What happens when teachers’ voices are silenced, and we let others ‘read’ the data?

A cautionary tale and a call to action

The education world is awash with data, Misty Adoniou writes. In Australia, federal education policy takes its direction from the results of international testing regimes such as PISA, PIRLS and TIMMS. A to E reporting, the Australian Curriculum, the national teacher standards and the MySchool website can each trace their origins back to government panic that Australia was losing the international education race, a race refereed by these international tests.

At state and territory level, governments are driven by our own home grown education race between the states and territories, as measured by NAPLAN.

The pressure to win the NAPLAN race, or at least improve on last year’s placings, is directly passed onto schools. To ensure they pull their weight, their results are made public each year on the MySchool website.

More and more data collecting tools are passed on to schools to measure performance, with the hope more data will improve NAPLAN scores and help their state win the NAPLAN race. Data walls proliferate in staffrooms, and excel sheets swamp teachers’ computers.

We are told the data collecting isn’t about comparing schools, systems or states, it’s about accountability – which makes it hard to argue with. Of course teachers should be accountable, they have a hugely important job – the education of Australia’s future. However, it is unfair to be held accountable to a regime you have had little to no say in. And for the last decade all the talk has been about testing, and nobody has been talking about teaching.

Skim the surface

Politicians and bureaucrats skim the surface of the international and national test data, and make an interpretation of the numbers that is divorced from any understanding of the tests themselves and what they measure, and therefore what kind of teaching they presuppose.

It would be surprising to hear that any education minister or their advisers had even seen the PISA test papers, or read the Year 5 NAPLAN Reading Magazine, for example. Nonetheless, they set policy direction based on the spreadsheet numbers that the tests generate. It’s like pronouncing the failure of an experiment, without even knowing what the experiment was.

Strip away all the spin, and a press conference would sound something like this:

Minister: “We’re going with a brand new approach.”

Reporter: “What will it be replacing?”

Minister: ‘I don’t know.”

Reporter: “What was wrong with old approach?”

Minister: “I don’t know, but whatever it was the numbers looked bad.”

Reporter: “So, what will this new approach be?”

Minister: “I thought we’d try something I remember from when I was in infants school.”

What is missing from the big data puzzle is the expertise of the teacher. The teacher, a scientist with a four year degree and daily field experience, whose training is not only in data collection and interpretation but who also knows what it is we are testing, and what we should be teaching.

If teachers are frustrated and disheartened by the ways in which their expertise is ignored or belittled, then they must use their voices and teachers’ voices are amplified, and individuals are emboldened, when they sing as a choir.

Australian Year 9 NAPLAN Writing. Source: ACARA

(Mis) reading the data

Political interpretation and teacher interpretation of data can lead to very different conclusions, with significant consequences.

In the case of NAPLAN, for example, two divergent conclusions can be drawn from the Writing data.

The NAPLAN data baldly presented on a spreadsheet indicates very clearly that there have been no improvements in writing scores over the 10 years of the testing regime. Indeed, there has been a significant decline in the Year 9 results. See Table 1.

It is of note that this decline began in earnest when NAPLAN data began to be publicly reported on the MySchool website in 2011.

The Federal Government’s reading of this data has been to conclude these Year 9 students have failed to grasp the basics of literacy. This has translated to a ‘back to basics’ policy direction, and the federal government has put pressure on states and territories to adopt yet another data collection measure in the shape of a mandatory test of made-up words for Year 1 students, the Phonics Screening Check. This is pressure the new South Australian Liberal Government has willingly succumbed to, and the Victorian Liberal Party has promised to do the same should they win the Victorian state election this year.

A teacher’s reading of that same Year 9 NAPLAN writing data is different, not least because a teacher knows what the NAPLAN writing tests are, what they test and what the marking criteria are. They know that all year levels are marked against the same marking criteria. Thus, a failure in Year 9 is not the consequence of a lack of basic literacy skills, it is indicative of a lack of complex literacy skills. The NAPLAN data only confirms for teachers what they already observe in their classrooms. This teacher interpretation is supported by an examination of the NAPLAN data on high achieving and low achieving students across the country. See Table 2.

Australian NAPLAN Writing Same cohort over time Source: ACARA

The high percentage of Year 3 students who were far above benchmark (Level 6, which is the equivalent of benchmark for Year 9), and the relatively low percentage of Year 3 students below benchmark indicates that we are successful at giving students the literacy basics. In fact, in Victoria the percentage of students below benchmark in Year 3 is less than 1%, so the opposition Victorian Liberal Party’s enthusiasm for inflicting another test on the state’s 5 and 6 year olds must be borne of political partisanship rather than any consideration of the data itself.

However there is a dramatic drop in the number of students who can continue to achieve far above benchmark in Years 5 and 7, as well as a growth in the number of students who cannot reach the more challenging minimum benchmarks of Years 5, 7 and 9.

It is very clear to a teacher, that these are students who have the basics but cannot manage the more complex writing required as they move through school.

The difference in the political and the educational interpretation is not trivial. The political interpretation drives policy – and when the interpretation is wrong then the policy is wrong. When the policy is wrong, then the consequences are dire for our students.

The policy direction should be a focus on the middle years of schooling, and on ambitious high challenge teaching that tackles the complexities of writing across the disciplines and communicating abstract ideas in writing.

The policy action should be professional learning for middle school and secondary discipline teachers – not testing five and six year olds to see if they can read made-up words.

Where is the teacher’s voice?

The absence of teacher voice and teacher expertise in policy debate and decision making is at the heart of all that is wrong with education in Australia today. The recent reviews into education in Australia have been headed by business executives and CEOs. Subsequent policy decisions are made by politicians and career bureaucrats. Everyone has a story of the teacher who made them feel or think differently about themselves, and the consequences that shift had in their life journey. Yet, the voices of teachers are curiously absent as informants in educational policy and practice.

It is a sad paradox that systems, bureaucracies, administrators, politicians, and very often the media, place so little faith in teachers’ voices, skills, experiences and knowledge as informants in education policy and practice. The voice of an individual teacher is so important in individual lives, yet the collective wisdom of all teachers appears to be an unrecognised and under utilised resource.

How can we shift this? How do teachers get their expert voices heard?

The role of the unions and associations in amplifying teacher voices

Teacher unions and professional associations must be the way forward. Unions, traditionally concerned with working conditions and pay, must also demand that teacher educational expertise be given, a place at the policy table. And teachers associations, traditionally concerned not to appear to be ‘political’, must speak out loudly when policy is detrimental to student learning.

However, the strength of the unions and the professional associations is wholly dependent upon the strength of their numbers. If teachers are frustrated and disheartened by the ways in which their expertise is ignored or belittled, then they must use their voices and teachers’ voices are amplified, and individuals are emboldened, when they sing as a choir. Unions and teachers’ associations are the ideal vehicle for amplifying choirs of teacher voices. They also build self efficacy among teachers, through the provision of professional learning in both pedagogy and advocacy.

Teacher professionalism and commitment to staying abreast of developments in the field is as important as feeling confident to speak up and speak out and unions and teachers associations have an important role to play in curating and disseminating new knowledge. They also provide a space for teachers to speak with one another, to share their experiences and their expertise. This not only builds collegiality, but importantly it builds a common message, synchronising voices so that we can speak clearly to politicians, policy makers and the public we serve, as we say:

This is who we are and this is what we know, this is what we do and this is how we make a difference.

Dr Misty Adoniou is a Principal Fellow in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Canberra. After many years as a classroom teacher, she moved into teacher education and is currently working with teachers associations, systems, schools and teachers in South Australia, Queensland, Victoria and the ACT to improve literacy outcomes. Adoniou can be contacted by email: Misty.adoniou@canberra.edu.au