Friday, 11 May 2012

Forget accountability and focus on improvement, argues education expert

Forget accountability and focus on improvement, argues education expert

An international education reformer has said Australia’s focus on NAPLAN results misses the mark.

Professor Ben Levin from the University of Toronto in Canada said, "I think this has been a huge mistake in policy that we want to beat up on teachers." He is concerned that NAPLAN-based accountability measures do not improve schools.

“Governments have used education as a whipping boy for various political reasons,“ Professor Levin said.  “For too long the combination of accountability and punishment have been seen as ‘silver bullets’ in education reform.”

His argument was not about the test itself, but with the way governments use NAPLAN results to motivate teachers. NAPLAN is the national literacy and numeracy testing program used for students in grades 3, 5, 7 and 9.

Speaking at the second of the 2012 Melbourne Graduate School of Education's Deans Lecture Series, Professor Levin told more than 130 educators and education professionals that popular education-reform strategies are wrong.

He said it was time for concrete changes that include specific targets such as an 85% graduation rate.

“Hope is not a strategy,”  Levin said.

Levin stated that labour peace is essential.  Connecting teacher pay to NAPLAN is not effective reform.  Chris Duncan, principal at Lindisfarne Anglican Grammar School agreed that teachers should not have to worry about their pay and pension.

Nor should educators blame students for poor NAPLAN scores, said Levin. “Our job is to take the kids and teach them, not to wish we had better ones...Imagine if hospitals said, 'if only they sent us better patients’.”

Assistant principal at Kambrya College, Nalina Naidu, admired his “simple and consistent message”.  She said teachers at her school use his book, How to Change 5000 Schools.

In his lecture, Levin cautioned that innovation without action is wasteful: “Let's try something, let's declare that it works really well, and then let's not use it."  He challenged educators to improve by copying successful ideas. Strong leadership and coaching are critical reform components.

The manager of the Visible Learning Australia coaching program, Lee Collie, agreed.
Her organisation visits into schools and coaches teachers by using student assessment results. In other words, NAPLAN becomes a tool, not a machine for punishment.

Levin showed that it is important to get school reform right.  Using the same data that underpinned the Gonski Committee’s Review of Federal Funding for Schooling, a recent federal paper calling for increased school funding, Levin found a $500-a-week pay difference between the most-educated and the least-educated Australians. He said “...higher levels of education is connected with every possible life outcome.”  

Levin is research chair in Education Leadership and Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies at University of Toronto. His previous roles included Deputy Minister of Education in Manitoba and Ontario.  

During the week, Levin delivered lectures titled “Improving Our Schools: What We Know and What We Need to Do” to more than 1,000 educators and education professionals in a whirlwind Australian tour.

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