.
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The following letter was submitted to The Australian for possible inclusion in the edition of Monday 9 November 2015 but, alas, it was not selected for publication.
It is pleasing to note that The Australian's national education correspondent, Natasha Bita, has been given an award by the NSW Professional Teachers' Council for positive portrayal of the teaching profession ("Teachers salute reporting", Nov 7-8). Not too long ago such an event would have been inconceivable.
It goes without saying that responsible journalism, as distinct from public relations, needs to present negatives as well as positives. However, in the past, quite a few people who work in education have formed the perception that the paper routinely misrepresented what was happening in the nation's schools. No doubt the paper would argue that this perception is wrong, but it has been strong enough for otherwise fair-minded professionals to refuse to buy The Australian as a matter of principle.
Often when I wish to mention an article about education from this paper to colleagues I need to provide a copy, because they have long since stopped reading it. Hopefully we can look forward to ongoing fair and balanced coverage of education.
President, Australian Association for the Teaching of English
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Early Career Conference
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The AATE National Conference will be held in Melbourne from 30 November to 3rd December. The theme is My story flows in more than one direction: power of story, politics of voice. The program is available here; visit the conference website Early bird registration closes on 20 September. A range of prices includes $550 for personal mem...
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