Archive for April, 2010

The nature of the beast

NAPLAN. MySchool. Data. Accountability. Planning.

Roger is bang on when he says that there are so many conundra in education.

But why? Is this really a result of ‘rank-and-file’ teachers unjustly mistrusting ‘the boss class’? Perhaps, in part.

But the problem we face in overcoming this is not as black-and-white as it seems. Historically schools have evolved to serve multiple functions in society, and it is these often competing functions that school leaders, edu-crats and politicians are faced with negotiating every day. This is a tricky business, and people will not always agree on what is being prioritised.

In my PhD research on the English curriculum I have explored Hunter’s genealogy of the major functions of schooling, and used this as a lens to reflect on the contradictions and challenges that are embedded in the HSC English syllabus. Hunter (1993) outlines the following functions of mass schooling in Australia:

  • Pastoral: Children should be given caring and humane environments in school in which to grow and develop
  • Skilling: Schools have a significant role in the production of a skilled and competent workforce
  • Regulative: Schools transmit forms of orderliness and control to an otherwise disorderly populace
  • Human-capital: Investment of effort and money in schools should directly enhance economic productivity
  • Individual expression: Schooling is properly the context in which individuals can learn to explore, develop, and express their personal goals and aspirations
  • Cultural-heritage: People, especially young people, should be introduced to the ways of thinking and acting that have existed and been valued over time – cherished art works, and disciplines of scientific inquiry
  • Political: Schools produce a citizenry dedicated to the preferred political principles of the society
  • Hunter rejects the notion that schools have ever served, or even aimed to serve, a singular, unified function in society. Rather, the various functions described above are contested and emphasised more or less at different points in history based on the political, cultural and economic imperatives of the time.

    The idea that schools serve different functions is not controversial. What is important to recognise, however, is the importance of each of these functions, and the need to treat them as interrelated. Our role as educators cannot be to simply ‘back’ one function over another – for example, promoting individual expression and pastoral care while decrying the goals of skills and human capital development. Although these functions historically have come into competition, it is essential to recognise the important role that bureaucratic structures play in safeguarding equality within a social welfare state such as Australia.

    In regards to NAPLAN, it is not the case that politicians want to crush individual expression in the pursuit of higher literacy standards. It is also not the case that teachers don’t care about skills development and resent regulative goals of ‘the boss class’ as a matter of principle.

    What is worth considering, however, is this: what political, cultural and economic imperatives are reflected in the priorities set by the bureaucracy?

    Despite reservations about standardised literacy and numeracy testing, teachers ultimately were asked to support ELLA/SNAP, and later NAPLAN, in good faith. The tests were framed as a diagnostic tool. Schools were dissuaded from ‘cramming’ for the tests, as this would negate its diagnostic capacity. We were promised that these tests were an example of schools fulfilling an essential bureaucratic function – ensuring that all students had equal access to diagnosis of their skills, and that resources could be allocated efficiently to areas of need.

    The introduction of the MySchool website, however, betrays a warped set of priorities…the political, cultural and economic imperatives of publishing NAPLAN data as a means of measuring school success over-prioritises the regulative function of schooling. Orderliness and control emerge as the ultimate product when systems are put in place that construct and solidify school hierarchies, encouraging a consumer culture in schools where the discourse of ‘parent choice’ trumps the discourse of ‘school community building’.

    I hate the MySchool website. Not because I don’t want parents to have access to information about schools, but because I believe that the information that is currently privileged does pose a destructive force to schooling functions that I hold dear. I believe that comparing schools based on test scores poses a serious neglect of the pastoral function of schooling – it is difficult to foster a caring and humane environment in school in which to grow and develop when your school is labelled as ‘failing’, and parents of ‘good’ students start shopping elsewhere. Likewise, in successful schools, staying on top of the ‘market’ can lead to undue pressure to succeed in external testing, and a neglect of student welfare and broader curriculum goals.

    I fully support schools and teachers who will join the moratorium and refuse to deliver the NAPLAN test this year. Not because I don’t see the value of NAPLAN, but because as educators who oppose harmful government policy it is the only card we have to play in a system that gives teachers virtually no voice in the policy and structures they will have to work within.

    It is a shame that teachers who oppose the MySchool website, and are prepared to take action despite political pressure, are often painted as ‘data-haters’, ‘parent-haters’ and ‘boss-haters’. They are none of these things. They are just people who feel out-and-out ignored by their political leaders and think that something bigger is at stake than missing a year of data.

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