Who is driving this thing?

NAPLAN tests start tomorrow, and as Acting Head teacher of the English faculty at my school, I have a role to play in the administration of the tests. It should be a thrilling experience.

With ongoing debates about the MySchool website and League Tables in newspapers, it really brings my focus to the question of Why?

Sarcastic parents the world over have asked their children “well if you’re friends jumped off a bridge, would you do that too?” – and teenage murder/suicide pacts aside, some sectors in Australia seem determined to jump off an educational bridge, right after the U.K. and U.S., pursuing, or at least announcing, policies of performance pay for teachers, extended standardised testing, acceptance of league tables, increase freedom in hiring and firing schools.

Now I say ‘jumping off an educational bridge’ because I evidently have a firm opinion on the matter, but a quick Google search for ‘does performance pay for teachers work?’ brings up a pretty equal number of positive and negative arguments on the topic, and if you spend some time reading those arguments you’ll see that there is no clear winner in the public debate. the argument is a little less balanced when you do a similar search on league tables for schools, though, as many nations that have trialled them for extensive periods are starting to turn away, claiming they do damage to curriculum delivery, by narrowing the focus of teaching down to the ‘basic skills’ of the tests.

In countries like the U.S. and U.K, however, league tables have had far more significance due to their connection to school funding and the threat of schools being closed and semi-privatised under the respective Charter Schools policies. We have yet to see this in Australia, though a quick study of policy change in the U.S. and U.K. will show how league tables were introduced to shape public opinion in the lead up to such shifts in school funding policy.

League tables, it could be argued, are the heralds of Galactus, and while no where near as cool as the silver surfer, certainly seem to usher in an era of doom and despair for public education systems.

But to come back to the question of Why? Why do it? Why implement a policy that has been, at best controversial, at worst, held accountable for the U.K. and U.S. being ranked towards the bottom of developed countries for education standards? If these policies have dominated those countries education systems for so long, and their levels of achievement are so low, isn’t that enough to turn people away from them in an instant?

The cynics argue that governments are putting budget cuts over educational outcomes, while governments counter with claims of using economic principles to improve educational standards. This is where my meager understanding of economic principles sets off warning bells. My most basic understanding of government economics is that is you want more of something, you subsidise it. If you want less of something, you raise penalty payments or taxes on it. Or to simplify an already simple concept – you reward those who do what you want, and penalise those who don’t.

Now immediately this sounds like economic principles might support the idea of performance pay for teachers – but most teachers, and certainly most good teachers know that effective teaching is a collaborative effort but if a cash bonus is only available to one person then it seems like an active disincentive towards collaborative teaching because you wouldn’t want someone else to get credit for your work. There are enough reports out there on the divisive nature of bonus pay that I won’t go through it any further, but while this line of thought has led to suggestions of giving onuses to whole schools rather than individual teachers, that also denies the good work that goes on between school groups and between primary and high schools. All that can be said for certain, is that a majority of states and countries that have tried it have deemed the concept a failure and scrapped it. So the financial  ‘carrot’ for teachers vanishes.

Then there’s the ‘stick’. Cutting funding or closing ‘under performing’ schools. Certainly a superficial reading of economic principles would support that – you don’t want schools to under-perform, so you create negative consequences should a school be under the desired standard. But where do those under-educated students go? Who will teach them? Schools that tend to ‘under perform’ seem to almost universally be in areas that people are hesitant to teach, and also in areas of high disadvantage, so they are hardly barricading the door against a wave of teachers wanting to work in those areas. While its not a policy thats yet been seriously put forward in Australia, that statement almost writes itself an ending of ‘yet’. Like performance pay, there are a lot of arguments for and against that model of management.

So in short, the positive impact of economic principles applied to education are controversial and subjective. Hardly a screaming endorsement.

So then again, why? What is actually achieved by following this path of more testing, tighter funding, firing teachers?

Reduced government spending on education, abrogation of the government’s employer’s responsibilities to the teaching staff sch as insurance and training responsibilities, abrogation of government’s managerial responsibilities as site and grounds managers.

Benefits to the curriculum and education of students are yet to be proven, so again, Why? And at the behest of whom?

Finally, here’s an inspirational TED talk about the kind of learning that can’t be objectively measured, and that, in my opinion, is probably more valueable than a basic skills test.

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Filed under Quality Teaching, Reflections and Musings

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