No Surprises in NAPLAN

A lot of damage has been done in the name of NAPLAN. Some of our members have been subjected to cruel and unwarranted procedures. It has contributed to a culture of fear and intimidation for leaders and it has to stop.

Programs in use vary widely from school to school and even classroom to classroom. The many methodologies and programs have been described as “choose your own adventure”. We need evidence based systems advice from DECD on which programs work best. We have a huge NAPLAN database. Surely, it can be interrogated to identify them.

Through a spokesman, Senator Simon Birmingham recently stated, “the best pathway forward would be recommended by an independent review of the literacy in Remote Schools Program by the University of Melbourne; interim findings are now on his desk’ (Inquirer, Weekend Australian, p21, 12-13 August 2017). Meaning: We still don’t know what works! Really? This is not an ironic statement; bravo, Senator Birmingham for naming the problem and starting a process which aims to sort the wheat from the chaff – to establish an Australian evidence base for the thorough ongoing evaluation of the various competing methodologies and programs that our schools are bombarded with each year via clever marketing, glossy brochures and promises of success.

We cannot possibly hope to maintain the fiction that improvement will follow from local decision making; that the best way forward is to have a thousand flowers blooming. The person who invented that saying probably thought about desert daisies anyway, and they’re all the same. Choose your own adventures are not supported by rigorous evidence and do not work. We are in our third year of Numeracy and Literacy Results Plus, and while it may have improved morale, we have not experienced a lift with this approach and we won’t until we establish an evidence base.

There are commercial schemes out there that are pushed using the equivalent of door to door sales, via pilot and project schools. Some of the more remarkable ones have got our members into very hot water because of the compromises involved when it comes to academic rigor, commercial interests, and straight out conflict of interest.

Leaders feel demoralised and even intimidated in reviews if growth in their school hasn’t been exemplary. Some of the best, and worst schemes, include ready-made materials which are always a godsend to a busy teacher. The proprietor of one program even has a sideline business in sperm donation! A strong evidence base will always trump a flash program, but finding the time to train staff to identify and reshape discredited ideologies is a huge challenge.

It is time to pause and reflect before we continue this madness. Let’s think about removing NAPLAN from those parts of our fabric where it does not belong. Let’s take it out of performance reviews, formal and informal league tables, think bar and whisker inquisitions, target setting and everything else it permeates.

Instead, we need one simple starting point; an evidence base, as proposed by the Productivity Commission in its November 2016 report, Improving Educational Outcomes Through Evidence Based Policy and Practice What methodologies work, with what resources and in what context, provided by DECD, in collaboration with universities, so time poor leaders can be assured of validity and supported with training and implementation The best evidence based teaching program is only as effective as the support provided to the teachers using it.

As examples of the conflicting information available for leaders:

The National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy 2005. The most extensive study to investigate the best-practice in literacy instruction and how it compared with current teaching methods. It resulted in 20 key recommendations, none of which were ever mandated by DECD.

The latest edition of Nomanis – a collaboration of articles by Australia’s leading academics in reading instruction. The publication often features the likes of Anne Castles and Jennifer Buckingham who are currently working with DECD on literacy initiatives, such as the phonics check.

A quick google search of these topics easily finds contrary views to the above. How does a leader choose best-practice without systems guidance from DECD?


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Whilst other associations and DECD talk about leader well-being, it has only been SASSLA who has provided the care, concern and professional guidance for me over the past two years. As leaders we often hear of others enduring stressful times and it is easy to gossip, dismiss or think it won’t happen to us and walk away. I hope no-one has to endure what I have, but if you do, you can’t afford not to belong to SASSLA.