Opinions, Arseholes, and @ABCthedrum

It’s that time again when I, your good Capitan, must undertake yet another deconstruction of some ill informed publication about educational issues in Australia. This time, the topic is the assessment of teachers, and once again the writer produces ill informed, logically inconsistent arguments that, if not refuted, offer a dangerously skewed argument that I personally believe is counter-productive to what should be the the overall goals of any effective education system. To my more sensitive readers, I apologise in advance for the repeated (though entirely justified) use of the word ‘arsehole’ and any other expletives that have crept into in the diatribe that follows…

There’s a great line from the 80’s film The Dead Pool: “Opinions are like assholes (sic), everyone has one and everyone thinks everyone else’s stinks”. It’s a great line, more commonly paraphrased to “Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one”. Personally I’d like to see it updated to the status of a proverb, repeated often and seriously by people of authority with grey beards, but with the following addition: “Opinions are like arseholes, everyone has one, and when in public you’re usually better off to keep quiet about yours.”

This train of thought was prompted by this opinion piece by U.K. based teacher Ben Turnour, posted on ABC’s Analysis and opinion site, The Drum. Turnour’s profile tells us that he finished his teacher training in Australia in 2009, and by 2011 moved to the U.K. where he now teaches.

The thrust of his argument is that teachers and their work should be assessed, and he offers a few brief suggestions as to how it should be done. Unfortunately, while it is ultimately an opinion piece, the argument includes quite a number of poorly thought out, never-evidenced, and potentially dangerous statements about education that I feel it is my duty to identify and refute.

The opening of the piece is as follows:

In the light of the recent move by the Napthine Government in Victoria to introduce a fivepoint scale for assessing the performance of teachers, there have been efforts by some within education to resist any incursion into what is seen as the sacred and private world of the school classroom.

There have been attempts by some to portray the work of good teachers as some subjective esoteric art form, and therefore by its nature wholly unquantifiable. Having taught in Australia and now in London, where there is a four-point scale and extensive objective assessment of teacher performance, I believe that not only can good teaching be quantified, but teachers themselves benefit from this assessment.

Straight away, the author flags his ideological bias by engaging in the tactic known as ‘poisoning the well’, in which a person tries to preemptively diminish potentially opposing arguments in the mind of the audience, without actually refuting them. The phrasing of the line “there have been efforts by some within education to resist any incursion into what is seen as the sacred and private world of the school classroom.” carries a certain tone that suggests a foolishness on the part of anyone who might argue against any form of teacher evaluation system. It’s a dirty trick of argument closely aligned with the Ad Hominem attack, and one that is highly attractive to those arguing from an ideological position, whether knowingly or otherwise.

The piece continues its dismissive tone toward those who argue against systems of teacher accountability, and then states that the author’s experience of teaching in two different countries has informed his ‘belief’ that good teaching can be quantified. Enjoy the use of the phrase ‘I believe’ there, because it is one of the few times in the whole piece that Turnour acknowledges that most of the content of this article is only his opinion or belief – it’s an important acknowledgement given the very next sentence that follows…

Unlike many developed nations, Australia has no formal system of inspection and accountability for what goes on inside school classrooms between roughly 8:30am and 3:00pm each day.

First of all, saying ‘Australia has no formal system’ is to suggest that all of Australia has a single, monolithic approach to teaching and the employment of teachers.

For those who don’t know, all of Australia’s 8 states and territories have a different system of government education, each with its own policies and procedures for the hiring and assessment of teachers. Then there are the different denominations of catholic schools, some which operate as part of a wider system and some which operate independently. Then there are the true independent schools who operate largely in isolation from any other school or system when it comes to staff management.  Also in recent years there has been the introduction of Independent Public Schools in Western Australia and Queensland, with a total of nearly 350 schools each having greater independent control over the hiring and management of their teaching staff.

Turnour’s comment that ‘Australia has no formal system’ is either disturbingly ignorant, or even more disturbingly disingenuous in its simplistic depiction of Australia’s education system.

Secondly, that statement is factually, demonstrably untrue. As my main body of experience is in the NSW public education system I won’t presume to speak broadly about teacher evaluation in Australia, but in NSW there absolutely are formal systems of teacher evaluation. Here’s  quick overview:

First of all, since 2004, every teacher in NSW is required to demonstrate competence against a set of professional standards developed by the New South Wales Institute of Teachers, which involves working with a mentor to ensure the teachers’ practice in the classroom and as a member of the teaching profession meets a minimum acceptable standard. There now also exists a national set of standards produced by AITSL, and in every state of Australia there is (or is to be) a body like the NSWIT responsible for the implementation and maintenance of those standards.

Secondly, after achieving the initial accreditation, every NSW teacher must undergo an annual evaluation of their professional practice. These evaluations  are usually conducted by a teachers’ immediate executive manager and then the school principal is responsible for signing off on the teachers’ competence. This process has been around for quite a long time in NSW, and since the publication of the professional teaching standards, those standards are increasingly becoming the basis for this evaluation process.

Finally, after achieving initial accreditation, a teacher is responsible for undertaking a minimum number of hours of professional development over a 5 year period, after which time they must submit a report on how they have addressed the professional teaching standards in their professional development.

If a teacher does not successfully pass these processes, especially accreditation and training requirements, then their employment is in jeopardy.

How do I know this? Because as an executive teacher in a NSW public high school, I have just recently completed this process with the faculty I manage, and am still supporting one early career teacher through their initial accreditation process.

Now, this system was largely pioneered in New South Wales and something similar has been/is being rolled out around the country, but for anyone to assert that ‘Australia has no formal system’ means that they are either ignorant of the actual state of teacher evaluation in Australia, or are aware of it, and choose to ignore it because it does not suit their purpose.

As this seems to be the primary premise upon which this article argues for the need for teacher evaluation systems in Australia, then it shouldbe clear that the rest of Turnour’s piece is built on a very unstable, if not absent, foundation.

The piece goes on to offer a couple of more examples of poisoning the well against opponents of all forms of teacher assessment (who the author does not bother to actually prove the existence of!) by making statements such as:

Many teachers today resist the introduction of classroom inspections in general, and teacher grading in particular,

and

Furthermore, teachers themselves often promote the myth that what students gain from a lesson somehow cannot be measured.

and

Additionally, many argue that standardised testing as a means for judging school and teacher performance does not take into account the educational context of students.

Turnour then attempts to seem reasonable by saying that these arguments ‘have merit’, but rather than actually engage with the merit of those arguments he unilaterally dismisses them by saying:

they universally fail to take into account the impact that regular feedback and accountability has on the quality of teaching and student progress.

What Turnour has done here is, to some degree, engaged in the logical fallacy of the Argument from Authority. He offers no actual evidence to support his claims, but he has set himself up as some form of authority based on his personal experiences of teaching between Australia and London. If you take away the assumed authority of his experience, then what actual justification exists for believing his statements to be true? None that I can identify.

There’s also something going on in his argument that I can’t quite put a name to, but that feels a little bit like an example of a straw man when he says that opponents “universally fail” to consider the value of feedback. This statement is trying to conflate opposition to certain forms of teacher evaluation with a fairly extreme statement about what such opponents consider important. The implication here, without directly stating it, is that systems of teacher evaluation like Napthine’s 5 point system are the only valid forms of feedback for teachers. It sets up a false representation of opposing arguments that is much easier to refute than the actual arguments which are immeasurably more complex in nature.

The piece then offers several more factually incorrect statements such as:

 However, for many new graduates entering the teaching profession, there exists no standard benchmark against which they can measure their progress,

Yes there are, I’ve already identified the Professional Teaching Standards.

 and no formal system to allow them to access feedback from those highly skilled practitioners within the teaching profession who can help them advance.

Again… yes there is, as I’ve detailed above. Plus, in NSW public schools, at least, it is a requirement of the position description for any executive teacher in a school that they take some responsibility for the professional development of the staff they manage. There are a number of management strategies used to offer such feedback and reflection-based activities such as professional learning plans that target specific goals for personal development, faculty and school plans that provide a framework for assessing the efficacy of school wide and individual pedagogy in relation to the identified needs of the students and community. It’s all there, if you bother to look for it.

Then Tunour offers up this gem:

The current policy of inspection by the principals has caused many teachers to raise fears of the subjectivity of a principal’s assessment.

The current policy?!? The current policy of which school system? of which state? Turnour started his piece by identifying Napthine’s proposed evaluation system before going to to make generalised (and factually incorrect) statements about teacher evaluation Australia wide. In trying to understand this issue, specificity matters!

Turnour uses another Straw Man when he says

 Principals simply do not have the time to sit in 80 odd classrooms for 30 minutes at a stretch and examine student workbooks and have discussions with learners to determine whether what they are seeing is indicative of everyday practice or a special performance put on for show.

Of course they don’t! And in no school system I know of are they being expected to do that. I willingly admit that I don’t know the nuances of every school system in Australia, and if Turnour could give us one single verifiable reference to demonstrate that such an asinine process is being carried out in the name of teacher evaluation then perhaps we could have a discussion about the efficient use of a principal’s time and the need to delegate responsibilities to executive teachers within the school, but as this is just another grand, unfounded pronouncement by this author, it does not actually offer anything of value to the broader discussion.

So anyway, after this logical-fallacy ridden set up, Turnour then goes on to suggest a two-fold solution which is as soundly reasoned and logically coherent as everything that has come so far.

He says:

Firstly, a national framework which defines principles of good teaching regardless of subject area needs to be developed. There will be those who claim this to be impossibly difficult due to the vast array of subject specific criteria.

IT BLOODY WELL EXISTS! And has been in development for a very long time! AITSL was formally created on January 1, 2010, and was a highly-debated initiative in the preceding years, but it means that at least for the short time that Turnour was teaching in Australia, AITSL existed.

He then goes on to say:

The key to quantifying good teaching is the focus on student progress over time – rather than what the teacher is doing at the front of the room – as the measurable indicator of teacher performance.

And in this single statement is the true scale of either the author’s ignorance, or his drive to simplify complex issues into meaninglessness, truly exposed.

My first reaction to this statement is, “Oh Yeah, prove it?!?” Prove that student improvement is the single best indicator of good teaching. Show your evidence, show your research into the singular, identifiable and measurable correlation between ‘good teaching’ and ‘student progress over time’. Surely if such a statement were empirically true, there would some conclusive research to show that link.

In reality, the factors that go into students’ progressing over time are so much more complicated than just what the teacher in the classroom does. While it’s still somewhat contested, I offer up the work of Hattie as an example. His oft-cited meta-analysis of research into educational effect sizes suggested that when identifying the factors behind student achievement, the quality of teaching practices in the classroom account for no more than 30% of the factors influencing student achievement. A students’ own attitudes and behaviours, and the impact of the parents and home environment accounted for a cumulative 60%!

Even if Hattie’s research is not universally accepted, such a staggering difference should give pause for thought before suggesting that student progress is the single, simple measure of ‘good teaching’. If a students’ personal values, behaviours’ and home life are supportive of education then the teacher will probably have a much easier time enacting effective teaching practices, and in-school academic achievement will benefit.

But consider this real-world scenario: A student whose sibling schedules their wedding for the weekend before the commencement of the final year 12 examinations; the students’ family give them no choice about attending the wedding, which would not be an issue if the situation were not exacerbated further by the fact that the wedding is booked out of state and the family are using it as an opportunity for a family holiday stretching before and after the wedding. After nearly 2 weeks away, the student arrives back into their home state only days before the commencement of the exams, having had little time for effective study on the family-enforced road-trip.

Would Mr. Turnour be happy to have his performance as a teacher graded by including that students’ final exam results? Or would he then possibly feel that the issue of educational achievement was more complex than just exam grades?

I’m not suggesting that one single anecdote invalidates all suggestions of teacher evaluation, I’m merely trying to point out that despite Mr. Turnour’s simplistic assertion that good teaching can be measured by student progress, and despite his sweeping dismissal of any arguments about the complexity of factors in education, it is a highly complex process in which any measure derived primarily from student achievement would have an unforgivably narrow focus.

The second part of Mr. Turnour’s proposal is the need for such standards to be implemented and maintained by a board of skilled professionals, and it is here that the argument suffers from a distinct lack of clarity Implied by his link to the Ofsted Framework for school evaluation used in England is the idea that he is actually suggesting that education systems in Australia should create an independent board for the investigation and assessment of schools.

I can’t be certain if that is what he is actually proposing, however, because the article never actually articulates such an idea, and after the long, illogical set-up of the need for ‘formal’ teacher evaluation systems in Australia, it doesn’t actually describe how such a system would work in practical terms, how it would be funded, or how any method of ‘quantifying’ teaching practices would actually be calculated or conducted.

The article just links to Ofsted and kind of implies ‘we should do this thing’, without any acknowledgement of the systems that are already in place in Australia.

So by the end of this piece, we are actually not any more informed than we were before hand, but Turnour’s opinion, like we would expect of his arsehole, has only offered a muddy and unpleasant contribution to the buffet table that is public discussion on education policy.

Yes. That’s right. I did just link back to the beginning of my article to suggest that Turnour’s contribution is the equivalent of someone taking a shit on a salad bar.

The issue is just too complex for such opinionated assessments or simplistic solutions (BTW: How do Australia and England compare in educational standards? Should we be following their lead, or they following ours? Or are such simplistic statements not appropriate given the complexity of factors at play?)

Now before I end this scatological teardown of this opinion piece , I also want to lob my own faecal assault at the website that published it.

ABC’s The Drum proposes to be a site for opinion and analysis that is open to contributions from the general public. But nowhere on the page that this article was published was there a disclaimer identifying this as the opinion of a private individual not connected with the ABC. Not even a clear link to be clicked entitled ‘Disclaimer’. I’m sure that one exists somewhere on the site, but it is not posted clearly enough to inform a reader’s opinion of the piece and a member of the general public who clicks through to this from facebook or twitter could be forgiven for making the assumption that Turnour speaks with some authority derived from the ABC, and that his opinions carry some factual authority that has passed ABC’s editorial standards. Yes, the site is branded as ‘opinion and analysis’ but most people could be forgiven for assuming that the opinion of an ABC writer is much more informed than that of the ‘ordinary person’ who does not work within a media organisation, and I feel as though The Drum does not make this distinction clearly enough.

Keep in mind that the ABC is the organisation whose MediaWatch program has been unforgiving in its condemnation of Alan Jones and 2UE for passing off misinformed opinion as fact, or making exaggerated and factually incorrect statements about issue of significant public importance like Climate Change, or the NBN. In a sense, the ABC ha made a problem where one previously did not exist by elevating Turnour’s opinion piece to a national forum by hosting it on their site. Were he to have written this on his own obscure blog (as I am right now), it probably would have gained little attention and would certainly be much more clearly positioned as the opinion of an individual, but thanks to the ABC’s decision to publish this without demanding any kind of rigor or validity to the argument it offers, it has given this piece of writing a much larger national, and potentially international, audience.

Ben Turnour may have taken a shit on the salad bar, but the ABC picked it up and threw it into the ceiling fan.

This is all, of course, only my opinion.

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3 Comments

Filed under Just Add Logic; Won't Hold Water

3 responses to “Opinions, Arseholes, and @ABCthedrum

  1. “…opinions differ significantly from arse-holes, in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.”
    We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat.
    Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege.” Tim Minchin http://www.timminchin.com/2013/09/25/occasional-address/

  2. Jim KABLE

    Excellent!

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