Last week Labor announced that if elected it will extend the Teach for Australia program to more graduates and to new states, and provide a further $8.1m for a new grants program to find more ways of bringing Australia’s brightest into teaching.

The LNP has also indicated that it will continue to support this program.

Teach for Australia TFA (AU) is based on Teach for America TFA, which has expanded to more than 20 other countries over the past two decades. The programs recruit high-performing graduates, who undertake a six week long intensive teaching course before being placed in disadvantaged schools as teacher associates where they teach for 4 days a week with the support of mentors.

So it looks like TFA (AU) is here to stay.

I went on-line this week to search for articles about this program and found remarkably little.  There was an evaluation undertaken by ACER that was neither damming nor overly praising but that is about it.

This is in stark contrast to Teach for America (TFA) that seems to be becoming besieged by detractors from within and without, and not without reason.

One of the reasons why TFA (AU) may have managed to steer an easier path in the Australian context is its more careful approach to engaging with Australian education politics.  It has not been used to promote market model based education reforms as it has in the US or to undermine the working conditions of traditional teachers.  And this makes it less on the nose.

However, I still believe there are problems with allowing this program to continue to expand based on the current training model and contract model and the lack of sound evidence that the additional costs of the program are worth it.

Now the strongest argument for the introduction of TFA (AU) is that there is a desperate need to get great teachers into our most disadvantaged schools and this program brings in the brightest and the best, who have a passion for making a difference.  I have spent an evening with one of the TFA groups and I can attest to the fact that these people are impressive – smart, interesting, critically curious, value driven individuals with immense energy and enthusiasm.

But my overriding concern is, ‘how do the children who end up with these TFA-ers as their teacher experience this situation?’   After-all, the children who end up with a TFA teacher will not be your children or my grandchildren. They will be ‘other people’s children’ – children in highly disadvantaged schools.

At the start of the year when a TFA-er commences a stint in a school, they are allocated a class, just like anyone else.  They are called associate teachers, not teachers, but as far as I can make out, the only difference is that they have this class for 4 days out of 5 and have a mentor who also spends time in this class.  At the point of commencement this teacher will have had just 6 weeks of teacher education.

Now in 2011, when the State and Commonwealth Ministers of Education (previously known as MCEECDYA)  met to discuss teacher standards with AITSL, they endorsed the “Accreditation of Initial teacher education programs in Australia: Standards and Procedures” document that made it mandatory that graduate entrants to the teaching profession be through a longer course than the standard one year Diploma of Education course because of the complexity of what they are being asked to learn and develop. Yet here we are putting people in front of children after a six week course.

Now I have no doubt that by the end of this highly exciting intense and possibly life changing experience TFA graduates are likely to be outstanding teachers. Not just teachers, but leaders ready for a high-flying career almost anywhere.  At least this is what the TFA brochure suggests

Over the course of two years you will develop a unique and highly marketable set of skills, as well as emerge with a Postgraduate Diploma in Teaching (TFA) – and believe us you will have earned it!

As an alumnus you will join a global movement of leaders working for greater educational opportunity and social equity. You’ll have opportunities to use the skills and leadership practises gained throughout the program to further your career in teaching, social entrepreneurship, government, the business world…or anywhere. The world is your oyster.

And this gets to the heart of the issue for me.  It is clearly a fantastic program for providing unique leadership experiences for our brightest and best students, but its design is built with this end in mind, and I believe that is at the expense of the children for whom it is meant to serve.  It builds in exposing our most needy children to less than fully trained teachers on a regular basis and contributes to high churn.  It is not good enough to view the initial teaching as a learning time because, for these children, it is a year they cant have again.

Imagine if this program keeps on expanding.  You probably won’t notice it in your schools, but what about the children of Tennant Creek?   How long will it take until they have TFA-ers over consecutive years?  And what about the churn then?

The Onion wrote this imagined piece from the point of view of the children who are most likely to experience the wash up of this – other people’s children.

You’ve got to be kidding me. How does this keep happening? I realize that as a fourth-grader I probably don’t have the best handle on the financial situation of my school district, but dealing with a new fresh-faced college graduate who doesn’t know what he or she is doing year after year is growing just a little bit tiresome. Seriously, can we get an actual teacher in here sometime in the next decade, please? That would be terrific.

Just once, it would be nice to walk into a classroom and see a teacher who has a real, honest-to-God degree in education and not a twenty-something English graduate trying to bolster a middling GPA and a sparse law school application. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a qualified educator who has experience standing up in front of a classroom and isn’t desperately trying to prove to herself that she’s a good person.

I’m not some sort of stepping stone to a larger career, okay? I’m an actual child with a single working mother, and I need to be educated by someone who actually wants to be a teacher, actually comprehends the mechanics of teaching, and won’t get completely eaten alive by a classroom full of 10-year-olds within the first two months on the job.

How about a person who can actually teach me math for a change? Boy, wouldn’t that be a novel concept!

I fully understand that our nation is currently facing an extreme shortage of teachers and that we all have to make do with what we can get. But does that really mean we have to be stuck with some privileged college grad who completed a five-week training program and now wants to document every single moment of her life-changing year on a Tumblr?

For crying out loud, we’re not adopted puppies you can show off to your friends.

Look, we all get it. Underprivileged children occasionally say some really sad things that open your eyes and make you feel as though you’ve grown as a person, but this is my actual education we’re talking about here. Graduating high school is the only way for me to get out of the malignant cycle of poverty endemic to my neighborhood and to many other impoverished neighborhoods throughout the United States. I can’t afford to spend these vital few years of my cognitive development becoming a small thread in someone’s inspirational narrative.

But hey, how much can I really know, anyway? I haven’t had an actual teacher in three years.


Please Julia Gillard Don’t let Bill Gates Undermine the Work of AITSL

Sub Title:  We must not sacrifice teacher self-reflection and ‘safe’ learning to the god of performativity

In an article on this blog a few weeks ago I warned about the important difference between the  work that the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) is doing to develop high quality and useful tools to support teacher initiated professional learning, development, peer mentoring and coaching  and what Bill Gates would like to do with such tools.

Bill Gates met with the PM yesterday and will be watched by millions on QandA tonight.  If he talks about  his TEDX message about the value of videos of teachers in classrooms, student feedback instruments, portfolios of teachers work, walkthroughs or other tools for ‘measuring’  or ‘ judging’ teacher performance for rewards or for compulsory performance review processes,  think about what he is actually saying.

He is saying that the best way to improve teacher quality and drive improved teacher performance is to test it/ assess it/ judge it/ weigh it.   Does this ring any bells?

Now I ask everyone to think about this sort of policy approach from the point of view of a newish teacher.  Would  you improve more in a system a) that encourages a pro-active  teacher initiated approach to professional development with high levels of peer collaboration, opportunities for self reflection and peer discussion on problems and areas for development using the latest high quality support tools,  or b) in a system that used all these same tools to measure you  – where every measurement was recorded in a performance grading process?.  Would you be enthusiastic about using video of your teaching or a student feedback survey on your semester project in order to reflect and hone your professional craft if you knew it could then be taken and used for formal performance assessment process which go into your records for all time?

Its a no brainer.  If you want to built the professional knowledge and skills of teachers then work with them, support them, give them a ‘safe place’ where development needs can be acknowledged along with high quality frameworks to support this.

There will always be a small proportion who will not rise to the challenge – who are probably in the wrong profession but lets not design a performance improvement framework around ‘weeding out the bad’.  This lowest common denominator approach sabotages the very goals of improvement.  The best way to manage this problem is to focus on school leadership.

Tony Mackay  Chair of AITSL wrote about this here, rather more tactfully and only recently

Australia is not a basket case in school reform. We have achieved something no other nation has so comprehensively managed: Australia is one of the first countries in the world to have a national set of professional standards to improve teaching in schools.

 Others have tried to develop national standards and failed. We have done it, getting the education sector – federal, state and territory governments, universities, non-government schools, employer groups and unions – to reach agreement on an end-to-end system for teacher quality.

 No other country possesses an exactly equivalent body to AITSL. Every few weeks the institute receives inquiries from overseas governments and education authorities wanting to know how Australia managed to get agreement on national standards from so many disparate groups involved in schooling. They have come from as far afield as the New York City school system, the Canadian province of British Columbia, Scotland, the Middle East and elsewhere.

 So how did AITSL achieve what has eluded our overseas colleagues? We …. learnt from [others] mistakes. …

Mandated standards will never work unless you get school systems and teachers on board to make them work. So we listened to teachers and school leaders. We set up a comprehensive national network of advisory groups, public seminars, forums and focus groups. We involved 6000 teachers and school principals in helping us shape the standards.

Undermine this at your peril.

Teacher Self Reflection Tools: a double edged sword

I have been pleasantly surprised with the work the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) has undertaken to develop a number of seemingly high quality, well tested and useful self reflection and learning tools for teachers to support AITSL’s core work of building the capacity of teachers and school leaders. For example The 360 student feedback tools[1] the teacher standards illustrations of practice[2] and the teacher self assessment[3] tools all have real potential to be useful for teachers who are taking responsibility for their own learning and development in schools that support and encourage collaboration, mentoring and peer support.

In fact I would like to suggest that the work of AITSL has the potential to be a very important counter point to all the US borrowed corporate reforms represented by NAPLAN, Performance pay and all the rest.

But to be effective the work of AITS needs to be able to stand apart from all the less worthy reforms.  The self-reflective tools are a very good example of these challenges. If they can be kept apart from the evaluation, performance management tendencies of corporate reform and be quarantined for the use by teachers and their schools for authentic professional learning, they have the potential to be very significant tools for building collective teacher capacity.

If however they are captured to be used as part of the new performance management practices that are being imposed on teachers, all the wonderful work involved in developing them will go down the toilet.

Anthony Cody talks about these same tensions in the US context.  In a recent blog[4] he responds to a Bill Gate TEDX talk on the value of videos in classrooms. According to Cody, Bill Gates rationale for promoting video cameras in schools goes as follow

… there’s one group of people that get almost no systematic feedback to help them do their jobs better. Until recently, 98% of teachers just got one word of feedback: “satisfactory.” Today, districts are revamping the way they evaluate teachers. But we still give them almost no feedback that actually helps them improve their practice. Our teachers deserve better. The system we have today isn’t fair to them. It’s not fair to students, and it’s putting America’s global leadership at risk.

Cody notes that Gates slides from feedback to evaluation without pause as though they are one and the same.

Do you notice something? He starts out talking about feedback, but then slides into describing a formal evaluation process. There are LOTS of ways to enhance feedback that could have nothing at all to do with our evaluation systems ….

They are not.  There is a world of difference between:

  • Professional learning:  as teachers working together, observing each others practice; using tools that give them information about their practice for them to use as they see fit; reflecting on their practice alone or in teams; trialling changes; reflecting; and giving mutual feedback; and
  • Performance review: where external parties apply standards to an assessment of practice

The problem is that as soon as a tool is captured for use for the second purpose – performance review – the less likely it is that teachers will trust it and see it as useful.

But this slide happens all the time.  And we are in danger of this happening with the tools developed by AITSL.  This is because we are focusing on the wrong things.  The Commonwealth Government tells us that what we need is a national best practice performance management framework and high quality tools.

Linda Darling Hammond on the other had argues that it is not a good framework that is lacking.  Rather what we lack, is time – time in schools for teachers to collaborate, to work with others to reflect on their practice and a culture where this is expected not as a fearful evaluation process but as an integral part of professional development

As I see it the work of AITSL could go either way and I just hope that it is possible to corral some of the best of their work and make sure it is not captured to serve the performativity agenda, For as Anthony Cody says:

Right beneath the surface are these seeds of possibility, waiting for the right conditions to come about. You take an area, a school, a district, you change the conditions, give people a different sense of possibility, a different set of expectations, a broader range of opportunities, you cherish and value the relationships between teachers and learners, you offer people discretion to be creative and to innovate in what they do, and schools that were once bereft spring to life.

Kevin Donnelly thinks that Fabianism is a dirty word.


We’ve put up with absolute rubbish from Kevin Donnelly for too long.  It’s time to look at his claims without the emotion and invective

In his latest rant, in The Australian, called, “Education saviour is pulling too many levers[1]”, Donnelly makes the following claims.

1.        Julia Gillard “in a desperate attempt” is going to use education as her lever to stay in power

Sadly, and a little reluctantly, I share concerns about the growing centrality of education in the future election debate.  Although chances are slim, I am pinning my hopes on progress on implementing the key components of the Gonski reforms prior to the election to the extent that they cannot easily be rolled back. 

The temptation to use it the Gonski implementation plan as an election carrot will not save the ALP but it will cost public schools dearly.

2.        Billions have been wasted on the Building the Education Revolution program that forced off-the-shelf, centrally mandated infrastructure on schools with little, if any, educational benefit;

Donnelly clearly has not read the ANAO Audit report into the BER[2], because it concludes that where there were poor decisions and centralized rollouts the culprits were state Governments not the Commonwealth and that to some extent this was inevitable given the justifiable time constraints.  May I also remind him that this was a GFC response first and foremost not an education initiative? The audit report makes this clear:

The Government decided on school based infrastructure spending because it had a number of elements that supported stimulus objectives

It also notes that:

The objectives of the BER program are, first, to provide economic stimulus through the rapid construction and refurbishment of school infrastructure and, second, to build learning environments to help children, families and communities participate in activities that will support achievement, develop learning potential and bring communities together[3]

For many schools the capital works were a godsend because the new hall or learning space gave them the capacity to do the thing that Donnelly most encourages – use new space to increase local innovative solutions to education challenges.  Indeed the audit report noted that over 95% of principals that responded to the ANAO survey indicated that the program provided something of ongoing value to their school and school community.[4]

3.        The computers in schools program delivered thousands and thousands of now out-of-date computers that schools can ill-afford to maintain or update.

I am not one to argue that ICT is the magic bullet answer to everything about teaching and learning in our schools.  However I am convinced that with well-informed computer literate teachers, who are also good teachers in the broader sense, students can only benefit.  I also acknowledge that a high level of computer literacy is now a core area of learning.   To achieve this even “out of currency” computer hardware will be better than no computers

Any ICT hardware rollout will result in out-of-date computers and a maintenance/update impost.  But the state of ICT infrastructure in our schools desperately needed to be addressed.  Is Donnelly really arguing that schools that do not have enough in their budgets to manage the whole-of-life costs of having computers should go without?  I wonder which schools these might be?


4.        Julia Gillard’s data fetish is forcing a centralised and inflexible accountability regime on schools, government and non-government, that is imposing a command and control regime on classrooms across the nation.

There is no doubt that we could benefit from a better accountability and reporting regime  – for all schools. So this is one of the few areas where Donnelly and I have aligned concerns but possibly for different reasons. I continue to believe that the changes to the original intention of NAPLAN testing has been disastrous for some Australian schools – but possibly not the ones dear to Donnelly’s heart. 

The reporting of NAPLAN results at the school level has, almost certainly, distorted what is taught in schools[5].  This is especially the case in schools where students struggle – our highly concentrated low SES schools.  It has also contributed to the residualisation of the public school system.  And we now have evidence that when the middle class students are leached out of public schools, public school students loose out in lots of ways.  For example they lose out because of the loss of articulate and ‘entitled’ parent advocates for the needs of the schools.  But they also lose out because each middle class child is actually a resource.  That is their existence in the class enhances the learning of all students in that class.[6]

Donnelly, on the other hand, appears to be more concerned that non-Government schools are now under the same reporting obligations as government schools.  I know of no other area of Commonwealth funding that was not expected to provide a defined level of accountability and reporting.   This anomaly was way overdue. 

5.        The Gillard-inspired national curriculum, instead of embracing rigorous, academic standards, is awash with progressive fads such as child-centred, inquiry-based learning, all taught through a politically correct prism involving indigenous, Asian and environmental perspectives.

Donnelly appears to have a short memory on this matter.  The national curriculum effort was kicked off by the previous Howard Government – and that is why History was singled out above other social science disciplines. 

Perhaps Donnelly has not read the national curriculum? If he had he would know that it is just a sequence and scoping exercise and does not address pedagogy at all.  Donnelly has had a bee in his bonnet for years about so called ‘progressive fads’ based on nothing more than sheer ignorance.  And as for the cross curriculum perspectives – these came out of extensive consultation and negotiation and were not imposed by the Gillard Government.  While there are unfortunately many examples of Commonwealth overreach, the cross-curricular perspectives are not examples.

6.        Even though the Commonwealth Government neither manages any schools nor employs any teachers, Gillard is making it a condition of funding that every school across Australia must implement Canberra’s (sic) National Plan for School Improvement.

This is another area where, to some extent, I do agree with Donnelly but for very different reasons. 

My position is that the National Plan for School Improvement is Commonwealth overreach that was unnecessary and risky because it could have put the Gonski implementation at risk.

The National Plan for School Improvement was unnecessary because, all education systems throughout the country already had some form of school improvement planning and annual reporting, and had begun to share good practice through the National Partnership process.  It was also unnecessary because it foolishly cut across the more informed and consultative process being undertaken by AITSL to grow the teacher performance feedback and improvement process in collaboration with the various teaching institutes around Australia.  This process had a strong emphasis on supporting teacher development and self-reflection based on well-supported peer, supervisor and student feedback.  The Commonwealth initiative has recast the whole process into a high stakes, external reporting context that will be much less useful and teacher friendly.  This is a pity.  AITSL’s work should not have been distorted in this manner.

It was, and is, risky as some states seized on the obligations of the Plan as the rationale to push back on the Gonski reforms.  Tying the two together  was poor strategy, in light of the importance of implementing Gonski between now and September 2013.

Donnelly’s objection to the Plan appears to be that is is imposed on the non Government sectors that should, according to Donnelly, be able to receive significant levels of Commonwealth funding with no accountability?.   It’s the imposts he objects to, not their design elements.

7.        Research here and overseas proves that the most effective way to strengthen schools, raise standards and assist teachers is to embrace diversity, autonomy and choice in education. The solution lies in less government interference and micro-management, not more.

I am afraid that Donnelly’s claims that autonomy and choice is the best way to strengthen schools does not have a shred of evidence.  I, and others, have written about the autonomy claims[7] and there is now solid international evidence confirming that market models of education choice are disastrous for education equity and therefore for education overall[8].

8.        Autonomy in education helps to explain why Catholic and independent schools, on the whole, outperform government schools.

There is now enduring evidence that the differences in school outcomes are overwhelmingly connected with student demography and not schooling system.  When SES is taken into account the non Government systems do not perform any better at all.  The very detailed research undertaken by Richard Teese[9] in the context of the Gonski Review process concluded that:

Using NAPLAN data, the paper shows that public schools work as well or better than private schools (including Catholic schools).  This finding echoes the results of PISA 2009 that, after adjustment for intakes, public schools are as successful as private schools

9.        Gillard’s plan for increased government regulation and control and a one size fits all, lowest common denominator approach is fabianism and based on the socialist ideal of equality of outcomes.

Now this is the strangest claim of all.  Here Donnelly uses fabianism as a slur and it is not the first time he has taken this tack.  However it is a term so quaint, so rarely used, that this tactic may well pass unnoticed.  In fact in order to find a useful definition I had to go back to 1932 to an essay by GDH Cole[10].  Cole’s explanation is interesting given the implied nastiness of fabianism:

Whereas Marxism looked to the creation of socialism by revolution based on the increasing misery of the working class and the breakdown of capitalism through its inability to solve the problem of distribution, Webb argued that the economic position of the workers had improved in the nineteenth century, was still improving and might be expected to continue to improve. He regarded the social reforms of the nineteenth century (e.g. factory acts, mines acts, housing acts, education acts) as the beginnings of socialism within the framework of capitalist society. He saw legislation about wages, hours and conditions of labor, and progressive taxation of capitalist incomes as means for the more equitable distribution of wealth; …


The Fabians are essentially rationalists, seeking to convince men by logical argument that socialism is desirable and offering their arguments to all men without regard to the classes to which they belong. They seem to believe that if only they can demonstrate that socialism will make for greater efficiency and a greater sum of human happiness the demonstration is bound to prevail. 

So our progressive tax system, our Fair Work Australia, our transfer payments to those in poverty, our national health system, our public education system, our welfare safety net, our superannuation minimums – these are all examples of fabianism at work, not because fabianism is a secret sect with mal intent as implied by Donnelly but because we have come to see the benefits of a strong cohesive society where the wealth of the country is not enjoyed by the few while the majority slave in misery. 

What’s so bad about our proud achievements Donnelly?  I for one want to keep moving in this direction and for me implementing the Gonski reform is the essential next step in schooling policy.

10.     Tony Abbott’s view of education, is based on diversity and choice where schools are empowered to manage their own affairs free from over regulation and constraint.

It is interesting that Donnelly thinks he knows what Tony Abbott’s view of education is, because I suspect most of us remain unclear on this matter.  Abbott has said on one occasion that more funding should go to Independent schools – an astonishing claim given our profile relative to all other countries.  His shadow Minister has said a bit more but his statement that we should go back to didactic teaching (like when he was a boy) does not imply a commitment to allowing schools to manage their own affairs to me.  But maybe he only means that this is what Government schools should do.  That would probably be OK according Kevin Donnelly’s view of the world.

[3] Ibid P 8

[4] Ibid P 26

[5] A useful, research article about this is the submission prepared by Dr Greg Thompson in response to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Australian Education Bill 2012 – Submission no. 16 available at this URL http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House_of_Representatives_Committees?url=ee/auseducation/subs.htm

[6]The best explanation for the important of ‘ other student affect’ on student learning is from an unpublished paper by Chris Bonner where he notes that “the way this resource of students is distributed between schools really matters. Regardless of their own Socio-economic background, students attending schools in which  the average socio economic background is high tent to perform better that if they are enrolled in a school with below Socio-economic intake



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

We need new architecture to support the development and agile adoption of tools and processes for teacher self-managed career-long professional development in schools

I read a timely article yesterday titled “The Flipped Classroom: Students Assessing Teachers” by Brianna Crowley[1].  It is not about the flipped classroom concept made famous by the Khan Academy it is about another sort of flipped – where students provide feedback to teachers.

It was timely, to me at least, because I have been thinking a lot lately about the lack of ready access to a comprehensive and high quality set of well tested and reviewed smart tools, protocols and processes to support teachers to:

  • Identify their most important professional development needs
  • Affirm their areas of strength for sharing with others
  • Reflect on their practice through focused feedback
  • Work with mentors or coaches on continuous improvement
  • Develop portfolios that demonstrate their knowledge, skills and experience for assessment purposes – whether this is for moving from graduate to proficient or deciding to go for accreditation as a highly accomplished or lead teacher

There are a number of ways in which teachers can, and do, get feedback on their teaching.  Instructional observation, peer to peer coaching, classroom walkthroughs, protocols of student work, learning journals or classroom videos are the most obvious and none of these are yet fully embedded into the regular core practice of schools, although they are becoming more and more utilised.

 But what about students providing feedback to teachers?

Now when I first thought about this I was a bit cynical – thinking that if this practice became commonplace (and high stakes)  it would turn classrooms into a sort of market place as teachers tried to outdo each other in being the most entertaining. But of course it all depends on how the feedback process is designed – what information will be sought, for what purpose will the information be put, and how frequently it is sought.  In this sense the ‘politics’ related to teacher feedback from students is no different from the ‘politics’ surrounding assessment or teacher feedback to students.

This article on the flipped classroom puts it well.

A homemade laminated sign behind my desk announces, “In this classroom, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student.” For me, teaching is a fluid interaction of constantly shifting roles. My students and I are engaged in a cycle of mutual learning.

Effective teachers provide concrete feedback throughout the school year. Through formative assessments, students recognize their growth and understand where they can improve.

But what formative feedback do teachers receive? …  A lucky few experience regular peer observations—but most of us are observed only once or twice a year. We have all been encouraged to reflect on our own practice in journals, but it’s probably not a daily routine for most: Who can find the time between urgent activities like meetings, emails, grading, and planning? We rarely prioritize our own learning.

Crowley urges teachers to consider drawing on the experiences and perceptions of students – and to treat them as “experts” about the teaching and learning that takes place in the classroom.  She suggests that it does not necessarily have to be a formal survey process – feedback can be embedded in the teaching and learning process with only small adjustments to practice.

First, look at activities already in place and think about whether they can be altered to provide additional information.

For example, after each major project or writing assignment, my students complete a reflection form. They are prompted to think about their process, identify strengths and weaknesses, and create goals for future assignments. Then I add two or three questions that look something like this:

(1) Which activities helped you understand this assignment, and which were less valuable?

(2) What questions do you still have about what we learned or about the feedback I have given you?

(3) With what skills or ideas do you feel that you need more practice?

These questions prompt students to better understand themselves and articulate their learning styles. In providing constructive criticism, students practice higher-order thinking and communications skills. And the process helps all of us take ownership of the learning that occurs in our classroom.

It’s win-win: Students develop metacognition skills, and I gather valuable Intel.

And how should this information be used? 

With professional discernment argues Crowley.

If my students tell me they learn better by working in small groups with peers than independently, do I reconstruct my classroom for collaborative work in every lesson? Probably not. But I do consider how I can incorporate additional structured group work. Each member has a role and each group is accountable for a product. Then I monitor to see whether my students’ level of engagement and understanding increases.

Likewise, if 70 percent of my students claim that work in their textbook did not help them learn, I have a choice: Do I vow not to use the textbook for the rest of the year? Or do I try to use that resource in more relevant and engaging ways?

Embedded in every piece of student data is a professional choice. We must respect students’ perspectives while applying our professional discernment. We can then take risks, change patterns, and ask for feedback again.

There is also a role for well-designed formal survey instruments – especially at key points through the teaching cycle like the end of a semester or a year.

This article is USA based but it is highly relevant for what we are at in Australia. Now that we have an endorsed set of national professional standards for teachers, the development of exciting new tools, processes and instruments needs to be fostered.

Some states have some useful tools as do a number of clever people in the ever-growing education consultation and ICT software development industries.  We need to find a balance point between a heavily regulated state endorsed tool development process, that necessitates going to tender for something – when we may not always know in advance what smart idea could be just around the corner- and an open market that lets a hundred flowers bloom – not all of them fit for purpose.

We need a QA regulator that assesses new processes, tools and instruments and certifies those that have been road tested in a range of schooling contexts, are aligned to the teaching standards framework, are value for money and fit for purpose.  With a strong quality certification framework in place it would then be desirable and possible to encourage all kinds of smart tools and processes from a variety of sources.  After-all until twitter came along, teachers and systems would not have said ‘if only we had a tool that lets children do … . We need to go out to tender to see who can develop this for us”.  Those days of product development are long over but new processes are not yet in place to enable the agile adoption and adaptation of new ideas and processes.

I think this is a big gap in our school education national architecture.  Now some might suggest that this is the role of Education Service Australia (ESA) but I am not so sure.  Can an organisation be both a developer of products and an assessor? No, not in my book.

Others might consider this to be in scope for the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) but to my mind this is a very bad idea.  These tools should not be assessed and certified by an organisation that, while engaging the profession, is very much an organisation driven by education employers and their perspectives on teacher quality.

Now don’t misunderstand this as a dig at AITSL.  The fact that AITSL reports to MCEECDYA and has all states and non Government systems represented on the board has been essential to the agreement making process for accreditation standards and processes for teacher education as well as for professional teaching standards.

However if these tools first come on stream as part of the standards assessment process they will be seen as impositions   – as part of quality compliance and appraisal processes.

In my view, as the teaching profession gets accustomed to seeing feedback for continuous learning and self directed improvement as an integral and highly regular element of teaching throughout their career, it is vital that the balance of emphasis leans towards support and development, and not towards underperformance management and external review.

So what we need is an organisation that is willing to fill this gap.  An organisation that says, “We will set up quality assessment and certification processes for tools to support the professional development of teachers throughout their careers”.

We could wait for education ministers (MCEECDYA) to set this up – unlikely I think. Alternatively, we could look at it as an opportunity.  After all, the developers of the Wikipedia have managed to be seen as the arbiters of quality input into the global dynamic encyclopedia of life.  No-one gave them this job.  They just did it well.  And this is a much less ambitious task.  Any takers out there?