If you think that queer/GLTBI politics and issues have nothing to do with teachers, schools and children – think again

In the most recent editorial of a progressive educational Journal called Rethinking Schools the authors relate the story of Sasha Fleischman.

On Nov. 5, Illinois became the 16th state to legalize same-sex marriage. And Sasha Fleischman’s skirt was set on fire on an Oakland, California, bus by a 16-year-old student from another school (Sasha is an a gender youth*). What a contradiction. And what a clear example of the complex state of LGBTQ issues at this moment in history. What does this contradiction mean for students, teachers, and schools?

The schools response to this tragedy was very important. Students and teachers immediately mobilised support for Sasha; money to cover medical expenses; an organized “Stroll for Sasha” along the bus route; and new t shirts for the basketball team marked with ‘No h8’ on the front and Sasha’s name on the back.

The authors make the point that “homophobia, misogyny, and other forms of hatred are alive and well, and even progressive schools and classrooms have a long way to go in creating nurturing spaces for students, parents, and staff who don’t conform to gender and/or sexuality “norms.””

They point out that it doesn’t matter how strong our ‘generic anti bullying programs and policies are, because the anti-bullying framework positions bullying as an individualised behaviour problem and does not address the systemic issues.

To lump disparate behaviors under the generic “bullying” is to efface real differences that affect young people’s lives. Bullying is a broad term that de-genders, de-races, de-everythings school safety.

The reasons for teachers’ reluctance to name issues related to diverse sexualities, homophobi, transgender are readily understandable. Parent, community backlash, moving into unknown territory with students are not imaginary barriers.

So how do we move forward?

For those who wish to think and act more deliberately to address these issues this article is an excellent place to start. And although the examples provided in this article of current event stories worth using are all US based, I am sure it is possible to find Australian and other examples.

* The term refers to having no gender: meaning an individual does not identify as either male or female

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I always knew this day was coming.

And the latest development in GERM in NZ. Worth a read. It includes a scathing critique of organisation – in this case a union, capitulating for faux reasons but really to be ‘in the tent’ ehere the power is and presumably some crumbs from the table

Networkonnet

Dear reader 

My new Windows programme cannot take the export of my addresses for posting alerts. A supporter of networkonnet has started the mammoth task of retyping the nearly 4000 addresses.

It will be some days before the posting alerts can be sent. Would you get the word out for networkonnet readers to click to the new website networkonnet.wordpress.com

I can imagine Peter Hughes, Hekia Parata, and Phil Harding getting some humour from the situation — a judgement from above — to be honest, in a grim way, I can see the funny side of this, too. The timing is amazing.

However, this posting should take any smile off their faces.

All the best on my birthday.

Kelvin Smythe

I always knew this day was coming.

Readers may have read my most recent posting which — after a brief introductory account of personal experiences leading up to Tomorrow ’s…

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The NAPLAN Parliamentary Review’s ‘do nothing’ recommendations: We can do better

Many of us waited with a degree of eagerness – even excitement – for the release of the Parliamentary Inquiry Report into NAPLAN (Effectiveness of the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy Report). But what a disappointment!

While it makes a passable fist of identifying many, but by no means all, of the significant issues associated with how our NAPLAN is currently administered and reported, it does miss some of the important details. This could be forgiven if the recommendations showed any evidence of careful thinking, vision, or courage. But in my assessment they are trivial and essentially meaningless

We know a lot about the problems with our current approach to standardised testing and reporting. This Report, with the help of over 95 submissions from a wide range of sources, manages to acknowledge many of them. The key problems include:

  • it is not valid and reliable at the school level
  • it is not diagnostic
  • the test results take 5 months to be reported
  • it is totally unsuitable for remote Indigenous students – our most disadvantaged students – because it is not multilevel, in the language that they speak or culturally accessible (Freeman)
  • now that it has become a high stakes test it is having perverse impacts on teaching and learning
  • some of our most important teaching and learning goals are not reducible to multiple choice tests
  • there is a very real danger that it will be used to assess teacher performance – a task it is not at all suited to
  • some students are being harmed by this exercise
  • a few schools are using it to weed out ‘unsuitable enrolments’
  • school comparisons exacerbate the neoliberal choice narrative that has been so destructive to fair funding, desegregated schools and classrooms and equitable education outcomes
  • there will always be a risk of league tables
  • their unequal impact on high needs school
  • they do not feed into base funding formulas. In spite of the rhetoric about equity and funding prioritization being a key driver for NAPLAN, it is not clear that any state uses the NAPLAN to inform their base funding allocations to schools[1]

However, the ‘solutions’ put forward by the report are limited to the following recommendations:

  1. develop on-line testing to improve test results turn around – something that is happening anyway
  2. take into account the needs of students with a disability and English language learners. Now this recommendation is so vague as to be meaningless
  3. have ACARA closely monitor events to ensure league tables are not developed and that the results feed into funding considerations. This is another vague do nothing recommendation and I am certain ACARA will say that they are already doing this.

This is a recommendation to do nothing – nothing that is not already being done or nothing of meaningful substance.

As an example of the paucity of its analysis I offer the following. The report writes about the lack of diagnostic power of the NAPLAN tests and then says that, even if they were diagnostic, the results come too late to be useful. The report then argues, as its first and only strong recommendation that there needs to be quicker timeframe for making the results available. Did the writer even realize that this would still not make the tests useful as a diagnostic tool?

This Report, while noting the many problems assumes that these can be addressed through minor re-emphasis and adjustments – a steady as she goes refresh. However the problems identified in the Report suggest that tiny adjustments won’t address the issues. A paradigm change is required here.

We are so accustomed now to national standardised testing based on multiple choice questions in a narrow band of subjects being ‘the way we do things’, that it seems our deliberations are simply incapable of imagining that there might be a better way.

To illustrate what I mean I would like to take you back to the 1990s in Australia – to the days when NAPLAN was first foisted on a very wary education community.

How many of us can remember the pre national testing days? Just in case I will try and refresh your memory on some key elements and also provide a little of the ‘insider debates’ before we adopted the NAPLAN tests.

1989 was the historic year when all Education Ministers signed up to a shared set of goals under the now defunct 1989 Hobart Declaration. Australia was also in the process of finalising its first ever national curriculum – a set of Profiles and Statements about what all Australian children should learn. This was an extensive process driven by an interstate committee headed by the then Director of School Education in NSW, Dr Ken Boston.

During this time, I worked in the mega agency created by John Dawkins, the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, initially in the Secretariat for the Education Ministerial Council (then called the AEC) and a few years later heading up the Curriculum and Gender Equity Policy Unit.

The Education Division at that time was heavily engaged in discussion with ACER and OECD about the development of global tests –the outcomes of which are PISA and a whole swag of other tests.

This was also when standardised testing was also being talked about for Australian schools. Professor Cummings reminds us of this early period in her submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry when she says that

This was also when standardised testing was also being talked about for Australian schools. Professor Cummings reminds us of this early period in her submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry when she says that

…through the Hobart Declaration in 1989 … ‘Ministers of Education agreed to a plan to map appropriate knowledge and skills for English literacy. These literacy goals included listening, speaking, reading and writing….

National literacy goals and sub-goals were also developed in the National Literacy (and Numeracy) Plan during the 1990s, including: …comprehensive assessment of all students by teachers as early as possible in the first years of schooling…to ensure that…literacy needs of all students are adequately addressed and to intervene as early as possible to address the needs of those students identified as at risk of not making adequate progress towards the national…literacy goals….use [of] rigorous State-based assessment procedures to assess students against the Year 3 benchmark for…reading, writing and spelling for 1998 onward.

It is interesting to note that the on entry assessments of children by teachers commitment referred to by Cummings did result in some work in each state. But it never received the policy focus, funding or attention that it deserved., which I regard as a pity The rigorous assessments at Year 3 however grew in importance and momentum. But the key consequence of this commitment was the year 3 state based assessment. Professor Cummings goes on to say that in order to achieve this goal – a laudable goal – the NAP was born. State based at first with very strict provisions about not providing school based data and then eventually what we have today.

Professor Cummings may not have known that many of us working in education at the time did not believe that national multiple choice standardised tests were the best and only answer and that considerable work was undertaken to convince the then Education Minister, Kim Beazley, that there was a better way.

During this period, where National standardised literacy tests were being discussed in the media and behind closed doors at the education Ministers’ Council,

Over this same period the US based Coalition of Essential Schools was developing authentic classroom teaching and learning activities that were also powerful diagnostic assessment exercises. Its stated goal was to build a data bank of these authentic assessments activities and to benchmark student progress against these benchmarks across the US. Its long term goal was to make available to schools across the US a data-base of benchmarked (that is standardised) assessments with support materials about how to use the materials as classroom lessons and how to use the results to a) diagnose a students learning b) plan future learning experiences and c) compare their development to a US wide standard of literacy development.

As the manager of the curriculum policy area, I followed these developments with great interest, as did a number of my work colleagues inside and outside the Department. We saw the potential of these assessments to provide a much less controversial, and less damaging way of meeting the Ministers’ need to show leadership in this area.

Our initiatives resulted in DEETYA agreeing to fund a trial to develop similar diagnostic classroom friendly literacy assessment units as the first part of this process. We planned to use these to demonstrate to decision makers that there was a better solution than standardized multiple-choice tests.

As a consequence I commenced working with Geoff Masters (then at ACER as an assessment expert) and Sharon Burrows (who headed up the Australian Education Union at the time) exploring the potential power of well designed formative assessments, based on authentic classroom teaching formats, to identify those at risk of not being successful at developing literacy skills.

Unfortunately we failed to head off a decision to opt for standardised tests. We failed for a number of reasons:

  • the issue moved too quickly,
  • the OECD testing process had created a degree of enthusiasm amongst that data crunchers who had louder voices,
  • our proposal was more difficult to translate to three word slogans or easy jargon,
  • multiple choice tests were cheaper.

At the time I thought these were the most important reasons. But looking back now, I can also see that our alternative proposal never had a chance because it relied on trusting teachers. Teachers had to teach the units and assess the students’ work. What was to stop them cheating and altering the results? Solutions could have been developed, but without the ICT developments we have access to today, they would have been cumbersome.

I often wonder what would have happened if we had initiated this project earlier and been more convincing. Could we have been ‘the Finland’ of education, proving that we can monitor children’s learning progress, identify students at risk early in their school lives, prioritise funding based on need  – all without the distorting effects of NAPLAN and MySchool?

We can’t go back in time but we can advocate for a bigger, bolder approach to addressing the significant problems associated with our current NAPLAN architecture. The parliamentary report failed us here but this should not stop us.

I have written this piece because I wanted us to imagine, for a moment, that it is possible to have more courageous bold and educationally justifiable policy solutions around assessment than what we have now. The pedestrian “rearrange the deck-chairs” of this Report is just not good enough.

So here is my recommendation, and I put it out as a challenge to the many professional education bodies and teacher Education Institutions out there.

Set up a project as follows:

Identify a group of our most inspiring education leaders through a collaborative peer nomination process. Ensure the group includes young and old teachers and principals, teachers with significant experience in our most challenging schools especially our remote Indigenous schools. Provide them with a group of expert critical friends – policy experts, testing and data experts, assessment and literacy experts and ask them to:

  • Imagine there is no current assessment infrastructure
  • Devise an educationally defensible assessment architecture – taking a green fields approach

I can almost guarantee that this working group would not invent NAPLAN and MySchool or anything like it, and we would be significantly better off.

We have dug ourselves into an educationally indefensible policy hole because we have allowed politicians and the media to drive key decision. To my knowledge we have never established an expert group of educational practitioners with access to specialist expertise to develop better policy solutions in education. Why don’t we give it a try?

Any takers?

[1] I understand that NSW does use the NAPLAN results to channel some additional funds to low performing schools but these are above the line payments.

So Andrew Penfold shows his true colours and why I am not surprised.

According to The Australian, Andrew Penfold has broken ranks with all the other members of the PM’s Indigenous Council to support the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

So what can we make of this?  Is Penfold brave – standing up to un-thought-through conventional wisdom? Or is he ignorant and dangerously misinformed?

My take is that he is ignorant.  His world is a privileged sheltered space and his experience of how racism affects Indigenous people is informed – or not informed –  by his sheltered context.

Now I am not a scholar of human rights, the RDA and the debate around free speech and I accept that there may be areas of the RDA that could benefit from a careful review. 

For example, Sara Joseph who is an expert has argued here that the outlawing of talk that offends or insults may tip the balance between free speech and race discrimination too far.  But in saying this she also stresses that this is a view that has not been formed based on personal experience of being subjected to racially offensive language.  She also argues that the courts have never taken a stringent position in interpreting this provision, so the driver to change it is not really there (note: it was not the provision that Bolt contravened).

But there are real problems with the current exposure draft and Sara Joseph’s article is a nice summary of the problems, and worth a careful read.

However, it is clear to me that Penfold has not read Joseph’s article or Waleed Aly’s very damming piece

So how did this upper middle class business man who was educated at elite private schools earn a place on the PM’s Indigenous Council, and an AO to boot, just this year.

Andrew Penfold is widely known as the man who established the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) and its associated Indigenous Scholarship to elite private schools scheme.  He is well known because the media has been saturated by feel good stories about individual Indigenous children who have been rescued from a remote backwater and who are now destined for greatness. Penfold himself has authored many of these stories.

Now I am not that concerned about a successful business man setting up a charity that funds poor traditionally living Indigenous kids to attend Australia’s most elite schools, although I do have concerns about it.

My concerns are as follows:

Firstly, this is the venture that has earned Penfold a seat at the PM’s Indigenous Council.  Now we have been told that this Council will have a big influence on Indigenous policy development and program implementation in Australia.  What Penfold has established is, in policy terms, a minor add-on program.  It hardly qualifies him as an expert in policy directions that are designed to overcome disadvantage not for the clever few raked from the rubble, but for all Indigenous people.  His willingness to split with the Council so early in the piece over something that his background makes him uniquely unqualified to speak about, relative to other Council members, confirms my concerns about his suitability for this role

Secondly, his work and his project concern me because he has convinced the Australian Government to donate $20 million to his fund with absolutely no strings attached.  I am presuming that these funds have come out of the very small program dollars currently allocated to Indigenous education. 

When a program secures Government funding it must be accountable to a different set of requirements. What should our Government be asking about this feel good work?

I wrote about Andrew Penfold and his feel good but suspect work to ‘save’ Indigenous children one by one here. I don’t plan to repeat all the arguments about why this is a problem here because this article is much more about why I question Andrew Penfold’s suitability for a seat at the PM’s Indigenous Council table.

So here it is.  Andrew Penfold has justified why the Australian Government should fund his program as follows

We agree that governments must invest in improving education results for all Indigenous students in all schools, but the evidence is unambiguous – for decades billions of dollars a year has been spent by state and federal governments on Indigenous programs that their own departments and officials have described as ‘disappointing at best and appalling at worst’ and making no difference to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. So if the rhetoric about evidence-based policy means anything, it’s critical that AIEF’s proven, scalable and sustainable model continues to be supported.

There you have it.  While Governments should be prioritizing investments that improve the outcomes for Indigenous students across the board, history tells us that this is a waste of money because it hasn’t worked.  So my solution is to have the Government invest in improving educational outcomes for the few and forget about the rest.  And as for the claim that his program is scalable – well – the limitations are rather obvious.

This is a chilling piece of logic.

Basically, if you are indigenous and living in a remote community, welcome to the lottery – if you win a scholarship and are flown away to an elite school, you will learn to read and can expect to live a rich rewarding life, but if you don’t, good luck. This feels like a future dystopia in a speculative fiction novel.

It is the Government’s responsibility to govern for all Australians. No Government can justify diverting the small amount of funds dedicated to meeting the educational needs of Australia’s most seriously disadvantaged students to fund a lucky win-the-lottery ticket to a privileged life – a rags to riches scenario for a few.

To say that the Government should walk away from its responsibilities for overcoming Indigenous disadvantage for all Indigenous Australians and invest in a privileged lucky few is an outrage, and must be challenged. It should not be applauded or honoured with positions on influential councils, generous untied Government funds, or Australia Day Honours.

But this is the sort of logic that comes from looking at all issues, not in structural terms but in individualistic terms.  Andrew Penfold is on the record as saying that he developed his Indigenous scholarships program because he was given an opportunity to go to an elite boarding school and it was the making of him.  He does not appear to have considered that his unique experience is not universally applicable with the same results.

Perhaps this makes some sense of his position on the RDA amendments.  Andrew Penfold has not been at the raw end of racial discrimination and racial vilification, so his consideration of these matters is based on his limited individual experience. It is just a philosophical issue to him.  It is to Sarah Joseph too, but even she, an expert in these matters, has been honest enough to acknowledge that not having the personal experience of racial discrimination is a possible limitation to her understanding of these sensitive and complex matters.

I do hope some judicious behind-the-scenes conversation at Council meetings with Andrew Penfold will extent his world view, but I am not optimistic.