Friday, 5 August 2016

NAPLAN and the lost keys

There's an apocryphal story about a man (could just as easily be a woman, e.g., me) who, late one night, loses his keys somewhere between his front door and his car, which is parked in the street. He searches around under the streetlight, until a passer-by stops and asks what he is searching for. "My car keys" says the frazzled man. "Where do you think you lost them?" the passer-by asks. "Probably in the driveway" the man replies. Puzzled, the passer-by asks "So, why are you searching here, under the streetlight?" "Because the light is a lot better" replies our key-less friend.

Many responses to the release this week of the 2016 NAPLAN results are completely in keeping with the fuzzy thinking demonstrated above: It's too hard to go searching somewhere we don't want to look, so let's just keep looking over here, where we're more comfortable. 

It is disappointing that teacher educators are not coming out in force calling for a change of tack to providing more evidence-based content in teacher pre-service education. Non-evidence-based approaches such as the much-loved (by teachers and teacher educators) three cueing strategy rarely (never?) rate a mention in the commentaries around poor NAPLAN performance, and nor does a need for implementation of the recommendations of the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy.

Instead, we see condemnation of the test itself ("We're doing poorly, so the measure must be flawed - quick, whip up a frenzy about testing being bad for kids") and glib and predictable calls for more money, usually in the form of Gonski funding, e.g.

"The Opposition says it just shows the need for Gonski"

I agree that schools can always use more money, but I am not at all convinced that more money translates into better literacy teaching practices. There is no shortage of evidence that teachers lack basic knowledge about how language works so I would prefer to see any additional funding that is channelled education's way to be spent on better teacher pre-service education.

Yes, children from disadvantaged backgrounds start school from behind with respect to the social and linguistic capital that is important for early reading, but that does not make it OK to deflect responsibility for poor outcomes onto these children and their families. It is the role of educators to apply rigorous, evidence-based approaches in all classrooms, so that some of these early markers of potentially poor educational attainment are tackled head-on in the early years of school. Teachers have one hand tied behind their backs in this endeavour, when they are not equipped with evidence-based teaching approaches in their pre-service training. A few quick PD sessions once they have been practising for ten years will not turn this around, and is an inefficient use of knowledge and resources.

Gonski recommendations may be where the light looks better, but it is not necessarily where the keys to reading success for all will be found.

In the event that Gonski recommendations are funded and we do not see commensurate improvements in reading and writing skills, what then?

(C) Pamela Snow 2016

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