Susanne Gannon

Pausing NAPLAN did not destroy society – but new changes might not fix the future

NAPLAN is again in the news. Last week, it was the Ministers tinkering with NAPLAN reporting and timing. This week it is media league tables ranking schools and sectors, according to NAPLAN results, coinciding with the upload of latest school-level data to the ‘My School’ website. We are now about one month out from the new March test window so expect to hear a lot more in the coming weeks. Many schools will be already deeply into NAPLAN test preparation. 

NAPLAN and My School website were initially introduced by PM Julia Gillard as levers for parental choice. Last week’s ACARA media release reiterates that their primary purpose is so parents can make ‘informed choices’ about their children’s schooling. Media analysis of NAPLAN results correctly identifies what researchers know only too well: that affluence skews educational outcomes to further advantage the already advantaged. 

The Sydney Morning Herald notes that “Public schools with and without opportunity classes, high-fee private institutions and Catholic schools in affluent areas have dominated the top 100 schools…” The reporters are careful to draw attention to a couple of atypical public schools, achieving better results than might be expected from their demographics. A closer look at the SMH table of Top Performing primary schools shows that most low ICSEA public schools ‘punching above their weight’ are very small regional schools. 

No doubt there is a lot to learn from highly effective and usually overlooked small rural schools, but few families can move to them from the city. Parental choice is constrained by income, residential address, work opportunities and a myriad of other factors. In any case, as Stewart Riddle reminds us, what makes a ‘good school’ is far more subtle and complex than anything that a NAPLAN can tell us. 

NAPLAN has gradually morphed into a diagnostic tool for individual students, though there are other tools more fit for this purpose. Notably, the pandemic-induced NAPLAN pause did not lead to the collapse of Australian education but was seen by many teachers as a relief when they were dealing with so many more important aspects of young people’s learning and well-being. 

Education Ministers’ adjustments to NAPLAN indicate that they are at last responding to some of the more trenchant critiques of NAPLAN. The creation of a teacher panel by ACARA as part of the process of setting standards hints that the professional expertise and voices of teachers are valued. Bringing NAPLAN testing forward will hopefully make it more useful where it really matters – in schools and classrooms.

The move to four levels of reporting will be more accessible to parents. Pleasingly, the new descriptor for the lowest quartile – ‘Needs additional support’ – puts the onus on the school and school systems to respond to student needs.

Yet one of the keenest critiques of NAPLAN has not been addressed. There have been widespread calls from educators and academics for the NAPLAN writing test to be withdrawn. It has been found to have a narrowing effect on both the teaching of writing and students’ capacity to write. There is also a whole “how to do NAPLAN” industry of tutors and books pushing formulaic approaches to writing and playing on families’ anxieties.

The failure of the current round of changes to address the NAPLAN writing test leaves students writing like robots. Meanwhile, the release of ChatGPT means that students doing NAPLAN writing for no real purpose or audience of their own are wasting their time. Robots can do it better! These changes needed to map writing better to the National Curriculum, and endorse more meaningful, creative, multimodal and life-relevant writing practices.

 As a single point in time test, NAPLAN has always been just one source of data that teachers and schools can draw upon to design targeted interventions to support student learning. Nevertheless, earlier results will mean that schools will have robust evidence about their need for additional resources. Professional expertise in literacy, numeracy and inclusive education support must be prioritised. 

Parents might be able to resist the inclination to shuffle their children from school to school as a reaction to media headlines, school rankings, and promotional campaigns from the independent sector. Alliances might form between parents and schools to support greater action by state and federal Ministers to address the deeply entrenched divisions that have become baked into Australian schooling.

Attention to NAPLAN continues to mask serious ongoing questions about why Australian governments have created conditions where educational inequities, segregation and stratification are now defining characteristics of our education system. Numerous reports and inquiries have identified flaws and perverse effects from NAPLAN as high stakes testing, especially in relation to the writing test. There is a lot of work yet to be done if NAPLAN is to really be useful and relevant for Australian schools, teachers, parents and learners.

Professor Susanne Gannon is an expert in educational research across a range of domains and methodologies. Much of her research focuses on equity issues in educational policy and practices. Recent research projects include investigations of the impact of NAPLAN on the teaching of writing in secondary school English, young people’s experiences of school closures due to COVID-19 in 2020, and vocational education for students from refugee backgrounds in NSW schools.

Dr Lucinda McKnight is an Australian Research Council Fellow in Deakin University’s Research for Education Impact (REDI) centre. She is undertaking a three year national project examining how the conceptualisation of writing is changing in digital contexts. Follow her Teaching Digital Writing project blog or her twitter account @lucindamcknight8

Header image courtesy of Rory Boon.

When one shocking shortage led to another

Here is another of our intermittent blogs during the #AARE2022 conferenceIf you want to cover a session at the conference, please email to check in. Thanks!

Symposium: ‘Teacher shortages in Australian schools: reactive workforce planning for a wicked policy problem’ (post starts after the photos!)

With nine people sitting on the floor, six standing, and a long queue leading from the entrance, the symposium ‘Teacher shortages in Australian schools: reactive workforce planning for a wicked policy problem’ was forced to change venues before it could even begin. The overwhelming interest in this session speaks to rising concern and anxiety for the state of the teacher workforce around Australia today.

The first paper, from Jo Lampert, Amy McPherson and Bruce Burnett, featured an analysis of how 20 years’ worth of government and university initiatives have sought to recruit, prepare and retain teachers in ‘hard to staff’ schools, the impact of these initiatives, and the policy lessons that can be learned from them. The analysis found that mostly, these programs have emphasised recruitment over retention (a frustratingly familiar feature of current initiatives like the Teacher Workforce Shortages Issues Paper, too), with few featuring any formal evaluation process. Policy lessons included a need to focus on benefits, provide financial support, and focus on the wellbeing and working conditions of staff.

Scott Eacott’s presentation on the operational and strategic impact of a teacher shortage on school leadership argued that we have a social contract in Australian education which is not currently being fulfilled. Eacott pointed to the need for a whole-system response instead of a school system which “cannibalizes itself through poor design and incentives”.

Eacott’s paper was followed by work from Susanne Gannon, tracing the #MoreThanThanks campaign of the NSW Teachers Federation, which has sought improved wages and conditions for teachers in NSW public schools. Gannon drew on the work of Carol Bacchi to explore how the construction of the teacher shortage ‘problem’ in NSW has become combative space, from ministerial denials of a problem at all; to a swathe of positive press releases from the NSW government on how teachers are purportedly supported; to the use of the phrase “the committee divided” 93 times in the recent, ‘Great Teachers, Great Schools’ report. Gannon concluded by questioning whether perhaps it’s “not even thanks” that NSW teachers are getting, but instead, open ideological warfare.

The final paper in the session was from Dadvand, Dawborn-Gundlach, van Driel and Speldewinde, exploring career changers in teaching and why they stay or leave. Career change teachers are often positioned as part of the workforce shortage ‘solution’, yet these participants were unsure about their future as teachers. The paper used in-depth interview data to privilege teacher voice and highlight the issue of teacher working conditions and support whilst in the job as what needs to be, but is not often, the focus of reform. 

A clear thread across presentations was an explicitly identified tension between the needs and desires of the local, straining against the structures of the centre. Eacott, for example, pointed to the challenges created when substantive teachers take leave without pay, resulting in their position having to be filled by precariously-employed staff (if they can be found). Yet supportive and attractive working conditions – including but not limited to leave provisions – are arguably what need to be addressed if the teacher shortage ‘problem’ is to be meaningfully engaged with. And this, in itself, requires re-assessing just what the ‘problem’ actually is: one of teacher working conditions, and the need to build supportive structures around teachers’ work in all schools. As discussant, Professor Martin Mills, concluded the symposium by asking, “What would a school look like where people committed to social justice wanted to teach?”

Meghan Stacey is a senior lecturer in the UNSW School of Education, researching in the fields of the sociology of education and education policy and is the director of the Bachelor of Education (Secondary). Taking a particular interest in teachers, her research considers how teachers’ work is framed by policy, as well as the effects of such policy for those who work with, within and against it. She is an associate editor, The Australian Educational Researcher Links: Twitter & University Profile