Paul Sheehan’s light bulb moment on schooling

Everyone has the answers to our unequal schooling outcomes.  Politicians have had a field day and so have journalists.  The latest is from Paul Sheehan Learn from Asian culture of success | smh.com.au.

His article notes that the school HSC winners are girls (68%) and Asian students while the losers are Indigenous students.  He takes over half the article to make this seemingly surprising observation.

And then of course there is the jump to solution  – which is… ?  Well, more importantly, which is NOT more money because apparently “Australian governments have been pouring billions into indigenous communities for years with few measurable improvements and billions more dollars on education with little change in the basic template”.

If Sheehan, who sees himself as an investigative journalist, had done his homework he would have known that this is not the case.  Over the Howard years the funding profile of Australia changed dramatically till by the  end of 2010 Australia was in the world’s top group  in terms of expenditure on non-Government schools but in the bottom group in terms of expenditure on Government schools.

We have been throwing money on high fee paying elite schools – some of which are Catholic and others of which are independent.  These schools were meant to have made use of this additional funding  to enable them to reduce fees, but this was not done – fees went up.  The high fee paying Catholic schools were alleged to have used these funds to redistribute to their more needy schools in poorer areas, but it has become clear that this was not done.  Instead what the high fee schools have managed to do is to to have teacher student ratios that are the envy of the world – and way above ratios available to high need schools where remedial support is imperative.

So Mr Sheehan we might have been pouring billions into schools, but given that very few Indigenous children actually attended these high fee schools, it is not surprising that it has not made a difference.

In fact Mr Sheehan you might like to investigate how the NT Government funds it schools.  Afterall they have the highest proportion of Australia’s most disadvantaged and under performing students.  If you do follow this up – and I do hope you do – I will be interested to hear what you find.  And I can almost guarantee you will not say – billions of dollars are being invested in this area.  I would be only too happy to give you a few leads too, to start you on your investigative journey.

But lets look further at your argument because you go on to say it is a waste of money to invest in poor schools because the problem is not resources.  Apparently they are swimming in billions.  The problem according to you is culture – specifically the culture of the parents of poor, Indigenous and otherwise low performing students.

So based on this logic you argue that non Government schools are successful because they can pick and choose their parents – they can make sure that they are not lumbered with the children of the poor.

I think you are implying that parents of middle class and rich students are responsible.  They read to their children every day, make them do their homework go to bed early and get up to eat a good breakfast and go to school every day.  They teach them about delayed gratification, cleanliness, manners and all the rest.

Parents of poor students are undisciplined, unmotivated, irresponsible and dysfunctional parents (your words) .  They don’t read to their children, teach them delayed gratification or manners and they let them wag school.

Now this is a dangerous – a racist and classist  – picture of things.  It denies that there is child neglect, crime, fraud, drunkenness, assault, murder  etc in the best of homes. And I think when you look at the social behaviours, attitudes and values of many of our elite private school ‘stars’ you will find that arrogance, prejudices, entitlement, untruthfulness, callousness, aggression are not uncommon.

We can see human weakness in all its variations in communities of poverty too.  But we also see many people who have to struggle to make ends meet, who have to make difficult survival choices, may not be literate, who are both time poor and economically poor and who lack security of abode, income, food, health and transport.  They have a lot going on.

Our problem is that our unique, extreme school choice policy framework has created a situation where children from these two groups are becoming more and more segregated – you are correct to note this.

But what of your solution?  Well here it is:

“Until state schools have the power to set and enforce codes of conduct, discipline and application comparable to the powers taken for granted in private schools, we will continue to have one system for the bright, ambitious and/or wealthy and one for the rest.”

I have to ask, what on earth does this mean?  How do you propose that schools ‘enforce codes of conduct, discipline and application’ beyond what they are already doing. Surely you understand that all schools (except for a few remaining non Government alternative schools perhaps) use every tool within their power to foster a student body that respects others,  complies with all reasonable rules and engages seriously with learning.  They already use all the discipline powers available to them to discipline, punish, suspend and even expel students.

In fact there is growing concern that the more extensive powers that have recently been transferred to principals to suspend students for quite a long time is being used unequally on poor and Indigenous students and many exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline already observable for many marginalized groups.

If you have secret tools that you could reveal that would achieve this goal it would be great to hear about them.

Or are you really suggesting that students who don’t come up to scratch should get selected out of Government schools?  What happens then?  This would be the end of universal schooling and a return to a Dickensian underclass of poverty and criminality.

Or are you saying that Government schools should charge fees like the non-Government system.  Of course you’re not.  But this is the point Mr Sheehan.  Non-Government schools charge fees and can say ‘no’.  These two mechanisms serve to keep ‘undesirable enrolments’ out.  According to Chris Bonnor, it is possible to calculate just how little or how much a school has to charge to filter out which groups of families by interogating the MySchool data.

So Mr Sheehan, I might not agree with your deficit model of poor parents and poor students, and I might not think there is a solution which involves making public schools more like non-Government schools. However I do agree that it is fundamentally unfair to set in place a so called market model of education based on choice and competition where only some have choice and where competition is on highly unequal terms because one system has to take all comers and can’t charge fees.

Its a ‘shit sandwich’ Mr Sheehan, no doubt about it, and you know what?  Those who struggle to make a difference, who are trying to both support and teach students who are facing unimaginable hardships don’t need those with the power of the pen saying they don’t need more money to labour under the unequal task they have been set.

Is NAPLAN a high-stakes test? No, says Barry, but I say Yes

According to Professor Barry McGaw, Chair of ACARA, NAPLAN is not a high stakes test.[1]

He made this comment in response to a study[2] released by the Whitlam Institute claiming that NAPLAN testing is being treated as a high-stakes program and that this has led to unacceptable levels of stress for students and a narrowing and a distortion of what is taught in classrooms across Australia

McGaw’s attempt to ‘set the record straight’ about this relied on the following facts:

  • Testing students competence in basic skills in Australia  as been going on for many years – in NSW since 1989
  •  The tests are not onerous or intrusive – they occur 4 times in the life of a student spread over a few days and each lasting only a few hours
  • They just don’t compare to high stakes tests such as year 12 exams or the long eliminated years of primary exams – student futures do not rest on the outcomes
  •  While there have been irresponsible attempts to create league tables there a have been strong steps taken to counter this.  MySchool only compares schools with schools with similar demographic intakes.

I don’t disagree with any of these points and I could add that as currently organised  NAPLAN results do not appear to directly impact the teachers’ performance review process or the future of any particular school.  In this sense we are different from most US states where Race To The Top has forced education reform in this direction

Now I use the word appear because there have been hints that this may not be the case now and may not always be the case in the future.

In relation to school closures, the closing of the Steiner stream at the Footscray school in Victoria was in part justified in terms of concerns about NAPLAN results. Similarly, in Queensland the decision to defund the school for travelling children was also justified on this basis.  This does not yet equate to a strong relationship between NAPLAN results and school closure decisions.

When it comes to teacher performance reviews the details are still a little unclear.

The DEEWR fact sheet[3] on this matter states that “Under the new performance and development framework all teachers will participate in an annual appraisal process ….The framework will set out the aspects of a teacher’s performance that will be assessed and will include such aspects as lesson observations, student results, parental feedback, and contribution to the school community. “ (my emphasis)

AITSL, the organisation tasked with developing the framework has released a performance and development Framework document which was endorsed by Ministers of Education in August 2012. [4] In this document it states under “A focus on student outcomes” that this is not about simplistic approaches “that tie evaluation of teaching directly to single outcome measures” and that this Framework “defines student outcomes broadly to include student learning, engagement in learning and wellbeing, and acknowledges that these can be measured in a variety of ways”.

So it appears that the worst element of Value Added Measures approach are not going to be an explicit part of the Teacher Performance and Review Process. at least not yet.  Of course, if there is a change of Government, My Pyne has already flagged that this is the path he will take us down[5].

So what does all this mean?  The arguments presented here to date appear to suggest that indeed NAPLAN is not a high stakes test and that perhaps McGaw is correct when he argues that, if teaching has been effected and students made to feel stress it is entirely on the head of teachers ,who are test cramming for no apparent reason.[6]

However there is another factor that McGaw has not considered.  Even if the publication of NAPLAN results does not become tied to teacher evaluations; does not result in school closures: and is not ever again presented in league table format on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, it is a high stakes test because of our unique and regressive school funding and hyper school choice policies and practices, that pit schools against one another for ‘favourable enrolments’

Indeed this was an explicit intent behind the decision to go down the school transparency reform route.  When former PM Kevin Rudd announced his new transparency agenda in August 2008 at the National Press Club, it is reported that he said to journalists after his speech that, if after seeing their schools performance data “… some [parents] walk with their feet that’s exactly what the system is designed to do.[7]

Now if our school set up was like that of Finland where the vast majority of students go to their local school and there is a high level of buy in and confidence in schools, this new transparency might not have had a big impact.  But our school set up is very different.  And it is different in a way that makes our schools very different from each other.

Not only is school resourcing not delivering equal quality of educational servicing, but schools serve very different communities and these combined factors contribute to wide disparities in school outcomes.

For parents of students attending the most concentrated of high need schools – the most socially and economically marginalised school parent bodies, the logic of parent power and school choice, as a response to NAPLAN comparative information, does not apply.  The 75 schools with ICSEA values below 800[8] (mostly small remote schools for Indigenous students) are not likely to experience much in the way of  ‘white middle class flight’ There are almost none to fly and no school alternative, apart from distance education. These parents don’t have a choice and are unlikely to lead the charge about unacceptable student performance.  This is not an effective lever for school improvement for these schools.

But schools with ICSEA scores between 800 and 1000 serve low to middle low SES communities where the parent demography can be more diverse.  I predict that these schools must worry about losing those parents and students with the highest economic and social capital.  These schools need active articulate, high expectation parents but may well lose them as they choose moving rather than improving.  They also lose these students. This serves to further concentrate the social mix of the student body with quite well known and predictable effects on student performance outcomes.

This is why Australia is a global leader in the extent to which our test results show the influence of what is known as student effect.

The effect of the decision to publish individual school test results has been to imply to parents that the responsibility for ensuring high school quality for all children – actually the responsibility of Government  – has in a sense been transferred to individual parents.  It is now their responsibility to choose the best option in terms of their child’s individual benefit.  To fail to do so is to be a somewhat neglectful parent.

What particularly saddens me about this is that the role of parents in schools has been an important civil society tradition. The local school in a local community used to be seen as ‘our school’, educating ‘our kids’.  This was rich local social capital.  It was a tradition based on enlightened self interest – of seeing the benefits in working, not just for the educational benefits for our own children,  but in working to ensure that education  works to build the kind of world they desire all children to inherit.

The publication of NAPLAN results has taken us further into the market model of schooling.  The school autonomy agenda will intensify this.  And this is the reason why NAPLAN is experienced as a high stakes test with all of the negative consequences.


[6] “If NAPLAN is being made high-stakes for students, with some reported to be anxious and even ill when the tests approach, this is due to teachers transferring stress to their students.”  The Conversation 11057

[8] Barry McGaw, “The Expectations Have it” in Phillip Hughes (Ed) Achieving Quality Education for All, Perspectives from the Asia-Pacific Region and Beyond, Springer 2013 p. 107

Don’t be fooled: Pyne’s NAPLAN proposal is worse – much worse

The response of the press to the Media Release My School the source of NAPLAN angst – Liberal Party of Australia by Christopher Pyne, Shadow Minister for Education, announcing that the Liberal Party have heard all the concerns of educators and parents about the danger of publishing NAPLAN results so they will stop it,  shows us everything that is wrong with the press in Australia.

The press passed the contents of this press release on with absolutely no analysis whatsoever.  A supposedly good news story.  The Liberal Party is listening and responding.  Wrong.  Their tears of concern are but crocodile tears.

What Pyne actually announced is that the Liberal Party will stop publishing the NAPLAN raw scores and would start publishing school improvement measures.  This will lead to the same pressure, but draw on different rubbish data.

Those of you who keep up with the education reform policy debates in the US might know improvement measures by other names:

– AYP – Adequate Yearly Progress or

– VAM – Value Added Measures

Do these terms start to ring any bells?  They should.  AYP measures were used by Joel Klein in NYC schools to target schools for closure and set up in their place – often on the same site  – Charter schools.  This has been incredibly disruptive for the families suddenly left with no local public school (often Charters selected students by application from parents and lotteries) and there is no peer-reviewed research that  shows sustainable learning improvements.

VAM measures are now being used across the US to assess teacher quality even though no reputable psychometrician will confirm that the national testing results – at the classroom level  – have any validity or reliability.  Teachers’ futures are made or broken on the basis of this sort of dodgy data dealing.

It doesn’t take a conspiracy minded person to join the dots.  Of course VAM and or AYP would be good for the LNP.  They can use it to adopt the disastrous Ed Reform policies of the US – to destroy teacher conditions and the power of unions, to close public schools and set up private schools using public school funds and so on.

I have another concern about Value Added Measures.  With Value Added Measures the actual results of a school are not relevant.  All that is measured is the growth in student learning from one year to the next.  Now some argue that this is good for struggling schools because it will end the ‘shame job’.  Arguably a high performing school that is resting on its laurels could end up exposed  and a low performing school that still has well below average results but is improving can look good. This is good, surely?

How is a piece of data that says, “This [low performing] school [in a low SES area] is doing a very good job.  The student learning outcomes are excellent [for these students], ever justifiable?

One of the few good things that has come out of this whole NAPLAN debacle is that it gave teeth and exposure to the work by equity researchers and activists like Professor Richard Teese,  Chris Bonner and Bernie Sheperd.  Their work saw the light of day through the Gonski review process  and importantly could no longer be disputed.  Their research changed the Gonski debate – there is no doubt about this.

Now don’t for a moment think that I am justifying the publication of NAPLAN results at school level.  In fact strangely enough the equity research referred to above was impeded as much as it was aided by the Myschool data because of the format of and level at which it is presened.  Myschool won’t allow the data to be manipulated or rolled up.  But  their analysis relied on rolling up the data so that groups of schools (e.g. low SES schools, rural schools, etc) could be compared to other groups of schools.  This is not possible using Myschool and researchers had to go to great lengths to get around this problem.

If I was a defender of continuing high levels of Government funding to the schools who need it least it would be in my interest to make the raw scores, that fed the work of equity campaigners, simply disappear.  Without it we could return to the she said he said debates about equity in Australia.

The raw NAPLAN scores have proven once and for all that demography still is destiny in today’s Australia.  They also prove that two children of equal social background going to different schools will have different student learning outcomes because of our highly socially segregated schooling system.  This is known as ‘ the school effect’ and Australia leads the way in this area, to our shame.

I will continue to oppose the way in which we use NAPLAN scores at school level, but I will continue to fight for the data about children’s learning by student demography, by school type and so on, to be available for equity research.  NAPLAN is not the best data, but that is a whole other debate that we wont get to have if we reduce NAPLAN raw scores to Value Added Measures.

I oppose the idea of schools being wholly accountable for the progress of their students without any support that recognises their unequal challenges, but I will continue to fight for the notion that Governments should be accountable, to the public, as citizens – not  just as parents for providing a high quality education with equal opportunity for all. Pyne’s proposal will kill the data available to support this, but wont stop the negative NAPLAN effects.