xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: My School versus Your School

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

My School versus Your School

I wrote this article in November 2010. It was printed in the Western Australian Primary Principals Association's  Leaders Library in March, 2011.
I believe what I wrote then is still very pertinent to the current education debate.
Since that time more  and more people have raised serious objections about the way NAPLAN has impacted on the teaching of the arts, science, society and the environment and how it has has also forced formal literacy and numeracy instruction into Kindergarten and Pre Primary.(Refer to my blog "The lost Childhood Generation", September 3, 2012).

It is ironic that while the federal government has put its My School website on steroids, the reverse is true in the UK and the USA where serious questions are being asked about the negative effects of the heavy emphasis on national literacy and numeracy testing regimes.
In 2009, when the Australian government was setting up its national literacy and numeracy scheme (NAPLAN), two important events in education took place overseas. In the United Kingdom, in October, 2009, the Cambridge University Review of Primary Education was released. It is the most comprehensive review of primary schooling ever undertaken anywhere in the world. The Cambridge Review is an evidence based and visionary document that produced 78 conclusions and 75 recommendations.

It did not look kindly upon the effects of standardised numeracy and literacy tests. Among its findings was one that said standardised testing had “narrowed the curriculum” and that the arts, science and the humanities were being eroded by the heavy focus on national standardised testing. The British Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted) agreed and stated that music, in particular, had a vital role to play in primary education.

Can we expect the same narrowing of curriculum focus to occur in Australia. It is already happening. Several Western Australian schools have cancelled or deferred various sporting and cultural activities in Term One so that teachers could be focussed solely on NAPLAN success? In 2011 the Education Department altered its term holiday dates to give teachers more time to prepare their children for the NAPLAN tests.

The other educational landmark event of 2009 occurred in the USA, where Dr Diane Ravitch published her bestselling book, “The Death and Life of the Great American Public School System”. The book’s subtitle was “How testing and choice are undermining education”.
Dr Ravitch should know about these things. She was the Assistant Secretary for Education in the administration of President George Bush the First. She was instrumental in setting up the federal government’s “No Child Left Behind” project which established a nationalised literacy and numeracy testing programme and established Charter Schools to focus specifically on raising standards in literacy and numeracy.

President Clinton later appointed her to the National Assessment Governing Board which supervised the national testing programme. However, after examining the evidence of the national testing programme, Dr Ravitch has now had a 180 degree conversion. She now regrets sacking so many principals and teachers because their schools did not measure up. She says, poverty, not poor teaching, is the major cause of failure in schools.

She backs her argument with hard evidence and is severely critical of the highly touted results of the New York school system. The New York school system, administered by Joel Klein (a lawyer), has a major focus on literacy and numeracy testing. It is the education system that so impressed our then Education Minister, Julia Gillard, when she was in New York one day, that it set her mind to establishing what eventually became NAPLAN.

But Diane Ravitch produces data to refute the achievements of New York’s education programmes which shows New York college students compare poorly against students from other states who enjoy a broader curriculum.She also claims some New York test data are "fudged".

Dr Ravitch says that school accountability, based solely on standardised testing, has been a disaster. It encourages schools and teachers to teach to the test and devote less and less time to science, social studies, history, geography, foreign languages, art, music and drama. Why wouldn’t they. Their jobs depend on it. She says that in the 1990s she was optimistic “that testing would shine a spotlight on low performing schools and that choice would create opportunities for poor kids to leave for better schools.” Sound familiar. The problem was that it did not turn out that way. Ravitch  now says, “There is little empirical evidence...just promise and hope.” and is convinced that schools operate better “in a an atmosphere of cooperation, not competition.”

With NAPLAN being touted as the benchmark for school achievement, Australian schools are now competing with each other. In some schools even the teachers are competing with each other. Some principals are using NAPLAN results as a staff performance management tool. Surely good principals would have other and wider means of detecting poorly performing teachers.

Obviously, it would be prudent to take heed of the Cambridge Primary Review, which clearly outlines the aims of primary education and the best ways of achieving them.It would also be prudent to study Dr Ravitch’s book so as to avoid the pitfalls of a heavy reliance on nationalised testing.

Unfortunately, in Australia, teachers are not politically powerful and our education system is controlled by politicians who generally make decisions based on what gets the most votes not on what is in the best interests of our children...and ultimately, our country.

We can only hope that some Australian educators will acquaint themselves with the evidence presented by the Cambridge University Review and “The Death and Life of the Great American Public School System” and try to influence our politicians before our primary children are completely deprived of the wider curriculum that they previously enjoyed.

And in primary schools “enjoyment” should be the operative word. We have all heard the horror stories about children being sick on NAPLAN test day. Perhaps some teachers and school principals even felt the same way.

Interestingly enough, the Cambridge Review does recommend an accountability system. It says there should be testing of randomly selected children in order to ascertain overall performance levels in literacy and numeracy.

Bingo! This was the very system that was so successfully employed by the Western Australian Education Department up until the mid 1990s  until a conservative federal Minister for Education, Dr David Kemp, using the extortionate tactics of Al Capone, threatened to withhold federal funding unless the state government introduced universal testing. David Kemp's testing policy was continued by Brendon Nelson, a doctor. It was expanded into NAPLAN by Australia’s next  education minister, Julia Gillard, a lawyer. The present Minister for Education, Peter Garrett, used to sing in a rock and roll band. (I will refrain from describing what Christopher Pyne, the current Minister for Education is. NB 10.4.2015)

We should all be praying that one day we can have someone with real teaching experience making the important decisions that will impact on children in our primary schools.


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