OPINION Gonski 2.0 is the strongest signal yet that the days of NAPLAN in its current form are numbered. After more than a decade of NAPLAN and the MySchool website there is no evidence that it has led to any improvement in Australian education. In fact, there are lots of arguments to say it has made matters worse.
It’s a welcome shift away from the purpose expressed when NAPLAN and the MySchool website were set up. The theory was that school improvement would naturally occur by publicly comparing schools. As the then Education Minister Julia Gillard said at the time: “We can learn [by] comparing like-schools with like-schools and then measuring the differences in school results in order to spread best practice.”
That approach hasn’t worked and a return to focusing on individual student improvement through a focus and investment in quality teaching will be largely welcomed by the education community
Gonski 2.0 is the first official recognition that government is shifting away from the heavy emphasis on NAPLAN as a way to improve Australia’s education performance. In this sense government is only catching up with what teachers and others in education have been arguing for many years – NAPLAN is useful for parents but counterproductive to school improvement.
By rightly focusing on individual student growth, Gonski 2.0 has recognised what all teachers are trying to do every day – that is, to improve the education performance of their students rather than simply focusing on their raw scores. Every parent knows their child is unique and they want schools to treat them as unique. Every parent wants education tailored to the individual needs of our children and that’s what Gonski 2.0 focuses on.
But in order for teachers to do this ‘fine tuning’ of their work teachers need high quality assessment resources aligned to the curriculum and, most importantly, they need time.
Gonski 2.0 has the first element right. Providing a national bank of assessments, or mini tests, that any teacher can draw on to help them determine exactly where a student is in their learning will allow teachers to target their teaching more accurately to the needs of that individual student.
That’s easy to say, of course, but not an easy thing to achieve for teachers. Time is the challenge.
They can do these assessments when the student is ready rather than on a fixed date and they can be done as often as needed. The same assessment task can be given to different children across different years, if that’s what the teacher needs to do, rather than a rigid NAPLAN test which tests children at the same time in the same year whether they are ready for it or not.
The assessments are voluntary, so there should be less pressure, and they are national, so it’s possible to compare a student’s performance form Perth to Sydney to Grafton. The point is, when teachers get a more accurate picture across all their students so they can teach them accordingly is when we see the most effective teaching and the most effective learning.
That’s easy to say, of course, but not an easy thing to achieve for teachers. Time is the challenge. That’s why the second positive element that Gonski 2.0 picks up is the issue of quality teaching and time. Teachers can have anywhere from 15 to 30 students in a class. Knowing the exact progress of each student across all aspect of their learning is tricky. Developing individual learning plans for each of them is very time consuming and requires great skill.
With all the arguments about school funding still alive and well, buying time for teachers is the most effective way to spend that additional money. As Gonski 2.0 rightly picks up, it is essential to encourage a culture that gives teachers time to collaborate so they better understand how their students are performing and can work out the best way to support their learning. Teachers also need time to mentor other teachers and to provide effective feedback to students and to parents. These are essential attributes of highly effective teaching.
While most schools already do much of what is proposed in Gonski 2.0, and as such there is wide support for the principles set out in the report, there are a couple of points of concern. School and teacher accountability isn’t going away so there will be concerns about what teachers might have to do with the data they collect as a result of these new assessments. And when teachers see “enhancing external quality assurance processes for the purposes of monitoring and reviewing student learning gain” they will have every right to be nervous.
Adrian Piccoli is Professor of Practice, School of Education and Director of the Gonski Institute for Education at UNSW Sydney.
This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.