The nature of the beast

NAPLAN. MySchool. Data. Accountability. Planning.

Roger is bang on when he says that there are so many conundra in education.

But why? Is this really a result of ‘rank-and-file’ teachers unjustly mistrusting ‘the boss class’? Perhaps, in part.

But the problem we face in overcoming this is not as black-and-white as it seems. Historically schools have evolved to serve multiple functions in society, and it is these often competing functions that school leaders, edu-crats and politicians are faced with negotiating every day. This is a tricky business, and people will not always agree on what is being prioritised.

In my PhD research on the English curriculum I have explored Hunter’s genealogy of the major functions of schooling, and used this as a lens to reflect on the contradictions and challenges that are embedded in the HSC English syllabus. Hunter (1993) outlines the following functions of mass schooling in Australia:

  • Pastoral: Children should be given caring and humane environments in school in which to grow and develop
  • Skilling: Schools have a significant role in the production of a skilled and competent workforce
  • Regulative: Schools transmit forms of orderliness and control to an otherwise disorderly populace
  • Human-capital: Investment of effort and money in schools should directly enhance economic productivity
  • Individual expression: Schooling is properly the context in which individuals can learn to explore, develop, and express their personal goals and aspirations
  • Cultural-heritage: People, especially young people, should be introduced to the ways of thinking and acting that have existed and been valued over time – cherished art works, and disciplines of scientific inquiry
  • Political: Schools produce a citizenry dedicated to the preferred political principles of the society
  • Hunter rejects the notion that schools have ever served, or even aimed to serve, a singular, unified function in society. Rather, the various functions described above are contested and emphasised more or less at different points in history based on the political, cultural and economic imperatives of the time.

    The idea that schools serve different functions is not controversial. What is important to recognise, however, is the importance of each of these functions, and the need to treat them as interrelated. Our role as educators cannot be to simply ‘back’ one function over another – for example, promoting individual expression and pastoral care while decrying the goals of skills and human capital development. Although these functions historically have come into competition, it is essential to recognise the important role that bureaucratic structures play in safeguarding equality within a social welfare state such as Australia.

    In regards to NAPLAN, it is not the case that politicians want to crush individual expression in the pursuit of higher literacy standards. It is also not the case that teachers don’t care about skills development and resent regulative goals of ‘the boss class’ as a matter of principle.

    What is worth considering, however, is this: what political, cultural and economic imperatives are reflected in the priorities set by the bureaucracy?

    Despite reservations about standardised literacy and numeracy testing, teachers ultimately were asked to support ELLA/SNAP, and later NAPLAN, in good faith. The tests were framed as a diagnostic tool. Schools were dissuaded from ‘cramming’ for the tests, as this would negate its diagnostic capacity. We were promised that these tests were an example of schools fulfilling an essential bureaucratic function – ensuring that all students had equal access to diagnosis of their skills, and that resources could be allocated efficiently to areas of need.

    The introduction of the MySchool website, however, betrays a warped set of priorities…the political, cultural and economic imperatives of publishing NAPLAN data as a means of measuring school success over-prioritises the regulative function of schooling. Orderliness and control emerge as the ultimate product when systems are put in place that construct and solidify school hierarchies, encouraging a consumer culture in schools where the discourse of ‘parent choice’ trumps the discourse of ‘school community building’.

    I hate the MySchool website. Not because I don’t want parents to have access to information about schools, but because I believe that the information that is currently privileged does pose a destructive force to schooling functions that I hold dear. I believe that comparing schools based on test scores poses a serious neglect of the pastoral function of schooling – it is difficult to foster a caring and humane environment in school in which to grow and develop when your school is labelled as ‘failing’, and parents of ‘good’ students start shopping elsewhere. Likewise, in successful schools, staying on top of the ‘market’ can lead to undue pressure to succeed in external testing, and a neglect of student welfare and broader curriculum goals.

    I fully support schools and teachers who will join the moratorium and refuse to deliver the NAPLAN test this year. Not because I don’t see the value of NAPLAN, but because as educators who oppose harmful government policy it is the only card we have to play in a system that gives teachers virtually no voice in the policy and structures they will have to work within.

    It is a shame that teachers who oppose the MySchool website, and are prepared to take action despite political pressure, are often painted as ‘data-haters’, ‘parent-haters’ and ‘boss-haters’. They are none of these things. They are just people who feel out-and-out ignored by their political leaders and think that something bigger is at stake than missing a year of data.

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    1. #1 by Alison Robertson on April 28, 2010 - 5:10 pm

      Beautifully put Kelli – it’s very frustrating to see NAPLAN so warped and misused when it was just meant to be one small diagnostic puzzle piece in the whole complex picture of student learning.
      The tragedy is that the only card teachers have to play in this game, vis boycotting, when played simply alienates those who want to vilify us even further and gives them more ammunition to use against us. Moreover, thoughtful and well argued reason will rarely be given space in the media. Unless we have a snappy and simplistic sound bite we won’t be heard, but on those terms, who wants to be…?

    2. #2 by Simon Job on April 28, 2010 - 5:48 pm

      Kelli – spot on. The union has unfortunately focused too heavily on league tables, when only one newspaper in NSW published a league table and they were clearly just testing the no league tables legislation.

      A quick search on Twitter reveals the reality of what is happening in some schools…

      From a prac teacher:
      “im jelous of those students who were able to teach today! my class were revising stuff for Naplan ALL DAY and going over previous tests GOSH”

      From a student:
      “yeah the naplan stuff can die in a whole i did practice tests all day :/” and another…
      “Naplan practice tests tomorrow ,i can already tell im going to fail”

      From a parent…
      “Off to get No 1 son from #NAPLAN prison…I mean, school ;)”

    3. #3 by kmcg2375 on April 29, 2010 - 1:55 pm

      Alison I hear you – there are plenty of critics out there who are all to happy to collect ammunition to use against teachers, and a boycott of NAPLAN plays right into this. But I would also suggest that those critics are going to attack teachers anyway, and that they will find ammunition regardless of how careful we are about our public image.

      It is worth reflecting on the lessons we are learning from the consultation process for the National Curriculum. Educators are afraid of being too critical, lest they appear parochial about their own state curriculum, or resistant to change. The result – a draft Australian Curriculum that has ignored crucial pieces of feedback from educators because they know they can.

      It’s a catch 22. All I can say is that personally if I were looking back through the history of NAPLAN and MySchool and found that teachers did nothing to oppose what is happening right now, I would be very disappointed in my country. Just like we now look at the UK and the US and ask ‘why didn’t they do more to stop this?’ We don’t have to win the fight – let’s face it, we won’t – but our objections have to be heard and recorded.

    4. #4 by kmcg2375 on April 29, 2010 - 2:07 pm

      Simon, those tweets make me so sad, because it is exactly what we are going to see more of now that NAPLAN has been shifted from a diagnostic tool to a high-stakes exam.

      You are so right about league tables being the wrong focus here. Firstly because they haven’t yet been constructed extensively so it looks like the Union is running after an imaginary bogey-man; secondly because many people have no problem with league tables (they want to see how good their school is/berate other schools); thirdly because damaging comparisons can be made without a league table.

      If MySchool existed when my parents were choosing a school for me, the process certainly would have included printing out the info on all of our options, laying them out on the kitchen table and seeing how they compared. Gillard’s claims about ‘like school’ and ‘state average’ comparisons safeguarding against unfair comparisons are naive at best.

    5. #5 by Amie McGraw on April 29, 2010 - 4:28 pm

      I completely agree with what has been written here, and I strongly believe that teachers (and Principals) are being bullied into doing NAPLAN regardless of the clear fact that the way the results are going to be used is going to most definitely prove detrimental to all students across the country in the long run.

      I believe that it is unfortunate that the only ‘card we have to play’ at this point is to boycott NAPLAN, because yes- the info it provides is going to be useful, and yes- it will be a shame to lose a years worth of data. BUT it seems so clear to me that sacrificing one year’s worth of data is worth preventing our country’s schools from becoming one dimensional, results driven places where only those who have good exam skills end up succeeding.

      As such, I personally will be supporting the Federation’s decision to boycott.

    6. #6 by Lyn on May 1, 2010 - 1:29 pm

      As always Kelli, you articulate the issues so well. How could Julia not see that parents would compare the two schools in our small town without seeing that they are NOT “like” schools!

    7. #7 by Zebra on May 3, 2010 - 10:57 pm

      A very well argued piece and I found the explanation of the Hunter model for differing school functions very informative indeed.

      However, I find that I cannot follow one step of the argument. I don’t see why the publishing of NAPLAN results in an over-emphasis of the ‘regulative’ function of the school. Surely, its an emphasis on the ‘skilling’ function of the school? In what way does the publication of NAPLAN results “transmit forms of orderliness and control to an otherwise disorderly populace”? Please explain..

      I am not a teacher, I am a scientist and a parent of school children. I’m a fundamental believer that information wants to be free. I’m also reasonably good at evaluating data. Any time I hear any group of people saying that information should not be released into the public domain because it might be misused, my hackles go up. Specially when that data has been collected at the taxpayers expense and relates to issues that are of fundamental importance to the community.

      I find the implication that I can’t understand that NAPLAN results aren’t a holistic measure of how suitable a school would be for my child, incredibly patronising. I find the implication that information about our public schools should be kept secret and only used by ‘experts’ and not be open to public scrutiny, anathema to an open democracy. Of course there are idiots in every society that will misuse information. The way to fix it is to make the information freely available so that sane people can use it sensibly – not to hoard it as secret.

      It is not consistent to argue that NAPLAN results are good enough as a diagnostic tool to tell which schools need more resources and support, and then simultaneously argue that it doesn’t reflect the literacy and numeracy achievements of students in a school. And if it is true that the NAPLAN score does reflect how numerate/literate students are, then its hard to argue why that information should be suppressed, regardless of what combination of socio-economic, gender balance & teaching quality factors contributed to it.

      • #8 by Youngy on May 26, 2011 - 3:21 am

        At last! Someone who unedtrsands! Thanks for posting!

    8. #9 by kmcg2375 on May 4, 2010 - 4:46 am

      Zebra, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments! I’m especially glad that you found Hunter’s framework useful for exploring this issue.

      I hope readers of this post don’t mind if I reply at length?

      Firstly, re skills vs regulation. I certainly agree that teaching literacy and numeracy, and assessment of what is learned, is part of the skilling function of schools. Of this there is no question. Where I believe this situation steps into the ‘regulative’ function is in the publication of the results for all to see (which entrenches a hierarchy of schools and a market mentality in school choice), and the promotion of the view that Literacy and Numeracy are the most important skills that schools serve to develop.

      I’m not at all suggesting that Literacy and Numeracy are not up there with the most important things that schools teach. But I do think there is a danger in emphasising these skills over (and at times at the expense of) other skills and values. And although research shows that high literacy and numeracy ability correlates with broader school success, the causal link is far less clear. For example, I believe that in NSW the high focus on writing skill in timed final examinations for the HSC filters down to all grades in terms of what literacies and measures of ‘knowledge’ are valued and promoted.

      As far as NAPLAN as a diagnostic tool is concerned, yes I do believe that it is useful for showing us where a student needs to develop further…but as an English teacher the elements of language and literacy that are tested in NAPLAN only form a piece of the ‘literacy picture’ for me. I’m trying to think of a good analogy for this (if anyone from another KLA can help?)
      Best I can come up with is:
      You know the tests they do in PD/H/PE to measure fitness – beep test runs, flexibility and BMI measures etc – well, kids at a given school might score really well on those ‘basics’, but that doesn’t mean that their football team can win a grand final. It also doesn’t mean that they are holistically ‘healthy’ – any PE teacher will tell you that social and emotional development forms part of what is called ‘health’. But BMI measurements are still useful for diagnosing physical health, so of course no-one is suggesting that PE teachers stop measuring or caring about this. They are also easy to record, are objective measurements, and can be used for ranking…just like the ability (in the case of literacy) to use capital letters in the right place. It’s tempting, but not always desirable, to use ‘easy’ measurements beyond what they were intended for.

      Do we really want to encourage parents and the community to compare schools on ‘the basics’?

      I also believe that information wants to be free. This belief poses many challenges for me in the lived reality of my world! But it’s important to remember that when it comes to children in schools, we already have precedents for declaring them a special case. I can’t publish images of students publicly without parental permission, for example. We already make value judgements about which information should be free, based on the potential harm it will cause. So freedom of information is far from absolute, and when dealing with children the rule is always to err on the side of caution. In this argument about publishing NAPLAN data everyone seems so concerned about parents’ rights – but what about children’s rights? Who is weighing up the harm that will be done to students in ‘failing’ schools?

      And as far as tax payers being entitled to know everything about things that tax money is spent on – what about expenditure items such as ASIO? OK, it’s an extreme (and reductionist) example! Please forgive it. The point I’m making is that tax payers are not ‘entitled’ to know about the internal operations of government agencies in order for democracy to function…what I believe they are entitled to is confidence that ‘someone in charge’ is keeping things in order. And as an accountability measure for overall school performance, the MySchool website fails in this task.

      By no means do I wish to appear patronising to parents. It’s not that I think parents are too silly to understand NAPLAN data, or its limited scope. But I do believe that by publishing NAPLAN data publicly, the information is already being misused. Parents were already free to go down to any school they were considering and request information on how the students there were performing – putting it up on the web only encourages simplistic analyses, to the detriment of the students and their learning.

      I really do believe that the costs of increasing attention on test scores does more harm than good in education.

    9. #10 by Amie McGraw on May 5, 2010 - 9:33 am

      I believe this is the crux of what the boycott is about:

      “In this argument about publishing NAPLAN data everyone seems so concerned about parents’ rights – but what about children’s rights? Who is weighing up the harm that will be done to students in ‘failing’ schools?”

      • #11 by kmcg2375 on May 5, 2010 - 3:57 pm

        Thanks Amie – I’m just finishing my thesis chapter on HSC syllabus implementation, and my conclusions there beg a similar question. While students are unanimously identified as one of the main stakeholders of schooling, no-one is accountable to them. The expectations and demands (real or perceived) of adult stakeholders – chiefly parents and employers – trumps student needs and rights all too often imho. Of course there should be a balance, as education is a public good and society at large is a legitimate stakeholder, but ‘student need’ is often selectively invoked to support mainstream and sometimes outdated and counter productive ideas about educational goals.

    10. #12 by Zebra on May 6, 2010 - 9:16 pm

      Thank you for your response Kelli, you make many good points. I don’t think we see things exactly in the same light, but I can see a convergent path :). Lets hope that good sense prevails in the heady echelons of education leadership in setting good constraints on how data is presented and made available in the future.

    11. #13 by kmcg2375 on May 10, 2010 - 7:54 pm

      Thanks Zebra – convergent paths are good! Glad we’ll be seeing NAPLAN kick off in every school tomorrow.

    1. Insubordination « Kelli McGraw

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