Overtested, Overrated and Over Here

The 28th of January this year will mark a very dark day for our education system in Australia. For the first time in our history, school data will be published nationally and available online. Julia Gillard has decided to do this based on similar systems in the U.K. and United States. The minister has ignored the plethora of research condemning the approaches advocated by these countries.

The media, particularly in the U.K., publishes school results as league tables. The tables rank schools from top to bottom according to their performance in national tests. Unsurprisingly, the schools that come last are named and shamed and have photos of their school splattered across the front of the daily newspapers. Understandably, the effect on the children, parents, teachers and principals of these communities is devastating. This system has been in place for many years and yet the educational standards in both U.K. and United States have not improved as a result.

In a recent speech (much like many of Julia Gillard’s speeches) to the Melbourne Institute, the Federal Minister for Education said she had decided to publish school data in this country because (she) ‘had inherited an education system going backwards’. Where does she get such information? According to the OECD, our country is consistently ranked in the top ten in the world. In 2004, we came second to Finland in reading literacy and in 2006 we came sixth. Australia has been able to achieve this without relying on national testing or the publication of school data.

Australia’s result is also amazing given that it is a multilingual country. The United Kingdom and the United States have never been able to achieve such results, yet they have turned their schools into testing factories and production lines. A fact recently noted by the head of the Anglican Church in the U.K. in his recent Christmas message. ‘In the case of our children, we will (continue) to test you relentlessly in schools (thereby) crushing and narrowing your (childhood) experiences.’

Greg Watson, head of one of the three main examination boards in the U.K. said, ‘the system of league tables piled pressure on teachers to get results at all costs. He also went on to say that, ‘exam factories were being created, potentially damaging children’s education.’ It was also reported in the English Daily Telegraph on the 11th of November 2009, that two of the main teacher unions are threatening to boycott the exams this year.

The tragedy of all of this is that Julia Gillard knows this, yet she pursues, and continues to pursue, the systems advocated by these countries. She has refused to take advice from those in the education system and she continues to ignore pleas from national teacher bodies, principal associations, teacher unions and parent associations.

The minister has also neglected to develop legislation to stop the media from transforming the published results into league tables. When she appeared on the SBS Insight program last year, she was told by a number of students during a debate about league tables that they did not want this. These students refused to suffer the embarrassment of attending a school that was named and shamed in such a way.

So why don’t we look to the achievements of Finland, a consistently higher achieving country which does not use national tests or publish school results? Why are we looking backwards to the U.S. and the United Kingdom?

Ilana Snyder(2008), in her book The Literacy Wars, eloquently argues that Julia Gillard, like her predecessors, Dr Kemp, Dr Nelson and Julie Bishop, is deflecting our attention and funding away from the key issues that influence who is successful and who is a failure in our society. Demanding that teachers and schools be solely accountable for a student’s failure is to ignore other contributing factors that influence a student’s success or failure. Issues such as gender, race, socio-economic status, poverty, unemployment, violence, drug and alcohol abuse and class are beyond the control of the school and its teachers. The old adage it takes a community to raise a child remains the key to any kind of education revolution. Because governments refuse to bite the bullet and put money into addressing broader issues that affect academic success, nothing will change.

So if she is deflecting funding away from the issues that influence success, where is the money going? It costs millions of taxpayer’s dollars to develop a high-stakes testing regime and a similar amount to establish a website to publish the results of these tests. Just as it has cost millions of dollars in the U.K. and America and failed to lift results there. Imagine the education system we could have if this money was put towards addressing the pressing issues that confront struggling schools.

Interestingly, Julia Gillard already has data at her fingertips that establishes which communities and schools are at risk. Each year, teachers of children in their first year of schooling complete what is called the Australian Early Education Index (AEEI). Teachers complete an online survey about the children in their care. They answer questions to ascertain that each child has attained developmentally appropriate benchmarks. The data generated by this survey is used by the government to direct funding to assist those communities where the need is greatest.

How can the teaching profession and the community let ill-informed politicians knowingly throw taxpayer’s money at clearly failing education models and systems? Would this happen in private industry? I think not! Industry would never sink millions into something that was clearly a disaster and not in the best interests of its clients. Our politicians are failing to seriously address the problems that exist in our education system. Clearly they are only interested in seeing that the most vulnerable of our society remain where they are and that they continue to use self interest to guide their policies instead of the interests of children. There is no denying that there are issues that need to be addressed in education but this is not the answer. The research tells us that it hasn’t worked in the U.K. and America and it won’t work here.

It is time we listened to our teachers, trusted our teachers and congratulated them on their achievements thus far. All the research tells us that it is teachers who make the difference. Teachers don’t want this, parents don’t want this, schools don’t want this and the community does not want this. It is overrated, it involves turning our schools into testing factories and we don’t want it over here. Julia Gillard says she is doing this to make schools and teachers more accountable. How will she be made accountable for introducing this colossal failure? Hopefully it will be at the ballot box.

Teacher Against League Tables

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