MySchool and the Cowardice of the Left

“They’re not nihilist, they’re just cowards.” These are the words of warning that John Goodman’s character gave in the film the Big Lebowski when dealing with a bunch of black clad extortionists. Such a warning is appropriate for the Australian right regarding its leftist opponents. The point can be made evident with reference to any one of a large and increasing number of orifices that spout opinions which taken together constitute the Australian left. The most recent and high profile instance would have to be the reaction to the making public the results of National Assessment Program in Literacy and Numeracy, NAPLAN, results via the MySchool website.

The reaction to the Myschool website and the making public the NAPLAN results demonstrates this beyond the fact of the Australian Education Union’s capitulation on threats to boycott the tests in exchange for a ‘working party’. The whole effort can be seen as a timid approach to seeking justice.

The stated position of those opposed to the NAPLAN tests and their being made public is that they are against the tests because they do not reflect the whole achievements of a student or a school and because the tests will be used to rank schools in league tables. As the AEU describes their position:“We have repeatedly tried to get the Government to do two things: improve the MySchool website so it contains accurate and meaningful information for parents and protect students and school communities from the misuse of student data in league tables.”

The working party that has been established will talk about this.
The concern with correct information is really quite astounding. In a paper produced by the Queensland Studies Authority the following appears: “the research evidence from the United States of America and the United Kingdom, where such [full cohort testing] programs have been in operation for many years, is that these tests have profoundly negative effects on teaching and learning, and the data they provide are not capable of informing policy decisions in meaningful ways.” (p3)

This is an amazing observation. If you test the entire student population the results are beset by error to such a degree that the information is useless and, in addition to problems that arise out of the use of bad data, the testing has other bad effects on schooling.

One stated reason for the inaccuracy, and the bad effect on teaching, is a proclivity on the part of those in the teaching profession to undertake any possible measure in order to gain a high score on the tests. In order to get high scores in such a test, teachers and administrators will, according to research conducted into such testing, exclude stupid kids from the test via a variety of means: the use of suspensions and expulsions, designating them ‘disabled’ and even holding them back from the year levels in which the tests are taken and then skipping them forward! They will apparently take equally as scrupulous steps to boost the influence of smarties.

To this one might suggest that there are far larger problems afoot then anything to do with league tables and the NAPLAN tests. If teachers are so committed to lying then perhaps the issue is not one about league tables. In the interest of being optimistic about the teaching profession let us assume that on whole the profession is not so unscrupulous and that if there are such problems they can be solved.

Another argument used suggests that the tests are inaccurate because they fail to cover the full range of what is taught. The tests that cover literacy and numeracy fail to cover other subject areas, such as, science, geography and language. They also fail to cover, it is pointed out, other benefits of schools, for instance, their capacity to keep problem children off the streets and the moral education and enforcement work that they engage in. Whilst this is all true isn’t the only problem being highlighted that the test should include in its title English literacy rather than simply literacy? Aren’t they inaccurate only insofar as they purport to be more than they are not?

The name problem is the only problem unless one remains suspicious of the intelligence and opinions of the general public. In some presentations of this ‘the tests are misleading’ argument there is an assumption that they negative are misleading because the public will not be able to realise that numeracy and literacy tests are limited in the material that they test for, or that the public cannot be trusted to evaluate the importance that should be ascribed to literacy and numeracy tests. In both cases the argument appears to be about protecting people from their opinions in favour of some sort of expert opinion and therefore stands as something anti-democratic and consequently, for me, both foolish and unsustainable.

Such anti-democratic sentiment is evident in other arguments that are run. For instance Dianne Butland included in her study of accountability testing the following remarkable sentence. “The underlying assumption in these approaches is that teachers cannot be trusted and so the test is a mechanism to force teachers to comply with a particular theory of learning.” (p17) An opposition is created here between the expert opinion of teachers and the wishes expressed by a democratic government. This is emphasised when Butland describes the resistance to accountability: “In the midst of the gloom of political interference in education, across the USA there are some dynamic groups that are working for change to create fairer, more educationally sound and more democratic education for all young people.”

That democracy is invoked here despite a continual distrust of people points to an odd understanding of democracy found amongst opponents of the MySchool website and associated tests. The democracy talked about by Butland here can be described as one that takes the ‘cracy’ out of the democracy, that is, it takes the power out of people power. It is anti-democratic because it is a definition that removes power from the equation and one cannot have government by the people without there being government.

Democracy in such a treatment is really just talking about a people. That definition is clear in the position statement of the US Education Roundtable, quoted in Butland’s report, that seeks to counter such interference in schooling. For them ”Democracy is a form of associated living that fosters the growth of the individual through his or her participation in social affairs.”(p25 Butland) Maybe that’s a definition of some variation of the word ‘demos’ or ‘a people’ but it certainly isn’t a definition of a form of government. Perhaps there is a difference between this ‘people’ and our current status as ‘a people’ – an imperceptible difference that constitutes the supposed skill of the teacher and will be discussed below.

This anti-cracy is what lies behind the opposition to the making public the accounting of teachers work. It is this that seems to stand behind the opposition to the testing regimes and the MySchool website that they are linked to.

Aside from other problems this creates there is a danger that this anti-cracy might mean that teachers will diminish themselves, as professionals, in the eyes of the public. If, as Butland’s report suggests, teaching is about preparing people for the ‘democracy’ mentioned above what exactly is it that teachers and schools do? As far as I can tell they are entirely superfluous to the creation of ‘a people’.

A response to this might be that education is designed to prepare people for competition in the job marketplace rather than participation in democracy. From what I have observed of the world so far however it remains a complete mystery to me as to the need for formalised education for this to occur.

Another danger to the profession is evident in a related argument used to pursue the idea that the tests are useless. That argument suggests that the indications of success that the tests produce cannot be used to inform policy because the results have far more to do with other factors. A Government School Education Council of ACT paper to the Minister of Education in 2004 stated: “improvement in school results may have nothing to do with teaching quality but simply reflect a change in the student population, increased absenteeism by low achieving students, a greater resort to outside tutoring or cheating by school staff, and changes in the turnover of students between school.” (P5) In pursuing the argument that teaching quality cannot be measured because of the influence of outside factors is not the suggestion being made that testing for teacher quality is useless because teachers don’t really do anything? (apart from watch ‘a people’ grow).

In response the AEU and its supports define an imperceptible role for the teacher. In the absence of the exercise of governmental power something different will emerge in the participants of a schooling system. It is a difference suggested in the following passage from the above quoted US Educators Roundtable: “…if we continue to force children to memorise mathematical precepts without understanding how and why we use math; if we continue to force children to learn to read while ignoring literacy, we should not expect anything different than what we have had for many years: a bewildered herd.” (p24) This difference is also the difference between democracy minus the cracy and the simple existence of a demos (a people).

The exercise of government power on the teaching profession is seen as disrupting this imperceptible difference by introducing market rules in education. Making public the information used can only result in greater competition amongst students and parents in ensuring that they receive the education that is going to put their kids at the front of the pack. Thus, necessarily, the release of this information is going to result in greater inequality between people.

This is the cowardice of the AEUs position. It is a fear about the exercise of power being always an exercise in the enforcement and reproduction of social privilege.

It is odd that such distrust of people is combined with the rhetoric of democracy. People are not entirely excluded from this account but feature only insofar as they are mediated by the skills of teachers – included in cooperative relationships with schools and teachers. Teacher skills in this presentation are properly magical – totally incomprehensible to the uninitiated – and they strive for a certain form of democracy, which is likewise incomprehensible (although assuredly good) and only hampered by the self-interest of people.

But isn’t the difference outlining the special activity of teachers an expression of a difference between a concrete activity and some utopian state of being? Doesn’t literacy in statements such as the above refer to some state of being in which communication is not a problem, whilst reading refers to the concrete, measurable, things of this world that are, consequently, limited. Is not ‘a bewildered herd’ the most magnificent metaphor ever used for the actuality of the human race.

Leaving aside the questionable nature of these magical powers held by teachers that are antagonistic to public enunciation, to simply oppose that skill to the exercise of public power as an effort that is always going to be the pursuit of social privilege is not entirely accurate. Whilst it is true that the education system in Australia has over the last few decades taken larger and larger steps towards becoming an instrument of ensuring that the wealthy can pass on their privileged social position to their children under the guise of ‘choice’ this does not mean that power cannot be used to level natural and historical distinctions. It does not mean that power must necessarily be antagonistic to equality.

Just as it is true to say guns don’t kill people, people do; it is true to say tests don’t perpetuate a system of distributing social privilege by education based on the relative wealth of parents under the guise of choice, people do.

In attacking ‘cracy’ itself the AEU has overlooked the potential of the education system to remedy such situations. It is this that is the lefts’ cowardice on the issue. Rather than a demand for a working party to look at the limitations of testing and the apparent ‘mis-use’ of information as a result of it being made public perhaps a demand for a look at the mis-use of the education system itself would have been more appropriate.

Perhaps this cowardice is not about the fear of ‘cracy’ but the fear of challenging the guise of ‘choice’ that allows the use of the education system as a means of ensuring social positions can be inherited. This seems like fear of a paper tiger. I have yet to meet a person that would choose to educate their child in such a way as to ensure they end up at the low end of the social hierarchy. Where does the impression that this is an opaque issue come from? However difficult this task might be is it not far easier then trying to prevent change to the education system via an idea that the teaching profession is made up of people with magical powers? In any case is it not better to seek change in the education system, it is not like it is the best system for producing a democracy as it currently stands.

The following are documents referred to in this post. All were found via the AEU’s website.


About barkingcoins
This author is just another fucking dickhead.

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