Going backwards: 20+ years of a literacy and numeracy focus

Disclaimer: This article is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of all Teachers' Christian Fellowship members.

When driving, it is disconcerting to come to a sign that says GO BACK! YOU ARE GOING THE WRONG WAY. For over twenty years, NSW has led the charge to test literacy and numeracy, schools have focussed on literacy and numeracy, with many skilling their students in the test format, and the NSW government has poured additional resources into schools for literacy and numeracy. Other state and the Australian governments have followed, and one result is the current NAPLAN arrangements. Originally planned to give diagnostic information to schools and individual students, these testing goals were quickly sublimated in the political and bureaucratic spheres by the need to know whether the students today are doing any better than in the past. The development of item response theory and regression analysis and its associated scales have seen the continual monitoring of students’ performances in total, by state, by school, by location and by student backgrounds. And what does all this monitoring show? Good grief! There is at best no change and internationally ranked we are going backwards. All that testing, all that teaching focus and all those resources – what has gone wrong?

The headline evidence

  • NAPLAN 2017: results have largely flat-lined and patterns of inequality continue. The Conversation, 13 December 2017, shows that average scores are almost identical between 2008 and 2017. While some states do better than others their results have also plateaued.
  • “Wake-up call”: One in four boys falling short of NAPLAN minimum standard, The Australian, 13 December 2017. Nearly 70 percent of Year 9 students in NSW will have to sit at least one additional test before they are able to get their HSC.
  • PISA results: Australian students’ science, maths and reading in long term decline, The Guardian, 6 December 2016. Australian students’ ability to apply their mathematical and scientific knowledge in real life situations is falling not only relative to other countries but also in absolute terms. Sue Thompson ACER. Results: Science (2006- 2015), 527 to 510, Reading (2000-2015) 528 to 494, Mathematics (2003-2015) 524-503.
  • Australian schools continue to fall behind other countries in maths and science. The Conversation, 29 November 2016. TIMSS study shows that Australian performances in mathematics and science have stagnated over the past 20 years. Year 4 students were significantly outperformed by students in 21 countries in mathematics and 17 countries in science.
  • Australia’s reading levels improve significantly, but only for the top readers. The Australian, 5 December 2017. Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) indicates that Australia since 2001 has moved from position 27 to 21 out of 50 countries but that the higher scores are due to the top students performing better.
  • NAPLAN: 87 percent of NSW Indigenous students need to resit tests. The Age, 25 December 2017. At least 87 percent of Year 9 students compared with 59 percent of non-indigenous students will need to resit tests in reading, writing and numeracy.
  • Government warned of widening gap between country and city schools. The Age, 25 September 2017. Students in regional and remote Australia are up to two years behind their metropolitan peers in NAPLAN English and PISA maths tests.
  • Youth report card: Australia could do better. Australian Research Alliance for children and youth. Education Review, 26 February 2018. Amongst OECD countries Australia ranked in the bottom third for primary school bullying, youth numerical skills, feeling of belonging at school, pre-primary enrolment rate and school related pressure.
  • Calls for NAPLAN review after report reveals no change in decade of results. ABC News, 7 March 2018. There has been no improvement in maths and reading among students in a decade and the results of disadvantaged students have declined sharply.
  • Teachers have also responded by giving even more focus to literacy and numeracy, partly on the basis that they will be judged by results (Your kid might not be judged on their NAPLAN results, but WA teachers may be. The Age, 20 December 2017.)

Call for magic bullet

The following list, including media reports, illustrates that, as Australia attempts to find solutions to declining standards and lower international rankings, there is an array of interest groups that want their agenda implemented. But any solution is unlikely to lie in any one factor

  • Governments have thrown more and more resources into literacy and numeracy and oppositions promised more. Victorian election: Focus on national pride, “back to basics” curriculum under Coalition education plan, ABC News 24 January 2018 Increased focus on writing, reading and numeracy.
  • Schools have responded, especially under the pressure of NAPLAN results to make their schools “literacy and numeracy schools”
  • Teachers have also responded by giving even more focus to literacy and numeracy, partly on the basis that they will be judged by results (Your kid might not be judged on their NAPLAN results, but WA teachers may be. The Age, 20 December 2017.)
  • Some recommend more testing (Teachers “infuriated” by proposed Year 1 literacy and numeracy tests. The Age, 18 September 2017) while others want less (Greg Whitby Director of Catholic Education Diocese Parramatta Australian education system remained too focused on “rear vision strategies”, including an increasing focus on testing, especially NAPLAN. SMH 3 August 2017.)
  • Physical activity as important as literacy and numeracy, says leading academic. The Age, 10 September 2017. Shane Pill, Flinders University There is strong evidence to support the role physical activity in healthy cognitive development and association between physical health and academic achievement.
    However a recent counter argument was put No free kicks: Anglo students “too sporty” for their own good. SMH, 20 February 2018. The former NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli says that Australia has a “cultural problem” which has resulted in students with non-English speaking background doing better than those with English speaking backgrounds in the same school. How much do parents value education?
  • Parents urged to step up as students fall behind in maths, reading and science. SMH 26 February 2018. Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham has urged parents to do more to stem the country’s declining performance. Solutions are unlikely to be in schools alone and require parents to think what more they can do at home to help.
    Australian parents falling short in homework help. SMH 13 March 2018. Australian parents spend less time helping their children academically outside school than those in other OECD countries. 4.4 hours per week compared to a global average of 6.7.
  • The behaviours linked to higher NAPLAN scores. The Age, 23 January 2018. Children who display social and emotional strength when they enter Kindergarten are up to 26 points ahead in each of the three NAPLAN domains throughout primary school, compared to students who display anxious, aggressive or disruptive traits. Rebecca Collie Journal of Educational Psychology.
  • High expectations, attendance key to lifting NAPLAN scores: report (Tell them from me, NSW Department of Education) SMH, 4 September 2017. Students who felt their teachers has high expectations of them did better in NAPLAN and were at least three months ahead of their peers by Year 9.
  • Eating vegetables linked to higher NAPLAN scores, study finds. The Age, 29 July 2017. Findings published in the Appetite Journal of 4,200 students indicated that eating two pieces of fruit and vegetables with dinner resulted in up to 86 higher points across reading and writing but not numeracy.
  • Finnish education expert critical of NAPLAN ahead of his move to Australia. The Age, 20 January 2018. The Finnish model of schooling is poles apart from Australia’s. What Finland does not have is an equivalent to NAPLAN. The test focus inevitably means that students who excelled in certain subjects were deemed smart, and students who did well in social sciences and the arts were overlooked.
    This article was contested by:
    In education, the Finnish line is a myth SMH, 26 January 2018. Policy analysts from the Centre for Independent studies argue that Finland’s international test results have declined in recent years and there are many reasons its school system would be difficult to emulate here, even if it were desirable to do so.
  • “I was shocked”: the students pushed out of NAPLAN to boost school results. The Age, 27 October 2017. Two thirds of Victorian students receiving disability funding are not sitting NAPLAN. Are there concerns that schools are discouraging these students from sitting the test due to fears they might bring down a school’s academic results?

Exploring the issues

In overview, parents, educational bureaucrats and politicians want learning to improve. Politicians are ultimately accountable to the people who elect them and want to stay in power at all costs. But plans to bring about change are complicated by the different levels of government; the responsibility of individual states for education; the competition for funding between private and government sectors; disagreement and ideological intransigence between educational “experts” as to what might be best; a resistance by teacher unions to suggestions that teachers might in any way be responsible; the independence of universities over teacher training and their need for funds; an inability of decision makers to commit to long term solutions as opposed to wanting band aids and quick fixes; a community that sees teachers as responsible for their children’s learning with little parental input and that lacks empathy for equity that might involve reallocating resources from the privileged and high performing schools; and a persistent belief amongst many teachers that students from low socioeconomic areas can’t learn as well as other students. The problem being faced on educational standards is multifaceted.

In the midst of this disarray, Christians have a role to play and a philosophy of education that can help Australia work through this mess. They don’t provide solutions, but approaches to aspects of the problem and might contribute to a positive change.

  1. Curriculum
    All subjects are important and, although not all need the same time allocation, they can all contribute to our understanding of God, how he has worked through history and what his purposes are for us today and in the future. Language, including foreign languages, is important for communication, including with God. Science, technology and mathematics explain the world God created. The humanities reveal how humans have interacted with each other and with God through time and in the present. The arts allow the development of creativity and innovation. Our care for ourselves and others, including exercise and sport, are fundamental to Christian love for neighbours and reflect God’s love. The vocational subjects guide students to use the roles and gifts God has given them and the study of the Bible, whether within the school or local church or family, will be essential, but not exclusive. The whole curriculum is important and excessive concentration on parts at the expense of others will not provide a sufficient education for today’s students.
    Those schools that have become “literacy and numeracy” schools by denying full access to the wider curriculum should be held accountable if there is little or no improvement in NAPLAN measures. This focus obviously hasn’t worked. In conjunction with a host of other initiatives, supporting a broad curriculum should be one goal. Even if schools that have experienced success from an excessive focus on literacy and numeracy: What is the point of having, literate and numerate children who are unable to show empathy with other people, don’t understand their own cultural heritage, are unfit and haven’t time for creative activity? Perhaps a more balanced curriculum would provide better educated students and who, as an outcome of total curriculum engagement, may well perform better in literacy and numeracy. Yes, the curriculum is crowded, but narrowing it further to accommodate an excessive focus on literacy and numeracy has not led to improvements. Change is needed.
    Secondary schools have a subject focus and a stronger curriculum guarantee. However, they have been unable to lift the performance of students from primary school who have fallen behind. Top students plough ahead and the statistical tail of low performance gets longer. There are implications here for curriculum developers, but more so for school systems to lift the expectations of schools to implement the whole curriculum. These improved expectations are unlikely to be developed while literacy and numeracy testing, in its current form, dominates people’s judgements about standards in education. A Christian perspective of education involves the whole curriculum being available to students without the distortion of an excessive focus, including on literacy and numeracy.
  2. Funding
    The allocation of funds to schools has always been a contentious issue and will continue to be so. Christians have a strong desire for equity that is born out of God treating all humans as being of equal value. He sent his son to die for all not only those who have access to high levels of education resources. Gonski 2.0 has delivered an improved funding agreement, but is well short of its original design. Those with most in our society, including many Christians, seem unwilling to give their resources to help others whose earthly circumstances are not as secure. Some believe that because they were able to work and rise to the top others should act likewise, but the world has changed and is changing. Poverty is more entrenched for many families, job security is something of a past era, uncertainly puts many families in difficult places with hard decisions about their futures. They need a school for their children, that provides maximum opportunity and is resourced to assist them to achieve. Increased funding, but a more equitable distribution based on need, should be a goal for all Christians even if their school gets less. Why are we not hearing a cry from Christians about this matter? Is it because they have too many vested interests?
  3. Conflict
    Conflicting educational theories are damaging how teachers operate. Most teachers will admit that children are different and what works with one might not be the best for another. A lot of research has provided conflicting answers to basic problems like how to teach reading. Some teachers, education authorities and curriculum writers have been over influenced by particular pieces of research and allowed a single methodology to dominate classrooms. While acknowledging the contribution of these findings, Christian teachers in particular need an eclectic approach drawing on the best of research to meet individual children’s needs. While discovery learning, phonics, problem-based learning, multiple intelligences, learning styles, experiential learning, memorisation, constructivism, service learning and more all have their place, none is likely to deliver totally for the learning of every child. Educational researchers and academics hold a range of views about how students learn and are generally unwilling to incorporate other theories. Teachers are left without a cohesive theory of learning that might assist their work.
    In 2003 the NSW Department released Quality Teaching that synthesised learning theories and research into a framework that could assist teachers to improve the quality of their lessons. Teachers viewed it as having too many components and layers, to be too academic in language and too much like an assessment instrument resulting in it not achieving widespread acceptance at that time. However, this framework has much to offer and is able to provide practical guidance for pedagogy and an evaluation framework for teachers’ lessons. This initiative continues with teachers forming small groups to use the framework and to provide feedback to each other about their teaching. Research indicates it is a successful program in raising the quality of teaching but needs wider acceptance and resource commitment to draw in the teachers who most need it.
  4. Teachers
    In the long term, higher educational achievement depends more on teachers than any other single input in education. It is acknowledged that they are not the only factor and that they need more support, especially in schools with large numbers of students with learning difficulties. But issues of supervision, assessment and the defensiveness of teacher unions, combined with difficult to implement unsatisfactory teacher procedures, have not helped a focus on teacher quality. For Christian teachers, being a good teacher is paramount for their Christian witness in the school.
    An enduring problem is the oversupply of teachers for primary schools and in some secondary areas brought about mainly by the desire of universities to accept almost all who enrol so as to access funding for tertiary enrolments. For decades, low teacher wages have been a disincentive to highly qualified school leavers and resulted in many students entering training with low qualifications. Older graduate programs have been more successful in providing quality teachers, but undergraduate programs have accepted too many students with low ATARs and then been reluctant to remove those that have underperformed. Not enough attention has been paid to entry, progression and practice teaching to guide many of these students into other professions.
    Making hard judgements may come easily to some business people, but in education both in tertiary institutions and schools, judgements about peer performances are soft and the evidence and paper work required to justify any negative judgements makes supervisors or assessors reluctant to deal with this issue. For decades, along with some excellent practitioners, a flow of poor quality teachers has entered and then remained in the system. Now as older teachers they show amazing resistance to change, relying on what they learnt in training or how they were taught at school. Ineffective teacher supervision has allowed these teachers to remain in the system with minimum accountability. This comment in no way denigrates the many excellent teachers who are innovative and always looking to improve. They are the ones who uphold quality in education, but there needs to be more of them.
    While private schools have greater power and autonomy to hire and fire teachers, the public systems are bound by additional bureaucratic procedures and teacher union resistance that makes a path many principals are not prepared to follow when they have efficiency concerns about a teacher. In this regard, there is a responsibility to support teachers, especially new teachers, with appropriate training, mentoring and supervision. In the busyness of school life, this support is not always properly resourced and done well. For Christian teachers supporting their colleagues is one more responsibility that comes with caring.
    In NSW, teacher accreditation is taken seriously through NSW Education Standards Authority where levels of accreditation are outlined with the process to move from one to the other. These standards are based on a framework Australian Professional Standards for teachers. Teachers are involved in the processes to be accredited as Proficient and the documentation needed for accreditation and maintaining accreditation is the source of teacher anxiety as they feel the whole job of teaching is being submerged by administration and paper accountability. Accumulating evidence, including annotated work samples, and acquiring reports to be considered or to remain “proficient” is a task that relies on compliance to the processes, attendance at professional learning, regular meetings with a supervisor and reflection and interaction with peers. While such processes have the power to inform and improve teaching, compliance is the main focus and making hard or negative judgements remains a difficult area in education.
  5. Political and bureauctic decision making
    The chicken or the egg – which comes first? Do politicians form policy on recommendations from their bureaucrats or do they set policy for bureaucrats to implement. Probably both. But the need to see early outcomes often has the politicians seeking quick solutions and the bureaucrats working hard to implement their policies. Often education ministers hear about something that has worked elsewhere and want to implement it in their schools. The bureaucrats work to extol any good points and hose down what is deemed problematic. They then attempt to add their own agenda to piggy-back on the initiative, securing additional funds and positions. Each officer needs to give the minister and their own senior officers enough of what they want while manipulating the agenda, otherwise they might be excluded and not asked again. They want to be players.
    This interplay is not always helpful for an initiative and when implemented in schools, the result may not bear a huge resemblance to what the initiative looked like originally. Sometimes this is a good thing, but often it is not. Teachers have been wary of any initiative believing that, if they wait long enough, it will go away and on the whole they have been right, further stifling change. Teachers are amazingly resistant to implementing change.
    Christians should be good at looking for long term results, after all, their focus is in the next world and not this one. But for some reason Christians can be very conservative and those with a well thought out philosophy of education often resist change unable to assimilate it into their position. However, if there is a problem, then Christians should be the leaders in appropriate change to ensure that they are seeking what is best for their students. They should encourage governments that want to provide programs to improve learning and look to see that they can be implemented for the long term.
  6. Expectations
    The education literature is full of studies about expectations and student performance – students, teachers, parents and community expectations - and the literature is unambiguous: expectations affect student performance and the greatest of these is teachers’ expectations. High expectations are not a magic bullet, but combined with other initiatives they have the power to change student performance. In their care for students, Christian teachers should lift their expectations to explore the full potential of God’s creation. It is disturbing that in the culture of schools with the demands made on teachers there are those who don’t care enough for student learning and are consumed by their own needs to survive the classroom, to organise their lives and to maintain their relationships so that, the key focus of teaching – student learning – takes a back seat. In caring for student learning, Christians need to take a leading role. For student learning, expectations and care go hand in hand.
    If a teacher expects little from their students then they get little. Despite all the research there is a persistent belief amongst many teachers that students from low socio-economic backgrounds cannot learn like other students. Even when reports are made about successful low socio-economic schools significantly improving their performance, teachers don’t believe that they can change performance in their school. This is very depressing. From the 1980s it is known what constitutes an effective school. So why don’t we have more? The answer may lie largely in teacher beliefs about student learning, issues of school leadership and how resources are allocated.
    Children are amazing – expect more, demand more, and they are likely to achieve above community expectations. But if students feel that a teacher doesn’t care, doesn’t believe they can improve or doesn’t like them, then improvement is even a more distant goal.
  7. Home and preschool
    While teacher expectations play a huge role in student performance, parents can have a similar positive effect. The expectations of many NESB parents are often highlighted in the superior performance of their children in schools, including NAPLAN results and their successful placements in OC classes and selective schools. Alternatively, sometimes the too high expectations of some parents are highlighted as being negative by demanding too much. For parents, where school was not a good experience and from which they did not achieve as they might have liked, they have a responsibility to overcome this negativity and to support their child’s education including getting involved with their school. But the stresses of changing employment, moving house, hours of work, other children and other family responsibilities make this a difficult assignment for many parents whose children are the most vulnerable. What, as a society, are we prepared to do to help these students and their families? In a world of ever increasing reductions in support, this issue remains a key question for the education of future generations. In such matters Christians are particularly sympathetic and active in providing welfare and other forms of support.
    Over recent years, teachers, particularly Kindergarten teachers, have been highlighting the changing nature of children entering school. While many come with extensive preschool experience, others come with none. Teachers are concerned about the lack of socialisation of these students, their inability to concentrate, their aggression or withdrawal, their lack of awareness of letters and numbers and poor language skills. Students from families where abuse and neglect exist pose particular challenges for teachers. In these matters there is an argument for a universal preschool entitlement to get children ready for learning and school life.
  8. Testing
    One way to provide a more balanced curriculum is to test all of it, perhaps a few subjects each year. At least this would provide students with exposure to the whole curriculum. While sounding more equitable, teachers have already condemned any increase in testing as per the Year 1 reading assessment. Cost and resistance would be too great to see more testing as a practical solution. It would likely solve one problem – the narrowing of the curriculum – and create others including the cost and anxiety of more testing. As Christians, there is no opposition to testing, but possibly the amount. We all need to be accountable. Tests simply help to describe what learning has occurred. Their main audience should be teachers as they seek to improve both the teaching and learning in schools. But it must be remembered, that “children don’t get taller because you measure them more often”. Channelling the testing resources into teaching might provide better outcomes.
  9. Go Finnish
    Christian teachers have an open perspective to the world to embrace what God is doing. This openness should be reflected in their willingness to learn from others. One of the solutions being canvassed is the Finnish school system and much of the discussion is contradictory. It is claimed that in Finland, teachers have more autonomy and make judgements about individual learning needs and how to address them. Teachers have a high community status, a Masters degree is required and they are better paid. System intervention is minimal, play is considered important and children don’t start school until the age of seven.
    The Finnish system came to international attention in 2000 when it topped the PISA test rankings, but since that time its ranking has been falling. It is claimed that, prior to 2000 the teaching methodology was traditional and only changed after 2000 to more student-centred approaches. It is hard to decide what exactly led to Finland’s ranking and to be sure about where it is going, but a thorough investigation might help thinking in Australia. There may be much to learn, but Finland is different in size, language, ethnic and cultural cohesion and wealth. Adopting only some aspects would be unlikely to bring about the level of change needed in Australia.
  10. Separating standards and rank
    No one wants to see Australian results decrease in absolute terms. There is a problem and it needs to be addressed. If reaching higher ranks internationally is an aim, and it requires adopting rote learning as the major teaching methodology, out of school tutoring and extensive out of school studies, then it should be questioned whether or not Australia wants to top the international ranks. As argued earlier, the curriculum is wider than literacy and numeracy and student centred approaches aim to produce students with a range of educational outcomes, not all of which are academic. The issue is: What sort of education do we want for our children. The price of a high ranking might be too much, but maintaining and improving absolute scores is a worthy aim. Christians are looking to educate the whole child against a broad set of educational goals, not the prestige of high international rankings.

A multifaceted solution to a multifaceted problem

In This year’s kindergarten students will face a different world when they graduate (SMH 28 January 2018) Michael Anderson, Professor of Education University of Sydney, argues that Our kids will need to build cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal dispositions to help them to not only survive but thrive in their personal, community and work lives. Twenty-first century capacities such as creativity, collaboration, critical reflection and communication are knowable and teachable. He envisages a different classroom where students need to verify, interpret, adapt, apply, synthesise and create knowledge. To achieve the change in classroom practice that is outlined, there will need to be a complete reversal of education direction. The issues discussed above and listed below have to be addressed otherwise such changes will not be system-wide, but only in the few schools that have exposure to such programs.

Schools operate in a complex social, political, educational, industrial and cultural context. Embedding change is always accompanied by seeming insurmountable challenges. In the past, change has relied on inclusion and consultation. All the stakeholders, being involved in decision making and their constituents being consulted, hasn’t worked. A different approach is needed.

There are no quick fixes, but that should not deter consideration of a multifaceted approach to a multifaceted problem that is a product of deep seeded issues within Australian schooling and society. These issues need to be addressed and include (neither in any order nor exhaustive):

  • an over focus on literacy and numeracy that is narrowing the curriculum
  • too much emphasis on national testing for comparative purposes
  • too much participation in international testing leading to country ranking
  • distortion of a needs based funding model
  • selfish community attitudes to equity funding
  • conflicting and competing theories about how children learn
  • lack of an agreed statement on what constitutes quality teaching
  • pre-service training with low entry standards, insufficient student monitoring and low standards for practice teaching
  • poor outcomes from teacher mentoring, support, review and termination processes.
  • no long-term specific education goals with bipartisan support
  • teacher professional learning not aligned to long-term goals
  • no national (as opposed to state) teacher accreditation scheme linked to performance
  • teacher belief that students from low socio-economic backgrounds can’t learn like other students.
  • parents in low social-economic areas not expecting enough of their children and their schools
  • a lack of commitment to a universal preschool entitlement
  • adopting policies and programs working in other countries without considering the different contexts and implications for Australia.

Overwhelmed, how can these issues be addressed? With political and bipartisan agreement between the Australian and state governments, a small 5-8 person education expert group could be set up to tackle all these matters at the one time and to provide a blue-print for school education reform in Australia. This would not be a representative group but an expert group that would be appointed from nominations involving all the educational stakeholders in a selection process. However, the group will be charged with inclusive consultation with all stakeholders along the journey.

Setting up a huge representative structure or taskforce would lead to all the vested interests being represented and the protection of their own patches. Something different, with all the stakeholders having a say about who will be in the group, but keeping the group small is desirable. This group could define the parameters of their work, seek submissions within those parameters and consult widely. Their report should be a blue print for change and contain a set of specific education goals for schooling in Australia with recommendations about the changes needed for them to be achieved and who would be responsible for their implementation.

Patchwork incremental change has not helped Australian schools maintain standards and maintain international rankings. A different approach is needed that will engage all the stakeholders but cut through the ideological, structural and bureaucratic barriers that have stifled change and supported vested interests. Our students deserve no less than a school education transformation. Christians are not frightened by change. They are grounded on Jesus Christ being the same yesterday, today and forever. They are open to what God is doing in his world, to knowing more about him, to participating in change and being confident in moulding the outcomes.

Without a big picture - transformational blueprint - Australian schooling will continue to bumble along with good teachers getting good results to prop up the national standing, while everyone else says “too hard” and nothing changes. It may seem like “mission impossible”, but in all the episodes I have seen, the impossible becomes possible. Surely this is one mission worth accepting.

John Gore