Tim Richardson

Melbourne, Australia

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Fail: The AEU and its book-burning approach to myschool

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I like the myschool website. It's far from perfect. It presents over-simplistic data subject to misunderstanding, and runs the risk of reducing education to caricature. However, it is also accessible, comparable, objective and measurable. Used properly, it's a tremendous win. Used badly, it could distort educational priorities.

It's also cheap and practical. Today, an author, John Marsden, had an article published in The Age, calling for parents to prefer a more detailed look at a school. His recipe included, among other points, (a) interview the principal, (b) arrange a private tour of the school by some students, and interrogate them with difficult questions, (c) arrange for the children's toilets to be cordoned off, and then inspect them, taking particular note of the softness of the toilet papter, and (d) take a surprise tour of the staff room.

The parent is advised to look for graffiti (in the toilets), dispirted teachers (anywhere), and negative comments by pupils (while you have them on their own). Since the typical suburban school takes in between 150 and 200 kids in the Year 7 intake, this approach is not going to be highly practical (even worse if parents do this for a reasonable shortlist of three schools). It's a bizaare contribution.

Now, myschool and the AEU (Australian Education Union). My topic of the day.

The AEU is definitely a union, but the focus of its efforts is not better education.

The myschool website is a mix of data. If you want to get into it a little, you'll find, a couple of clicks away, a PDF dicussing multi-variable correlations. I'm quite comfortable with that, but I also prefer linux.

The community would welcome some informed assistance to use this information. Guiding, debating, helping with understanding complex facts ... it sounds like a job for teachers. But the AEU wants to stop discussion and sabotage the website by preventing the next round of national tests. The AEU explains its position as fear of stigmatisation: kids from poorly performing schools will be stigmatised. Taken at face value, this argument is "the data is subject to misunderstanding and misuse. It's too hard to understand, so better if you just leave everything to us. We know what's best. No further questions will be taken". 

If my kids get teachers like this, I will be angry. The AEU position is a long way from how I want teachers to respond to questions of interpretation, discussion and analysis.

I'm being too polite. If I want my kids to be taught by book-burners, I'll move country.  AEU, Fail. Go away. I don't know whether I'm more disturbed by the extreme self-interest of the position, or the AEU's pathetic justification which mixes misjudgement, paternalism and false logic in serving-sizes so large you'd be hard pressed to compete even after a month of practising bullshit and spin. It's karma: the same stupidity and narrow-mindedness behind the AEU's reaction also cripples their ability to make good arguments. Which is funny. But it's also sad: these people are teachers and they should be better.

One valid criticism of the testing is the narrow and reactionary selection of comptences. The focus on "RRR" (Rriting, Rithmetic and Reading) is a throwback to decades or centuries ago. We could talk about that. Instead, the AEU throws away this opportunity, and amazingly invokes an even earlier era: the reaction of 16th century Catholic Church to new ideas. Book-burners. Luddites.

While the AEU wanders in the desert, here are things I don't like about the standardised national tests: there are five competence profiles. One is numeracy. That's a broad topic, and since the other four are connected with language, "numeracy" has a big burden. If you want to get a measure for numerical, spatial, computational and scientific competences, the "numeracy" test is the only home. What other mighty pillars of intellectual development could dare stand aside "numeracy"? Spelling. Yes, "spelling". I kid you not. Yet another is grammar and punctuation. Australia has got along pretty well with a population that treats puncuation like it does manual transmissions: something to avoid. People speculate wildly about the proper use of the apostrophe.  Aware that is should occur reasonably often in close proximity to "s", Australians apply their solid numeracy skills and invoke the law of averages to work out the rest. The semi-colon is fast-disappearing and would be the subject of celebrity documentaries were it made of ice or feathers. I've come back to an Australia where Gen X and Y are covered in body art and body piercing. Many of them have another tatoo that they can't see: Their use or misuse of puncutation is an intellectual tatoo branded in school and visible for life to those who look for it. However, while being a punctuation snob can be some light-hearted fun, punctuation is a useless thing to know. I can't think of any economic or social benefit that would accrue from better punctuation, and I really have tried to think of at least one. So how did we end up with such a small-town Chamber of Commerce list of education tests? It has the stink of the Howard government.

However, most of the National Test skills are not without value.  And they are easy to measure, which is its own virtue (and once again, I'm not joking). What we need is to safeguard education from being taken over by these narrow measures (teaching to the test). When the AEU decides to re-engage with the community, it should get stuck into this point.

Despite all of the above, I'm a huge fan of myschool. I'm enthusiastic about the idea, and I'm a reasonable fan of the content. So far, we have two years of data. Each school is sampled twice (a school offering prep to year 12 is sampled four times). This is enough to get a feel for what the school does when it has its hands on the kids for a couple of years. That is, you can see what the kids look like in year 7, and you can see how they after two years in the school. Right now you can do that for two separate cohorts, and I hope old years will not be rolled off as new years are added.  Regardless of the problems above, a school which sees a deterioriation in scores is a school that raises alarm bells.

Now, Mr Marsden, what I would be asking principals *after* looking at myschool is

a) how is the school adapting to national testing (an open question. I would look for a mature, balanced response which highlights that the tests are a narrow measure of a school, while still acknowledging the importance of basic skills, and testing and measuring those skills)

b) the tests measure an average. How does the school cater to non-average students? (looking for ways in which bright students or students with special talents are given enrichment and stimulation)

c) what type of toilet paper do you supply to the kids? (If I find a principal who knew the answer to that question, I'd be getting a little alarmed)


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Last Updated on Saturday, 06 February 2010 17:02  

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