Its time to call it: a public school spade is an elite school shovel.

I was outraged when I first heard that PM Julia Gillard required the Gonski Review of School Funding to ensure that, in developing their options, ‘no school should lose a dollar’. I was not the only one.

It was a disgraceful requirement to impose on the first comprehensive review of school funding arrangements in 40 years.

Some observers might have wondered why there wasn’t more outrage. The reason is really very simple. Most of us who care passionately about a better deal for needy public schools didn’t like this imposed requirement but felt that getting more money flowing into public education, and establishing a more transparent and fair set of principles for needs based funding into the future, was so important that it was better to accept the terms of the Review and work for the fairest outcome possible under these terms.

The no loser stipulation was also seen by many as a possible circuit breaker to the highly polarized debate that pitted private school against public school funding. It was viewed as a win-win opportunity that would increase the probability of support for the model across from private sector school lobbyists, and consequently enhance the chance of success.

Immediately after the release of the Gonski report, there was a sense of optimism because the private sector did not publicly oppose the Gonski package.

But even then the undermining had begun. The private sector, almost immediately, initiated backdoor, undocumented meetings. This resulted in the Government response to the Gonski Report revising the modeling to ensure the Catholic sector share was maintained in proportional terms. For example, the needs based Gonski weightings were for students in the bottom 25% of the SES scale but the reworked model applied needs based funding for students in the bottom 50% of the SES scale. This shifted the proportion of the needs based funds from the poorest schools to the less poor schools and ensured that the Catholic Systemic schools retained their proportional share of increased pool of Commonwealth funding.

The Gillard Government also put the implementation of Gonski at risk by delays, by attempts to tie the funds to other Commonwealth initiatives, by making it an election issue and through delaying the bulk of the funding to the post budget period out-years.

Then when it looked like there would be a change of Government several outspoken private sector advocates started to spruik alleged negatives of Gonski.[1] Ironically the high price ticket for the full Gonski, necessitated in large part by the no losers stipulation, made the package an easy target to shoot down by the very sector that benefited from this stipulation.

So we are back to fighting for a fair deal for the Public Schools. We need now to talk about why the ‘no losers ‘ framework was a bad bad policy idea. It’s time to speak out about the rank injustice and the waste of funds in a policy that gives tax payers education funds to schools that have resources other schools can only dream about and that simply do not need them. This is the focus of this article.

Why was Gillard’s no school will lose a dollar imposition bad policy?

This paper identifies five very important reasons why we should work towards a school funding policy that continues to support sector blind needs based funding fully without wasting much needed funds on schools whose level of resourcing means that they can manage perfectly well with no additional taxpayer funds.

The initial decision to fund elite private schools, 40 years ago, was not the result of considered policy

Government funding for a very significant number of elite schools had never actually been the policy intention of the initial review of school funding undertaken by the Schools Commission over 40 years ago.

The Karmel Review of school funding originally recommended giving priority in the use of public funds to schools whose standards were below certain agreed desirable levels, and deferring the eligibility for extensive support of schools with resources above this standard until others had been raised to a standard nearer to them. The report stressed that they accepted the right of parents to school choice but not their right to public assistance to facilitate this choice.

The Whitlam Government failed to get this through the Senate and was forced to amend the legislation to extend funding to all schools.

They won this ‘concession’ – now a sacred right – not through any merit of their case for funding, but in spite of it. They won it on the backs of the urgent and pressing needs of the Catholic parish schools, that with the demise of strong sacred orders to fill their classroom ranks, were unable to fund their local parish schools on their own.

Poor policy decisions and blatantly pro-elite schools decisions have progressively increased funding to elite schools

To explain how, and why, I need to give a potted history of Commonwealth Government funding to the private schools sector since the 1970s. In significant ways, this 40 year period can be divided into two distinct parts: the Pre Howard years and the Howard years.

1973-1996 The Pre Howard years

Before the 1970s, the common sense logic was no different from that which operated in most other countries: Governments fund schools out of taxes. These schools are designed to cater for all comers. Not everyone uses these services but they are part of the Common estate just like hospitals, unemployment services, parks, police, footpaths, roads, public transport, sporting facilities. Some people access and/or need, these services more than others. Some can effectively opt out but the services are available for all. Governments don’t fund private roads or private security services for those who don’t find the public system meets their needs. I don’t get a rebate if I don’t use public transport or footy ovals. This is still how most countries think about their schools.

According to Jean Blackburn, one of the key authors of the Karmel Review, the decision to push the school funding bill through the Senate, by accepting the inclusion of elite schools, led to school funding arrangements that can only be seen as unique and extraordinary in a number of respects, and not in a good way. By funding schools that did not need the funds, it established a logic, almost unique to Australia, that because the wealthy pay taxes for services like education they are entitled to have a ‘market share’ of those taxes applied to schools of their choice.

One of the other unintended consequences of this significant amendment to the legislation, pushed through for political reasons, is that the usual considerations essential to good policy development were skipped. The school funding arrangements put in place by the Karmel Review established accountability free funding, where monies were provided with no strings attached, unlike any other Government grant based program.

This mattered less when the funding recipients were struggling Catholic and other schools that needed the money for teacher salaries[2]. They had no room for discretionary spending even with new funding. But as Jean Blackburn observed years later[3]:

There were no rules about student selection and exclusion, no fee limitations, no shared governance, no public education accountability, no common curriculum requirements below the upper secondary level.. We have now become a kind of wonder at which people [in other countries] gape. The reaction is always, ‘What an extraordinary situation’.      

The funding system established differential funding based on a measure of need. However, in the accountability free environment of the time, that had the perverse effect of rewarding schools that directed a greater proportion of the private income towards capital expenditure – towards buildings and facilities. This increased the inequality in building standards and services between school systems.

When one takes a longer term view of school funding in Australia, it is notable that for the first 60 odd years of the 20th century, school funding was entirely a responsibility for the states. The Commonwealth entered the picture in a minor way only through the specific funding of libraries and science centres.

But over the period 1973- 1996, it came to be understood that the Commonwealth had an ongoing role in core funding for the private school sector but only for specific purpose lines of funding for the public sector. This left all core funding for public education in the hands of the more financially impoverished states. As Connor and McMorrow note this had serious consequences over time:

This is a serious issue in a federal system in which the Commonwealth government raises the lion’s share of all revenues. The Commonwealth was readily able to increase grants to schools in the non-government sector, especially as this sector is only half the size of the public sector, at a rate that was far harder for States and Territories to match for the much larger public sector, given competing claims on their tighter budgets.

By the beginning of the Howard years in 1996, the operation of the private school funding policies had become normalized. The historical newness and the global uniqueness of these arrangements had been forgotten by all but a few, and the sacredness of parent choice had been enshrined in our commonsense thinking as a fundamental right (only for those that can afford it, of course).

Public education activists of the period feared that this approach would lead to the residualisation of the public school system, school segregation on the basis of race and class and greater educational inequality. In 1983, well before the Howard education reforms, Blackburn noted that:

In an ironic twist the achievement of long denied public support for non-Government schools has played its part in producing a situation where it is public schooling and public purposes in education that are now on the defensive.[4]

1996 – 2007: The Howard Years

That was where things stood up until the early 90s. Then came the Howard years, where things went from bad to worse. Here is what Connors and McMorrow have to say about this period:

The next watershed in schools funding policies in Australia followed the election of the Howard government in 1996. The Howard government’s arrangements for Commonwealth recurrent funding of schools were grounded in the belief that the way to drive the quality of schooling was to use public money to promote parental choice of non-government schooling and by this means to stimulate provider competition.

I have emphasized the word promote because the first time I read this extract I missed the importance of this shift from supporting parent choice to actively promoting, not just choice, but private schools as the desirable choice.

This was a blatant attempt to privatize education provision for all but the most needy. Public education went from being the default option at the heart of our democratic vision for Australia to a necessary, but residual, second tier service. This quote in the Connors and McMorrow papers reveals the extent of this new vision:

In this policy scenario, the fundamental value and strength of government schooling was described by Prime Minister Howard as the ‘safety net and guarantor of a reasonable quality education in this country’ for the children of those with parents unable or unwilling to pay for private schooling.

This was a significant ideological shift. Prior to this the idea of residualisation was talked about as a potential unplanned outcome of school choice. But here we have Howard stating that this is now a Government policy goal – to residualise Government schools. This is quite extraordinary.

To support this policy goal, funding to the private school sector, over the Howard years, grew by leaps and bounds.

In 2001 a new funding formula was introduced that was described as needs based. The actual effect was the exact opposite due to a number of significant reasons.

Firstly, a new SES[5] funding model was introduced which tied school funding levels to the average SES of the family’s residential postcodes. This was a windfall for schools that had sucked out wealthier families from socially mixed communities. For example, the inner North of Melbourne has a number of suburbs that have a bifurcated population where public housing high-rise estates abut the trendy new developments of the upper middle class. The SES classification for these suburbs will be an average of the 2 groups, but the families who opt out of public education will come almost entirely from only one of these two groups. They take with them to their private schools the funding levels of their postcode.

But it was an even bigger windfall for the large number of high SES schools whose historical level of funding was higher than the funding they would receive under the new classification. The Government agreed to maintain them at their current levels of over funding (another no schools will lose a dollar moment).

Thirdly, this new scheme tied the private school per-student metric to the average cost of educating a student at a public school (The AGSRC). This might sound sensible and fair. But as low needs students exited the public system in ever increasing numbers, and the concentration of high needs students grew, the average costs of educating this higher needs cohort also grew. This created an unearned windfall to the non-Government system (and by the way pushed up the costs of education with no returns on investment).

This new funding scheme increased funding overall to the private school sector above and beyond the pro-rata student increases. This was justified by claims that schools could use the increased funds to reduce fees and thus broaden the base of parents able to choose private schools. This did not happen due to other perverse incentives built into the new scheme. As Connor and McMorrow note:

At the same time .. the government removed all downward pressure on fees, arguing the non-government schools should be free to raise their private income without affecting their level of Commonwealth general recurrent grant; and that any restraint on fees constituted a disincentive to private effort. This was an example of either policy confusion or obfuscation. If the government’s intention was to broaden the socio-economic composition of those families with access to non-government schools, its policy embodied a powerful nudge in the opposite direction.

So the overall effect of these changes has been:

  • An increasing private sector and a contracting public sector, especially at secondary level;
  • Increasing numbers of the higher SES families across all suburbs opting out of public schools and into private schools;
  • An increasing concentration of high SES students in private schools and an increasing concentration of low SES students in public schools;
  • Increasing costs in the public school sector as the proportion of high needs students increased;
  • A consequent unjustified increased transfer of funds to the private schools; and
  • Increasing inequality of student outcomes tied directly to student background.

In funding relativity terms the funding story is very clear. As noted by McMorrow and Connors:

From 1976, a steady shift started to take place in the Commonwealth’s distribution of its schools funding between government and non-government schools. From a 70 per cent share of the Commonwealth’s total funding in 1974, the government schools’ share had dropped to less than one-third by 2007. The changing policies and priorities of successive governments had contributed to this reversal of the Commonwealth’s funding shares for government and non-government schools, until by the end of the Howard government’s term of office, there had been a complete reversal.

In summary then, by the time the Gonski Review of School Funding was announced, the initial 1970s Senate political compromise to include elite schools in Commonwealth funding arrangements had blown out through a succession of both poorly developed policy arrangements and deliberately constructed policies that pushed parents to the private sector. Public schools had become significantly residualised and poorly resourced, and funding for elite schools overblown and unfettered.

The no-losers stipulation meant that the Gonski review could never address the harm done through the creation of a highly segregated school system.

Putting more funds into public schools could assist schools to address the additional challenges of teaching the more needy disadvantaged students and could potentially stop further residualisation. However it would not help to break down the segregation that had already been established.

A socially mixed school helps students with the highest needs without any detriment to the lower need students. A highly segregated system imposes another disadvantage on high need schools that Chris Bonnor refers to as ‘ the school effect’:

…the ever-increasing social and academic divide between schools represents a looming disaster for the students being left behind and for a nation that is already feeling the effects.

…..This social pooling of enrolments is making the SES impact of the school itself, as distinct from the direct impact of family SES, far more significant. The impact of family SES on student achievement in Australia is close to the OECD average, but impact of school SES is among the highest in the OECD. ..

[This is because] … students themselves constitute a very significant intellectual and cultural resource for schools – they bring prior learning, family education, networks and know-how. Depending on which students they enrol, schools gradually look and feel different in things such as resources, student discipline and time on task, number and type of welfare issues, teacher qualifications and expectations, curriculum, achievement culture and more.

The only way to address this un-equalising ‘school effect’ is to desegregate our schools, by ensuring that our public schooling system comes to be seen as a high quality system that caters for all through the ability to provide targeted support for diverse needs.

The large funding quantum of Gonski made it a big target

David Gonski in delivering the Inaugural Jean Blackburn Oration reminded the audience that the reason for the $5 billion price tag is because the stipulation that ‘no school should lose a dollar’ required a lot more funding to be put into the system. The flexibility to redistribute would have delivered a lower cost package. For example the overfunding of the some schools could have been redirected. Alternatively, Gonski could have reverted to the funding principles of the original Karmel recommendations and cut funding to elite private schools.

The Gonski funding quantum is not high in GDP terms but the Abbott Government has used it as a reason to walk away from the Gonski model. Cries of, ‘we can’t afford Gonski,’ have reverberated around our newscorp media with a sense of glee. Almost no-one has responded by stating the obvious, that if you want to reduce the price tag, the solution is simple – lose the ‘no losers’ stipulation. That the Commission of Audit did not identify this option speaks volumes about their interests and ineptitude.

The no–losers stipulation was based on a myth

It’s a myth that has now hardened into a self-confirming truth – that the elite schooling sector is so powerful that no Government can ever roll back the unfair funding regime. Belief in this myth explains the backdoor, undocumented meetings that were not offered to the public school counterparts. Belief in this myth explains why the needs based formula was watered down to such an extent that the funding share to the Catholic system was sustained in spite of their higher SES intake. Belief in this myth explains why Julia Gillard, after a visit to an elite private school with world-class facilities, exclaimed, “Isn’t this great!”

This myth grew to ultimate truth status due to an event that came to be known as the “Latham school hit list incident”. Just weeks before the 2004 election Mark Latham, then leader of the opposition, declared that funding for the very elite private schools should be cut and the funds distributed.

The media exploded. It went nuts. Peter Browne on Inside Story in 2012 noted that the media touted it as act of provocative class warfare and electoral suicide:

The plan provoked a furore, particularly on talkback radio. The Prime Minister, John Howard, characterised it as “old-fashioned class warfare,” a phrase that appeared repeatedly – along with “hit list” – in media coverage over subsequent days and weeks. The churches “savaged” Latham (according to a headline in the Australian), and the private schools warned of fee hikes and an exodus back to government schools. Robert Manne described the announcement as “dubious politics.” Andrew Bolt described it as “abhorrent.

The media believed its own story and so the fact that Labor lost the election because of the Latham hit list was accepted a fact. Except that it is not true. Browne’s investigation shows that this is a misunderstanding of why Labor lost the election as the polls of the time tell another story entirely:

Just before Christmas 2003, Newspoll asked 1200 adults to say what they would “like” or “not like” to happen in 2004. Fifty-five per cent of respondents said they would like to see “a reduction in government subsidies for private schools.” Thirty-five per cent opposed such a move and 10 per cent were uncommitted. In other words, only a little over a third of respondents felt strongly enough to oppose what would later become Labor’s education policy for the election.

Latham announced the school funding policy on 15 September, three-and-a-half weeks before election day.

Ten days later, though, an ACNielsen survey of just over 1400 voters found that support for a shift in funding had actually risen since the Newspoll survey ten months earlier. Fully 66 per cent of respondents approved of Labor’s policy, with 27 per cent disapproving and the remainder uncommitted. Even among Coalition voters, the policy attracted support from 47 per cent of respondents, with 44 per cent opposed.

In conclusion

Now that this Government has walked away from both the funding quantum and the key principles underpinning the Gonski recommendations, we may feel demoralised and defeated but we are not right back to ‘before Gonski’. The Review process and the huge effort put in by the Australian Education Union and many others was not a waste of time and effort.

The funding principles of a ‘school resource standard’ and ‘needs based weightings’ have now been firmly established as the way forward on the basis of extensive research and consultation.

The inequality of resourcing and the needs of public education have been clearly demonstrated.

But we also now know that trying to work with the private sector, hoping for a win-win solution will not work, and that this Government’s priorities do not include a fair go for the old, the young, the marginalised, the sick, or even for future generations. This has become crystal clear through the budget., However, civil society is starting to get organised and to build a broad based pro-poor, pro-social justice, pro-environment, and pro-inclusive movement. Manifestos and priorities for this movement are in development through multiple social media based processes.

This is our opportunity to make sure the key school funding principles outlined through the Gonski process can be included in this broad based movement.   Let us take what we need from the Gonski model and build a strong and clear narrative about what high quality equity based schooling system would look like in Australia. Let us place this narrative within the larger school funding historical narrative where the last 40 years can come to be seen, not as the sacred baseline, and not as the default position but as a foolish, unjustifiable, politically motivated aberration that has done immense harm.

 

[1] I have documented some of this in a previous article.

[2] Although it is worth noting that while the poorer private schools had less freedom to squander their funds there were many questionable practices that were allowed to flourish because of high growth in evangelical Christian schools. Marion Maddox details some of this in her book Taking God to School

[3] Quoted by Dean Ashenden in Mr Gonski and the Social Contract following Gonski’s Jean Blackburn Oration

[4] Jean Blackburn, Changing Approaches to Equity in Education, John Curtin memorial lecture 1991 ANU

[5] Socio-Economic Status

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NAPLAN DAY – What did your child do today: go to the zoo or sit a test?

Today is the start of NAPLAN day for every Australian parent with a child in years 3,5,7 or 9. The vast majority of parents will send their children off to school as per usual, perhaps with an extra hug and an exhortation to” just do your best and don’t get stressed”.

But for a small, but growing, number of parents, this is a day to do something quite different – to go to the movies, the zoo, a picnic or just stay home and have a pajama day. They have taken the decision to remove their child from testing.

Now there are no rights or wrongs about this. It is a personal decision. But you may be wondering why people are making this decision.

I have been reading the many testimonials from US parents about why they have come to this decision and the few statements I have come across about withdrawal decisions from Australian parents. In this piece I bring together the key reasons.

Here is one US parent speaking:

 As a nation we have been convinced that our public schools are failing, that the “status quo” is unacceptable, that schools need standards and testing in order to succeed, and that market based reforms such as privatization, charter schools, vouchers and “dumping the losers” are the way to get it done.  The only problem is that none of this is true. None of it…..

It is the test that binds all of this insanity together.  Without the tests, the reformers have nothing to threaten schools with.  Without the tests, the federal government loses power over states.  Without the tests, schools would be able to stop assigning multiple choice tests to kindergarteners.  Without the tests, there would be no way for education reformers to convince you that your schools are much worse than they really are.  Without the tests, there wouldn’t be a target on our teachers.

But tests aren’t really the problem, the real problem is how the tests are used. Tests are an important form of data that can help educators determine how students are doing and how they need to improve.  When used for that purpose, tests are great.  Still limited, but great.  However, when used as a tool for propaganda, profit and pressure, tests are more punitive than positive.  As long as high stakes standardized tests – despite their limitations – are used as the primary means for evaluating schools, they will continue to be far more valuable for punishing states, schools and teachers than for evaluating student achievement.

There isn’t much I can do about this as an educator and an academic other than write and speak when I’m allowed.  But as a parent I have the power to take control over the education of my child, and that’s exactly what my wife and I have decided to do.

 

This opt out movement in the US started as a mere trickle but this year it has reached a critical mass. In Long Island alone more than 20,000 school children did not take the first round of state tests that began April 1[1].

Here is another parent – this one not a teacher – explaining her decision to opt out

Lawmakers and education reformers are pushing policies that subtract joy from the classroom, and as a parent of two public school students I am looking to push back. That’s why I joined the opt-out movement ..

Lawmakers and education reformers are pushing policies that subtract joy from the classroom, and as a parent of two public school students I am looking to push back. That’s why I joined the opt-out movement ..

…this year their father and I refused to send our kids to school for …testing. Instead they slept in, watched TV, played outside and read for pleasure. Their grandma also took them to the museum….

I’ve come to believe standardized tests are to learning as an exhibit of butterflies is to nature. In the attempt to pin down what is measurable, we render something wild and beautiful, dead and on display.

While our public school leaders pay lip service to creativity and innovation, they are mandating more class time be devoted to standardized testing in the name of holding teachers accountable for student progress. Next year, Colorado charges headlong into a pay-for-performance system tying 50 percent of our public school teachers’ evaluation to student progress.

Ravitch, … believes parents can halt this parasitic process by refusing to allow students to take the tests that feed it. “Deny them the data,” is the slogan inspiring me and thousands of parents around the country.

 

But my personal favourite is this letter from Will and Wendy Richardson from Delaware

To the Editor:

After much thought, we have decided to keep our son home during …standardized assessments …. we are basing this decision on our serious concerns about what the test itself is doing to our son’s opportunity to receive a well-rounded, relevant education, and because of the intention of state policy makers to use the test in ways it was never intended to be used. These concerns should be shared by every parent and community member who wants our children to be fully prepared for the much more complex and connected world in which they will live, and by those who care about our ability to flourish as a country moving forward.

Our current school systems and assessments were created for a learning world that is quickly disappearing. In his working life, my son will be expected to solve real world problems, create and share meaningful work with the world, make sense of reams of unedited digital information, and regularly work with others a half a world away using computers and mobile devices. The NJ ASK tells us nothing about his ability or preparedness to do that. The paper and pencil tasks given on the test provide little useful information on what he has learned that goes beyond what we can see for ourselves on a daily basis and what his teachers relay to us through their own assessments in class. We implicitly trust the caring professionals in our son’s classroom to provide this important, timely feedback as opposed to a single data point from one test, data that is reported out six months later without any context for areas where he may need help or remediation. In short, these tests don’t help our son learn, nor do they help his teachers teach him. 

In addition, the test itself poses a number of problems:

         Over the years, the “high stakes” nature of school evaluation has narrowed instruction to focus on only those areas that are tested. This has led to reductions in the arts, languages, physical education and more.

         Research has shown that high scores can be achieved without any real critical thinking or problem solving ability.

         The huge amount of tax dollars that are being spent on creating, delivering and scoring the tests, dollars that are going to businesses with, no surprise, powerful lobbyists in the state capitol and in Washington, DC, is hugely problematic.

         Proposals to use these test scores for up to 50% of a teacher’s evaluation are equally problematic. The tests were not created for such a use, and to create even higher stakes for the NJ ASK will only create more test prep in our classrooms at the expense of the relevant, authentic, real world learning that our students desperately need.

         These tests create unnecessary anxiety and stress in many students who feel immense pressure to do well.

In no way are we taking this step because of our dissatisfaction with our son’s public school, the teachers and administrators there, or our school board. We have simply had enough of national and state policies that we feel are hurting the educational opportunities for all children. At the end of the day, we don’t care what our son scores on a test that doesn’t measure the things we hold most important in his education: the development of his interest in learning, his ability to use the many resources he has at his disposal to direct his own learning, and his ability to work with others to create real world solutions to the problems we face. And we feel our tax dollars are better spent supporting our schools and our teachers who will help him reach those goals as well as the goals detailed by the state standards in ways that are more relevant, engaging and important than four days of testing could ever accomplish.

There are many many parent testimonials to opting out and many impassioned arguments about why they feel it necessary to take this step. But for me the following themes appear to stand out:

  1. The problem isn’t testing per se – but how tests are used –  the lack of validity and reliability in their unintended uses. This testing culture punishes and diminishes teachers.

 In the US this is particularly problematic, because of federal Government mandates that require states to use standardized tests as one of the measures to assess teachers. This was mooted by Ben Jenson from the Grattan Institute at one point and also by Julia Gillard. But because of excellent intervention by AITSL this disastrous situation has been avoided – at least for now.

But we do use NAPLAN scores as the basis for student outcomes reporting on the MySchool website. This turns these tests from a low stakes test to a high stakes event, uses the data in ways that are psychometrically questionable and fosters an unhealthy market choice model of education.

  1. The testing culture has impoverished what happens in classrooms and parents want education to be a joyful experience and to prepare students for active participation as adults in social, economic and political life. The kind of learning that can be tested will not equip students for this.

It is interesting to note that almost none of the testimonies I located were from parent who had children who were stressed or made sick by testing days. This is not to suggest that this situation does not exist , but that this is not what is driving the opt out movement. These are parents who want education to be the best it can be for all students and see the testing culture as undermining that, not just for their child but for all students.

  1. We don’t want to be part of the problem, so we are pushing back, refusing to provide our data to a bad process. In this way we haope to be part of building a movement that will destroy the corporate education stranglehold on our nation’s education.

Many many parents were at pains to state that they don’t believe there is a crisis in public education in the US and that they trust teachers as professionals more than they trust a multiple choice test to assess their childrens’ progress

How will you know what your child is capable of if you don’t have test scores?”  The answer to that is pretty simple.  We trust our son’s teachers.  The privileging of standardized test score data above all other forms of information regarding a student’s progress is a relatively recent phenomenon.  There was a time when we trusted teachers to teach, assess, and evaluate the progress of our students.  We believe this should still be the case.  We don’t need standardized tests to tell us what our kids are capable of.  Our sons’ teachers are more than capable of evaluating and communicating our son’s capabilities in the class using the data they collect through classwork, teacher created assessments and other formative data points that aren’t mandated by the federal government.  Did you know that the new assessments for CCSS will be graded completely by a computer?  Even students’ writing will be scored by a computer.  They’ll tell you that algorithms can be constructed to evaluate a human’s writing capacity.  As an expert in how kids think and learn, I’ll tell you that’s ridiculous.  Testing is one of the least authentic ways to determine  what any child is capable of. Nowhere else in life do we try to determine what somebody is capable of by putting them in front of a test and asking them to fill in bubbles.  Yet in in American public education, that’s quickly becoming the ONLY way we determine what students are capable of.

In Australia one person who has gone public about his decision to withdraw his eldest child from NAPLAN testing is Glen Fowler, ACT branch secretary of the Australian Education Union.

He has withdrawn his year 3 child, because NAPLAN data is published to show how individual schools are performing.

The use of this data to compare and rank schools is a disingenuous practice, and from my point of view, if the data is being misused, there will be no data provided by my family….

I’ve got no issue with standardised tests which are low stakes – I’ve got no issue with sample testing which is done by PISA [Program for International Student Assessment] every year … there’s no capacity for that to damage the reputation of a school or a teacher or a student.

If I had kids of NAPLAN age I would definitely withdraw them, not because of concerns about the effects on my child but as a political act. If enough parents acted in this way, the results would become even more unreliable and eventually there might need to be an acknowledgement that this is not our best policy. NAPLAN is NOT diagnostic; it narrows the curriculum and encourages low-level thinking, and it harming some children[2].

Maybe all this could be seen to be acceptable if there was a more important upside to the enterprise, When the decision to publish NAPLAN results to the school level o MySchool was first announced, there were many noble speeches about using NAPLAN to assess which children and which schools need extra help so that resources can be appropriated for this purpose,  But NAPLAN is NOT being used to identify those schools needing extra funding. And with tonight’s budget decision I very much fear, school funding in Australia will continue to ignore the needs of our most disadvantaged students. In this context NAPLAN is nothing but a cruel joke.

[1] http://www.networkforpubliceducation.org/news/thousands-of-long-island-students-opt-out-of-common-core-testing-long-island-news-from-the-long-island-press/

[2] if you want to think through your position on NAPLAN the ‘Say no to NAPLAN’ site established by Literacy Educators at Sydney University provides an excellent set of papers about why NAPLAN is problematic.

 

Is opting out of testing just selfish individualism?

In a recent article about American culture and the opt out society Alan Greenblatt described the growing and successful movement to encourage parents to refuse to allow their child to participate in national standardised testing as selfish individualism.  It might be driven by a parents individual interest, he argues, but it is selfish and against collective interests:

 It’s probably true that the time spent on testing isn’t going to be particularly beneficial to the kids, but it’s very beneficial to the system,” says Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, an education think tank. “If you have enough people opt out of these tests, then you have removed some important information that could make our schools better.

I find this amusing because the whole corporate reform movement, for which testing is the centerpiece, is built on the neoliberal belief that the best solution to everything – prisons, health, education etc – is to turn everything into a market and allow competition and individual choice to drive better value.

In fact this was the prime motivation described by Kevin Rudd when he first announced the ‘school transparency agenda’ on the 21 August 2008 at the National Press Club. The speech has mysteriously disappeared but I am quite clear that Kevin Rudd said something along the following lines

“If parents are unhappy with their local school because of the information in MySchool, and decide to transfer their child to another better performing school, then that is exactly what should happen.  This is how schools will improve, through parents voting with their feet.”

Now nobody who works in a struggling school thinks this is the way schools improve. Australia has run an aggressive market choice model of school funding for nearly 2 decades now and all we have to show for it is a highly class segregated schooling system and high levels of inequality.

So let me reassure parents who are concerned about our high stakes NAPLAN testing regime.  Opting out of having your child participate in these tests is much more of a community act than deciding to send your child to an elite school.

Submission to the NT Indigenous Education Review

I am disappointed to find that even though 2 working weeks have elapsed since the Submissions to the NT Education Review were due, the NT Government has not made them public. But sadly I am not at all surprised.

The NT Government, the Government that we trust and fund to overcome extreme (i.e. 3rd world levels of) disadvantage in remote Indigenous communities, continues to live up to my expectations in this regard.

So as a public service I am posting my Submission in full on this website. Many will ague that I am being too kind in some respects. And this may well be my significant point of departure from many social justice activists who I otherwise respect.  You see, I agree with one major point made forcibly by Bruce Wilson. I agree that the current situation is intolerable and that arguments that imply that cultural respect and continuity automatically trump the need to STOP the systemic failure to provide remote Indigenous children with decent life options must be challenged. As I say in this report I believe that

 We can’t sacrifice the possibility of a successful future for these children, for a non-realisable future of a community.  These communities have deep and complex problems as well as cultural strengths and possibilities. This Review must be about what is in the best interests of these children.  But that doesn’t give one license to ignore the vision, values strengths and passions of parents and communities for their children.  This hard work must be done.

Please if you disagree with me I encourage you to first read my submission in full before jumping to conclusions and then comment.  I promise to p approve all comments unless they are just content free accusations or threatening.  In commenting  would you be willing to  not assume I am motivated by the worst of motives.  I am more than open to be convinced that may views and understandings need to accommodate a perspective I have not currently taken on board.

This debate is important – too important to be reduced to the tossing of accusations from our hunkered down thought fortresses.

Sections One and Two are minor variations of the previous two posts on this topic, but Section Three is a new one.  it focusses on the compulsory secondary boarding school proposal.

I am submitting this in response to Bruce Wilson’s Draft Independent Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory.

Submission

I have decided to write this submission with Bruce Wilson as my primary audience because, as I understand through listening to radio interviews with him, these submissions will go directly to Bruce Wilson for consideration in drafting his final report

This is the first time I have seen a report on the NT Department of Education (NTDoE) website that notes the systemic failure of ‘bush schools’ in the NT and the devastating consequences of this failure. Addressing this failure is time critical now because in many communities the vast majority of Indigenous adults with a functional level of English language oracy and literacy are those that were educated in the mission days.  As these people die out over the next decade the impact on leadership in many communities will be devastating.  Creating a critical mass of Indigenous adult community residents who are versed in their own language, culture and law and also able to engage as equals with: Governments at all levels, service providers such as schools and medical services, potential employers and social enterprises will be crucial.

So we need to do this for the future of remote communities.

But as you bravely remind us Bruce, we need to do this for the children, even if, one of the consequences of doing so could be that many future children don’t actually return to the community as young adults.  This is a critical issue and one many passionate about Indigenous justice have shied away from and with good reason.  When it comes down to it, I agree with you on this principle Bruce.   We can’t sacrifice the possibility of a successful future for these children, for a non-realisable future of a community.  These communities have deep and complex problems as well as cultural strengths and possibilities. This Review must be about what is in the best interests of these children.  But that doesn’t give one license to ignore the vision, values strengths and passions of parents and communities for their children.  This hard work must be done.

This report has placed the urgency of this situation squarely on the public agenda and this is important. I am impressed because you have been willing to question the business-as-usual assumption that the answer must be to keep doing what we do, but to do it better.

But in this submission I ask you to give serious consideration to the following three issues.

Section One: Funding Accountability, Adequacy and transparency

It is my view, based on experience both with and inside NT Government that you should have addressed the issue of the adequacy of the funding arrangements for NT remote schools.

I have raised the issue of remote school underfunding in the NT in a number of articles[1]. The evidence of significant under-funding of remote schools should have been available to you for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the Gonski modeling work showed that this is clearly the case.

For example, in an article in the Australian on July 2013, Adam Giles, Chief Minister for the NT admitted that, according to the Gonski Student Resource Standard metrics, many Darwin, and some Alice Springs, schools are significantly over-funded and its remote schools underfunded.

The article notes that Giles thinks “Gonski is a con that says more than 40 per cent of Territory students attend schools that get too much funding and need less “ and that he “accused Canberra of trying to hoodwink the Territory into signing up to a bad deal that diverts money away from urban students in Darwin, the rural area, Palmerston, Alice Springs and Katherine and redistributes it to remote schools”.

According to this article, under the Gonski model, Darwin High School and Palmerston Senior College are overfunded relative to the schools resourcing standards by around $2 million, Moil Primary School is overfunded by more than $1.3m, Taminmin College is overfunded by $2.5m, and Bradshaw Primary School is overfunded by more than $900,000. These are all schools in Darwin or Alice Springs with comparably low numbers of Indigenous students.

The I Give a Gonski website look up table lists the percentage increases Indigenous NT remote schools would have received under the Gonski funding principles. The following examples show clearly the degree of underfunding:
 Shepherdson College – in Galiwin’ku, an Indigenous community, 73%
• Yuendumu School – an Indigenous community, 60%
• Umbakumbar School – an Indigenous community, 86%
• Alekarenge School – an Indigenous community, 68%
• Docker River – an Indigenous community, 110%
• Borroloola – a mining town with a majority Indigenous population, 92%.

The systemic misuse of funds intended for addressing Indigenous disadvantage has occurred across time and under both parties, Labor and the Coalition.

Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage is a challenging and possibly intractable problem. However it seems to me that the NT Government has taken advantage of this reality and never seriously tried. The shift to an outcomes focused approach through the 2008 COAG reforms was a blessing to the NT because it took away any pressure to account for funding inputs while still allowing them to ‘fail magnificently’ because we all expect failure in this sphere anyway.

Secondly, the NT funds schools based on attendance not enrolment.

This systematically discriminates against remote schools because it leads to a gross underfunding of remote schools where schools average attendance rates are between 50% and 62%. So while NT saves up to 50% of its staffing costs in remote, 100% of these children actually attend over the school term – just on an intermittent basis. They still need to be allocated to class rolls and taught when they turn up.

A remote teacher colleague in the NT informed me recently that in their school they now have class rolls of over 55.  Now it is worth thinking in some detail about what this means for a remote teacher – who is often new to remote teaching and in many cases new to teaching.  A class of 50 is likely to have around a quarter of the students attending every day.  So imagine a class with a new teachers where there are 14 students who attend everyday but 55 on the roll.  The high attending students deserve this teacher’s full attention. These kids and their families make a fantastic effort, and overcome many obstacles to get to school because they believe it is worthwhile. But will it be, in these conditions?

How can these kids get a fair go when, on any given day any number of the other 41 kids are irregularly attending, kids who are still not able to understand English, who cannot yet read, who are not ‘schooled’ in the ways of schooling.

You suggest we concentrate on the regular attendees because these are the ones who meet the preconditions to succeed and I support this.  However this is not possible in such extreme chaos.

This churn of children through classrooms makes it very hard to provide a systematic approach to developing the skills and understanding of the minority of children who attend on a regular basis.

Funding on enrolment would go a long way to righting the historical funding wrongs perpetrated on Indigenous Communities. It would also allow a school to separate out the high attendees like they are starting to do at OLSH School in Wadeye.

You may or may not be aware that the Commonwealth Government signed an MOU with the NT Government in September 2007 where the NT Government agreed to start funding schools based on  ‘agreed student numbers’.  Agreed student numbers was a term used to describe an estimate of the numbers of children living in each community of school age – so it would have been even higher that the enrolment student figure.  Some of the funding programs that are now lapsing were agreed through this MOU.  In other words the Commonwealth provided the funding on the explicit condition that NT change their funding to remote schools.  The NT has never attempted to comply with this.

Thirdly, The NT does not fund the ESL needs of its remote Indigenous population in ways that are comparable to how all other Australian states/territory fund the intensive English language needs of new arrivals from non-English speaking countries.

You note the significance of the English language challenge for remote education and stress that in some communities 100% of children arrive at school with no ability to understand English at all. This significant issue needs a systematic approach and requires dedicated funding.

This fact stands irrespective of the policy position taken over bilingual education (see more about bilingual education below). Bilingual education has not been properly resourced since funds were ripped away over a decade ago. This information would not be hard to find, if you are willing to search for it.

Across Australia, it is recognized that non-English speaking newly arrived children require a time (about 12 months) in an intensive English language oral immersion program. There is no dedicated funding for anything similar in NT remote schools – irrespective of the approach taken.

Fourthly most states have a publicly available set of principles for staffing their schools that includes a needs-based component as part of core funding.

When I was working with the Commonwealth in the NT in 2007, I was informed that NT DET was in the process of reviewing their staffing formula and as part of this were looking at needs based funding.  In mid 2008 I took up a senior policy role with NT DET and happened to be in the Division where this work was taking place. This dedicated review team was highly skilled and committed. I watched as, over the next 18 months, they continued to send their proposal to the senior executive for consideration.  I also heard the gossip around me about why changes to a fairer funding regime would never happen because this would require taking huge resources out of Darwin schools –something that would never happen.

12 months later I attended a meeting between NTDET and a high profile and well-respected consultant, like yourself, who was tasked by the Commonwealth to report on Indigenous education funding in the NT.  When he asked for their staff funding principles and formulas he was told they were not available because they were in the final phases of developing a new staffing formula which would give weight to remote and Indigenous disadvantage. He accepted this at face value and I held my tongue.

In 2010 in cooperation with journalists from Education Review, I worked on a series of questions for NTDoE.  One of these related to their staffing formula and we were told that this information was available because they were in the final phases of their review of staffing, which would address remote disadvantage. I urge you to investigate this as part of your independent review.  Are they still pretending they will d something?

It is worth noting that all other states have some sort of needs based funding, even prior to Gonski.

They might put different weightings on different needs – e.g. they might give extra weight to higher levels of low socio-economic status, remoteness of school, ESL needs, percentage of single parents or use enrolment data about parent occupation and education. The NT, with the highest levels of inequality between its top and bottom schools, does not. I used to wonder why they bothered wasting highly skilled staff resources on undertaking a staffing review, but the above experience suggests an answer.

What has never been attempted in the NT is the implementation of a long-term needs-based core funding in remote Indigenous schools. Your review was, and still is, an opportunity to put this urgent priority squarely on the table.  Please consider taking this path.

I can almost assure you that if you don’t, any solutions you recommend, especially solutions that necessitate above core funding to ensure they are appropriate will be done without the funding essential to its success.  For example, even if your review succeeds in garnering new Commonwealth or private monies to provide the familiarization, transition and cultural support programs necessary for overcoming problems we know to be associated with Indigenous residential programs, NT will under resource this unless you find a way to address this issue.

You have correctly identified the almost total systemic failure to support over two generations of people living in remote Indigenous communities to a level of basic literacy required for even an unskilled job. You have accurately noted that this is a highly challenging undertaking that n other Government in Australia shares to the same level. But your faith in Governments as responsible entities has meant that you have failed to unearth the fact that, while this failure has occurred with copious wringing of hands, there was never any chance of success. It was never funded to a level where any sort of reasonable educational outcomes could have been achieved.

Why /How did this happen?

I have spend some time trying to figure out how this gap in your report might have occurred because I respect you work enormously and have never considered you to be a ‘briefcase for hire”.  Your incisive critique of the constant reforms and change in the NT attests to this.

The following reasons come to mind

Firstly, funding allocations would not have been articulated in his visits to schools.

You note that funding issues came up very frequently in his consultations. Most people in remote schools would have mentioned this issue, but for many it would have been experienced as a problem of churn, the short-term nature of funded programs, and the constant shift in priorities. They are not across the bigger picture funding issues.

Secondly, the main focus of the NT Government officials would have been the adequacy and surety of Australian Government funding because of the NT’s heavy reliance on specific funding programs and the fact that many are ceasing in 2014.

On reading the financial section of the review it became clear to me that one of the key drivers for the NT government in initiating this review is the cessation of many Australian Government funded Indigenous specific programs and the impact this will have on the NT education budget.

It seems that this Review is part of the work the NT Government is undertaking to ‘make its case’ for renewed funding by the Australian Government and, of course, for the funding not to be scrutinised and tracked, but to be integrated and based on the COAG outcome based funding principles.

Thirdly, you assume that the COAG intergovernmental funding principals should be applied both to any new Australian – NT Government funding agreement and to your approach in undertaking this review.

The mantra of outcomes focused funding and reporting is almost universally accepted across the Australian Public Service. It rests on the belief that Governments are responsible, well intentioned and have their own accountability/transparency process with their communities

You have bought into this assumption that a focus on outcomes and a hands-off approach to input controls will lead to Governments and departments having the flexibility they need to deliver the outcomes they commit to. 
It may be a reasonable basis for funding with mature states that have developed such processes but good governance cannot be assumed in the NT.

In spite of the fact that this was, in all other respects a very detailed and comprehensive review you did not scrutinise funding inputs, funding allocation principles and mechanisms. Instead you adopted the lofty view that all that is required is agreement on the strategic goals and agreement that funding be applied to achieving these strategic goals. This quote makes this clear:

“Identifying the detailed costs of Indigenous education as if it were a separate enterprise is not a requirement for making progress. The review has approached issues of costs from the opposite perspective: what operations, processes, procedures, structures, programs and support are required to deliver a high quality education to Indigenous children in the Northern Territory? The costs associated with delivering an education of that kind will be analysed in a preliminary form in the implementation plan that will accompany the final version of our report. Nor does the review take a position on the current quantum of funding of Indigenous education in general. Instead, the report recommends actions required and the implementation plan will begin to map required spending to put them into practice.”

You also state that this is the approach that the Australian Government should take in their funding of Indigenous education programs in the NT. For example, you argues that for a new agreement with the Australian Government on Indigenous education based on the goals of a newly developed strategic plan for bush students and schools and allocated as flexibly as is consistent with effective accountability. You accept the logic of an outcomes only focused approach even while noting the Australian Government concerns about cost shifting and fungbility.

This sounds logical and reasonable. But it is exactly what the NT Government would have wanted you to say. NT has a long history of committing to new strategies and priorities in Indigenous education with little or no funding. For example, in 2009, the ambitious strategy called Transforming Indigenous Education had no associated funding. Similarly, the excellent work undertaken to put in place Remote Learning Partnership Agreements was completely undermined when, following the Government’s prominent formal signing ceremony in a community, it became clear to the community and the school that the agreement could not be implemented because no funding was allocated.

“Don’t look at our funding allocation inputs, just focus on the merit and ambition of our goals and leave us to fund accordingly” is the perfect outcome for a Government where there are no votes in investing in the Indigenous population. This allows NT Governments of all persuasions to keep on doing what it has always done – take Australian Government funds: general Commonwealth Grants Commission ‘disadvantage’ allocations, and specific Indigenous allocations funded through other agencies and continue to use that money to overfund non-Indigenous majority services, facilities and infrastructure. To put it bluntly, Darwin voters win at the expense of Australia’s most disadvantages and under-serviced communities in remote Australia.

Knowing what I know and what others can confirm, if it is thoroughly investigated, I urge you to reconsider your approach in this section.  NT does need additional Commonwealth Government support in order to have any hope of delivering a quality Indigenous education program for its remote communities.

In the COAG changes to the SPP funding, NT lost out because the funds it was given for Aboriginal programs were transferred to the single funding bucket and loaded into the general SPP payments.  The problem with this is that these funds were allocated historically on the basis of the Indigenous school age population but when they were put in the mainstream bucket they came under the mainstream allocation method that was based on the school age population.

I would also argue that the loadings applied for disadvantage and remote servicing are in urgent need of review.

But being successful in attracting new funds to the NT for Remote Indigenous programs of whatever shape, is not the same as being successful in having those funds applied to the program proposed.  Even with explicit agreements (see MOU example above) this routinely does not happen.

The NT will use this report to approach the Commonwealth for new funding to replace the funding programs that are lapsing in 2014.  They will be trying to tell the Government that this is a radical new shift that will deliver outcomes.  I

If new money is given to the NT to overcome the Indigenous education gap it is essential that the funding come with strong input as well as output accountability measures. Without forcing some measure of funding accountability and transparency on the NT, new Commonwealth funds will be wasted.

Bruce, I urge you to take this issue most seriously.  We don’t want to wait another 14 years – nearly a generation more of systemic and racist policy failure for the next review to pick this up?

Section two: developing English language proficiency and literacy

The second very troubling aspect of your report relates to the early learning experiences of Indigenous children.

You note that in many remote/very remote communities almost all children arrive a school with almost no English. You then immediately narrows your focus to the question – how to get these children up to speed in English reading and writing? And your answer appears to be “Do what we do for Australian children but do it earlier”.  In my view this is half right, early learning experiences are definitely part of the answer.  But even if you are not going to be a passionate defender of bilingual education you have missed some important considerations in this section.

Almost 100 per cent of children who grow up in some of the larger discrete Indigenous communities in remote NT speak another language, or more frequently languages. This doesn’t just mean that these children speak another language; it means that they don’t speak English and they don’t hear it spoken in the home, in the playground, in the community, at social functions, on the radio, in shops and in church.

They live in a non-English speaking world, until they arrive at school. At school one of the goals should be to support all children to be competent users of the English language.  But they don’t just need to learn to read and write, they need, first to learn to speak and understand. They will come across English words that have no parallel meaning in their language, home language words and concepts that are not able to be readily translated into English words, phonemes in their language that are not used in the English language and many English phonemes do not exist in their languages.

When the children go to pre-school, the teachers have to work out how to support early play based learning for a whole class of children who do not understand English but who do understand speak and play in a living Indigenous language or languages.

What would your priorities be?  You may say start to introduce them to the world of English, but how?

Well how do others learn a whole new unfamiliar language?

If you enrolled in a Japanese language class, would you expect to find the following?

  • not one word spoken in English to tell you what was happening, or where the toilets are,
  • the lesson is filled with lists of Japanese phonemes to learn – sounds that you have trouble getting your tongue around, sounds in Japanese script that you have trouble trying to replicate, and sounds disconnected from any meaning
  • you are given lists of words to memorize as sight words

Or would you expect to find yourself in a fun oral conversation class in the early days, where you are immersed in the sounds of Japanese but given a huge amount of scaffolding support to master a simple conversation?

Australia has a relatively positive record of educating children who are new arrivals from a language background other than English.  How did we earn this reputation?  Do we explicitly teach these children sets of phonemes and request that they learn them off by heart?  Do we teach them sight words so they can respond to picture-less flash cards?  Of course we don’t.  We provide them with a rich and supporting intensive English oral immersion experience and gradually introduce text that builds on their growing English language oral competence.  We fund this rich immersive experience for a full 12 months before we expect them to operate in a standard classroom.

An expanded and generously funded Families as First Teachers program is definitely worth building on. They should be expanded and I would also argue that there could be space in an expanded program to start to introduce English language alongside first language as art of the rich play based environment.

I am not an expert here but both my children went to a bilingual public school, where almost all the other children who attended the program had been part of a bilingual preschool program in the same language.  It was traumatic and almost impossible for them to make up for what they lost in not being exposed to a rich bilingual play environment.

I learnt English in my home, immersed in a loving and oral language rich environment.  Many of my peers came to Australia from war torn countries and learnt English in a much more challenging environment.  There were no Intensive English Centres back then. But they did mix with English speaking children in school classrooms, in playgrounds, in church and shopping centres.  They did hear it in the street, on the buses, on the radio and later TV and in the playground and classroom. Their teachers expected them to learn English in this accidental way – and so they did. But they did not have to sit NAPLAN tests and feel the brunt of NAPLAN failure and

But children in remote communities only ever hear English language spoken in their formal classroom.  They don’t hear it anywhere else, not even in the playground.  So if these children learn English ‘just like everyone else learns English’ we need to replicate these oral rich environments, while continuing to support their learning.

In the NT, this unique language challenge was handled in many communities through the two-way education approach known as bilingual education.  It was endorsed as official policy because there was a growing body of international research supporting it and because, when well funded and supported, it enabled children to have an English language oral immersion experience while still being able to learn about number, text, letters, the culture of classroom learning, the art of reading, nature, art and music and so on utilizing their already developed language skills of their own language.

For example, in Yirrkala in Arnhem Land, children in the early years learn in their own language, Yolnu Matha, using texts that had been developed by trained linguists who worked at the school specifically for this purpose. English exposure is largely oral at this stage. This has been the consistent approach at this school for over 40 years but the implementation details have changed over time as funding for the program has whittled away, leaving a bare bones approach.

I am sure you are aware of most elements of the history of bilingual education in the NT. The bilingual education program was once well-funded and well-supported, with trained linguists funded by the program to work with the schools to develop new community specific resources. Teachers were trained in how to work in two-way classrooms including how best to work as a team with their Indigenous Education Workers.

Early in 2000 the NT abolished the program only to reinstate it without critical funding for as many linguists, or trained two-way specialists. Language specific publications were less frequently supported and there was no funding support for revised programs guidelines, updating school resources or for teacher and teacher assistant training. For many years it languished as an unsupported program.

Teachers who arrived at a two-way school found themselves in a two-way classroom with an Indigenous Education Worker, some old language based resources, some old program guidelines and a large number of children many of whom attended on an irregular basis who did not understand them.  They were given no training about how to work with their Indigenous colleague or in two-way education or even basic ESL training.

Then in 2008, Marion Scrimgour, the then Minister for Education and an Indigenous woman, in response to severe pressure about poor NAPLAN results, took everyone by surprise by announcing a new NT government policy to teach only in English for 4 out of the 5 hour school day. Scrymgour later apologised for this ‘mistaken’ decision (Rawlinson, 2012).

However, a number of schools, refused to comply, and in 2012 the NT Education Department released their compromise: “English as an additional language policy” which, while never using the words two-way or bilingual, does state that

  • While there will be a focus on learning English, home/local languages can and should be used where appropriate to support learning in all of the learning areas
  • Sometimes, particularly in the early years and for students newly arrived in Australia, it is better to introduce concepts using the home/local language. This is good teaching practice and is to be encouraged throughout the day.
  • It is important for children to learn to read and write in their home/local language as well as read and write in English.

But then it curiously adds the following

The Department of Education and Training values home/local languages and culture and will support communities through the use of school facilities after hours for cultural and language activities and within the curriculum through language and culture programs.

So my take on this is that schools can continue the practices of utilising home languages in classrooms but there will be no support financially, through training linguist support, guidelines or anything else.  And there will be no more use of the terms and concepts the communities value and understand – bilingual education or two-way schooling.

The upshot of this is that bilingual approaches limp on, with untrained teachers, no dedicated funding, and no strong community engagement.  This is a program condemned to fail for three major reasons:

Firstly, two-way approaches had the strong support of the local communities.  When the NT, using Commonwealth funds, negotiated Remote Learning Partnership Agreements (RLPAs) with Communities, bilingual education was frequently their strongest priority along with including Indigenous knowledge in the school curriculum and employing a senior local cultural advisor. The Actions of Scrimgour undermined all the trust building and shared vision that developed through this process.  It killed community commitment and trust in the Education Department.

Secondly, student attendance is suffering from the unsupported approach to English language learning and will almost certainly plummet still further if this recommendation becomes policy.

While data is thin on the ground about the historical situation there is some evidence that bilingual programs led to better student attendance when it was properly supported and funded.

Now you have handed the NT Department of Education the final nail in the coffin – a recommendation to terminate the poorly funded program and put something quite definite and even cheaper in its place.

I have three points to make about this

  1. You are correct in understanding that as currently funded and supported (i.e. not supported), it is failing Indigenous children.  The may retain their language, but they do not develop sufficiently in English oral and written comprehension to cope in an English language classroom.  Whatever you recommend, sham must stop.  It is criminal neglect.
  2. You are wrong to see that the issue is only about written literacy.  You neglect to consider the important of developing English language oracy
  3. Whatever solution is to be developed, must consider how best to support students to become proficient users or the English language as speakers, writers and readers.  This must be planned for and properly supported.

Personally I accept the case for bilingualism on cultural rights and educational grounds.  But not this shoddily funded program.  I will leave others to argue what I believe is a strong case for retaining bilingual programs where communities want it. A summary of key arguments from experts in the field is provided in an attachment to this document (this is posted as a separate post).

But my point is that even if communities agree to an English language dominated approach to their children’s schooling, there needs to be a well funded two-way approach with a rich English language oral immersion program and teachers trained to deal with the challenge of supporting children’s learning in a language not accessible to the teacher.

Even educators who don’t support a fully developed bilingual education, because of practical concerns about maintaining it, will acknowledge that if it is taken away something that fulfils a similar function – that allows children to learn to speak and understand English while still developing their learning  – must be fully funded and implemented.

The key problem with your draft report in regards to this important matter is that you have made it appear as though the NT is currently delivering a coherent and appropriately funded program designed to develop the English language competency of remote and very remote children.  What happens moving forward will be critical.  Will the NT effectively lock the gate on remote children and continue to roll out under-funded programs – bilateral or otherwise?  Will the current Indigenous Education Workers who know how to work in a two-way classroom die out leaving none in their place?

This was, and still is, an opportunity to put on record that whatever approach is taken by the NT, the need for a dedicated fully funded strategy to give all remote children a rich English language oral immersion environment while still allowing learning to take place costs money – for up to date program guidelines, for extensive and ongoing teacher training, for oracy curriculum materials and formative assessment resources and to continually train up a new cadre of Indigenous Education Workers who speak their community language and are competent in the English language. You argue that this last need is not justifiable giving the funding that would be required.   I argue that whatever pathway s taken it is an essential requirement.

You should also recommend that the NT extend and reintroduce ESL tracking of English language speaking, understanding, writing and reading so that schools and the system can track the progress of Remote Indigenous children’s developing English language competency.  In evaluating how whatever program is in place is working it would also be useful to separately track the progress of high attending children.  If they are not making adequate progress in these domains this is an early warning sign that the programs are not effective.

Jarvis Ryan, a teacher from Yirrkala, has argued that bilingual education methodologies should be extended rather than abolished.  If he is correct (I have no reason to doubt this) that, by the end of the bilingual program (year 3), students English language competency, not just in reading but, in understanding and speaking is not up to the level that is essential for engaging in learning in an English language environment this needs to be addressed.  Children cannot participate effectively in learning if they cannot understand and engage in the language of instruction.  This might also help to explain poor attendance. The failure to track this is inexplicable.

Section three: your solution for secondary education

I share your concern that the NT is not able to deliver secondary education program that meets even the barest standard of adequate and that this is not good enough.   I don’t agree that the have tried their best but this is a different matter. What is to be done?

Before I respond to this I need to relay a story.

When I worked for FAHCSIA, I was involved in an exciting project with the women of Galiwin’ku.  Hey wanted to retain funds between paydays so they didn’t routinely run out of food and basics for their kids in the first few days after getting their pensions/pays.  In a community where humbug is just a way of life and drinking and gambling are rife they found this to be almost impossible. After considering a number of options we agreed to fund the development of a basics card for them in partnership with ALPA an Indigenous store that has outlets on a number of Arnhem Land communities.  This project was initiated by the women, not the department and we were in the final days of trialing it with rollout plans eagerly anticipated when the NTER was announced and compulsory income management took our concept and rolled it out as compulsory.

I am sure you can see where I am going here.  It was a shame job and continues to be so today in spite of the fact that had it been community generated and voluntary it would have been enthusiastically supported.

I am convinced there is a role for optional culturally appropriate forms of residential schooling arrangements that bring a critical mass of students together from across Indigenous communities.

I am not convinced that even if voluntarily established there success will be assured.  The sorry history of the enthusiastically supported Commonwealth government funded boarding school on the Tiwi islands attests to the complexity and risk of this undertaking.

When consultations were initiated by FAHCIA on this matter in 2009, residents were supportive of the concept as an option but violently opposed to the children going to Darwin, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs or any other ‘white’ community.

Why not consider setting up opt-in residential centres in some of the so called territory growth towns, as well as in larger centres.

This is also an opportunity to consider different models of schooling.  Could these schools run ‘block programs’ where particular courses are offered for a concentrated period of time and students could spend a semester in the residential program and semester in their home community, with follow up on line support from the larger program.

I agree with you that under current arrangements remote secondary students, including the vast majority who cannot read, are being subjected to a wholly inappropriate program that masquerades as education. We must change this and vastly more accessible culturally appropriate well funded programs to support bringing children together to offer a quality program must now be considered as part of the solution.

You have started an important conversation Bruce and hit out at sacred cows.  This shows an incisive intelligence, moral conviction and courage.  As you embark on this, the next important phase, I urge you to consider the issues I have raised in this submission.  You are welcome to contact me at any point and I will promise not write about any conversations we might have.

Yours in solidarity

Margaret Clark


[1] Margaret Clark, Getting Accountability Settings Right for Remote Indigenous Australians; Achieving Quality Education for All, Perspectives from the Asia-Pacific Region and Beyond Series: Education in the Asia-Pacific Region: Issues, Concerns and Prospects, Vol. 20 Hughes, Phillip (Ed.)

If Independent Government Schools are the answer: what is the question?

Pyne believes that introducing Independent public schools across Australia will bring significant benefits to these schools and their communities.

Yesterday The Conversation published its fact checker that concluded that the claims to increased productivity and efficiency as well as increased student outcomes have no basis in evidence.

While I agree with this, I think this was a cautious assessment that drew its areas for consideration too narrowly. In this post I focus on some of the more concerning aspects about the IPS system that were not considered by the fact checker.

Claims of improved student outcomes – treatment of the research

But first a brief comments on the claims that were considered.  The fact checker, in looking at overseas evidence of schooling set ups that have similarities to IP schools, looked at Charter schools in the US.   It drew from the 2013 CREDO Charter Schools study of the comparative student learning effects of Charter Schools.  This report concluded that there were some comparative learning outcomes improvements but that they were non-significant in nature.  Most media headlines reported in terms of Charters are performing slightly better than public schools

What I find interesting about this is how this non-significant difference is treated.   The Great Lakes Centre for Research recent Review of the CRDEO study makes this point

 The most important results of the study…are differences of 0.01 or 0.02 standard deviation units, and even the largest effect size reported are on the order of 0.07 standard deviations. 

Hanushek has described an effect size of 0.20 standard deviation for Tennessee’s class size reform as ‘relatively small’ considering the nature of the intervention.

So there you have it – an effect size that is tiny- very tiny – is hailed as a small improvement justifying this large scale reform.  However it is much smaller that the effect size attributed to smaller class sizes by Hanushek, who led the campaign to oppose class sizes because, the effect size is too small.

The logic behind autonomous schools

To go beyond the fact checker scope it is necessary to dig behind the claims.  Pyne is arguing that Australia has invested strongly into non-Government education and it is working well for Australia.  He notes that we are unusual in our high levels of investment in non-government schools relative to other OECD countries – so we must see it as a public good.

He is asking the reader to assume that non-Government school enrolments skyrocketed over the years of the Howard regime just because it was a great idea – totally demand driven. But I won’t chase down this particular rabbit hole here.

So, says Pyne, we have these great institutions that work well, so lets get a piece of this into the public education system.  This implies without any evidence that the public system is not working so well.

So what he is borrowing from the non-Government system?  Is it the great facilities, or the ability to enrol students as they see fit, or their ability to charge fees or their superior levels of per pupil funding.  No – because non-Government schools can only selectively enrol students and charge fees because there are government schools that must then pick up all the non selected students, and provide a free education

What he is picking up, is the stand-alone school concept, minus the generous funding – a school with a bucket of money to do its business, responsible to a board and able to make all its own decisions. This will, he argues, be more efficient, will encourage bold new thinking and innovation, and will give the community much more say over spending priorities.

It is interesting to note that in the negotiations over Gonski the non-Government sectors successfully argued for additional systemic funding to better support their stand alone idealised schools. Maybe, just maybe, stand-alone models are not all they claim to be.

The previous WA Education Minister, Barnett justified the WA model of IP schools in terms of increasing competition and variety because maintaining all schools as equal was undesirable as it breeds mediocrity.

So to follow the logic pathway, IP schools will deliver better student outcomes, more productivity and efficiency because ‘stand alone schools’ will make all their own decisions about how they use their bucket of funds.  This will make them more competitive, they will spend the same amount of money more wisely and they will be more innovative.

So lets look at these claims

IP Schools will be more innovative

A WA press article recently profiled an IP school in WA that opted to become a marine biology school.  Fabulous example!  This school has reported that student engagement is high and that they have a big enrollment waiting list.  Students in its enrollment district have an automatic right of entry but students outside this district will have to move house or hope for an enrollment win.

However, NSW, arguably the most centralist state when it comes to its schooling has schools that specialize in agriculture, in performing arts, in technology, in sports, in languages.  There are schools with Opportunity Classes and the Board of Studies has a year 12 syllabus in Marine Studies.  Victoria has Government schools that offer Steiner programs, ACT has the Cooperative school and a bilingual French-Australian K-12 IB school.  There are networks of schools that adopt innovative approaches such as the Big Picture schools, IB schools, UN schools, Stronger Smarter school leaders and Dare to Lead schools. These are just a few examples I know about.  We don’t NEED IP schools to develop innovative schools within the government system.

Lyndsay Connors, argues that when she was involved with the National Schools Network – an initiative of the Hawke-Keating government intended to free schools from bureaucratic and union rules, the new and innovative practices that schools adopted, that she witnessed, were all ones that they could have done without special freedom.

She says this was also true of the self-governing schools created within the Victorian public system under the Kennett government. A few principals took the opportunity to create a governing school or board with some financial freedom, such as increasing salaries, but she says other innovations she knew of depended on extra funding.

Connors argues that with the same increase in funding, other schools could have implemented similar reforms, even while operating under a more centralised system.

And of course not all innovations are good innovations.  A school could decide that they could shift funds directed to ESL learners or special needs students to a program that the more influential members of the board might want – a violin program, or an artist in residence.  Having parents on boards does not always lead to decision that are in the best interests of all parents.  Articulate ‘entitled’ parents will always end up with more say.

And finally, lets remember that some of the innovations in Charter schools are very worrying – “no excuses” schools that feed the school-to-prison pipeline, or, schools with built-in churn as they rely almost solely on TFA teachers passing through education, en-route to a high profile future.

Pyne is allocating $70 million to this initiative.  This will give all participating schools about $47,000 as a one off allocation. So all the innovations will have to come from changing the staff profile in some way because that is where the vast bulk of the funds are spent.

 Competition improves schools

Proponents of this view argue that by giving parents the power to choose between schools and the power to influence schools, schools will work harder to earn more student enrollments.  This competition will improve all schools.

It is very clear that in WA, where only some schools are IP schools, this competition has been hard for non-IP schools.  Trevor Cobbold has posted extracts from principals about the effects of the IP arrangements on their work.  They talk about how the IP schools suck up all the highest rated teachers, while they are forced to staff based on redeployees.  And the more high needs the school, the more intense the problem.

Here are some of their comments:

 Basically, the better ranked teachers chose better schools. That is how it goes and that is how we get residualisation within schools. Low SES schools just cannot compete with the leafy greens, and they don’t even have to be leafy greens but good solid communities that support education and their kids in school. There was always a component of this, but IPS has really amplified it.

and

[this is not a low SES school]
Public education was once about equity, about being able to say that a child way up in Wyndham and a child at leafy Wembly Downs will get the same quality of teacher. Creating a privileged set of schools badly damages this concept.

Autonomy and Student Equity

The ACER evaluation of the impact of IP schools in Australia did not ask questions that might have exposed the impact of this set up on student equity.  They did not look at any changes in the enrollment share of IP and non-IP schools by student demographic characteristics, nor did they look at the changes to the staffing profiles of the schools.  In my view this is a pretty big omission – not necessarily of  ACER’s choosing.

This is the big issue with Pyne’s proposal in my view.  Trevor Cobbold makes this point

 Greater demand for IP schools amongst higher income families and increased flexibility of IP schools to select student enrolments is likely to lead to more social segregation between government schools in WA. Inevitably, it will mean increased differences in school results and more inequity. This is after all what a market in education is designed to do.

 Chris Bonner reiterates

But the bigger danger is that we risk losing the equity safeguards which our public school system, with all its claimed faults, currently provides. [Where schools can choose their own teachers] … the best will gravitate to the schools with the more valued location, easier to teach students and money.   ….there are no prizes for guessing which schools and communities will miss out.

 There are other hidden stings. Unless closely monitored, increasingly autonomous public schools will seek and gain greater control over student enrolments. I love them dearly but already there are few rules which get between many of our enterprising school principals and a desirable enrolment. The better placed autonomous public schools will join their private counterparts in applying both overt and covert enrolment discriminators, worsening the complex equity problems revealed by the Gonski review.

A blog post by Chris Lubienski about research into schools autonomy and equity in the New Zealand context gives us a glimpse into how enrolment manipulation is likely to happen over time if autonomous schools are introduced across the nation. He found that schools will actively pursuer policies of enrolment segregation if they are given a chance to do so and that autonomy initiatives provide just that sort of opportunity.  His findings are so important I am quoting from him at length:

Previous research has shown that schools in more affluent areas are more likely to be in greater demand, and thus more likely to have enrolment schemes.  The question we asked was whether these self-managing schools were using their autonomy to draw their zones in order to improve or restrict access for disadvantaged students.  To do this, we simply compared the level of affluence in a walkable radius around each school to the level of affluence in the boundaries that the schools themselves had drawn.  Certainly, school zones are not perfects circles, as their creators have to consider traffic patterns, geographic barriers, and the boundaries of competitors.  But, all things being equal, we could expect that deviations in those boundaries from a geometric radius around a school would be more or less equally likely to include or exclude more affluent neighborhoods.  

But that is not what we found.  Instead, there is evidence of rampant gerrymandering to exclude children from more disadvantaged neighborhoods.  In the cases where there is a statistically significant difference in the “deprivation level” of the population in a school’s drawn zone compared to its immediate area, over three-quarters of these self-managing school had drawn a zone that was significantly more affluent than their immediate vicinity. 

Moreover, as if to add insult to injury, more affluent schools are not only drawing boundaries to keep poor kids out, but in their promotional materials are bragging about their success in doing this.  A review of school websites shows that more affluent schools are much more likely to include official information about the number of disadvantaged students they serve. 

While we might find these types of practices to be distasteful for public schools that are funded by taxpayers to serve all students, in some ways, such actions are predictable (if indefensible).  After all, policymakers are creating education markets where schools recognize competitive incentives to shape their enrollments.  It should be no surprise that, given such autonomy and such incentives, they find creative ways to do just that. 

So if on Saturday we have a change of Government, this is what we can look forward to in our schools.  We will have a tiered system of schools, competing on a highly unequal basis and our already highly segregated education system will become even more so.

Ironically one of the best tools for highlighting the issues will be the data from MySchool.  Is this why Pyne thinks the publication of the NAPLAN results is a bad idea?  It sounds crazy but I do wonder.

 

 

School Autonomy and the ‘unwanted student enrolment’

A moving article by Travis Smiley PBS talk show host about the film “Education Under Arrest” depicts what happens to poor and minority students under ‘zero tolerance’ regimes being implemented as part of corporate education reforms in many US states.

It made me think about a problem I have predicting will become more relevant to Australia as we foolishly rush to embrace the ‘independent public schools’ model of WA.  The problem, put simply is this:

If schools are going to be made to compete more and more in the schooling market place this will enhance the ‘choice power’ of all students from desirable well educated ‘stable’ middle class families and reduce the ‘choice power’ of families in less stable, middle class circumstances.  Autonomous schools who want to increase their attractiveness in the market place and are in a position to do so will do what is in their power to attract desirable enrolments and keep at bay those considered less desirable.   One possible ‘ solution’ will be embracing notions such as ‘zero tolerance’.  How will this impact on ‘ ‘unwanted students’?

The film is based on interviews with kids who are victims of this policy.  Smiley’s account of the stories are sad and disturbing.

“We had to shut the cameras down for a moment. The testimony of the two New Orleans sisters, Kenyatta, 15, and Kennisha, 17, was too surreal, too emotional and too raw.

Kenyatta was involved in a fight at school that she didn’t start. Because of “zero tolerance” policies adopted at their high school and many others in America, Kenyatta was handcuffed, arrested and expelled. Kennisha, who tried to break up the fight, was also expelled….

One of every three teens arrested is arrested in school. It’s a punitive system based, in large part, on “zero tolerance” policies adopted in the late 1990s after the shocking school shootings in Columbine; a system that’s built a highway into prison, but barely a sidewalk out.

We took our cameras to Washington State, Louisiana, California and Missouri to meet and speak with those involved with educational and juvenile justice reform. Through their expertise and experiences we get a definitive look at how arresting children in school, sending them to court and then locking them away in jail impacts America’s dropout rate.

We shut the cameras down briefly after Kenyatta, with voice cracking and tears flowing, described her ordeal with a school district’s unyielding policy and her encounter with the juvenile justice system:

“It was completely unfair. I felt all of this was so wrong. ..”

A Small Step for Government But a Giant Step for Remote Indigenous Children: NAPLAN and Indigenous Learners

The current review of NAPLAN is the second Parliamentary Inquiry into the use of NAPLAN data in Australia.  If it goes the way of the first inquiry then little change can be expected.

When the previous Inquiry was initiated, I was working for the Australian College of Educators.  We put a huge amount of effort into our submission.  It went through a member consultation process, was submitted and then sank like a stone.  Indeed even the website that hosted all the submissions appears to have disappeared. Nothing much came of it as can be expected when an issue has become politicised.

I am much less optimistic about what can be achieved this time round. My ideal outcome is unrealistic. It will not lead to a change in emphasis from testing and measuring to supporting and building capability –  no matter how much the evidence supports such a change.

However we can and should advocate to address the most egregious problems and unintended consequences associated with NAPLAN.  This is our chance to highlight them.

For this reason I was very excited to see that Submission No. 71 to the Inquiry comes from Leonard Freeman, the Principal of Yirrkala School in the remote northeast of the Northern Territory.

Yirrkala College is a K-12 very remote school quite near the mining township of Nhulumbuy on the Gove Peninsula.  It serves a discreet, remote Indigenous Community on Aboriginal land and 100% of the students that attend are Indigenous.  According to MySchool 97% of the students at the school have a ‘Language Background Other Than English (known as LBOTE).

Now, it is easy to underestimate the significance of this language background issue in Indigenous contexts.  Children who grow up in a remote Indigenous community where their mother tongue is still alive and thriving are, in every sense of the word, still residing in a non-English speaking background country.  They arrive at school with almost no experience of hearing English spoken.  They don’t hear it at home, around town, on their radio station, local stores, health centre, or at social/cultural events.

LBOTE is a broad category and very unhelpful for understanding language challenges and issues.  Children and their families can be quite fluent in English, but if they speak a language other than English in their home they are still classified as LBOTE.  Most LBOTE children who have very little or no English are recent arrivals from a non-English background country.  They might reside in suburbs where English is not the dominant home language and for the first school year attend an Intensive English language unit but English is still heard around them – in playgrounds, health centres, playgroups, libraries, radio, TV and in the school playground and classrooms.  They are, at some level,immersed in a culture where English is heard.

Children at Yirrkala can grow up hearing almost no English spoken.  When they get to school, their classes are in language for the first few years (in spite of the NT Governments poor decision to change this Yirrkala maintained this policy) – in fact right up to year 3 where teaching in English is gradually introduced.

So what does Leonard Freeman have to say about NAPLAN?

He argues that while there is a perception that NAPLAN is a fair test it is anything but.

[NAPLAN] is a testing scheme that seems as fair as it could possibly be – all students sit the same tests and the marking is conducted by an independent central body. However, this perception of fairness is a thin veil that covers a system that disadvantages students who speak English as a Second Language.

There are a number of issues wrapped up in this notion of unfairness.

Firstly, the NAPLAN exemption criteria do not give adequate consideration to the English language development of Indigenous children living in non-English speaking discreet Indigenous communities.

Most Australian educators assume that students who speak little or no English can be identified by the category “newly arrived from a non-English background country”.  In fact, when I worked in education in the NT I found that I had to constantly remind education administrators at national meetings that their proxy use of newly arrived non-English speaking migrants leaves out Indigenous children with identical or even greater challenges.

Nationally two per cent of Australian children are exempt from sitting the NAPLAN test. Students can be exempted from one or more NAPLAN tests if they have significant or complex disability, or if they are from a non-English-speaking background and arrived in Australia less than one year before the tests. 

So in fact almost all other children, who have as little English language competence as Year 3 and even year 5 remote Indigenous children from communities like Yirrkala, are exempt from NAPLAN.  No children at Yirrkala were identified as exempt from NAPLAN testing.

This leads to the ridiculous situation where remote Indigenous children with almost no exposure to English language, especially in written form,    “must take the test under the same conditions as students who speak English as their first language and have their results evaluated in terms of the ‘typical achievement’ standards of mother tongue English speakers. “

Now one of the reasons why education Institutions and administrators resort to the category ‘recently arrived migrant from a non-English speaking background country’ as a proxy for children who do not yet have a sufficient grasp of Standard Australian English is because we don’t have sensible data on this matter.  We have data on children who have a language background other than English but this tells us nothing about their level of competence with written English.

This Inquiry could secure bipartisan support to fix this matter up – this is not a politicised, hot issue.  This is about applying definitions of technically relevant matters in an inclusive and fair manner. Children in years 3 and 5 who reside in communities where standard Australian English is not spoken could be either exempted from NAPLAN until their English language learning enables them to read English to a defined level.

Secondly, NAPLAN is not a culturally fair test and this further discriminates against remote Indigenous children.

Back again to Leonard Freeman:

….NAPLAN reading tests assess students’ reading ability by judging their answers to multiple choice questions which ask often complex questions about the reading material.

He provides the following example of a multiple choice item in a Year 3 reading test

‘But I feel funny about saying I own him’. What reason does Tim give for feeling this way?

a) Elvis is really Malcolm’s dog.

b) Tim thinks dogs cannot be owned.

c) All the family helps to look after Elvis.

d) Elvis is much older than Tim in dog years. 

It is pretty obvious that there is a great deal of non-accessible cultural knowledge required to eliminate supposedly irrelevant answers for this item.

These sorts of questions do not simply assess whether the student can read the reading material and basically comprehend the story; they go well beyond that. A Year 3 student from a remote Indigenous community who is still trying to master spoken English and western cultural norms would find a question like this very difficult to answer. The assumed knowledge, about dogs ages being measured by ‘dog years’, the use of the word ‘funny’ to mean uncomfortable rather than humorous, and the concept of questioning the definition of ownership are all things that would be unfamiliar to a child growing up in a remote indigenous setting.

The NAPLAN reading test actually tests analytical skills which are coated heavily in western cultural norms. 

Another example provided by Freeman of an item around the delivery of newspapers provides further insights into cultural inaccessibility.

The story begins with the householder complaining to the newspaper boy ‘you left the paper jutting out of the back of my box’ and we also learn the owner had previously complained the paper needs to be left ‘in line with the fence’. This question was designed to test whether students could infer the meaning of new words and constructions. Yet to do so the students need to be familiar with the cultural context, in this case the students need to know that houses have a box on their fence line where mail and newspaper deliveries are left.  If the student has grown up in a remote community or refugee camp where there are no letter boxes and few houses have fences they will not be able to access the meaning of the text. 

Thirdly, The lack of fit between the NAPLAN tests and the kinds of assessments needed to effectively support teachers in these challenging context leaves teachers unsupported and undermined.

Now it would be reasonable to expect that the NT Department of Education should be fully cognizant of these circumstances and to make it their business to ensure that the unintended consequences of this unintended situation could be addressed, or at least mitigated.  Sadly, when I worked in the NT I found that this was not the case.  And scrolling through their website today I found that nothing much had changed.  There is now an acknowledgement that Indigenous children are English Language learners but what this means in terms of resourcing is minimal and what it means for teachers across remote schools appears to be completely ignored.

The absurdity of this is best illustrated through the following personal experience of what can only be described as an absurd professional development event

This event took place at a beautiful new resort in the remote mining community on Groote.  The attendees at this session were principals and a group of their nominated teachers from schools in remote Indigenous communities.

The aim of the 3 days session was to ‘teach’ the attendees – all from remote Indigenous schools  – how to drill down into their schools test results and develop, not just a strategic, but a tactical response to what they find.  It was a highly structured event. First of all the groups were given a spreadsheet showing their NAPLAN results for al year levels and for all tested areas and a detailed worksheet to work through.

I sat next to a school team that came from a large school in Eastern Arnhem, similar in key features to Yirrkala.  It was also a school that ran a bilingual program, which meant that all student in year 3 and almost all in year 5 could, not yet read in English – even at a basic level.

This school had NAPLAN results that were marginally worse than the other schools represented.  At this school, in almost every subject, in almost every year level, 80 – 100% of the students scored zero – that is they did not get one answer right – not one.  Some classes in some schools had a small minority of students who did receive a higher score – a few even approaching the relevant band for their year but they were a tiny tiny minority.

The professional development session required the teachers to group their students by what they did not know.  For example – how many students did not understand the convention of the full stop?  Put a ring around these students.  The teachers next to me sighed and ringed the whole class.  And it went on like this for three whole days.  It was idiotic and devastating.

These teachers went back to the school not just demoralized but with decontextualised lesson plans on full stops, the sound ‘CH’, prime numbers and so on.

I tell this story because it is an extreme example of just how stupid it is for people to invent prescriptive solutions that must be rolled out across all schools, with no exception.

There is no doubt that this is damaging for teachers in remote schools.  It was political exposure about the poor NAPLAN results that forced Marion Scrymgour to preemptively abolish the struggling, underfunded bilingual program – something she later came to regret – for good reason.

Leonard Freeman sees the NT Department priorities and the experiences and struggles of remote teachers as heading down a collision course:

The NT government made a commitment to having 75% of NT students meet the Year 3 NAPLAN benchmarks and teaching programs are aimed at achieving this. The amount of English instruction is being increased under the misguided belief that elevating the focus and importance of English will yield better English results. 

The inclusion of ESL students in NAPLAN testing places ESL researchers, specialist ESL teachers and classroom teachers in a conflict between the principles of effective ESL teaching and assessment practices and the requirements of governments and education departments. Instead of working together to attain the best educational outcomes for students’ researchers, policy makers, teachers and governments are locked in a fundamental disagreement between meeting the needs of ESL students and the administrative and political advantages of a uniform testing regime.

 One of the perverse consequences of this is that programs which claim to accelerate English literacy or which are aimed at native English speakers are now favoured ahead of academically sound ESL programs which demonstrate the genuine progression of ESL students.

It has also led to effective and evidence-based programs such as the Step Model bilingual program to be shut down to the detriment of Indigenous ESL students.

Now some readers this may be thinking that I am arguing for lower expectations for remote Indigenous children.  This is not my message.  These children get exposed to English in school for the first time and it is often their third and fourth language.

We exempt newly arrived LBOTE children ‘down south’ not because we expect less of them but because we recognize that their learning journey has to include an additional learning pathway.  But we do not expect less of them in the long run.

Back to Freeman again:

… an ESL approach is not a lesser approach. It is aimed at getting students who are speakers of other languages to a point where they can access mainstream education. A program may be deemed ineffective if ESL students never reach age-grade performance, but ESL programs that successfully move students along the continuum at a rate that is acceptable based on the research should be regarded as valid and ideal for ESL learners.

It is important to recognise the research which shows that it takes a minimum of 4 years, and more like 7 years, to achieve proficiency in a second language to a level that is sufficient for academic pursuits. The efficacy of ESL programs should be judged against the backdrop of this research.

So what are the small steps Governments could take in order to stop getting in the way of effective education for remote Indigenous children

  1. Stop NAPLAN Testing for remote Indigenous children until year 7.
  2. In the meantime, agree on an alternative form of testing[1] that is more appropriate for ESL students in terms of cultural content and recognition of ESL learning stages
  3. Address cultural bias in NAPLAN testing so that when remote Indigenous students are linguistically ready to sit the tests they can understand what is being asked of them
  4. Develop a national agreed English Language Learner Scale (ELLS) to replace LBOTE as a student  category so there is a far and consistent way to measure disadvantage based on English language learning needs

[1] The ACER Longitudinal Literacy  and Numeracy Study for Indigenous Students (LLANS) test has been trialled in all states and territories with both indigenous and non-indigenous students. Researchers have now aligned the LLANS test results to the NAPLAN data scores. So it would be possible for ESL students in the primary years to be given an appropriate test which can give a much clearer indication of their actual literacy and numeracy skills.