Teacher bashing: Grattan joins the chorus

Feb 16, 2024
Globe against the background of a school class

The release of the latest PISA results provided another opportunity to bash schools and teachers. Amy Haywood and Jordana Hunter, from the Grattan Institute joined the chorus of denigrators.

They, along with most academics, mainstream media and, of course politicians ‘validated’ our students’ performance in the International Student Assessment or PISA tests is in decline (see graph below), and for Australia, one in three students failed to reach expectations. There is no dispute the test results have declined but this is a trend across the OECD systems studied.

Haywood and Hunter’s criticism focused on the reading results.

Despite these declining scores Australia has moved up 13 places to now be in the top ten performing countries. It must be remembered that PISA results are not statistically sound but use quadrants to differentiate results. For example, Australia scored 503 in literacy, the same mark as 10 other countries therefore we could have easily been ranked 11th, 21st or anything in between!

However, Haywood and Hunter, have focused on reading declaring ‘here’s what should happen’ to overcome the problem with our reading results.

In the first instance they advocate focussing ‘on systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, exposure to rich literature through read-alouds, and explicit teaching to build vocabulary, fluency, and background knowledge’. However, they assume that these approaches are not already being taken.

As a secondary principal with 27 years of experience I can assure you that any students who came to my school with a reading difficulty would be assigned to a Learning Support Teacher. When this teacher visited the feeder primary school to get background information they inevitably reported that these non-readers had been exposed to the full gambit of interventions including phonics!

Their other ‘solution’ is to change the curriculum. Haywood and Hunter assert that our curriculum is ‘surprisingly vague’ and contend that any success students experience depends on the teacher they have. They advocate ‘high-quality, knowledge-rich curriculum materials’ that transform the existing, vague descriptions to providing details of ‘everything’ from content to lesson materials. They seem to deplore that ‘the specific detail of what knowledge students should learn – what kind of interconnections, with what countries, what changes, and in what depth – is left for the teacher to decide’. However, what they consider ‘vague’ allows schools and teachers to modify broad-ranging curriculum to suit the students that attend their schools.

The criticism from the Grattan Institute pales in comparison to the absurdity put forward by Colleen Harkin, from The Institute of Public Affairs. She, unsurprisingly insists the National Curriculum is driven by identity politics, critical race theory, and green ideology. This is at the expense of basic skills like reading! Our kids’ education is ‘polluted with activism that has little value in the real world’.

The ‘Grattan’ explanations for the decline in our literacy has some degree of legitimacy, teachers do influence student and of course, curriculum is important but I believe the case they make for Australia’s decline does little to account for a similar decline across the OECD countries.

Any human cognitive activity is complex and student learning is no exception. Debra Hayes, Professor of Education at Sydney University is one of the few academics who reflected on the importance in considering the cognitive aspects of learning. Learning is unavoidable, we learn all the time, for all our life. The questions for teachers is why would the students learn to read? The answer lies in the question of why learn; what is it good for? I would confidently say it is not to get a better PISA result!

Learning is just remembering what you do to get what you need or want. I think we can agree that we all need to be able to communicate with people who we are not in direct contact. In the past, to send a message we needed to write that message down and dispatch that to our targeted person who would read and comprehend that communication. Although this began as a commercial necessity, as we achieved more leisure time writing and sub-sequential reading grew into an art form. Stories were told and we read to understand our environment and even just for pleasure.

The need to communicate remains. However, the recent emergence of electronic communications and social media has dramatically changed the landscape of communications. Traditional writing for reading takes time and effort while these new forms of communication are far more ‘instant’ and so is the gratification for using it. The average teen is using messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, etc. to communicate with their peers using quick and informal exchanges of text, images, videos, and emojis. Their social interactions are also on-line through Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and Snapchat.

A hidden trap that is embedded in the use of electronic communications is the algorithms that over time reinforce the students’ interests. These algorithms bombard the students with the culture they ‘like’ and this diminish the chance to explore the variety of experiences that would enrich their knowledge.

Another practical implication that explains the fall in PISA results following the growth of electronic communication is student’s preference for a key board instead of a pen or pencil. Part of the literacy tests rely on written responses in a period of time and speed is a significant factor. However, it seems to me that the impact of new methods of communication should be considered when trying to report on student advancement.

It is obvious that the statistical evaluation of a nation’s students’ learning as carried out by PISA is an almost useless activity. It fails to accurately reflect cultural and socio-economic differences; its validity, bias and reliability is questionable at best. However, politicians, academics and critics salivate when PISA, and NAPLAN results are released; they take the opportunity to decry the efforts of schools and teachers. Invariably, Ministers of Education promise to improve these results without any idea of how to do this let alone what they are talking about. There is no acceptance that society has change and so the learning environment has changed.

Unfortunately, their failure to provide adequate resources to deal with these changes remains enduring.

No one questions the value of assessment; quality teachers who are already in our schools understand the need to assess success or otherwise in student learning. However, they do that for individual students with unique talents and circumstances. It is time we started to trust them!

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