xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: NAPLAN, Education Systems and Professor Deming.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

NAPLAN, Education Systems and Professor Deming.

“It isn't about schools but about the system.
Equity is a system level measure. (Pasi Salhberg)

A Senate committee is examining NAPLAN and its results. This may be good thing. Although, we all know that most committees do not usually produce anything of great value. Some say that a camel is horse designed by a committee, but that may be a trifle harsh. We shall see.

I wonder if the Senate Committtee will talk to any actual teachers or principals? Or will it just be parent groups, industry groups, focus groups and other politicians and journalists who dabble in education.

A week ago I heard a colleague in education say that “Only people with ten years experience in schools should be allowed to make decisions about education policy.” Warming to his task he added, “And that experience would have to be within the last ten years.”

Well I can suggest two people who the Senate Committee should take note of: Pasi Salhberg and Professor W.E Deming. When Pasi Salhberg speaks about education we all should listen. If we are looking at the system of education, then maybe we should also be noting the teachings of Professor W. Edwards Deming, the father of “Quality Assurance”.

More about Professor Deming later.

Why is Pasi Salhberg so important? Well, he is the Minister for Education in Finland and Finland is one of the Top Four countries in PISA’s Education Premiership table. It is to this pinnacle of PISA educational perfection that Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, says Australia must reach within five years. Well, naturally, everyone agrees that it is a commendable thing to aim high and seek improvement.

PISA, of course, is the OECD’s testing mechanism. Every three years PISA tests a random sample of 15 year olds in 40 OECD countries, to enable their governments to see how effective their education systems are...at least in getting fifteen year olds to do well in the PISA tests.

In 2009, the last year for which we have PISA results (PISA 2012 results will be published in December 2013), Australia was ranked at number 9, well ahead of the USA (17th) and the UK (25).
In fact Australia’s average score was judged to be significantly above the OECD average.

Not a bad effort really, although the public perception, gained from our politicians and the Australian media generally, is that Australian education is failing, our student teachers need to be better qualified and our school teachers need to work harder. Despite all the rhetoric, not a lot of evidence is provided  by the naysayers to substantiate these negative views. After all, we are 9th in the world!

Being 9th in the world is not good enough for the Australian PM. She has said we need to be in the top five, alongside Shanghai, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong and Singapore. One thing we do notice about these top five nations is that, unlike Australia, they do not have indigenous populations or multi cultural societies where the native language is not the language of choice spoken in the home. Under these circumstances, it would seem Australia is performing very, very creditably indeed.

It should also be pointed out that Shanghai is not a country, it is a large regional city in China. Perhaps we should be allowed to provide the PISA results for Canberra as representative of Australia as a whole. If so, Australia would be right near the top of the PISA hit parade.

As a result of the Prime Minister’s ambition to place Australia at the head of the PISA premiership table, our education system has focussed strongly on Literacy and Numeracy and instituted an annual, universal  standardised testing regime, NAPLAN. The NAPLAN testing programme has much to recommend it, for along with many other diagnostic, remedial and achievement tests, it provides teachers and schools with much useful information about individuals, whole class and school performance.

However, as the NAPLAN results of every school are now compulsorily published on the government’s Myschool website, they have become the key performance indicators for what constitutes a “good” school. That’s exactly correct. The results of the NAPLAN tests that are conducted over three days in May, and published in October of the same year, suddenly become the most important data that education systems, parents and the media can have about a school.

This has meant an increasingly heavy focus on literacy and numeracy, to the detriment of other school subjects. At the same time formal instruction in literacy and numeracy has entered the once creative and imaginative world of early childhood. Remember that Finland does not start formal education until children turn seven and they have no standardised testing except for final exams at the end of secondary school.

Some children and even some teachers, suffer stress from the heavy competitive focus on NAPLAN tests, while at the same time a whole new industry of NAPLAN teaching aids, texts and even toys are flooding the market and being purchased by parents, eager for their child’s NAPLAN success. Recently a book aimed at improving a child's NAPLAN scores was listed in the top 10 best selling books in Australia, a previously unheard of event.

Obviously these are the unpleasant, unintended outcomes of NAPLAN testing.
It is pleasing, therefore, to note that the Australian Senate is to mount an inquiry into NAPLAN testing and its consequences. Presumably, the Senate will be mainly interested to find out if the millions of dollars being spent on NAPLAN are worth it. Do the results justify the expenditure?

Well this is where Professor Deming comes in, because, if Pasi Salhberg is right and we should not focus on schools but focus instead on education systems, then we should also focus on the teachings of Professor W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993). Professor Deming held doctorates in Physics and Mathematics and gained an enviable reputation as a statistician and systems management guru. He devised statisical surveys showing that you could obtain valid information from a random sample without having to survey the entire population. As a statistician he perfected random sampling and quality assurance techniques that helped to make industries more efficient. 

In 1951 he was invited to Japan to assist with the national census. While there he was invited by a Japanese business association to examine their work systems and management practices. As that time Japan had an almost laughable international reputation for its manufactured goods. Japanese goods were invariably labelled, "Micky Mouse", a facetious name for its largely inferior products.

Deming visited workplaces and spoke to various industrial groups throughout Japan. Eventually, he listed 14 Key Principles to enable managers to transform their business practices in order to achieve effectiveness in their organisations.

So successful was Deming in lifting the effectiveness of Japanese manufacturing that within a very few years the Ford Motor Company was surprised find that its customers in the United States preferred its Japanese made cars to the ones manufactured in the USA. With plenty of U.S. built Ford cars in their showrooms, Ford Executives were stunned to find that its American customers were quite prepared to wait for the next shipment of Fords manufactured in Japan. Their customers said that the Japanese Fords were more efficient and ran better!

Both car models were made to the same specifications. Inspection of both models by Ford engineers revealed that the Japanese models were much closer, in every respect, to design requirements than the US model, which had greater variations of tolerance. For example, if the design called for a part to be one foot long (30 cms), plus or minus one eighth of an inch, the US model showed this magnitude of variation while the Japanese models ALL had a tolerance of only one sixteenth of an inch. This made the Japanese cars run more smoothly and efficiently. Ford customers were quick to show their preference for the better product.

I have always believed that teaching is more of an art than a science, so I am reluctant to use a business model as a means of improving our education system. However, Pasi Salhberg says we must examine our system of education and I believe Professor Deming understood how systems work. They work effectively when the people in them
*know what they are expected to produce,
*they are skilled in what they do, and receive ongoing on the job training, 
*they are involved in the process and get satisfaction from it.
*Above all, they are valued and trusted by their employers.

Perhaps some of those bean counting politicians and educrats should look at those 14 steps of Professor Deming once in a while, especially the following six which seen to relate directly to our educational system:-

No 3: Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for massive inspections by building quality into the product in the first place.

No 6: Institute training on the job.

No 8: Drive out fear and build trust so that everyone can work more effectively.

No 10: Eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets asking for zero defects or new levels of productivity…the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.

No: 11 Eliminate numerical goals, numerical quotas and management objectives. Substitute leadership!

No 12: Remove barriers that rob people of joy in their work. This means abolishing the annual rating or merit system that ranks people and creates competition and conflict.

I think Pasi Salhberg would agree with all of those points and proudly point out that this is exactly how the education system operates in Finland.

If, as Salhberg says, it is the system of education that we should focus on, then we need to look at our education system through Professor Deming’s eyes. His management ideas certainly worked for the systemic improvements that the Japanese industrialists were seeking. In the early 1950s Deming set them what he thought was a five year target. They achieved it in four. It was a spectacular success, putting Japanese industry at the forefront of world manufacturing for the next thirty years.

Interestingly enough, The Cambridge University Review of Primary Education (2009), the most wide ranging review of primary education ever undertaken anywhere in the world, came out strongly against universal standardised testing. I hope the Senate NAPLAN Committee gets to read it, along with Professor Deming's 14 Key Principals for Business Effectiveness.

With regard to accountability, what the Cambridge University Review did recommend was random sampling of the population. Professor Deming would have been pleased. Random sampling for accountability purposes was the system used in Western Australia  into the late 1990s until the then federal minister of education, Dr David Kemp, threatened the state's funding unless universal stanadardised testing was introduced.

Reducing competition and conflict and developing trust, cooperation and joy in your work place seems like a good idea for education too!

Not sure NAPLAN is doing that, actually.


  1. The word " education " springs from the Latin root " to draw out ". If we
    regard the child's brain as a vessel to be filled asap, we fail to understand the true meaning of education.

  2. More like a candle to be lit, hey, Brian.


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