Ever been to a pantomime where the crowd shouts “He’s behind you?!” to the innocent starlet as the bad guy’s dark shadow creeps into the audience’s view?
Well, this is roughly how Victorian teachers feel this week as the dark shadow of NAPLAN engulfs their existence.
When you’re constantly looking over your shoulder at shadows and fearful of making even the slightest wrong move, you can bet that you’re distracted somewhat from your purpose. And so, perhaps don’t expect your child’s teacher to be completely focused in the next week or two.
It’s time for a decent, respectful and honest conversation about the NAPLAN shadow. We need to rationally chat about what it does and what it fails to. We need to talk about the return we’re getting, educationally, from the billions we invest in it.
NAPLAN isn’t without benefits. As a former Principal myself, I remember observing a group of graduate teachers interrogating our school’s NAPLAN results for nuggets of gold.
They’d find results that, while not wonderful, were explainable. Perhaps they simply hadn’t taught that mathematical concept to the Year 5 students yet.
And then they’d find results that were concerning and also unjustifiable. Without dwelling in shame or embarrassment about the results, they simply got to work building the most wonderful units of work to address the issue that was raised.
Sure, teachers can and do work this process with any assessment data. But in this instance the NAPLAN data told a story previously untold. So, for that, thanks NAPLAN.
The problem isn’t the way these teachers use the NAPLAN data – it’s the way the rest of us do.
When Julia Gillard instituted the MySchool website she consigned Australia’s educators to a system of greed, boastfulness and competition. These are deeply corrosive elements that are at the core of what needs to be fixed in our school system.
To be clear, these are far more destructive evils than the absurd carry-on reserved by countless commentators about Indigenous Australians experiencing British colonialization as an “invasion”. They did experience it that way. Get over it.
And while we’re losing the plot over semantics, these genuinely destructive forces compel schools into wasteful billboards bragging about their top test scorers, parents into panic-stricken hours of MySchool induced school-shopping and students into a state of test anxiety thoroughly counterproductive to actually completing the test well.
If not teachers, parents or students – who then wins by subjecting ourselves to NAPLAN? Short of the micro industry leeches flogging NAPLAN preparation tests to needlessly guilty parents, I can’t think of one.
If you want a young person to learn and become an enthused learner, you don’t compare them against each other by the test results on a random day in May. You need to excite them, inspire them and make learning relevant to them.
And if you want teachers focused on that imperative, you don’t publish league tables that pay no respect to the diverse needs of their learners, but instead lambast the very schools and teachers who cater for these students.
This primitive view reduces teachers to knowledge sprinklers at the front of each classroom, hoping they can spray sufficient knowledge over their students that some of them can regurgitate it on a test.
This isn’t deep learning, and it isn’t preparing them for the future.
We’ve left our teachers nervous, distracted and jumping at the NAPLAN shadow. But in the end, NAPLAN is merely the shadow of the monster.
The monster is competition. Competition is poison to an education system and it’s destroying the hopes and dreams of our kids. It’s the beast behind any measurable slide we might point to internationally.
When teachers and schools are forced to compete, great ideas are hoarded and not shared. Pre-existing advantage is bragged about and problems are swept under the carpet.
Competition breeds dishonesty. And it’s time we were honest about what’s going wrong in our schools.
If we were honest, we might well ask start asking some pertinent questions like – what if we got rid of NAPLAN completely? What if we trusted the information that teachers already collect about student learning? What if we let our educators focus on a love of learning and the wellbeing of their students as they navigate some truly challenging years?
It isn’t an unreasonable hypothesis that this is exactly how we improve test scores too, if that’s even still our aim.
And you know what, our parents are catching on to this far more quickly than our bureaucrats, politicians and the mouth-pieces for the richest private schools – the few sole beneficiaries of competitive systems due to the absurb head starts they are handed. One area of NAPLAN decline that we can be encouraged by is participation. Our parents are increasingly seeing the truth about the lack of value that NAPLAN represents and withdrawing their kids.
It’s time to encourage collaboration between schools and systems. Together, we can slay the competitive beast ruling the education landscape and breathe a sigh of relief as the shadow of NAPLAN finally fades from our lives.