Editorial - The improvement factor

John Graham

Every report on school education in Australia now begins with a category of woes. The education system as a whole is in the doldrums, the reports say, because of the performance of the country’s students in selected national and international standardised tests. The performance is described as being ‘in decline’ or at best ‘flat-lining’ and there are several PISA and/or NAPLAN graphs to prove it. As a consequence, the many reports and reviews all have their own best practice ‘improvement’ strategies, ranging from a package of more testing, ‘back to basics’ and ‘better’ teachers, to research-based interventions and a needs-based funding system. The key performance indicator in each case is Australia climbing back up the testing league tables. 

The most recent, and most prestigious, document which uses this format is the Gonski report into achieving excellence in Australian schools (Through Growth to Achievement). After running through the bad news from the testing results, the report sets out in dire terms the need for root-and-branch improvement in school learning. “The extent of the decline is widespread and equivalent to a generation of Australian school children falling short of their full learning potential.” Its improvement recipe however, is generally more thoughtful and more complex than most of the predecessor documents. It eschews the majority of clichés and ideological props which substitute for education policies in the Turnbull Government and, the best test of all, its improvement strategies received some severe panning by the noisy warriors of the education right - “all that is wrong with the system” (Kevin Donnelly) and “it privileges psycho-babble over science” (Jennifer Buckingham). 

The Gonski report contends that the present curriculum structures with their orientation to age and year level standards and the pervasive influence of standardised testing have a negative impact on student achievement. They leave some students behind and fail to extend others. It also finds that reporting against year level achievement standards “hides both progress and attainment for some students and does not amount to a diagnostic assessment of real learning needs”. It wants the curriculum, and the way it is taught and assessed, to be restructured around levels of student progress. 

The report’s approach to assessment has become central to the debate and discussion about its recommendations.  The review found that “tailored teaching based on ongoing formative assessment and feedback is the key to enabling students to progress to higher levels of achievement”. To support teachers in this process the report recommends that an online formative assessment tool based on the curriculum learning progressions should be developed. The tool would help to identify the stage of learning a student has reached and provide advice about various interventions the teacher could choose to use to enable further progress. The report contrasts the benefits of the new formative assessment approach with the limitations of NAPLAN which it argues is about point-in-time achievement rather than growth, presents results to students long after they have any value as a learning tool, is only administered at Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 and has little positive impact at the classroom level.

These recommendations represent the major ‘improvement factor’ in the Gonski report. But they are hardly new. Most of them, in some form, have been longstanding issues in staff discussion and practice in public schools and have been high on the priority list of the AEU and influential education academics like John Hattie. The novelty of the recommendations is that they have been proposed by the flagship review of a conservative federal government which has a record of valuing ideology above evidence. Where the report falls short is in the collective unwillingness of the reviewers to take on the enabling resource issues. The Turnbull Government's funding plan short-changes public schools, and in this way places a significant barrier between the report’s ideas and their implementation in resource-poor schools. More broadly, the report's recommendations are in their pre-detailed form, and past experience has shown how easily the improvement factor can be squeezed out of ideas once politicians and bureaucrats tie them into coal-face accountability requirements.

The general theme of this edition of Professional Voice is learning improvement and the contest of ideas around how to achieve this. Mary Jean Gallagher, who was Assistant Deputy Minister and Chief Student Achievement Officer of the Ontario Ministry of Education for seven years up until 2015, writes about her role as a ‘critical friend’ to the Victorian Department of Education.  She recounts how Ontario was in the flat-lining doldrums in the 1990s with the public losing confidence in its public schools. Ontario introduced a ten year strategy to “raise the bar and narrow the gaps” in literacy and numeracy in primary schools and to improve the graduation rate in secondary schools. 

Our curriculum expectations in these areas included higher order thinking, critical thinking and problem solving, and it was understood that having students succeed in these critical areas would result in improved learning and thinking in many other dimensions.

The success of the strategy raised the state to the top of the Canadian performance tables in a country whose education system (according to OECD assessments) is regarded as one of the world’s best in terms of both achievement and equity. Gallagher is optimistic about the efficacy of Victoria’s Education State initiatives which follow the Ontario model of seeing improvement as a necessary mindset for all teachers and schools rather than just for the strugglers.

Carol Dweck, the developer of the growth mindset/fixed mindset concept describing the underlying beliefs students have about learning and intelligence, is the subject of the Professional Voice interview in this edition. Students in a fixed mindset view their intellectual abilities as fixed traits that simply cannot be changed, while students in more of a growth mindset see their intellectual abilities as competencies that can be developed—for example, through hard work, good strategies, and mentoring and support from others. Dweck states that everyone has a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets and students can change from a growth mindset to a fixed one in certain confronting situations.  So “the task becomes not just ‘having’ a growth mindset, but learning how to stay in it (or find your way back to it) after such an experience”. The role of the teacher is to embody a growth mindset in classroom practices and not see it “as a property of a child or something children should simply adopt regardless of what their environment conveys”.

An important role of academics with expertise in a particular area of knowledge is not only to identify improvement strategies that research has shown will work but also to detect those which evidence indicates should not be implemented. Jessica Mantei and Lisa Kervin explain why the Turnbull Government’s proposed standardised phonics assessment (the phonics screener) for Year one students should not be introduced. There is no evidence that the new test will improve student literacy skills and they express concern that it may derail the good practice which is already occurring in classrooms around the country. “Standardised tests such as the proposed phonics screener sit outside what we know to be good pedagogical practice, consume valuable teaching time and generate anxiety.” The authors describe their study of effective professional practice of teachers in teaching letter-sound relationships and why government policy should respect that practice and recognise the research evidence, knowledge and experience which it is based on. 

 For Denis Fitzgerald the improvement factor needed in Australian education is to recognise that the current fixation with standardised testing and its associated data is acting as a drag on the quality of teaching and learning in schools. He cites evidence from Australia and abroad about the way in which the testing obsession has had a negative effect in particular on low SES school communities. The notion that improvement will emerge from a pared-down “basic skills” curriculum accompanied by “number harvesting, spreadsheets, datawalls and scattergrams” has no basis in fact.   In contrast to this, Fitzgerald outlines the central features of an assessment system that has the capacity to improve achievement. It should create positive incentives for teachers to teach well and for students to study well and “it should fade into the background and be unnoticeable and unremarkable”.

In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan developed the idea of ‘the medium is the message’, meaning that the form of a medium needs to be understood as it embeds itself in any content it conveys. In many ways this is the essence of Screen Schooled, a new book by two US high school teachers, Joe Clement and Matt Miles, reviewed in this edition of Professional Voice by Mark Scillio. Screen Schooled questions the supposed ‘neutrality’ of smart phones/iPads/laptops/consoles and details the negative impacts of their ‘overuse’ on young people. These include a decline in the ability to think critically and problem-solve, shallower and more disconnected knowledge (“Google thinking”), poorer social interaction with peers through the norms of social media and a range of mental health consequences. Instead of the “digital superkids” portrayed in the media, they see students in their classrooms who are addicted to being on screen for most of the day, finding it virtually impossible to put their phones down. 

A major pedagogical challenge for teachers is how to deliver engaging learning activities within a classroom environment which facilitates those activities. This dilemma is often acute for new graduates who have to temper their enthusiasm and many fresh ideas with the nature of effective student behaviour management in the particular school context they find themselves. Katrina Barker’s article is designed to throw a research light on the many issues of debate in this area and offer practical advice about why some approaches work better than others. She describes the general trend as a movement from “reactive” measures relying on punishment and coercion to more proactive and positively oriented approaches. “The goal is to change behaviour, not temporarily suppress it, and to do this we need to use positive strategies to discipline.”

John McCollow’s article moves the improvement factor from the classroom to the organisations which exist to protect and advance the collective interests of teachers and other education workers – education unions. He sets out the very challenging situation confronting these unions around the world.

In the Twenty-First Century education workers face reduced public spending, job insecurity, work intensification, privatisation, marketisation, high-stakes testing, and curriculum standardisation. At the same time, attacks on unions’ capacity to organise, social and demographic changes within the profession and broader social, economic and technological changes pose new challenges for them.

Coming to terms with this state of affairs means education unions asking themselves some hard questions about their goals, strategies and modes of operation. McCollow refers to the work of Bascia and Stevenson as a way forward. They set out seven key strategies for unions to consider. For example, they note that the sharp end of the attack on teachers is increasingly focused on professional issues so that unions must speak to their members “as the educators they are”. They need to establish themselves and their activities as an important feature of their members’ professional identities so that “engagement with the union is considered indispensable in order for any teacher to be the teacher they want to be”.


John Graham is editor of Professional Voice and works as a research officer at the Australian Education Union (Vic). He has been a secondary teacher, worked on national and state-based education programs and in the policy division of the Victorian Education Department. He has carried out research in a wide range of areas related to education and training. He has had particular responsibility for the many issues impacting on teachers and teaching as a profession, teacher education, curriculum change, and the politics, organisation and funding of public education. He has written extensively in various publications about all of these matters.

This article appears in Professional Voice 12.2 The improvement factor.

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