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Issue #1459      16 June 2010

The Education Agenda

Why our teachers are prepared to keep fighting (Part 1)

The author is a south-west Sydney teacher who teaches in a large 98 percent Non-English Speaking Background primary school.

Everyone seems to agree that League Tables are abhorrent. Julia Gillard, federal Minister for Education has said that she opposes them. Michael Coutts-Trotter, Director General of Education in NSW has said he opposes them. Yet no-one has acted to stop them except the teachers and their trade unions, spearheaded by the Australian Education Union. Why did such a seemingly unanimously held viewpoint bring the federal government and teachers’ unions to the brink of a very nasty conflict?

The compromise reached in May allowing NAPLAN* tests to go ahead is only a temporary stand-off. The issue can only be fully resolved by changes to the My School website to prevent the misuse of NAPLAN data.

Many parents and grandparents were justifiably concerned about the recent dispute between the federal government and Australia’s teachers. The issues were not always clear because they were often deliberately misrepresented by the government and the media, both of whom had an economic interest in “naming and shaming” schools.

The action teachers took was designed to protect their students and their school communities from the League Tables based on their professional understanding of the dangers these presented. Many felt strongly enough to risk their jobs and careers over the issue. Teachers and their unions were well aware of the dangers of the USA and UK model Ms Gillard was trying to emulate in Australia.

The British and American experiences have already proven that over-emphasising the significance of snapshot, diagnostic tests led to the narrowing of curriculum and the sacrificing of quality teaching time in order to coach children for a one-off test. The use of SATS data (SATS is similar to our NAPLAN tests), to compare schools and create League Tables has devastated schools and communities in the UK.

These schools and communities were already socially and economically disadvantaged and predictably performed relatively poorly when simplistically compared and ranked with other schools. In Australia children from low socio-economic, Indigenous and non-English speaking backgrounds are already at the bottom of the heap. League Tables just tell them again that they are “failures’. They can’t and don’t change schools to help address the education needs of our children.

The big picture

The big picture, in which the League Tables issue is a significant part, is the direction the Rudd government is taking the Australian education system. They are part and parcel of the government’s agenda for the Australian education system. This agenda involves dividing and conquering schools and teachers as a means of reducing spending on public education even further. The second part of this agenda can be seen in the increasing subsidies to the private education sector at the expense of public education.

The failing UK and USA models

In the UK and the USA schools have been, over time, pressured to “teach to the test” i.e. coach children in how to improve their results in a NAPLAN, or similar, diagnostic test. This type of teaching is not driven by educational goals but by the need to superficially impress the wider community or as a means of accessing extra government funding (i.e. extra funding is given only if schools show “growth” in snapshot tests). Slowly but surely UK teachers have been forced to neglect creative arts, sport and personal development and other areas of the curriculum in order to focus on getting children to “perform’ on a one off snapshot test.

The SATS tests in the UK and NAPLAN tests in Australia were introduced for professional diagnostic purposes. Diagnostic tests are meant to provide schools and their teachers with a diagnostic tool which helps individual schools analyse their strengths and weaknesses and program to address these in the next period. They were never designed for assessing and comparing the performance of schools.

What has this achieved for education in the UK and USA? Simply put, nothing. Britain and the USA are amongst the lowest performers in the OECD countries in education outcomes for their children. They perform particularly badly when compared to countries like Finland who have not chosen to narrow their curriculum and measure educational growth by one off diagnostic testing.

Are schools really alike?

Simplistic comparisons of schools only reflect social and economic inequity in our society, they cannot provide any useful information about the quality of teaching and learning that is going on in our schools. Ms Gillard claims the My School website makes allowances for socio-economic and other differences by using ICSEA to identify “like” schools. ICSEA is a crude way of comparing schools according to their socioeconomic and other demographical features.

In fact no school is like another and the ‘like” school comparison is a misleading one for a number of reasons. Some schools, for example, have Opportunity Classes for bright kids while others have Special Education Units for children who struggle with learning. So-called “like” schools can be large, rich and urban while in the same ICSEA category are small, rural public schools. Even in the same socio-economic/demographic area some schools attract children from a particular sub-group while others attract another sub-group. Parents cannot know these differences by looking at League Tables.

Since the launch of the My School website Ms Gillard has openly encouraged parents to confront their child’s teachers and make them answerable for poor results!

This teacher bashing approach to teaching and learning reflects a level of ignorance associated with the worst of the tabloid press. Parents need to know what resources and funding schools are receiving to compare schools and this data has still not been put on the My School website despite Ms Gillard’s promises that she would make it available on the website.

The Australian Education Union has made a concrete proposal for how NAPLAN data can be put on the website so that simplistic League Tables are discouraged. This proposal is before the newly formed Working Committee. The Working Committee was hastily formed by Ms Gillard in May to involve teachers for the first time in consultations about My School.

If the Working Committee does not resolve the League Table issue teachers may be forced to take further action and will need parent and community support to protect our children, our schools and our communities from being unfairly labelled.

* NAPLAN replaced the Basic Skills Tests several years ago as a diagnostic test to equip teachers and schools with detailed information about their students’ learning in Years 3,5,7 and 9. NAPLAN data is used to inform planning by schools and teachers. The results of NAPLAN tests are also provided to parents. Next week:
The bigger picture.  

Next article – The Making of a Rebel Journalist – The Early Life of Wilfred Burchett

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