Judging the quality of education

Classroom - flickr image by peiqianlongPrime Minister Kevin Rudd's education revolution continues to provoke critique, most recently from Professor Peter Mortimore, a former director of the London-based Institute of Education. Speaking at an Australian Education Union-sponsored event in Brisbane in October, he points out quite rightly that in education, there is often a distinction between achievement scores and real learning.

For example, students may very well get high marks in a test on World War I history, but if this achievement was due to an emphasis on studying exam questions and criteria rather than the content itself, then the exam cannot be a reliable measure of knowledge.

By the same token, compelling states and schools to produce information on performance will never be a reliable strategy for lifting numeracy and literacy, if this were indeed its purpose. It is simply the wrong philosophical framework for action, especially when learning is as much about taking risks and failing as it is about getting the answers right the first time. Granted that a results-oriented system can motivate teachers and students to excel, it only goes so far before it kills the spirit of the enterprise. All too easily, what you know becomes the standard rather than how you came by what you know.

It is important to make the distinction. Over the years, there have been many changes in the content that is taught in the classrooms. Far too often, teachers are told what to teach rather than how best to teach. It was not that long ago that former Education Minister Brendan Nelson insisted on highlighting Simpson and his donkey in the teaching of Australian history.

Rudd's education policy is no better in terms of encouraging educators to facilitate learning rather than regurgitation. It is especially demoralising because it ties performance to funding and employment. This move implies that teachers have complete and sole control over their students' performance. They do not. There are other variables, apart from the teacher, that impact on learning, such as the quality of the home environment, availability of resources, and students' own commitment to their schooling.

On the other hand, it is difficult to disagree that teachers must be held accountable. The education of our children is far too important for us to simply assume that every single teacher is trying their best and making a point of developing their craft. But Rudd's policy suggests that teachers and schools are currently not being held accountable to parents. This is not the case.

There are various mechanisms in all states for making schools transparent. The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, for example, publishes an annual document that tables the VCE, VCAL and VET unit enrolments, certificate completion rates and study score data of all schools. There is also a well-entrenched structure for feedback to parents in the form of semester reports and end-of-term interviews. Parents who are already interested in their children's schooling know when teachers are doing their jobs well and they complain to principals when they believe otherwise.

In other words, it is not as if achievement in and by schools is a secret that can only be wrenched out by threatening cuts to funding. Even if it were the case that current performance indicators need to be refined, adverse reports ought to signal a need for greater support, not punishment. As long as the reverse holds true, it should not be a surprise when individuals and organisations fudge the figures in their favour. There have been cases in the health industry that illustrate this.

For example, a 2003 inquiry in England concluded that waiting list data at South Manchester University Hospitals was being manipulated to reflect closer adherence to government targets. A similar investigation was conducted that same year in New South Wales after allegations of misreporting of waiting lists at St George, Bankstown, St Vincent's, Prince of Wales, Sydney and the Sydney Eye Hospital.

It is of course reasonable, when apportioning public monies, to ask whether targets have been met, but we must also ask how they have been met. This inattention to process has been a feature in government number crunching for many years. It has led to an emphasis on the end figures without necessarily providing the procedural and environmental conditions that would make a positive outcome possible. The occasion for injustice thus becomes ripe when the burden of not meeting targets is placed on schools that have not been equipped to meet them in the first place.

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a state school teacher in Victoria.

Topic tags: schools, education, literacy, numeracy, performance, exams



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Existing comments

Thanks, Fatima, for such a lucidly and convincingly developed argument.
Joe Castley | 19 November 2008

Fatima, Thank you for the timely reminder! At the end of my professional life, and then retirement, I have raged about the 'deconstruction' of teaching for over 50 years.
Teaching is about Activity, Communication and Negotiation. The latter is bringing the minds in your care to the link between what they know and what they should know. To measure how well you achieve this you should not use 'psychologised number crunching' but your judgement as a professional teacher, as a professional.
I have taught mathematics to pass exams, a most distasteful experience.
John McQualter | 19 November 2008

We need to be clear about exactly what type of student performance is the focus on public reporting and accountability. It is not higher order thinking and creativity, but basic literacy and numeracy, the basic blocks of real learning. Unless children have been given these foundation skills, their opportunities for true learning and education are severely limited. I remember well Joe Castley's enthralling classes on Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters and the short stories of Katherine Mansfield. I recall being spellbound by imaginary numbers and convergent series introduced to me by Kevin Garrity. But these worlds would have been closed to me if I had not been taught to read (by the phonics method) and to manipulate numbers by rote learning (what Fatima might disparagingly refer to as "regurgitation") when I was in primary school. The problem that public reporting of school performance is attempting to redress is the devaluing of these foundational skills. Generations of children since the eighties have been deprived of opportunities to appreciate truth and beauty because of an ideoligical prejudice against the disciplined acquisition of foundational skills and knowledge.
David de Carvalho | 20 November 2008

Hits the nail rigth on the head !!!!!!!
nick agocs | 20 November 2008

As with so many complex arguments, do not both sides have it partially right? There is a duty to guarantee (by properly resourcing, no matter the cost) 'foundational education' and all kinds of expansive education that both satisfies society's needs and individuals' needs, talents and ambitions?

High time too that politicians, educators, all of us acknowledge and act on our culture that produces and limits our education system ('the quality of the home environment, availability of resources, and students' own commitment to their schooling').

Individuals make errors. So do cultures. Our culture devotes incalculable funds into ball sports ('we want 36 medals at the next Olympics') but refuses to admit that the relentless violence in sports (on and off the field) and on TV, the relentless brainwashing so that we buy rubbish, binge drink and get into financial trouble, sends directly contrary messages to what every Mum and kinder teacher is trying to teach. The word 'culture' means something we grow; it’s never set in stone. We have the choice to become and to grow enlightened global citizens. Sports scores and 'Nelson and his donkey' won’t get us far. Thank heavens there are still some Fatimas prepared to become teachers!
Phillip Mahnken | 22 November 2008

We have been getting comments in the media recently about Joel Klein from New York education department, and from Rupert Murdoch. I thought the quality of this advice to be extremely low. They emphasise "hard work". But hard work means different things to differnt people. To a rich person, it may mean doing 4 hours study per day, fitted in around balls and garden parties. To someone without without money, "hard work" is going to be interpreted as an absurd grind of 12 hour days of study. In other words, the words of Murdoch and Klein are worthless. It would be better if their pens were "dipped in bile". Instead, their words are dipped in something they must have scraped off the bottom of their shoes.
richard telfer | 27 November 2008

I'm sorry to have to tell you this. But unless you learn to read at home, as the byproduct of a loving relationship with a parent, grandparent, or sibling, your chances of ever appreciating reading are, I suggest, lowered quite a bit.
richard | 27 November 2008

The final sentence in this discourse is the real issue in education. It is impossible to reach goals if the resources are inadequate.
Judy George | 08 December 2008

Fatima didn't address the big problem that is in the schooling system ,THE TEACHERS. The problem is there is no paper trail for outsiders to see how the students view the teachers or the parents' view of the individual teachers. This day and age with all the computers and networking this could be easily fixed. The government could put up a website with all the public schools and allow comments by the public and parents to review each teacher.

The teachers like to hide behind the union and government ineptitude to protect themselves from the truth. The truth for the teachers is that everyone else is at fault but not the teaching profession. In all my schooling I think only 20 percent of the teachers were any good
blueskysabove | 04 April 2009


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