The Greens take a position on NAPLAN

This was posted today be Penny Wright, Greens Senator: NAPLAN? New plan please..  I must admit to being a bit – well more than a bit – disappointed.

It gives a bit of a summary of the things that are problematic about the current arrangements but it doesnt do much else. I expected more – a considered and comprehensive policy perhaps?

What would you include in this?





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.

The Incredible CREDO: claims that its charter school research verging on criminal

I am posting this critique of the CREDO, because my previous post talks about the CREDO research on the comparative performance of Charter schools relative to public schools in the US.  When writing the article I had not read this report by Jason France, a former Louisianna Department of Education  employee  CREDO is not credible, and never has been | Crazy Crawfish’s Blog.

It is clear that underneath the surface where administrators, researchers and organisations work to produce evidence relating to education policy, there  exists a shadow world where people’s official position is less important than their political connections and the politics being played.

It seems the CREDO research suffers from this.  This posts conclusion is that

CREDO is simply not credible, they are not a research institution, they are pro-charter propaganda churner and should be classified as such by anytime anything they produce is quoted in an newspaper or news program that claims to be unbiased and impartial. If you are a parent, please do not pay CREDO any more attention than you would a miscellaneous propaganda pamphlet handed out at neighborhood grocery store, or stuffed under you front door handle. You can see CREDO as a joke, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a PR firm or a charter school pimp, but an independent research organization they are not.


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.

What have schools got to do with neo-liberalism?

Neoliberalism is not a term that everyone is happy to use.  Some see it as ideological jargon and for others it might describe what is happening but its use by education academics seems to get in the way of teachers and practitioners hearing its central message.

My own view is that the basic assumptions, frameworks and processes of neo-liberalism have been so well incorporated into our economic frameworks, social policies and thinking, that unless we name it and unpack it, we cant talk about what is happening sensibly or view things through any other lens.

In this blog I want to point out just how deeply school education has become infected with the neoliberal ideas.

So what is neoliberalism?  In a recent post by Chris Thinnes[1] the following definition is used

[Neoliberalism is] …an ensemble of economic and social policies, forms of governance, and discourses and ideologies that promote individual self-interest, unrestricted flows of capital, deep reductions in the cost of labor, and sharp retrenchment of the public sphere. Neoliberals champion privatization of social goods and withdrawal of government from provision for social welfare on the premise that competitive markets are more effective and efficient

Now its not hard to see the relevance of this to school reform policies of the US, UK and increasingly in Australia:

  • School choice and competition – highly entrenched in Australia
  • MySchool providing the information to support parents voting with their feet and forcing schools to worry more about student test performance than about the school learning and well being environment
  • high stakes testing – creating commodities out of smart kids and relegating others to a ‘take a sick day on testing’ status,
  • performance pay for teachers – introducing competition where there needs to be collaboration and team building
  • competing for a place in the PISA top 5 – turning school quality into an international productivity competition

Thynne’s post, The Abuse and Internalization of the ‘Free Market’ Model in Education, shows how school policies and practices promote individual self-interest over the common good and the market as the arbiter of values.  In this he is not unique. But Thinnes also reminds us that its fundamental ideas exist at a much deeper level – how this way of thinking has become the air we breathe in school policy and practice, even within the field of education.

His very first example emerges from comments made by both teachers and students about the challenges and opportunities of collaborative or group work in classrooms:

The problem with group projects is that somebody might end up doing all the work, but somebody else will get the credit

 It’s too hard to grade each student when you’re not sure how they contributed Collaboration is great, but somebody ends up not carrying their weight

When you try to help each other, the teachers sometimes treat you like you cheated

The message coming through from these comments  is that although student collaboration might be important to learning in theory, “the assessment and affirmation of individual contributions, achievements, and accomplishments is what matters most in our schools”.

Thinnes observes that

The persistence of such beliefs should come as no surprise to any of us, who find ourselves in a society with an education system that has embraced prevailing myths about competition, meritocracy, and economic and social mobility in its education policy. It should strike us with a great sadness, however, for those of us who question and resist those myths in our classroom practice and learning communities.

This internalization of neoliberal commitments to the individual achievements of our students and teachers, and the market competition of our schools, is naturalized even in our most informal, everyday conversations about education. It is enforced by many of our classroom practices. It is celebrated in many of our school-wide rituals. But I find it perhaps most disturbing when it frames our thoughts, subconsciously or purposefully, about how to improve our schools.

Unfortunately we see evidence of this in the Australian context wherever we look.

The only two items mentioned in the 2013 budget speech in relation to Indigenous education and closing the gap were scholarships for individual Indigenous students to attend elite schools and the Clontarrf Football academy.  Neither of these offer any systemic strategies for improving Indigenous education.  It seems we have decided to give up on structural systemic improvements in Indigenous education, in spite of appalling and systemic failure  – particularly in remote contexts.  The vast majority of Indigenous students and their families are left untouched by these two strategies.  In fact it is possible they will be worse off as the more aspirational students  – those who can contribute to the quality of learning in a classroom  – are plucked out and removed.  And  of course the fact that both these strategies result in the funding of non Government bodies to deliver the programs has not even been seen as odd or of concern.

Today in the Canberra Times Tony Shepherd argues that wealthy parents who choose to suck of the public teat by going to public schools should be charged a levy.  This only makes sense of schools are considered a commodity – a product and students it customers. This is a total repudiation of the fundamental democratic purpose of schools but the impact of neoliberal thinking and its saturation is to make these seem like a logical and sensible idea.

Thynne ends his article with the following message

The end-run of the logic of the ‘free market model’ and its application to schools is simple: the repudiation of schools as we have come to know them; the abandonment of democratic principles on which they are based; and the service of a technocratic vision of education as matrix of individual relationships with private providers….

This internalization of neoliberal commitments to the individual achievements of our students and teachers, and the market competition of our schools, is naturalized even in our most informal, everyday conversations about education. It is enforced by many of our classroom practices. It is celebrated in many of our school-wide rituals. But I find it perhaps most disturbing when it frames our thoughts, subconsciously or purposefully, about how to improve our schools.

We should take note before it is too late.

Education Opportunity Network

For readers interested in education reform fight-back initiatives the latest US appear to be the Education Opportunity Network.  

This initiative aims to make sure all children and youth have the opportunity to learn by sharing provocative information, analysis, and opportunities for action — and by linking educators in the trenches, students, parents, community leaders, education experts, and progressive activists who know education is crucial to the fight for democracy and economic progress. 

Education Opportunity Network.