Gonski’s new plan to reinvent Australian schools for the future has this one big flaw

By John Fischetti

My favourite episode of the American television comedy Seinfeld is the one titled “The Opposite”. Jerry Seinfeld’s mate, George, was always down on his luck until one day he decided to do the opposite of everything that came into his head.

His natural instincts had gotten him nowhere. He had no job and was still living with his parents well into adulthood. The results of George’s decision to do the opposite were that he changed his whole daily routine, found a new partner who liked his faults and landed an amazing job with the New York Yankees.

I was reminded of George in “The Opposite” episode when the Australian government launched its new Gonski report, Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools.

The review challenges the current schooling system by calling out the vestiges of the assembly line industrial age of education and the current lack of investment in “individualized” learning and future-focused skills. It calls for new types of online formative assessment (that is assessment carried out by teachers in their classrooms as part of the teaching process) and a different progression of learning schemes to focus on early literacy and numeracy skills. It wants us to reinvent years 11 and 12 of high school, to make them more creativity and innovation-based.

This is sounding like “The Opposite” to me.

The premise of this new scheme is line with the best thinkers on education in the world, from Thomas R. Guskey who encourages teachers to “make well designed assessments an integral part of the instructional process”, to Yong Zhao who wants the public to be informed of the “side effects of sweeping education policies” such school choice. It is also following the type of reforms made in the most educationally progressive nations in the world (yes, sorry folks, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands).

However, disappointingly, the assessment recommendations are a reboot of more of the same, or worse.

The review is advocating for assembly-line type assessments in the early years. That is the opposite of how educators boost literacy and numeracy skills in young children. And here again I think of Zhao and his side effects warnings, as he puts it : “This practice can help your children become a better student, but it may make her less creative”; or “This program helps improve your students’ reading scores, but it may make them hate reading forever.” 

The glaring contradiction in the report, as I see it, its that it asks for massive changes to an assembly-line reality by advocating for more assessment assembly-lines. Ken Boston in his recent commentary speaks to this by advocating that this is a “evolution not a revolution.” What is missing from this argument for learning progressions is the assumption that learning can be standardized across children. Chunking a NAPLAN component a day or week turns teachers into test givers and paper pushers rather than gifted learning scientists negotiating each child’s journey through the curriculum so that they are engaged and inspired, not lab rats.

I also noticed that some of the recommendations on learning progressions in the report have already failed elsewhere and have been dumped for that reason. For example New Zealand’s system, where young people faced ‘a test a day’, resulted in standards that continued to fall anyway in international comparisons. So they scrapped their national assessment program altogether.

What can we do?

I recommend that all of us who work in schools and with student performance data spend time this year advocating for reinventing the opposite of our current systems; not for more government-run assessment but for less.

We want to prepare children to be successful in their futures and to do that they need knowledge, skills and dispositions to be passionate, vibrant, dynamic, curious, open-minded, engaged (and literate and numerate) participants in their own journeys. We can’t assembly-line assess that.

If we are truly interested in improving literacy we need to read more with children. And while I know that this is told to parents and teachers over and over, the reality is we don’t do enough of it. It also means getting more books in the hands (yes, old school books) of infants, toddlers and young children.  Again, we know this, but I believe we don’t to enough to make sure it happens.  There should be at least 50 books in each home (age appropriate) by the time a child is five years old. The secret to literacy is reading more not assessing more.

Most importantly, we need high quality early childhood education for all children, not just the wealthy. Some of the recent practices downgrade early childhood workers to carer/babysitter status in salary and qualifications, just at the time we know so much more about this vital time of building cognitive capacity and hopefulness in the developing brain.

And basic, but usually ignored in education reform debates, is the glaring need for better supplementary health care for working class families in Australia. One that allows affordable dental, eye and specialist care so that these crucial wellbeing issues are not factors that negatively impact a child’s development.

In Australia we have doubled down on entrance and exit requirements for initial teacher education, now we have proposed new standardized formative assessment schemes, and these all piggy back on our mostly failed summative assessment systems (where children are tested at the end of their studies.  The proposed progressions of learning assessments narrowly simplify the process of learning into linear chunks that are not how young people learn. And they will create false measures of learning. Teachers should not have their pedagogical imaginations stripped to conform to practices that are not congruent with promoting learning.

One urban legend definition of insanity is “doing the same things over and over again and expecting better results”. When assembly line schooling is transformed to individualized learning, but the assessment scheme is from the same original mindset, we have the cart in front of the horse. And that is insane. “Stop, drop and test” assessment schemes are obsolete. It is time we in the field called this out and moved forward to build learning centers instead of testing centers. Let’s pull an “opposite George” out of our hats!

Dr John Fischetti is Professor and Head of School/Dean of Education at the University of Newcastle. John’s research focuses on reframing teacher education, school reform and learner-focussed teaching. John can be reached at or on twitter @fischettij

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

15 thoughts on “Gonski’s new plan to reinvent Australian schools for the future has this one big flaw

  1. Jane says:

    “If we are truly interested in improving literacy we need to read more with children. ”
    The best thinkers in education clearly haven’t had to tutor children who have reached grade 3 and can’t read thanks to this flawed premise that drives early literacy education in most Australian schools.. Reading lots of books and stories to children is, of course, a must for all sorts of reasons but it will NOT teach them to read. The casualties of the current education system have not been taught explicitly the basics in learning to read- the workings of our alphabetical code. Without the basics they cannot lift the words off the page, without the words they cannot be informed, inspired or enthused…
    Thankfully teaching reading the right way will not ‘strip’ teachers of their ‘pedagogical imaginations’ as this IS ‘congruent with promoting learning.’ Countless studies worldwide have proved it so.

  2. John Fischetti says:

    Thanks, Jane. Explicit instruction for some kids is absolutely essential. When overdone it takes the life out of learning. One size fits all isn’t really the way forward whether in mega-doses of NAPLAN as currently the case or in daily does as proposed. Achievement gaps close by varying instruction to the learner and his or her needs. Thanks for your great comment.

  3. Susan Krieg says:

    Thankyou for this piece. As an early childhood educator, I was particularly pleased to see acknowledgement of the importance of the early years. In the current context, where the emphasis is on improving ‘scores’, young children’s love of reading is at risk. Zhao’s statement sums up the situation so neatly: “This program helps improve your students’ reading scores, but it may make them hate reading forever.”
    What has been gained if young children can read efficiently but choose not to?

  4. John Fischetti says:

    Thanks, Susan. Great comment. We have so much to learn from great early childhood educators about building asset models for all children rather then deficit models we so often use later on in schooling.

  5. Brendan Eveleigh says:

    As always, a thought provoking and well written piece John. I also support reform to our education system and do not believe it will be found hidden within the folds of standardised testing. No child learns the same but we insist on testing their knowledge in the same tired and worn out ways. Repeated alienation of students who find that standardised testing leaves them in a less than flattering light, is not only disheartening for the students it is stealing their future. The Freire (a philosopher I encountered in your and Dr Sharps lectures) quote of “The oppressors do not favour promoting the community as a whole, but rather selected leaders.” comes to mind. If every child is taught to conform, where will our artists, our free thinkers, our inventors and innovators come from. As per usual our government has a chance to embrace change for the better but would prefer to hold up a shiny bauble and place the blame on educators who will be too busy teaching to the test to educate the students as they so desperately want to..

  6. David de Carvalho says:

    Interesting piece, John, that has some points in common with the latest edition of my videolog, “It goes without saying…” You might want to check it out.

  7. John Fischetti says:

    Thanks, David.
    I will check it out.

  8. Judith James says:

    Great article to make us think about what assessment would look like.
    I’d like to comment on the concerns about the cost of quality early childhood education.
    Did you know Western Australia has non-compulsory 4 year old Kindy as part of the school system? This is a great way of reducing costs and I don’t understand why other states have taken this idea on board. We have a very high rate of 4 year olds getting 15 hours of quality early childhood education.

  9. John Fischetti says:

    Thanks, Judith. Very interesting. The more and better early childhood we do, the more our society flourishes.


  10. Pamela Williams says:

    A very thought-provoking and welcome article. I teach Enabling and 1st year courses at a university, tutor VCE English, and have family members who teach at primary and senior secondary levels. From what I can see it appears that teachers spend 6 primary years encouraging students to discover, question and be excited about learning. Sadly by the time year 12 arrives the experience has been reduced to what a bureaucracy requires. Teachers having to teach to the SAC tasks and exams to achieve that cursed ATAR which, for universities, is mostly a best guess of tertiary performance. Students learning how to analyse, write and think to the Assessment tasks- not anyone’s idea of an education I suspect. I am distressed when I find that so many students in my classes, after progressing through six years of secondary school, cannot read and understand a moderately challenging non-literary text. Or write a coherent, grammatical essay. And who are shocked at referencing requirements and styles. Or are literally traumatised by their years 11 and 12 experiences. None of this is down to the dedication or quality of the teaching they have received. This sits squarely in the realm of bureaucratically mandated curriculum and assessment. So, the question that keeps nagging at me is: if the teachers find the system less than ideal, the students are unduly stressed and learning mostly how to pass, and the universities are not, in general, accessing students trained in the skills and possessing the foundational knowledge to progress to higher learning – if none of us are OK with the status quo – whose needs and aspirations are being met? Perhaps the politicians could back off from using the Education sector as a political football and give the expert practitioners some space to design a creative, practical and intellectually nurturing way forward for the future.

  11. John Fischetti says:

    Thanks, Pam. You raise good questions. I think we are still holding onto to “old school” models of assessment and the kinds of accountability that generate real learning. You see the implications of that every day.
    And because most of us were educated in that old system, our responses are to double down on already failed policies branded in new packages…more bite sized in this case.

  12. Raju Varanasi says:

    Great article, John. So lucidly written. Gonski’s reviews remind me of Larry Cuban’s classic ” Reforming, Again, Again and Again where he states “….seldom are the deepest structures of schooling that are embedded in the school’s use of time and space, teaching practices, and classroom routines fundamentally altered…..”.
    He goes further to say – the itch (problem of improving school systems) might be real, but the stroking (proposed solution) is elsewhere.!! Just as you pointed out, John.

  13. John Fischetti says:

    Thanks, Raju. Great connection to Cuban.

  14. Thank you for your article John. I agree that more testing is not necessarily the answer to improving educational outcomes for students,
    Reading is certainly an integral part of building literacy skills for our students, but it should also go hand in hand with direct instruction and modelling of good writing and literature so that students can read quality writing and can learn strategies to implement this into their own writing. Many educational reforms are intended to transform our students into dynamic, creative and adaptable twenty-first century learners, but this will not happen successfully if basic literacy, numeracy and skills training is omitted. A balance is needed between the two approaches.

  15. John Fischetti says:

    Great points, Annette. You’re right. My worry is the new chunked standardised assessments won’t change anything about literacy results. The socioeconomic gaps that primarily detrmine literacy levels are complex. I recommend we invest in teachers not tests.

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