It is the Funding Stupid: Fixing Remote Indigenous Student Attendance

The Commonwealth has recently announced yet another Remote Schools Attendance Strategy focused on improving attendance through the funding of a cadre of school attendance officers and supervisors in identified communities across Australia. In fact it is one of the very few initiatives focusing on Indigenous students that the Commonwealth is continuing to fund.

Attendance is also a key priority for the Northern Territory Government (NTG). The NTG has recently published for final report of Bruce Wilson’s extensive Review of Indigenous Education in the Northern Territory called “A Share in the Future”. This Report underscores the importance of continuing to focus on improvements to attendance in spite of poor progress and makes a number of related recommendations.

There is no doubt about poor school attendance being a stand out feature of remote Indigenous schools in the NT. Imagine having an average 60% attendance rate at best in an urban white dominated schools where only about a quarter of the children attended more that an average of 4 days a week. That is the reality.

However Wilson’s review report makes a number of claims about student attendance, that are questionable and is silent on some of the most important matters that contribute to the problem.

Firstly, Wilson claims that there is a causal link between improved attendance and improved student outcomes. I am sure most of us think this makes intuitive sense but is it actually the case?

Secondly, Wilson argues that the NTG has spent incalculable resources over many years to improve the school attendance of Indigenous students, but without any material improvement. I will dispute this in this article.

Thirdly, Wilson’s recommendations related to attendance, while an improvement on his original draft report, neglect two critical issues: school funding and the quality of what happens in classrooms.

The relationship between school attendance and student outcomes

The report includes two tables that show that there is a direct relationship between the percentage of days students attend schools and their NAPLAN scores. Wilson makes the common mistake of assuming that this relationship is a causal one: that the more time a student spends in class, the greater their NAPLAN score.

But this is not necessarily the case. A link could be due to a third factor, or the causality could be reversed. For example, a school could radically improve its curriculum and pedagogy causing both attendance to rise and results to improve, or it could be the case that students who are more successful are more likely to attend more regularly.

The question Wilson should have asked is: does a student improve when s/he attends class more frequently? To answer this question, it would be necessary to focus on schools where attendance is improving and then look at their NAPLAN scores. But there is a catch.

At the recent AARE National Conference James Ladwig and Allan Luke presented a paper arguing that there is no relationship between school student attendance and improved student outcomes for Indigenous students. Here is what they have to say:

The overall claim that increased attendance is linked with improved achievement seems like common sense. It stands to reason that if a student attends more, s/he is more likely to perform better on annually administered standardised tests. The inverse also seems intuitive and common sensical: that if an individual student doesn’t attend, s/he is less likely to achieve well on these conventional measures.

But sometimes what appears to make sense about an individual student may not factually hold up when we look at the patterns across a larger school or system.

Ladwig and Luke did not undertake a simple correlation exercise comparing attendance levels with NAPLAN results. Instead they attempted to focus on those schools where student attendance improved.

However, what they found was that Indigenous dominated schools making big improvement in attendance rates are very rare. So rare that the empirical study of the changes in NAPLAN score is making a lot out of a tiny tiny set.

They also found that attendance in remote schools is highly resistant to change. This of course comes as no surprise to long term teachers and principals in these schools who simply sigh and shrug when the latest new or recycled magic bullet is announced.

Luke and Ladwig were able to identify a very small group of schools that showed improvements in school attendance AND NAPLAN improvements, but in every case, these same schools had “implemented significant curriculum and teaching method reforms over the same period examined”.

They concluded that “attending school may or may not help generally, but improving achievement depends on what children do once we get them to school”.

I couldn’t agree more.

What Wilson missed

Wilson’s recommendations around attendance suggest some very important areas for attention – encouraging parent responsibility, identifying the community factors that negatively impact attendance, using kinship connection to enhance attendance maintaining and making more inclusive Clontarf type programs, and better management of the impact of increased attendance on classrooms.

But he neglected to address the two major areas that might make a difference: what happens in classrooms and adequate needs based funding.

Ladwig and Luke have identified the first factor – curriculum reform and quality professional development. But they assume that this is straightforward and will translate to change in what happens in classrooms. I disagree.

What Ladwig and Luke missed

I am disappointed that they neglected to note that all the professional development and curriculum reform in the world cannot change practice in the NT as long as the NTG persists in short changing remote schools by staffing remote schools by attendance numbers and not on enrolment (standard practice in all other states).

Attendance rates are frequently misunderstood.   I recall a Minister, who shall not be named, once asking why 40% of remote Indigenous students do not attend school in response to a briefing about attendance rates being at 60% for remote NT schools. The reality is both better and worse. All of the students included in ‘the denominator’ (100%) attend school some of the time but the average RATE of attendance is 60%. However in NT remote schools only around 27% attend more that 80% of the time.

I have described in a previous blog just how much staffing by attendance, and not enrolment, impacts on the classroom:

… a primary school with 300 children enrolled, but an attendance rate of 60per cent, would be allocated staff for 180 students not 300. Yet the number of students who need to be assigned to teachers and classes is 300 not 180 – they just attend irregularly. This would require making class sizes of about 33 not 20.

So on any one day, a teacher might have only 20 children in their class but about 33 children on the roll.  Based on the expectation that only about 27 per cent would attend over 80 per cent of the time, this class of 33 might have about 9 children who attend on a very regular basis and the remaining 24 children would also attend, albeit on a highly irregular basis.

Can you just imagine the chaos of such a classroom and how hard it would be to focus on the small number of students who are there regularly?  Add to this mix, inexperienced short term principals, a high number of novice teachers, a generally non-English speaking student body and cultural challenges, and you get an even more accurate picture.

How can a regularly attending student progress in their learning when the teacher has no choice but to attend to the high needs and behaviour management demands of the irregular attendees? They need a calm learning environment and they get the extreme opposite of this. Staffing on enrolment – on the same basis as other schools – could support this.

I have raised this egregious matter on countless occasions but no one appears to accept its significance. Perhaps we just don’t want to know?

One of the issues that worries me about the findings of Ladwig and Luke is that it can operate as a “get out of jail free card”. It can too easly slide into being understood as, “Attendance is dependent on factors outside the schools control and is not a priority. Instead lets just focus on what happens in classrooms”. Of course, don’t be too surprised when this too produces no change. We have come to accept this inevitability.

I have argued before that the “wickedness” of the Indigenous education disadvantage problem is that no-one expects that NTG to make any progress on this matter and this leaves them free to appear to be ‘making all efforts’ but to essentially wash their hands of any guilt associated with this failure.

Ladwig and Luke have done an important piece of work identifying an issue that requires further investigation. But, it is important that we ask the right questions, and have high quality researchers like this team get into the classrooms for a period of time in order to observe first hand how the current set up in NT remote and very remote Indigenous schools guarantees failure through gross indirect funding discrimination.

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WHAT ARE WE DOING FOR/TO “OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winning the PISA Race – how hard can it be?

The Australian Government has justified expenditure on school funding reforms on the basis of our falling relative performance on the OECD international Tests  – the most well known of which is the PISA testing.

I appreciate the point that investing in equity in education will – if well invested  – also improve outcomes in terms of educational excellence. This is obvious  because the biggest “gap in performance”, in terms of the distance between performance outcomes and performance potential, is not with those students already financially, socially and intellectually indulged.  They already achieve at levels relatively aligned to their potential.

No, the biggest performance gap is among those students who start school behind their peers, have less access to early learning experiences through quality childcare and preschool programs, experience less family stability, have parent(s) who are struggling to support their children in terms of quality time, financial and home stability and exposure to quality educational experiences, go to schools with a concentration of students in similar circumstances, have less than their fair share of highly experienced teachers, experience higher levels of staff turn over, more greenhorn principals and poorer, educationally relevant, school facilities.

Its great that we have at last acknowledge that ‘ their loss’ is our loss – the loss of so many potentially creative successful citizens, employees, managers, and leaders.

However, I am not a fan of using PISA as a proxy for measuring this Return on Investment.  It is misleading. It could  distort our investment priorities and our school and classroom priorities.  Many others have written about this.  It is also a moving target as results could improve in absolute terms but still slide down the list in comparative terms. So in this sense it is also risky.

We  know that according to Campbell’s Law as soon as you make a god of a particular metric, it becomes distorted as everyone games the system.

So here is my ‘real politic’ set of options for clever gaming the system to achieve this goal painlessly, while minimising unintended consequences and with no risk.  Choose your game-plan Australia.

Suggestion No. One:  Just test the ACT.  It has the lowest proportion of low ICSEA schools, no schools with a high Indigenous population, no remote or very remote schools, many of its ESL population are foreign dignitaries, it has a high level of preschool attendance, and it is the National Capital.

Shanghai is held up as a PISA star but it is important to note that as large as this city might be it is still only a city.  It is not China and it is obviously a key centre for politics, business and industry.  Its results are unlikely to be reflective of China as a country.

Suggestion No. Two:  Establish a group of specific purpose ‘benchmark’ test schools across Australia.  This proposal is based on the logic of Charter Schools in the US.  Any student ‘above a minimum competency standard’ would be eligible to apply – after-all populating them with geniuses would be too obvious.  Selection could be based on an application and a ballot that ensures a spread of SES and other student demographic features – so they could be seen as schools that are representative of the Australian population.  They could be well funded using the Gonski parameters of course.  In applying to these schools parents would need to understand that – a) commitment is required of them and their children and b) teaching would be focused on the PISA testing areas as a priority.  For some parents this could be seen as a ‘ free private school’ – a good deal.  Students who pull the results down could be gently, informally counseled out – all off -the-record of course.

Suggestion No. Three:  Pay schools by results.  Schools could apply to be test sites and paid reward funds for high PISA performance.  How they achieved this would not be questioned and neither would their decisions about spending their rewards funds.

Suggestion No. Four:  Pay teachers by results.  Teachers could apply to be test classrooms and paid reward funds for high PISA performance.  How they achieved this would not be questioned and neither would their decisions about spending their rewards funds.

Suggestion No. Five:  Pay parents/students by results.  Parents/students could apply to be test subjects – quite outside the schooling process and paid reward funds high PISA performance.  How they achieved this would not be questioned and neither would their decisions about spending their rewards funds.

Suggestion No. Six:  Exempt all ICSEA schools below 850. I have heard an unverifiable rumour that Canada exempts its ‘reservation’ schools from the PISA testing sampling, but in Australia we over-sample for our own data collection /policy purposes.  We should cease this immediately and select our sample schools from schools that will not pull our results down.

Alternatively we could drop this PISA goal altogether and instead put our full backing into supporting teacher capacity development, building quality support tools for teacher feedback and self reflection based on classroom practice, reduce face to face teaching time in order to increase teacher planning and collaboration time, restructure teacher career pathways around the teacher standards, develop comprehensive strategies for improving the equitable distribution of highly experienced teachers across schools and implement Gonski.

We are already doing a lot to support this better pathway.  All we really need to do is change our goals and reconsider high stakes testing.  I know which way give us the best returns on investment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Undermine this at your peril.

Teacher Self Reflection Tools: a double edged sword

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Donnelly thinks that Fabianism is a dirty word.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It also notes that:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And

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

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

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

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

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


[3] Ibid P 8

[4] Ibid P 26

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

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

 

 

A vision for a new unified and credible approach to school assessment in Australia

 

I was only partly surprised to read in the Adelaide Advertiser[1] that Geoff Masters, CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) has called for the scrapping of the A-E grading system and replacing it with NAPLAN growth information.

To be blunt, I regard the A-E system as a nonsense cooked up by the previous Coalition Government and imposed on all states as a condition of funding.  It has never meant much and the different approaches to curriculum taken by the different state systems made its reporting even more confusing.

With the introduction of the Australian National Curriculum, the A-E grading system may have a more consistent approach across states but that meaning itself is often confusing and unhelpful.  As Masters notes

If a student gets a D one year and a D the next, then they might think they’re not making any progress at all when they are but the current reporting process doesn’t help them see it… [T]his could contribute to some students becoming disillusioned with the school system.

Abandoning this approach makes sense.  But the Advertiser article also implied that Masters is arguing that we should replace the A-E reporting with a NAPLAN gains process.  This to me was a complete surprise.

This is because I believe that would be a disaster and, more importantly, I am pretty sure that Masters would also see the limitations of such an approach.

At the 2010 Australian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Administration and Reporting of NAPLAN, Geoff Masters spoke at length about the limitations of NAPLAN covering the following:

  • Its limitation for students at the extremes because it is not multilevel
  • Its original purpose as a population measure and the potential reliability and validity problems with using it at school, classroom and individual student level
  • Its limited diagnostic power – because of the narrow range of testing and the multiple choice format

He also acknowledged the potential dangers of teachers teaching to the test and the narrowing of the curriculum.  (Unfortunately there appears to be a problem with the APH website and I was unable to reference this, but I have located a summary of the ACER position[2])

Now these are not minor problems.

I was also surprised because the idea that the CEO of ACER would not use this as an opportunity to talk about the benefit of diagnostic and formative assessments is unlikely. After all, these tests are important for ACER’s revenue stream.

So what is going on here?

To investigate, I decided to look beyond the Advertiser article and track down the publication that Masters was speaking to at the conference. It’s a new publication launched yesterday called Reforming Educational Assessment: Imperatives, principles and challenges[3]

And low and behold, the editor Sheradyn Holderhead got it wrong.  What Masters is arguing for is anything but the swapping out of one poorly informed reporting system (A to E Reporting) for a flawed one (NAPLAN)   He is mapping out a whole new approach to assessment that can be built on our best understandings of assessment and learning but also meet the “performativity”[4] needs of politicians and administrators.

Now some will object to the compromise taken here because they see “performativity” as a problem in and of itself.  At one level I agree but because I also look for solutions that are politically doable I tend to take a more pragmatic position.

This is because I see the reporting of NAPLAN through MySchool as a kind of one way reform – a bit like privatization of public utilities.  Once such system has been developed it is almost impossible to reverse the process.  The genie cannot be put back into the bottle.  So to me, the only solution is to build a more credible system – one that is less stressful for students, less negative for lagging students, more helpful for teachers, less likely to lead to a narrowing of the curriculum through teaching to the test and less prone to be used as a basis for school league tables.

And my take on Master’s article is that, if taken seriously, his map for developing a new assessment system would have the potential to provide the design features for a whole new approach to assessment that doesn’t require the complete overthrow of the school transparency agenda to be effective.

Here are some of the most significant points made by Masters on student assessment:

Assessment is at the core of effective teaching

Assessment plays an essential role in clarifying starting points for action. This is a feature of professional work in all fields. Professionals such as architects, engineers, psychologists and medical practitioners do not commence action without first gathering evidence about the situation confronting them. This data-gathering process often entails detailed investigation and testing. Solutions, interventions and treatments are then tailored to the presenting situation or problem, with a view to achieving a desired outcome. This feature of professional work distinguishes it from other kinds of work that require only the routine implementation of pre-prepared, one-size-fits-all solutions.

Similarly, effective teachers undertake assessments of where learners are in their learning before they start teaching. But for teachers, there are obvious practical challenges in identifying where each individual is in his or her learning, and in continually monitoring that student’s progress over time. Nevertheless, this is exactly what effective teaching requires.

Understandings derived from developments in the science of learning challenge long-held views about learning, and thus approaches to assessing and reporting learning.

These insights suggest that assessment systems need to

  • Emphasise understanding where students are at, rather than judging performance
  • Provide information about where individuals are in their learning, what experiences and activities are likely to result in further learning, and what learning progress is being made over time
  • Give priority to the assessment of conceptual understandings, mental models and the ability to apply learning to real world situations
  • Provide timely feedback in a form that a) guides student action and builds confidence that further learning is possible and b) allows learners to understand where they are in their learning and so provide guidance on next steps
  • Focus the attention of schools and school systems on the development of broader life skills and attributes – not just subject specific content knowledge
  • Take account of the important role of attitudes and self belief in successful learners

On this last point Masters goes on to say that:

Successful learners have strong beliefs in their own capacity to learn and a deep belief in the relationship between success and effort. They take a level of responsibility for their own learning (for example, identifying gaps in their knowledge and taking steps to address them) and monitor their own learning progress over time. The implications of these findings are that assessment processes must be designed to build and strengthen metacognitive skills. One of the most effective strategies for building learners’ self-confidence is to assist them to see the progress they are making.

…..  current approaches to assessment and reporting often do not do this. When students receive the same letter grade (for example, a grade of ‘B’) year after year, they are provided with little sense of the progress they are actually making. Worse, this practice can reinforce some students’ negative views of their learning capacity (for example, that they are a ‘D’ student).

Assessment is also vital in order to assess how a system is progressing – whether for a class, school, system, state or nation

Assessment, in this sense, is used to guide policy decision making or to measure the impact of interventions or treatments or to identify problems or issues

In educational debate these classroom based and the system driven assessments are often seen as in conflict and their respective proponents as members of opposing ideological and educational camps.

But the most important argument in the paper is that we have the potential to overcome the polarised approach to assessments that is typical of current discussion about education; but only if we start with the premise that the CORE purpose of assessment is to understand where students are in their learning. Other assessment goals should be built on this core.

Once information is available about where a student is in his or her learning, that information can be interpreted in a variety of ways, including in terms of the kinds of knowledge, skills and understandings that the student now demonstrates (criterion- or standards-referencing); by reference to the performances of other students of the same age or year level (norm-referencing); by reference to the same student’s performance on some previous occasion; or by reference to a performance target or expectation that may have been set (for example, the standard expected of students by the end

of Year 5). Once it is recognised that the fundamental purpose of assessment is to establish where students are in their learning (that is, what they know, understand and can do), many traditional assessment distinctions become unnecessary and unhelpful.

To this end, Masters proposes the adoption and implementation of a coherent assessment ‘system’ based on a set of 5 assessment design principles as follows

Principle 1: Assessments should be guided by, and address, an empirically based understanding of the relevant learning domain.

Principle 2: Assessment methods should be selected for their ability to provide useful information about where students are in their learning within the domain.

Principle 3: Responses to, or performances on, assessment tasks should be recorded using one or more task ‘rubrics’.

Principle 4: Available assessment evidence should be used to draw a conclusion about where learners are in their progress within the learning domain.

Principle 5: Feedback and reports of assessments should show where learners are in their learning at the time of assessment and, ideally, what progress they have made over time.

So, to return to the premise of the Advertiser article, Masters is not arguing for expanding the use value of the currently model of NAPLAN.  In fact, he is arguing for the reconceptualisation of assessment that:

  • starts with the goal of establishing where learners are in their learning within a learning domain; and
  • develops, on the basis of this a new Learning Assessment System that is equally relevant in all educational assessment contexts, including classroom diagnostic assessments, international surveys, senior secondary assessments, national literacy and numeracy assessments, and higher education admissions testing.

As the Advertiser article demonstrates, this kind of argument is not amenable to easy headlines and quick sound bytes.  Building the support for moving in this direction will not be easy.

But the first step is to recognize that the popular understanding that system based assessment and ‘classroom useful’ assessment are and must necessarily be at cross purposes and to start to articulate how a common approach could be possible.  Masters refers to this as the unifying principle:

….. it has become popular to refer to the ‘multiple purposes’ of assessment and to assume that these multiple purposes require quite different approaches and methods of assessment. …

This review paper has argued …. that assessments should be seen as having a single general purpose: to establish where learners are in their long-term progress within a domain of learning at the time of assessment. The purpose is not so much to judge as to understand. This unifying principle, which has potential benefits for learners, teachers and other educational decision-makers, can be applied to assessments at all levels of decision-making, from classrooms to cabinet rooms.

So if you are still not convinced that Masters is NOT arguing for replacing the A-E reporting with NAPLAN growth scores, this quote may help:

As long as assessment and reporting processes retain their focus on the mastery of traditional school subjects, this focus will continue to drive classroom teaching and learning. There is also growing recognition that traditional assessment methods, developed to judge student success on defined bodies of curriculum content, are inadequate for assessing and monitoring attributes and dispositions that develop incrementally over extended periods of time.


[4] This is a widely used term usually associated with the work of Stephen J. Ball. In simple terms it refers to our testing mania in schools and the culture and conceptual frameworks that support reform built around testing data.  To read more this might be a useful starting point http://www.scribd.com/doc/70287884/Ball-performativity-teachers