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Why NAPLAN boycott must happen


ABCIt is all-out war between the Australian Federal Government and the Australian Education Union (AEU). Up until this month, the conflict has played out in the media as a war of words, centred on the publication of results from the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) through the MySchool website.

The stage is now set for an industrial action showdown, with the 180,000-member AEU maintaining its ban on teacher supervision of NAPLAN, despite an investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman. Any order against unprotected industrial action will cover Victoria, Northern Territory and the ACT. In other states, education ministers have pursued such an order to prevent a teacher boycott.

There would have been a few die-hards who hoped until the last minute that Education Minister Julia Gillard could be brought to the table to negotiate terms.

She has not, however, truly engaged with concerns from teachers, principals, academics and — yes — parents, regarding the flaws in determining groupings of 'like' schools, the use of MySchool figures by the media to create simplistic rankings of local schools, the promotion of a professional culture that teaches to a test, and the creation of an adversarial relationship between parents and teachers.

What intensifies the conflict is that both sides actually agree on a core point — that NAPLAN provides valuable information. In fact, Gillard and teacher unions present a similar argument that the national tests are not to be taken lightly. The divergence of opinion over the use of test results is thus made sharp by the fact that both parties are righteous in roughly the same spirit.

Yet the Federal Government has carefully crafted its communication so that it would seem teachers do not share its goals nor the values of parents. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has stated, 'The Australian Government is on the side of parents and we're on the side of MySchool because we want to lift the standards of all Australian schools.'

The rhetoric echoes Gillard's proposal that parents be recruited as replacements should the teacher boycott go ahead. It is a kind of brinkmanship that discomfits even her state counterparts, Geoff Wilson (Queensland) and Jay Weatherill (South Australia), who oppose this move. Weatherill went as far as saying that 'a number of the suggestions [made by the union] about improving the quality of information on the MySchool website seem sensible to me.'

Indeed, the use of data is the area in which stakeholders, who would be normally aligned, are divided. Catholic and independent schools, for example, will not be boycotting the national tests despite stated concerns over MySchool (a telling move, given that such schools would generally sit in the top half of any league table).

According to Dr Julie Faulkner, senior lecturer at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology School of Education, Labor voters would be similarly divided. She says that those who had expected a 'progressive approach' from the Rudd-Gillard partnership 'are dismayed by the confrontational stance'. She fears 'teachers will again be used as scapegoats for deeper systemic social inequities, while the government positions itself as a tough, can-do leadership'.

Such a situation would be catastrophic because the relationship between government and the education sector should be one of shared vision. After all, the modern socioeconomic engine is driven by the literate, numerate, and functional masses who spent most of their formative years in a classroom. It is therefore in the government's interest to get education right.

However, it has failed to do so by alienating educators. Gillard has drawn the line between teachers and parents, as if teachers are not naturally supportive of parents' desires regarding their children's education. In challenging state schools, it would be the reverse — teachers often wish that parents were more involved in their children's schooling.

'We need to move from the overused 'accountability' catchcry,' says Faulkner, 'and think about 'support', 'resources' and 'relationships'.' Unfortunately, while Gillard has stated that the MySchool data will help governments identify schools in most need, she has not gone as far as saying that the data will be used to craft more equitable funding arrangements for public and private schools.

The point is that the best outcomes for students come from a collaborative partnership between governments and schools, between schools and families, and among teachers — not the adversarial relationship that the Federal Government has so far promoted for its own end.

Already, media outlets have been trumpeting how much it will cost taxpayers for teachers to walk out on NAPLAN. What has been buried in the debate is the idea that, unlike other industrial disputes over employment conditions and workplace policy, the May boycott will be one of principle for participating teachers.

As Faulkner points out, the overemphasis on NAPLAN-based school comparisons 'exacerbates the tensions between quality teaching and learning. In the long term, it leads to teaching to the test, due to fear of results.' For many teachers, the professional — and for some, the only ethical — thing to do is to oppose such moves.



Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a state school teacher in Victoria.


Topic tags: Fatima Measham, naplan, julia gillard, boycott



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Existing comments

How pretentious of teacher union leaders to imply that only they and their members are capable of understanding the NAPLAN results, and that the rest of society is too stupid to know what this statistical basket really means. To undergo teacher formation in my state,Queensland, requires such a low entrance qualification that one can be barely literate and still make the grade.

If I represented such a group of unionists I would not be in a hurry to tell the rest of society that it cannot be trusted to interprest this data. Only we(THAT INTELLECTUAL ELITE CALLED TEACHERS)can. This is arrogant self indulgence.Once a week I work in a local Government High School. The nonsense I often clean off the white and black boards each week is evidence of the scant knowledge and understanding some of these these teachers have of spelling, grammar and punctuation and it is these "professionals" who are taking this stance on NAPLAN! The irony is as obvious as it is alarming.

retired teacher | 28 April 2010  

A fine sense of why teachers can't but fight the educationally destructive effects of the misuse of these tests. A sad sense, too, that this is another instance - after its continuation of the destructive aspects of the Northern Territory Intervention and of its returning to a policy of harsh treatment of asylum seekers - where an electorally focussed Rudd government is playing to the Opposition's popularism and so betraying the progressive hopes many of us had when we voted it in.

Joe Castley | 28 April 2010  

The My School website uses an index of social and educational advantage (ICSEA) to create groups of 60 statistically similar schools whose NAPLAN results are then compared. However, ICSEA is a flawed instrument for reasons I explain in a paper that can be accessed here: http://www.aeusa.asn.au/why_icsea_will_fail_our_schools.pdf?lid=40
To create league tables using the very limited diagnostic testing of NAPLAN is bad enough. To inaccurately group schools that have very little in common and publicly rank them against each other is just as bad. Australia's Margaret Thatcher must come down off her high horse and admit the mistakes in her approach to this issue.

Mike Williss | 28 April 2010  

The misuse of the collected data is the issue. Proper use is very constructive. Failure to collect data as planned will lose the opportunity to collect longitudinal data for the first time. This would allow improvement to be measured. This should remove some of the benefits that well-resourced schools get from the previously available single numbers. There will be distortion caused by schools training kids to do Naplan tests. However this distortion will be a once only effect.

JM | 28 April 2010  

Teachers have traditionally opposed any form of transparency that surrounds their work practice. This is understandable, given this society's perception of the role of teachers; unless, of course, they're in the private system. In which case, they're OK because we're all paying a lot of money for little Johnnie or Marcia's education. The introduction of NAPLAN is, understandably, interpreted by many in the teaching industry as intrusive. While I understand - although I don't agree with the fundamental premise - the teachers' concern, I am puzzled at the Union's involvement. The Union's involvement with education has always been about their members' working condition or to be precise how it impacts on their members' working condition. In other words, their NAPLAN boycott is really about the "stakeholders" stance rather than whether it benefit or otherwise the education system they purportedly uphold. So what are they saying? If Gillard doesn't back down on this issue, they will back Abbott in the next election? Is there anyone in the Union hierarchy who believes that ultra right Abbott will be good for Australian education?

Alex Njoo | 28 April 2010  

unbelievable comments from 'retired teacher' - why exactly are you retired if you are the guru of education? In regards to the issues with generalised publication of the NAPLAN results it is not a question of 'elitism' - it is a question of context and of framing. The tests like all standardized tests are indicative of a very peculiar and particular slice-in-time event, a snapshot which only has meaning for the educational advancement of a student if used in conjunction with and in light of a broader experience within the classroom. You well highlight the dangers of the Myschool experiment - for students primarily but also for teachers and for schools - these are dangerous times indeed. Really we must question who these stats serve and to what end? (not to mention the questionable nature of the tests themselves, that is for another time perhaps).

libs | 28 April 2010  

The comparisons in the MySchool web site are flawed in so many ways that it is difficult to explain them briefly. I leave that to other references. I do not believe that I am arrogant in thinking that some parents and some journalists are misinterpreting the site. To interpret the site takes specialist knowledge of, and practice in, the use of statistics, as well as an understanding of the very many variables influencing the results. Some people have training that enables them to do this easily, some do not. To acknowledge such a fact is not arrogance. I have seen many articles that ignore most of the factors involved and I have heard many parents, on talk back radio, who have interpreted the results simplistically and reached conclusions that could be detrimental to their children. I have an interest in education and I am reasonably well read in the area. I am also interested in the field of mental illness and often read studies in that area. The suicide rate among adolescents in Australia is of concern and efforts are being made by the Department of Health and Ageing of the current Australian Government to ensure that the atmosphere and practices of schools are not detrimental to the mental well being of students. I would argue that the consequences of the My School website could well impact negatively on the mental health of students. In this government does the right hand know what the left hand is doing?

Sheelah Egan | 28 April 2010  

What? Engage the education community? When has this Government decided to engage anyone with their poorly framed policies? Why would they start over NAPLAN? This is one very destructive and divisive Government.

Phil | 28 April 2010  

I've heard this argument many a time over the years and I'm not impressed by it. Teacher unions have resisted all attempts to provide reasonable data on student achievement except at Year 12. However, it is highly informative to know that some schools in disadvantaged areas, for example, perform extra well. These schools' success stories could be widely emulated by those schools which are not achieving as well. How about supporting some analysis of the unexpectedly excellent schools? Let's have more data on the Myschool site!

Helen Praetz | 28 April 2010  

Ah!!!, The myth of measurement, so beloved by the pseudo-professional and politician. Someone once wrote, I think it was Stephen J Gould in The Mis-Measurment of Man, that to attempt to sum up all aspects of being human with one number, arrived at by rather spurious methods, is not merely foolish, but down right criminal.
Thank you Fatima.

John McQualter | 28 April 2010  

This managerialist approach to education is a "worldwide" phenomenon. UNESCO, I think, was recently involved in a study.
Essentially, it is managerialism gone mad - they use terms such as "key performance indicators", as if our ability to parse a phrase written in a managerialist pidgin english. It reminds me of the term "state of origin" - presumably it is an intelligence test for brain dead footballers that they are able to parse this phrase.

I wonder if this is what Orwell was warning us about in 1948? (in his book "1984").

NAPLAN certainly sounds like the product of some Orwellian think tank.

telfer cronos | 28 April 2010  

The best analysis of the conflict yet. What a pity the AEU were so slow to respond strategically to NAPLAN and MySchool that they could be (mis)cast as opponents of everything. What a pity the DPM can admit that MySchool needs more info but not that partial info is misleading info. A tragic Tale of Two Pities.

Patrick Wright | 29 April 2010  

If the concern is with how the media will be using the results (and that's what we keep being told) then why is teacher anger and action not directed at the media? And why are there no media articles about media misuse of this information. Oh, wait...

statingtheobvious | 29 April 2010  

This article clearly outlines the REAL points of conflict - it is the USE to which these test results are put, not by educators but by the media; not by parents but by public voyeurs,including unfortunately employers, who revel in "rating" schools and thereby the students who attend them. Well written. I would suggest some comment writers re-read the article until they "get" the main point and argument!

Also Retired Teacher | 30 April 2010  

Of course the teachers do not want any publication of accountability measures. Neither does any other large organisation. Yes best to look at other things but don't let's look at accountability and don't let ignorant parents look at comparisons which of course they could not possibly understand.

I'd be more inclined to listen to teachers on this topic if they were willing to come up with proposals for publishing better measures of accountability for performance. For too long parents have been denied any access to scores of school performance. If we can do it for motor cars why cannot we do it for schools? Thnaks tho Kevin and Julia for doing something to inform us. It's not perfect but it's a start

Ken Fuller | 30 April 2010  

We have good schools and bad schools, fantastic teachers and unsuitable teachers. Parents pay for the education of their children through taxes and school fees and they have a right to find out which school can provide a good well rounded education. The tax payer and the school fee payer has a right to find out if their chosen school provides the basic requirements or not. NAPLAN may not be perfect, but it is a good start.
If I go to a super market and want to buy a tin of baked beans I get more information about the content of the tin then parents get about the quality of a school.

Beat Odermatt | 30 April 2010  


david a kelly | 01 May 2010  

Thank you Fatima - that is a clear, honest representation. To "retired teacher" - you clearly don't understand what's going on. Ken Fuller: Teachers have requested amendments to the site that make it more transparent (including sources of funding for a start) but the government continues to avoid consulting teachers. Finally, to Beat Odermatt: MySchool's information about schools would be the equivalent of writing "beans" as the ingredients for baked beans and omitting all the numerous other ingredients that are actually contained within the can.

If you want to know what's going on in your child's school, take an interest, meet the teachers, attend the information nights and ask questions and finally, talk to your child. I am certain that you will then be able to glean at this point whether the school is suitable for your child.

Jo | 01 May 2010  

there is nothing wrong with testing students' progress provided it is a valid test. effective teaching and valid evaluation should be jointly pursued -
"Realising the potential of the student" should drive the evolution of teaching methodology - not covering up for inadequate teachers and inadequate teacher training.

f hetherton | 05 May 2010