Take Back the Education Agenda

At the start of the year, one of my principal colleague tweeted that 2017 is the year we take back the education agenda from critics and not be sideline. I can resonate with this view as the agenda in education seems to be clouded each year with an ever increasing terrain of so called experts stepping into education and trying to tell teachers how to teach, what to teach and what makes a difference.

The term confirmation bias in not new but it seems more common, not just in education but in the political and commercial world. It’s the tendency of people having a hypothesis and then finding the evidence to support their views while discarding or placing less weighting on other evidence. At the high end, multi nationals are commissioned to write reports to support the decision making of an organisation.

Currently there is a myth that education is failing across the Western world and that we need a broad range of intervention programs based on evidence to lift the results of students. The tenor of this argument is that scores are dropping in the OECD PISA or TIMMS – that means systems, schools, teachers and students are failing. It can even bring out emotive reactions from politicians like “I’m embarrassed by the results”. But is this true?

In education there is an industry that is slowly growing of statisticians who will use data to prosecute a particular position. They even go as far as to tell teachers that their pedagogy is the panacea though it’s a one size fits all. Commercial material from multi-nationals who sell package education materials are renown for this as they will often conjuncture up a climate of failing education only to position themselves as the solution – at considerable financial cost to a particular consumer. However, they are not alone, as we’re seen a lot of experts with very limited or no teaching permeate their way into education systems all around the world and then having a voice about teaching and learning. We even have people that are providing advice to schools with limited or no experience and expertise in their field. Imagine if I told a brick layer how to lay bricks or a builder how to build!! This happens far too often in education – the rise of the so call experts.

Teaching and learning is not about statistics that lead to judgements about the success or failure of a school or the quality of education that is provided by teachers. Teaching is about people and the interpersonal skills that can inspire students to have a love of knowledge and new skills, to be able to synthesise and process information and articulate a particular point of view. Teaching is about the development of self-worth of individuals and collective successes (like playing team sports or working on a group project). Teaching is having someone inspire students to fulfil their dreams and aspirations that far exceed their own expectations. You cannot put a measure or a statistic on how teachers do this, nor can you say this is the strategy that inspires.

Of course, teaching in a primary school is about the development of Literacy and Numeracy and the provision of foundation skills. However, it is also fostering a love of reading or problems solving rather than just having the necessary skills to answer test questions in a standardised test. Reliable data is used to support rather than discredit, and help inform decisions within a context. And, each context is different.

This year, our school has continued with the Reading Recovery program for Year 1 students after engaging one of the state’s best and now former Reading Recovery tutors as our school’s Deputy Principal Instructional Leaders. Some broad data and commissioned reports will indicate that the program is not very successful in supporting students. One thing I do know about the authors of such reports is that they are not Reading Recovery trained teachers, nor have they spent much time really understanding the principles behind Reading Recovery. When you have high quality teachers, regardless of whatever program you have in a school, the impact will always be there. Reading Recovery has been a success over many years in my school because of the quality of teachers and trainers. Parents are thankful.

Success for teachers is measured on so many variables. The teacher that makes a notification about abuse so that the child can be safe is success but not measured by a statistic. The teacher who puts his or her hand in their pocket to fund an excursion or a meal so that the child will learn is not measured by a statistic but rather a smile of thankfulness. A teacher who gives up their own personal time to transport a child to an event or coaches a sporting team after school will be measured by their commitment and devotion.

At the end of the day, my accountability is geared towards my current and former students and to their parents. Most teachers and principals know that they have made a difference when a former student comes up to them and shares about their school experience while talking about the profession / career that they have moved into. Yes, we have the odd doctor and dentist from our school but at the same time, we also have a plethora of other professions and non-professions. The one common attribute between all former students is that no one talks about statistics or scores but rather their interpersonal relationships with peers and the joys of schooling. Schools do not fail but systems can fail schools.