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Teachers forced to equip schools at own expense as austerity bites West Bank

January 24, 2015

Teachers forced to equip schools at own expense as austerity bites West Bank.

23 January 2015

Budgets are so tight that many Palestinian Authority schools cannot afford paper and pencils. Hard-pressed teachers must spend their own stagnating wages on supplies.

Ghadeer Rabi cannot remember a time during her five-year career as a high school teacher that her salary was enough to support her family. Without her husband’s income, the thirty-year-old says she would not be able to survive.

Rabi’s monthly paychecks are inconsistent, often coming as partial payments or none at all. The Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority “keeps promising us a lot, like raises, but we haven’t seen anything,” she told The Electronic Intifada.

Rabi’s situation is not unique: the PA and public servants in the occupied West Bank have been at loggerheads for years.

These problems show no sign of letting up, especially since Israel began withholding taxes it is supposed to transfer to the PA as part of the Oslo accords.

Israel is withholding $127 million worth of tax funds and customs duties on goods that pass through present-day Israel before being exported, as reported by Al Jazeera English earlier this month. The Israeli move has been taken in retaliation for the PA’s decision to join the International Criminal Court.

Withholding Palestinian tax transfers, which Israel has done as a punitive measure many times in the past, intensifies the already difficult economic situation for public and civil servants, among them teachers. In response to Israel’s withholding of tax money, Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, said that “Western governments should refuse to follow suit [by imposing] their own sanctions” on the PA.

Wages stagnate

Living with her husband and infant daughter in Ramallah, Rabi teaches at the local Deir Jarir Girls High School and Mughtarabe Elementary School in the neighboring area of al-Bireh. The schools’ classrooms — which are overcrowded with upwards of forty students each period — lack heating, air-conditioning and most basic supplies.

Due to severe budgetary limitations, the twenty-eight teachers at Deir Jarir are often made to foot the bill for their own supplies, though more than 600 students attend the school. “We don’t even bother asking for additional supplies at this point,” said Rabi. “We know what the response will be.”

Aside from a one-time hourly wage increase of twenty shekels ($6) for the cost of living, “I have worked for five years and haven’t received a single raise,” Rabi said.

While the PA formally bans teachers from working a second job, Rabi said that most are forced to work elsewhere part-time.

Nidal Afafneh, a fourth-year English teacher at Anata Primary School in the West Bank, is one of those searching for a second job to supplement his income. “Some of my colleagues have even taken third jobs,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “This isn’t allowed, but they have to feed their kids.”

Afafneh, 26, said that teachers are demanding their basic rights, such as the school providing paper, pencils, and an annual salary increase to reflect the soaring cost of living, particularly in the Ramallah area. “Sometimes we don’t have electricity or water in our school for days at a time,” he added.

Israel’s harsh restrictions translate into stagnation for the Palestinian economy. In 2013, the World Bank estimated that Israeli control of the West Bank costs Palestinians some $3.4 billion each year. These restrictions have also created a dependency on foreign aid.

PA “dependent and fragile”

But critics also accuse the PA of rampant corruption. The lack of accountability within public institutions has led to widespread “embezzlement, money laundering, fraud, and exploitation of position for personal gain,” states a 2012 report by the Coalition for Integrity and Accountability, a Ramallah-based anti-corruption watchdog. “Those involved in these crimes were high-level employees, such as heads of government divisions, who were conspiring with lower and intermediate level employees.”

Alaa Tartir, program director of Al-Shabaka, a group that monitors Palestinian social and economic policies, explained that the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization “created an inherently dependent and fragile Palestinian ‘authority.’”

After years of building up its public sector, the PA today has around 150,000 public servants, Tartir told The Electronic Intifada. “When Israel decides to withhold Palestinian taxes or when the PA passes through a financial crisis — which is recurrent — those monthly salaries get majorly delayed or paid in installments over months,” he said.

“When Israel withholds taxes it does indeed commit another form of ‘collective punishment’ because it does not only punish the civil servants but also their families [and] we are talking about hundreds of thousands of people that are affected,” Tartir continued.

Yet, the PA’s neoliberal economic policies have only worsened the situation. A Western-backed agenda “entrenched the structural deficiencies in the Palestinian economy and created further distortion,” said Tartir. “It increased inequalities, poverty and unemployment. It created a status of individual wealth for some but national poverty for all.”

Harming the poor

The PA “created a capitalist class that are benefiting from the status quo and arguably from the mere existence of the occupation,” he noted, adding that “entrenching the neoliberal policies will only help Israel’s occupation directly and indirectly through adding another layer of repression that particularly harm the poor and [hinders] their process of liberation.”

As the costs of housing, food and utilities continue to increase, the Palestinian economy remains largely stagnant. According to a World Bank report published in September 2014, unemployment in the West Bank sat at 16 percent during the first quarter of that year.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, an estimated 23.1 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza worked in the public sector during 2013. Of those, 16.4 percent were in the West Bank.

In addition to the punitive measures taken by the Israeli authorities, the constant disputes between the PA and teachers have resulted in several strikes over the last five years. Most of the more than one million students across the West Bank are affected, creating a difficult learning environment.

Citing the fall 2013 semester as an example, Ghadeer Rabi, the teacher, explained that there were several strikes, “making the actual class time very thin.”

“Strikes have made it a very difficult learning environment. Teachers go through the lessons really fast to catch up with what they miss,” she said. “And students aren’t motivated to be in class.”

Patrick O. Strickland is an independent journalist and frequent contributor to The Electronic Intifada. His website is www.postrickland.com. Follow him on Twitter: @P_Strickland_.

“Schools in Context”: The Full Text of a Major Study Comparing the U.S. to Eight Other Nations

January 21, 2015

“Schools in Context”: The Full Text of a Major Study Comparing the U.S. to Eight Other Nations.

What are the aims and purposes of human life? Who am I to become as an early childhood professional?

January 5, 2015

Thinking about Life and education with a focus on early Childhood

“This is one view of the nature of education, based on a conception of human nature … According to this conception, the child has an intrinsic nature, and central to it is a creative impulse … the goal of education should be to provide the soil and the freedom required for growth of this creative impulse … a complex and challenging environment that the child can imaginatively explore and, in this way, quicken his intrinsic creative impulse and so enrich his life in ways that may be quite varied and unique … governed, as Russell said, by a spirit of reverence and humility: reverence for the precious, varied, individual, indeterminate growing principle of life; and humility with regard to the aims and with regard to the degree of insight and understanding of the practitioners.” Noam Chomsky reflecting on philosopher Bertrand Russell’s humanist conception of education. (Chomsky, Otero 2003)

As an educator it would seem inevitable, given that we engage in a practice, a vocation, that demands we adopt a position that places children first. To take an ethical position means that we have to affirm that we are doing all we can to provide the best environmental circumstances to allow wholistic sensory and cognitive growth.

This is affirmed by the OECD (2006) report Starting Strong II: Early Childhood Education And Care proposing that the ‘social pedagogy tradition’ is one that best defines positively, a humanist approach within education systems,

“…The social approach is inherently holistic. The pedagogue sets out to address the whole child, the child with body, mind, emotions, creativity, history and social identity. This is not the child only of emotions – the psycho-therapeutical approach; nor only of the body – the medical or health approach; nor only of the mind – the traditional teaching approach. For the pedagogue, working with the whole child, learning, care and, more generally, upbringing … pedagogues seek to respect the natural learning strategies of young children, that is, learning through play, interaction, activity, and personal investigation. Co-operative project work is much employed to give children a taste for working together and to build up shared and more complex understandings of chosen themes. The belief is widespread that encouraging the initiatives and meaning-making of children strongly supports cognitive development.”

My Story

My journey toward early childhood education began with a significant personal event, the birth of my daughter – born in the month of December in 1990 – a decade which opened with the USA governments initiation of a new wave of invasion and war in Iraq. The latter decades and years of this century were marked by global shifts in power most significantly by the collapse of the all the former communist states. I did not know then just how profound the effect these events were to have on the struggle for social equality, and social welfare. After two decades one effect of collapsing Communist Parties is the significant absence of struggles for improved social wellbeing which has also boosted the neo-liberal, small government, market rule economists.

I remain an active socialist in the communist tradition and regard myself a Marxist. My ideas about class and socialism had found some purchase in my mind after a few years in the Royal Australian Navy. The hierarchical character of the armed forces was a rapid introduction to the larger issues of class and oppression that run through our societies. Decades latter a friend who was then an army intelligence officer, and an anarchist, articulated for me something I had understood but had not fully appreciated, the armed services in many ways is able to function because it relies on socialistic methods of organisation.

What has this to do with Early Childhood and education?

The collapse of communism and the influences of the Reagan and Thatcher era have been very disorientating politically as governments all over the globe sold-off our welfare to the corporations and so further concentrated ‘self-regulatory’ control and profits into fewer hands. As a labour movement activists I had to make sense of all this and seek new and different arguments and methods of organising. It was at this time that I came across the book ’Children First’ by Penelope Leach the British psychologist and child development and parenting expert. I vaguely knew of her, and was excited to see that someone who was a respected authority could write about the problems of capitalist society and its ill effects on children and human development generally.

“For our societies money is god, the market place is its temple and mass communications – from TV advertising to ‘motivational speakers’ – ensure that its creed is an inescapable driving force not just in corporate lives but in the lives of everyone of us.

With societies’ attention, energy and excitement focused on the marketplace, areas of human endeavour that cannot be directly bought with money and sold for profit tend to be regarded as peripheral. It may be thought worthy to work at personal relationships (as parents work to relate to their children and each other), but it will be usually considered more interesting to work at professional ones (as day care workers and marriage counsellors) – and get paid for it.”

“Children are a special case. Like the very old, the very young do not earn and therefore play little direct part in the marketplace. Indeed children are doubly unproductive because their maintenance and education cost money they cannot earn for themselves, and their care absorbs adult time that otherwise would be spent producing it. But because children are the producer-consumer units of tomorrow rather than yesterday, no economy can disregard them.” (Leach 1994)

Schooling and skills, is it education?

Preparing my daughter for school had a disturbing effect upon me that I had not expected. There were many good things about my school years but school itself was an indifferent experience. School had not built my confidence, if not undermining it, we sat in isolation while were encouraged not to speak unless spoken to, or asked a question, something to be avoided as it usually ended in humiliation. All said and done fertile ground for a sense of failure, as a teacher I vowed to improve on my experiences by not repeating them on the children in my care.

Studying and completing my degrees in Philosophy and Cinema Studies I then moved on into teaching. My semester in Philosophy with Children and the method of the community of inquiry, building out of Dewey’s conception of scientific inquiry, had given me fresh insights. This philosophical approach is a fine tool for facilitating children’s dialogue, engaging with each other in thinking about themselves and the world around them.

I have never had a desire to return to school, and this remains the case. I distinguish between schooling and education and I am sure I speak for many teachers who acknowledge their enjoyment of teaching as such, but find ‘the system’ vexing. Regulation enforcing minimum standards generally works to the detriment of improving and achieving best professional practice. Fenech, Sumsion, & Goodfellow (2006) used one educator’s description of regulation through the Quality Improvement and Accreditation System (QIAS) as “a double edged sword” because “notions of professional decision-making and practical wisdom are not readily identifiable in either QIAS or the NSW Children’s Services Regulation.

The chief concern I believe is the problem of regulations impinging on, or driving our pedagogical practice that is detrimental to children and is therefore not best practice. Pedagogues should begin with the question, who educates the educator? Any dialogue concerning the needs of children should begin here; what are the social, community and public needs of children generally, and the children with whom I work directly?

Love and learning

What can I do to develop their ‘Love of Learning’ that I believe that they initially come to me with? The mantras of ‘Life long learning’ and ‘learning readiness’ – within our formal institutions –suggests a view of learning that is knowledge transmitted down from the teacher, in contrast to the view that we have an innate predisposition to learn. How can we overcome or transcend the economic reductionism of the Corporate State that narrows the definition, purpose and possibilities of education?

To begin by asking, what do I have to do to be accountable to The State, is to unwittingly enforce the status quo and consequently the interests of the ruling class and the nation-market-state? Considering my position as an early childhood educator is one that needs to be regarded in terms of the real politic of education played out in each school under the auspice of education departments. As Bruer (1999) observes, politicians use ‘knowledge’ and ‘science’ to spin their gloss-over of practices detrimental to wholistic conceptions of early childhood education.

“Julia Gillard, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education, Workplace Relations and Social Inclusion, discussed ‘new’ knowledge…The new thinking that I’m talking about…is the new scientific research about the way children’s brains develop. …Gillard’s statement demonstrates how politicians can play a key role in framing and/or determining policy content and outcomes… Crucially, the quality of formal ECEC provisions for children also rests, to a considerable extent, on the policy decisions of politicians.

The problem is not so much one of science or developmental models opposing post modernist and humanist conceptions of education, but rather a crudely defined ‘medical model’ imposed on teachers and enforced through their practice. My experience of some school administrators is that they use counter reforming government demands, the use of regulations, and public service acts to enforce the medical model of testing, teaching to predetermined outcomes, and collecting quantifiable data as ‘evidence’ of ‘value adding’ to children.

Questions, questions, and more questions

The questions we should ask, how do educators defend best practice and research while they maybe dealing with draconian methods imposed by hierarchies, and unreasonable authoritarian methods at the departmental and school level? Who and what are educating the educator while they are being disciplined and undermined by those in authority? How do humanistic approaches that rely on qualitative means to measure personal achievements and growth flourish in this current period of reactionary politics?

Progressive approaches understand young children as ‘already human beings, with desires and powers of their own, and not as units of production and consumption, to be improved – potentially – for the benefit of the corporate profit-and-war machine. Part of the answer lies within ourselves as professional educators, by organising power into our collegiate and collective hands, so to build our profession and thereby serve the best qualities of all human kind.

References

Bruer, J.T. (1999) In Search of … Brain-Based Education, Phi Delta Kappan, 80(9), pp. 648-657, quoted in Brown, K., Sumsion, J., Press, F., Influences on Politicians’ Decision Making for Early Childhood Education and Care Policy: what do we know? What don’t we know?

Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood Volume 10 Number 3 2009, http://www.words.co.uk/CIEC

Chomsky, N. & Otero C. (2003) Chomsky on Democracy and Education Routledge pp. 163-4

Fenech, M., Sumison, J., Goodfellow, J., (2006) The Regulatory Environment in Long Day Care: A ‘double edged sword’ for early childhood professional practice, Australian Journal of Early Childhood, Vol. 31, No.3 September 2006.

Leach, P. (1994) People, Profits and Parenting, Children First: What society must do – and is not dong – for children today, Penguin, pp. 4-6

OECD (2006) A unified approach to learning: The social pedagogy tradition, Starting Strong II: Early Childhood Education And Care, p59

Words 17

Murdoch and other billionaires run the country and want to dictate how to standardise public schools

January 2, 2015

Murdoch and other billionaires run the country and want to dictate how to standardise public schools… So what!

Rupert Murdoch a self proclaimed expert on hacking into public schools and education; “We know the old answer- simply throwing money at the problem – doesn’t work…his reason? More money has fed a system that is no longer designed to educate – it’s become a jobs program for teachers and administrators.”

He our wants kids ‘taught’ online. ‘News Educational’ run by Joel Klein and ex-head of NY schools, is seeking the rights to provide online instruction that’s worth $500 billion dollars to the US corporations alone. Other transnational corporations have their eyes on this prize too. Walmart run schools in the US – why not here as well?

Murdoch also praises Sweden’s IKEA schools, whose head honcho says, “If we’re religious about anything, it’s standardisation. We tell our teachers it’s more important to do things the same way, than to do them well.”

US Cruise Missile manufacturer Raytheon Industries, which helps run the Pine Gap US spy base near Alice Springs, already operates programs within South Australian state schools.

We do have a choice. Do we want an education that encourages us to question and think so we can stand up for each other, or just life long training for one job after another? The choice is for us to make.

For the wealthy, the lives of working people and public education are expendable. Current, and future wage slaves are and will be casuals, underemployed, and unemployed. There will always a majority working in low wage jobs. The wealthy and their political minders in the parliament conspire to talk up ‘the problem’ of public education. The rich for-profit schools, which get the lion’s share of taxpayer supported funding are all OK – thank you very much.

The world’s wealthy are dictating their needs to us – they want to train us, to do as we’re told. We are told to buy a computer and connect, but if you cannot afford to run and maintain it they do not want to know you. They cannot make profits they need and then line their own pockets from people like that!

Why do ALP politicians and their fellow travellers seek out and listen to billionaires and corporate heads like Murdoch, and then implement education and social policies that are harmful to public students and teachers alike? Is it because the ‘Murdoch solution’ is in the long run cheaper for them and their ideal corporate state? No public schools, TAFES or universities would mean even fewer places for troublesome students and teachers to congregate, educate, and organise!

We deserve a whole lot better. We need an education to make a better future. An education that enables us to collectively determine what our democracy might be in a truly independent country, run for the benefit, of those of us who create the wealth and hand over the profits.

Do we really want to work and sacrifice our own and our children’s lives to maintain a political and economic system that ultimately only benefit the billionaire owners and managers of giant corporations? What is the cost to our future generations and those of us today? This is our fight now and we have a country and a world to win.            

… So what can we do!

Our land’s resources are finite – Relying on false hope and the ‘good luck’ of the wealthy is no way to pay for the present and prepare for the future.

The wealthiest people pay the least amount of tax. While we work and pay our taxes the vast proportion of this countries mineral and energy wealth disappears into corporate bank accounts and private trust funds. Reinhardt has never worked a day in her life; she has never owned or managed a mine! BHP-Billiton, Rio Tinto, Xstrata, Chevron and other giant mining and energy multinationals make massive profits and send most of it off-shore, out of the country.

These giant corporations can afford to return some of their massive wealth back to our communities. But they will not do it out of their own good will.

Billionaires avoid taxes only to squander the efforts of our labours on multi-million dollar birthday parties held in super-sized mansions and then lounge around on multimillion-dollar pleasure craft competing for exotic locations. Meanwhile already time poor teachers’ and their overworked union organisers have to run a begging campaign to convince the powers that be to better fund the nation’s public schools. While student’s parents have to find people with the time to run sausage sizzles just to pay for a few more already scant resources.

Minerals and energy are finite. The millions made cannot go on forever, however their profits have increased by more than 900% in the past 10 years. If they continue to plunder our land and its wealth what will be left for our future generations, miserable people, a decimated environment and some huge holes in the ground and vast warehouses of nuclear waste?

We must organise to demand that they pay a whole lot more by taxing mining companies’s super-profits

From where will the money come to pay for our welfare today and all our children’s futures?

Increasing taxes on company and private wealth would assist to provide for the needs and welfare of all our country’s working families by;

  • Creating jobs by building local sustainable manufacturing, processing and agricultural industries to secure our sovereignty and independence;
  • Funding public education, health, housing, pensions, welfare, community services and public transport;
  • Reintroducing a death tax would assist to capture billions of dollars from unpaid taxes over a lifetime and held as family inheritances. We need it for the living.

Karl Marx and informal education by Barry Burke

January 2, 2015

How to cite this article:  (2000) ‘Karl Marx and informal education’, the encyclopaedia of informal education, www.infed.org/thinkers/et-marx.htm. Last update: May 29, 2012

Karl Marx on the class struggle

So what was it that made Karl Marx so important? At the cornerstone of his thinking is the concept of the class struggle. He was not unique in discovering the existence of classes. Others had done this before him. What Marx did that was new was to recognize that the existence of classes was bound up with particular modes of production or economic structure and that the proletariat, the new working class that Capitalism had created, had a historical potential leading to the abolition of all classes and to the creation of a classless society. He maintained that “the history of all existing society is a history of class struggle”. Each society, whether it was tribal, feudal or capitalist was characterized by the way its individuals produced their means of subsistence, their material means of life, how they went about producing the goods and services they needed to live. Each society created a ruling class and a subordinate class as a result of their mode of production or economy. By their very nature the relationship between these two was antagonistic. Marx referred to this as the relations of production. Their interests were not the same. The feudal economy was characterized by the existence of a small group of lords and barons that later developed into a landed aristocracy and a large group of landless peasants. The capitalist economy that superseded it was characterized by a small group of property owners who owned the means of production i.e. the factories, the mines and the mills and all the machinery within them. This group was also referred to as the bourgeoisie or capitalist class. Alongside them was a large and growing working class. He saw the emergence of this new propertyless working class as the agent of its own self emancipation. It was precisely the working class, created and organized into industrial armies, that would destroy its creator and usher in a new society free from exploitation and oppression. “What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers”.

Karl Marx’s relevance to knowledge and education

Karl Marx made it clear that “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” and what he meant by life was actual living everyday material activity. Human thought or consciousness was rooted in human activity not the other way round as a number of philosophers felt at the time. What this meant was the way we went about our business, the way we were organized in our daily life was reflected in the way we thought about things and the sort of world we created. The institutions we built, the philosophies we adhered to, the prevailing ideas of the time, the culture of society, were all determined to some extent or another by the economic structure of society. This did not mean that they were totally determined but were quite clearly a spin-off from the economic base of society. The political system, the legal system, the family, the press, the education system were all rooted, in the final analysis, to the class nature of society, which in turn was a reflection of the economic base. Marx maintained that the economic base or infrastructure generated or had built upon it a superstructure that kept it functioning. The education system, as part of the superstructure, therefore, was a reflection of the economic base and served to reproduce it. This did not mean that education and teaching was a sinister plot by the ruling class to ensure that it kept its privileges and its domination over the rest of the population. There were no conspirators hatching devious schemes. It simply meant that the institutions of society, like education, were reflections of the world created by human activity and that ideas arose from and reflected the material conditions and circumstances in which they were generated.

This relationship between base and superstructure has been the subject of fierce debate between Marxists for many years. To what extent is the superstructure determined by the economic base? How much of a reflection is it? Do the institutions that make up the superstructure have any autonomy at all? If they are not autonomous, can we talk about relative autonomy when we speak about the institutions of society? There have been furious debates on the subject and whole forests have been decimated as a result of the need to publish contributions to the debate.

I now want to turn to Marx’s contribution to the theory of knowledge and to the problem of ideology. In his book, The German Ideology, Marx maintained that “the class which is the dominant material force in society is at the same time its dominant intellectual force”. What he meant by that is that the individuals who make up the ruling class of any age determine the agenda. They rule as thinkers, as producers of ideas that get noticed. They control what goes by the name “common sense”. Ideas that are taken as natural, as part of human nature, as universal concepts are given a veneer of neutrality when, in fact, they are part of the superstructure of a class-ridden society. Marx explained that “each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, simply in order to achieve its aims, to represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society i.e.  ..to give its ideas the form of universality and to represent them as the only rational and universally valid ones”. Ideas become presented as if they are universal, neutral, common sense. However, more subtly, we find concepts such as freedom, democracy, liberty or phrases such as “a fair days work for a fair days pay” being banded around by opinion makers as if they were not contentious. They are, in Marxist terms, ideological constructs, in so far as they are ideas serving as weapons for social interests. They are put forward for people to accept in order to prop up the system.

What Marx and Marxists would say is that ideas are not neutral; they are determined by the existing relations of production, by the economic structure of society. Ideas change according to the interests of the dominant class in society. Antonio Gramsci coined the phrase “ideological hegemony” to describe the influence the ruling class has over what counts as knowledge. For Marxists, this hegemony is exercised through institutions such as education, or the media, which the Marxist philosopher and sociologist, Louis Althusser referred to as being part of what he called the Ideological State Apparatus. The important thing to note about this is that it is not to be regarded as part of a conspiracy by the ruling class. It is a natural effect of the way in which what we count as knowledge is socially constructed. The ideology of democracy and liberty, beliefs about freedom of the individual and competition are generated historically by the mode of production through the agency of the dominant class. They are not neutral ideas serving the common good but ruling class ideas accepted by everyone as if they were for the common good.

This brings us back to the notion of education as part of the super-structural support for the economic status quo. If this is the case, there are a number of questions that need to be asked. The first is can society be changed by education? If not, why not? Secondly, can education be changed and if so, how?

To test or not to test? That’s still the question by Scott Prasser

January 2, 2015

‘Government policies that rely on assessing what is easy to measure, ignoring other important dimensions of schooling, are damaging. No one questions the importance of basic skills proficiency, but schools should be supported and held accountable for achieving quality in much broader terms. The objective of a quality education policy should be to provide a well-rounded education for all…’

Professor Scott Prasser is the executive director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. February 5, 2013

A recent Whitlam Institute study of high-stakes tests in schools showed that the federal government’s annual literacy and numeracy tests placed undue pressure on children, causing stress and even illness. While these effects are concerning, the more important issue is how this narrow focus and overemphasis on basic skills testing is distorting Australia’s education policies, undermining quality and, in particular, doing little to help disadvantaged students.

As the Commonwealth continues to negotiate with the states and territories over the Gonski funding model and a national school improvement plan, the results of the national assessment program – literacy and numeracy (better known as NAPLAN) are becoming more deeply embedded into education policy. They are the proxy measure of school quality and the very basis of the Gonski funding model: the high-performing schools whose costs will determine the level of the new schooling resource standard are selected on the basis of their test results. In other words, achievements in literacy and numeracy now define school quality. The attainment of basic skills has become the main steering mechanism of schooling.

The overemphasis on basic proficiency testing disadvantages all students, but especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In following this path, Australia is out of step with the evidence of effective education policies. While Britain and the United States are stepping back from overemphasising narrow skills tests, Australia is charging ahead, taking their role to an extreme. We are committed to using the tests to make funding and accountability decisions that go well beyond the capacity of the tests to support, ignoring evidence that the tests may be unreliable, are partial, constrict the school curriculum, limit teachers’ capacity to innovate and to cater to individual students’ needs, and are subject to manipulation, if not corruption. The higher the stakes, the bigger the temptation.

This is not to say that tests are without benefits, to students, teachers and schools. As originally conceived in the 1990s, national testing was a diagnostic tool for teachers, giving them a clearer conception of the performance standards expected, allowing them to assess individual students’ progress against a common standard for their age cohort and to adapt their teaching to meet a student’s particular needs. However, the tests do not work this way for individual students. The results are too late arriving back in the classroom and, according to the NSW Education Department’s director-general, teachers have lost the ability to use the results for their original diagnostic purpose and lack the skills to analyse the data.

As critical professionals, teachers have an array of other assessment practices to cater for individual students’ needs, as long as the demands of NAPLAN allow them the scope and time. British and American experiences shows that over-reliance on basic skills testing means too much teaching time is wasted on test preparation and the scope of teaching is limited by the imperative to teach to the test. In some cases, teaching practice is distorted by the triage effect, where students are categorised as non-urgent, suitable for treatment or hopeless cases; teachers focus on students who are on the cusp of passing. Very low achievers and very high achievers miss out.

As a benchmark, the tests act more as an incentive for avoiding poor performance than for aiming high. They contain no incentive for strong performance and distract attention from the pursuit of high academic achievement. Current education policies do not reward education excellence, despite the rhetoric. As long as basic skills tests dominate education policy, other important subjects, abilities, skills and talents are marginalised. So much time, energy and resources are devoted to mastering basic skills in reading and mathematics that students are deprived of opportunities to fully develop the content knowledge and skills they need to succeed in work, further study and life in the 21st century. Neglecting the broad range of less tangible, less testable and less quantifiable skills is detrimental to a quality education system, students and society.

This overemphasis on basic proficiency testing disadvantages all students, but especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, because their families are least able to provide them with wider educational experiences beyond the school gates. Having high expectations of all students, setting ambitious standards, believing that it is possible for all students to achieve at high levels and necessary that they do so, are the underpinnings of a quality education. The rhetoric of excellence needs to be reflected in the substance of education policy.

Government policies that rely on assessing what is easy to measure, ignoring other important dimensions of schooling, are damaging. No one questions the importance of basic skills proficiency, but schools should be supported and held accountable for achieving quality in much broader terms. The objective of a quality education policy should be to provide a well-rounded education for all and to achieve the range of high-level skills needed in the modern economy and society. The result of such a policy may be a richer, more intelligent approach to testing across a wider range of areas, closely linked to the broad national curriculum. Only then will testing be worthwhile.
Read more: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/national/public-service/to-test-or-not-to-test-thats-still-the-question-20130202-2dqt6.html#ixzz2KLXqiRWp


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