An open letter to Katharine Murphy

For the past two months, my educational adventures have kept me so busy that I haven’t had time to adequately update this log. I’ve many stories to tell of new paths charted, however I’ve come out of seclusion today in response to an opinion piece about NAPLAN that was published online on the website of the Sydney Morning Herald. Enjoy!

Dear Katharine,

This is a open letter that will be published on my blog at http://www.capitantypo.com.

This is only one of what I’m sure will be a large number of emails in response to your opinion piece about NAPLAN.

You raised some valid points in your article, however the underlying philosophy of your argument is flawed and, sadly, leads to a number of fallacious conclusions that are, if adopted, ultimately detrimental to education, and subsequently to the society an education system serves.

The irony is that you identify the flaw in your own argument at the very beginning when you say:

“Teaching is hard work, no doubt – and everyone’s an expert, which must drive them all bonkers. (You know how I could be doing this better? Excellent, then pop in and take year 9 science on a Friday afternoon when Johnny’s only interest is setting fire to Stevie’s hair with the Bunsen burner.)”

It is a problem that everyone is an expert ,especially as many of those experts have no professional experience with education yet believe that they have the right to demand specific behaviours and practices from teachers, despite the professional and educational implications of those practices. Consider this in any other profession. What is the effect of business people putting their 2 cents into journalism? Has journalism maintained its integrity? Perhaps we should ask Rebekah Brooks her thoughts on this one.

This issue is doubly compounded by the fact that the majority of politicians making decisions about education fall into this category as well, and like many parents, ultimately make state and national policies about education based on emotional or ideological grounds, rather than educational ones. NAPLAN and the publishing of results is one such emotional and ideological policy that can only have negative implications for education.

Sadly, you quickly diverge from your insightful realisation into the populist world of being the uninformed expert you derided only seconds before.

“Am I the only person in the country who thinks the publication of Australia’s school results has been a huge advance? Because sometimes I feel that way.”

No, you’re not. And you know you’re not. But of all the people who agree with you, you will find very few educators of either public or private persuasion. Why is this? Why are so many educators not only disagreeing with the form and function of NAPLAN, but actively opposed to it? Could it be because they have a professional understanding of education that leads them to the opinion that NAPLAN is damaging? Such a consideration is notably absent from your writing. You did acknowledge the potential negative effects of the test re: student stress and narrowing of the curriculum, but your choice to focus on hyperbolic examples, and the overall derisive tone of your representation of such issues didn’t invite serious consideration of those factors.

“Being a parent and not a teacher I take a parent’s view. Transparency is a good thing. It’s informative to know how the school is tracking.”

And here you are taking the role of the ‘expert’ that you identified as problematic in your opening paragraph. This self-contradiction suggests your earlier acknowledgement of the difficulties of teaching was disingenuous, appeasing potential dissenters before attacking them, in the hope of catching them off guard by appearing ‘on-side’. Regardless of the reason, it is still a contradiction and another example of the very problem education faces: the uninformed claiming authority. Do you tell your hairdresser which scissors to use? Your doctor which medicines to prescribe? If not, then why do you feel comfortable insisting on the educational tools that teachers should use?

Here you do make a valid point. Transparency is a good thing. Absolutely. But transparency of what? This is where the issue of NAPLAN comes to a head. NAPLAN focuses on results. A very limited range of results, captured in a very limited time frame. It is a photograph, or perhaps a sound bite or single quotation. The reason this is a problem is that education is an extended process. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and a single photograph is prone to being taken out of context and is certainly not representative of the bigger picture.

Is NAPLAN a useful guide? Certainly. A guide to basic functional literacy and numeracy. Does it represent the complexity of ‘education’? It doesn’t even scratch the surface. And the biggest negative element of NAPLAN is the very aspect that you are championing. The publication of data. These numbers are treated as metrics of a school’s success or failure, and limit perspectives on school business to a numerical representation of such singular things as spelling and grammar.

So i ask you to consider, what are the indicators of a successful education system? Spelling and basic maths? Or employment, crime and health statistics of the society served by the system? All of which have direct connections to educational outcomes. The point I’m making is that education and the concept of success within education is extremely complex, and NAPLAN is an overly simplistic perspective on this complex process. The harm it does comes when all the other important and valuable effects of education are discarded in favour of numerical indicators, and despite MySchool and NAPLAN being in their relative infancy, we are already seeing widespread anecdotal evidence of the negative effect they are having on schools and individual students.

You acknowledge this to some extend when you say that it’s important to get to know your child’s school and teachers, and that “…all of this information gives context to the NAPLAN data and the data, like everything, needs to be read and understood in context, otherwise it’s a disservice.” But what you fail to acknowledge is that NAPLAN and MySchool do not invite such deeper understanding. The system, as its exists, allows, even encourages, the community to adopt such a reductionist approach to appraising education.

You continue in this vein, bearing the banner of this problematic ideology when you say:

“I don’t want to get into too much detail but I’ll say this with absolute certainty: my youngest child is getting a better education than his older sibling did at the same public school several years ago – and it’s because of transparency.”

Are you really judging the quality of your children’s education by their NAPLAN results, as this statement would indicate? What if, in later life, your older child ends up in a stable career with a high level of satisfaction with their life,while your younger one drifts from job to job, dissatisfied and bitter? Who got the better education then? Which of your children will make more sensible decisions with drugs and alcohol, or will battle with fitness and body image issues? What role will NAPLAN play in ensuring their high school health teacher interests them in these lessons? Under NAPLAN, PE teachers will more likely be ensuring that year 9 students can spell ‘anatomy’or ‘musculature’ correctly in order to meet regional targets for spelling. Stories abound of U.S. schools that have already cut sports and health programs in favour of focusing in class time on literacy and numeracy testing. I wonder what the average health of U.S. children is like?

Your further submission to the reductionist view that it’s “all because of transparency” is a false conclusion that denies the many other aspects of a school that might energise positive change. And not to mention the fact that in one sentence you effectively weep aside any recognition of a Teacher’s professional ethics.

The really difficult thing to grasp about your article is that you make some acknowledgement of many of these issues, though in a superficial way, and then ultimately sweep them aside by saying:

“But I’m going to stand up for the principle of transparency. We can’t just have ”the educator’s perspective” in this debate, because the educators are not the only stakeholders.”

You’re begging the question that educators are by-and-large opposed to transparency. Here you are asserting the one major false conclusion of this argument that is so harmful to the very concept of education. Yes, transparency is a valuable thing. It is necessary in most aspects of life, for without transparency we allow corruption, collusion and just plain apathy to get a foothold.

But for your statement to be anything other than uninformed ideology given voice, you would have to prove the point that some large section of society is opposed to transparency OR that NAPLAN somehow represented the only viable system of transparency in our education system.

You are also denying the fact that NAPLAN data, and ELLA and SNAP data before it, has always been publicly available. Parents have always received their child’s results, and schools have always been obligated to publish their results in their annual school report. Such publications, however, place data in context, while national publications on a website deny the contextual information that you yourself identify as being so valuable to interpreting results.

I can say with a fair amount of certainty that most teachers would not oppose systems of transparency, provided that they were systems that actually reflected the complexity and diversity of education rather than reducing such complexity to single, limited numbers. As a teacher, I can think of a number of systems of transparency that I would find perfectly acceptable, but they focus on the complex process of education, rather than a simplistic concept of ‘results’, and so I doubt I will ever see such systems implemented, no matter how many consultation processes our state and federal governments go through.

So that’s my counter argument. The TL;DR version is “transparency is a good and necessary thing, but publication of NAPLAN data does not represent ‘education’ and potentially does more harm than good.”

Before I go, I want to address a couple of other statements you made in your article that conflate the false conclusions raised above.

“It is not the educators who will wear the consequences of a suboptimal education.”

The short sightedness of this statement is staggering. I’m a teacher, and I live in the community I teach in. Even if I didn’t, I live in NSW and as a member of the Australian society. The work that I do as a teacher has some small direct influence on the future prosperity of our society, and for purely selfish reasons, I want the future of Australia to be as bright and prosperous as possible. It’s the society I will be raising my own children in, and eventually retiring in. Teachers will ultimately wear the consequences of their work as much as any individual or family. There was once a time when this was broadly understood, and hence why a strong education system was so valuable. I fear that this understanding may no longer abound in a society focused on short term, individual gains,

“Children deserve the best possible education the system can provide – and a public education system that is genuinely responsive to its community, that is prepared to listen to inputs from outside, and that is prepared to prioritise quality, is an education system that more people can have confidence in.”

I couldn’t agree more, but I’m dumbfounded to think that you’re making the argument that no school interacted with their community before NAPLAN results were published online. Surely you’ve heard of the P&C? The most successful schools I’ve worked in were the ones with the most vibrant and involved parent community. But I’m not sure how NAPLAN data is meant to reflect that.

Sincerely,
(The Good Capitan)

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8 Comments

Filed under Reflections and Musings

8 responses to “An open letter to Katharine Murphy

  1. Adrian

    More people than those that will find your blog through whichever means need to read this perspective, Cameron. I charge you with having it published. Please.

  2. If light is emitted in only the UV spectrum, humans lack the ability to see it. Transmitting transparently is pointless if one has an inadequate receiver. Plus you can end up with a bad case of sunburn. Weird self-amusing analogies aside, I still think the words professional and accountability go hand in hand. The metrics are not easy to formulate for long term education, and NAPLAN is a very poor starting point. Who’s job is it to figure it out? Those who would benefit from greater, more tangible professional recognition? I’d prefer my teachers continue to do what they are most excellent at.

  3. Sue

    Outstanding piece of writing that deserves to disseminated as widely as possible. Congratulations

  4. wecare30

    From your response I can see you are passionate about your job and your role but I’d assume KM is also passionate about her’s as a parent hence the contrasting views. As a parent I concur with KM where I use NAPLAN results as a guide. My expectations for my children are that they are happy, enjoy attending school and want to learn but also are achieving above the national average. I can’t speak for other parents on how they view NAPLAN but I use it in conjunction with other indicators such as feedback from parent interviews, comments in school reports, test results throughout the year, my observations on how my children do their homework and projects and if they are happy to attend school to learn. If after all those indicators my children are doing fine I want to see how they match up with other children in the region, State and Nationwide – hence NAPLAN. If my children are achieving above the national average then my expectations are being met, if they are below the national average, then I need to discuss with the school why and how we can achieve a better result. The one issue I do have with Naplan and I think might be a source of the pressure teachers and students experience is the cramming for this test. This type of learning does not teach one how to learn, just what to learn. The reasons for learning are not even considered, beyond the imperative of the test. This does not encourage creativity and innovation; just a narrow form of problem-solving to questions where we already know the answers. Standardised testing rewards the ability to find the “correct answer” and thus discourages creativity, which is about asking questions and challenging the status quo. This narrow and uniform curriculum deprives children of opportunities to explore and experiment which is the foundation of entrepreneurship and it is in this area I believe we fall down on.

    • Thanks for your reply. I’m glad that this post is generating further discussion.
      Unfortunately your reply either misses or avoids the primary issue that KM and I disagree on. That is, the mass-publication of NAPLAN results in a simplistic form that invites an equally simplistic appraisal of schools and of the complex business of education.

      NAPLAN is a useful diagnostic tool, though it diagnoses a very limited range of outcomes, and publication of that data does not present the contextual information that you, like KM, identify as crucial to properly interpreting NAPLAN data.

      As I stated in my post, parents and the local community have always had access to NAPLAN results, and the results of any state-mandated standardised test. The information provided to parents tells them how their child is doing compared to state and national averages. So what is gained by publishing results on MySchool, or by the state government allowing newspapers like the Sydney Morning Herald to break the law by publishing League Tables? How does the school benefit? How do you, as a parent, benefit, by having the information that you possess distributed nationally?

      Ironically, while you say you initially agree with KM, the second half of your post identifies the very problems created by the mass-publication of student test results. You’re exactly right that those issues are a problem, and that problem is massively exacerbated by the publication of NAPLAN data.

      And here’s a practical example of how publication of NAPLAN data results in a narrowed curriculum:
      In the Syllabus document for English in years 7 and 8, there are 155 learning outcomes that students are expected to meet, and exactly 4 of them require an explicit focus on Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar. That’s 2.5% of learning outcomes focussing explicitly on those elements, yet three quarters of the NAPLAN test focusses on assessing them. While ‘literacy’ is identified as a whole school target that every teacher/subject is expected to address, if NAPLAN data becomes the public face of the school on the national stage (note that MySchool doesn’t tell you about sporting achievements, creative arts programs, or anything other than literacy and numeracy results) then which outcomes are going to be focussed on and which excluded? All the things you listed as important ultimately play second fiddle to the narrow focus of NAPLAN.

      A good teacher and a good school curriculum plan will integrate literacy into the teaching of other outcomes and of required course content, but when ONLY literacy and numeracy results are used to assess a school, they inevitably receive undue, unfair and often unnecessary focus.
      SO keep NAPLAN, but keep it as a diagnostic tool, not a widespread metric that is unfairly used to assess school and teacher performance, especially as it does not accurately or appropriately reflect either of those thing.

  5. Pingback: Who benefits from NAPLAN? | Parents and NAPLAN

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