Big Chalk Isn’t Making the Grade

dunceThe ‘cut-and-paste’ reporting on public school students’ performance is a scandal and works like this: teachers boot up the report form on their computers, click and drag comments from a prepared list of boilerplate, and dump those canned remarks beside the subjects allegedly being studied. These appraisals, the ones shared with parents, are quite deliberately vague to the point of being meaningless. Better to keep parents in the dark, Big Chalk reckons, than concede that taxpayers’  are not getting their useful dollar’s worth of learning.  

Knowing that I am a former teacher, parents have come to me with report cards to ask what the comments meant. I told them that they were meaningless, as the students were not given marks or grade placings. The glossy paper and flowery gobbledegook were designed to confuse rather than inform because teachers are not allowed to tell the truth, I told them., and for a very good reason: the self-serving embrace of meaningless words meant that children could not fail, while neither teachers nor the system were open to challenge.

Image creation is everything these days and schools are no exception, a fact that becomes self-evident when you trawl through their websites. I have done this many times, morbidly fascinated by the happy gloss the educational establishment puts on its failure to deliver. Some school sites were impressive and original, with galleries of photos showing delightful children doing exciting things.

One in particular, though, caught my eye with its introduction, which stated:

“Our community encourages all students to participate in a wide range of cultural, sporting and social activities. The photos show students in many of these opportunities, from using  technology in the classroom to learning outdoors.”

The dozen pictures showcased smiling students doing science experiments, playing trumpets, paddling canoes, clacking away on computers, exercising on gym equipment and using state-of-the-art interactive white boards. It also had a ‘News’ section with advice for parents and a warning: “You can’t always trust what you read when researching information for assignments. Here are ways your child can tell a good website from a bad one….” On and on it rambled about bias and hidden agendas, but the site had one small problem: it was fake. The children in the photos did not attend the school in question, they wore unmarked uniforms and the same photos and texts were listed on other school websites.

The NSW Education Department defended these Potemkin Village websites, insisting they were not misleading; rather, they were part of their ‘corporate look’  that provided access to a ‘template service’ if schools chose to use it.

When parents receive their children’s end of year reports they should be similarly wary of anything that does not give percentage marks and position in grade. Copies of exam papers would also enlighten parents about what their kids are actually studying.

There was a time when classroom reporting was open, honest and parents could believe what they read. They rather liked being told the truth, even though comments at times may have been quite unflattering. Today, in the public school system, it is impossible to report that a child is ‘lazy’, ‘disruptive’ , ‘inattentive’ or ‘rude’. It would also be a rarity to find a school report where a pupil was given, say, 68% for maths and placed sixteenth out of the 28 fellow students in the class. If schools were that specific, well, questions could be raised and anxious, angry parents might be requesting meetings to address learning problems. It suits the educational establishment much better if they remain unaware and uninvolved.

Parents who have lost faith in the state system do have an option, but it involves time, effort and expense: going private.

A non-government school, for example, can still measure a child’s IQ and do some quick calculations. If, for example little Billy has an IQ of 120 and is ten years old, he should have the reading and maths age of an average twelve-year-old or thereabouts, as ten points of IQ equates to one year’s intelligence. If Billy’s measured performance is below par, parents have every right to query the validity of the document.

Privately, teachers tell me that the state system is a mess and many confide that they don’t see the point in much of what they are forced to teach. On top of this, the weight of meaningless documentation and paper-shuffling with which they are burdened leaves them disillusioned and burnt out. Whatever else one might thing about Hillary Clinton, it is to her credit that, as First Lady, she set out to do something about the abysmal and declining standards in US schools, all of which would be independently tested and their performance appraised twice every year. Our NAPLAN testing is an attempt to do the same thing. It is steering our schools away from the inconsequential stuff to stress the basic skills that parents and employers demand.

Those who send their children to private schools pay fees, and that investment in their children’s futures is very often a great sacrifice.. They expect – and get – accurate and revealing information about their children’s progress. There is far more emphasis on academic excellence. If the public school system wants to be taken seriously, it should do the same. The abuse I copped the other day from a current teacher suggests the state system remains focused on obscuring its deficiencies, rather than correcting them.

You see, as a former teacher, now a journalist covering local issues, I cop it all the time from people wanting to unload their problems and vent irritations. The lady concerned was fuming. She was a teacher of disadvantaged children and furious about coverage of the dismal NAPLAN results for literacy and numeracy in Australian schools. On and on she went about the dedication of teachers at her school, the magnificent programs they were developing, the caring, loving and nurturing environment which was building self-confidence and enhancing learning.

Schools were not merely about being factories for the 3Rs, she insisted, so what irked her most about NAPLAN was the big red rectangle beside her school on the My School website. Parents and other schools would see that symbol and conclude that her students were losers, thus destroying the hard work she and her colleagues had worked so hard to achieve. Finally, as she started to run out of steam, I made her an offer: “Why don’t I take your picture and I’ll write you up in the paper?”

“No”, she snapped, “I don’t want the school named. I can’t talk to the media. It would reflect badly on the children and do even more damage.”

Off she strode, mumbling about the letter she was going to write to the Deputy Prime Minister.

Of course there is nothing new in the testing of schools and comparing the results. It happened in NSW about 35 years ago, when then-Director General of Education Owen Jones blanket tested all primary-school children through his ‘basic skills’ program. The idea was that teachers should concentrate their efforts in areas found wanting.There was also a later program – the Primary Evaluation Program (PEP) – where more tests did the same thing. The difference between these departmental tests and recent ones was that they were strictly confidential and the results were not given to parents. Most teachers (including myself) treated the old tests as a joke, a waste of teaching time. The saying, “No matter how many times you weigh the pig, it won’t put on weight” came repeatedly to mind.

The great concern over recent years has been about falling literacy and numeracy standards as the time-honoured focus on spelling, grammar, punctuation, phonics and basic mathematics faded, with parents and employers appalled at the literacy and numeracy of those leaving school. Tellingly, this decline in basic competence applied equally to a generation of teachers starting their careers.

On top of this, concerned parents started to enroll their children in private schools because they saw the teachers in the public system spending too much of their time dealing with disruptive, problem pupils and, with an increasingly crowded syllabus, neglecting the basic skills. To parents who voted with their feet,  a private education offered their children a better and more meaningful education that was worth the expense. If you haven’t mastered basic skills, you won’t be able to teach them.

Over the years, as I noted above, parents have been kept in the dark about their children’s performance in state schools. Report cards don’t show marks. Teachers had been instructed to send home only those positive-but-vague report cards plastered with “feel good” gobbledegook. Parents just didn’t know and couldn’t learn what was going on.

The My School website has finally lifted the scales from the eyes of the public and, for the first time, they can obtain a detailed insight into what is really happening.

The big flaw in all of this is that children cannot be compared with their own innate abilities. There was a time when all teachers could test the IQs of the kids they taught.children. This they would convert into a mental age for each individual student which gave an accurate ranking of where they should come in the grade. For example: a twelve-year-old  child with an IQ of 120 should be performing at a level of an average fourteen-year-old; a child of the same age with an IQ of 80 would be expected to work at a level of an average ten year old. By considering these factors teachers knew more or less which pupils were lazy or over-performing; also, pupils needing remedial help were easily identified. Since IQ testing has been abolished, teachers can’t work out if a child or, indeed, an entire school is under- or over-performing in the basic skills.

The popularity of the national testing program ensures that it is here to stay. Parents will be waiting for the next lot of test results to be released.  They will then be able to compare their schools with the results it achieved the previous time and decide for themselves where to send their children.

Geoff Walker spent 20 years as a state school teacher in the NSW education system, working first in small rural schools and later in Sydney and Port Stephens.He specialised in Remedial Reading. He worked as a journalist for three Port Stephens newspapers over some 20 years and currently writes for tilligerry.com an online news service. His book Chalkdust on the Turon tells of his one teacher school days.

  • Rob Brighton

    There is a disconnect between espoused targets and achievement that the NAPLAN does not deal with, it is fundamental to obfuscation of teachers performance and student outcomes.
    Private schools of lower cost are only slightly better than public schools in my experience, dearer schools make the connection as we noted when our children went to one of the top schools in Adelaide, since work has led us to live in a regional area expensive schools are not available except via boarding, the local christian school offers the best available alternative yet the absence of connection between targets and achievement at this private school is stark in my experience and only slightly better than the public school we started with all those years ago.
    These are the same kids, they didn’t have 5 years of being smarter then magically reversed their achievement, consistent home life and all of the other factors that get trotted out in defense of the system are the same, only school selection measured by cost has varied.
    As always, you get what you pay for and inevitably you pay what something is worth.

  • Jody

    I retired from high-school English teaching 10 years ago, coming into it in my 40’s and from self-employment with my husband (which he continued whilst I taught). I was staggered by the low literacy and the fact that none of my colleagues under 50 years of age knew anything at all about grammar. The response; it isn’t important. Well, of course, if you are ignorant of something and its significance in language you are going to disavow its importance!! I spoke the truth both to students and their parents and these parents were very grateful indeed, but it was a matter of subterfuge because I had been instructed to ‘stick to the script.

    The so-called Education Revolution was one of the greatest lies ever perpetrated in this country; it was spin and revolved on the head-of-a-pin notion that if you know how to use a computer you’ll end up smart. I could write a long essay about my experiences with students using computers and the industrial-level waste of time most of these hours involved.

    The bright kids will always achieve; it’s the middle ground kids who are disadvantaged – but I’m cynical enough to believe the state wants everybody on the same level (incomes included) and mostly in agreement with the Left!!!

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