Is this the end of outcome focused education?

There will be much media reporting in the next few weeks arising from the recent release of PIRLS and TIMSS, and the imminent release of PISA. Should the results be good, some will credit system management, others will credit teachers and teacher educators.  Should the result be bad, these positions will of course be reversed.  The position taken basically boils down to one of two beliefs. One belief is that 250,000+ teachers are capable and actually engaging in some sort of conspiracy, while a more rational alternative is that results are products of the system.

To date, the commentary from think tanks and peak bodies have been remarkably shallow.  They do not do the strategic work they purport to do.  They tend to blame teachers, teacher educators, or ideology, and proffer suggestions for faded educational fads from the past, such as synthetic phonics, new forms of assessment, a particular product (buy 5 Fingers Literacy now for only $9.99!).  Such commentary is both superficial and unhelpful, with teachers generally already doing their best to incorporate useful practices to provide balanced, inclusive approaches.

As an aside, among the more insidious suggestions tend to be small impact projects that generate publicity. Examples include exiting disengaged teachers at $50,000 a pop, or placing selected graduates straight into the classroom. These types of initiatives have very little system impact, but tend to do well for those managing them, and create much shade for the rest of 250,000+ teaching workforce.

Economists also seek to provide a reasoned response, but they rely on PISA and NAPLAN data. The big problem with these data is that they have reified conceptions of knowledge. This is because they rely on link items and equating techniques. Unfortunately, while economists understand things like Net Present Value, they don’t understand educational assessment and how it evolves over time and how it has context. So, for example, PISA is using conceptions of mathematics and science before the age of Facebook, twitter and YouTube . They do not reflect Australian curriculum or the work teachers are expected to do. Oh well, economists do talk.

But it’s the system, and systems have inertia with much lag and lead, and here the problem reveals itself. Australia is about 20 years down an education trial of outcome focused education, and this trial is miserably failing.

Forward thinking educators have seen this coming of course, but over ten years ago, on November 22 in 2005 in the Australian newspaper, Geoff Masters made an emphatic defence of outcome focused education. In that article Masters said that it was no longer sufficient to know that teachers are teaching the syllabus. Instead, he advocated for an outcomes focus with measures of what students are learning. At that time, Masters claimed that there was no evidence of a plunge in Australia’s education achievement, as teachers were claiming at the time.

Masters made two missteps.  The first was that he called Australia’s trend too early as it takes 9 years between cycles to establish reliable trends on PISA. This is because, for example, Reading was a major domain in 2000 and again in 2009. Masters made his call after only 5 years of PISA when trends were not yet reliable. The second consequential misstep, is that Masters’ call for a more outcome focused education was heeded, and what started in Victoria during the 1990s as the LAP, and then the AIM, was taken up nationally as NAPLAN in 2008. And here we are, 20 years of outcome focused education, and this mess.

Masters, an eminent exponent of the Rasch model, is of course not to blame for Australia’s demise.  He is informed by an elaborate coterie of interests. This coterie is constructed through cross board memberships and project collaborations, and ranges across interests from the private to the public sector. It includes governments, educational providers and universities.  This coterie has had much to gain from an outcome focused approach to education.  Outcome focused education is ostensibly self-managing, and the move away from the focus on inputs to outputs has seen a demise in the focus of curriculum and ideas. Much of Australia’s meaning making infrastructure has been gutted, and continues to be under attack, from those advocating and strategizing for a continued focus on outcome focused education. These include the demise of subject associations and restricted funding to curriculum bodies.

So as the debate continues, and people start laying the blame, perhaps we should start to focus on the various system coteries and beneficiaries, and not to simply lay the blame at teachers and teacher educators, which are already among the tightest regulated fields in Australia.

Just don’t expect these arguments to come from think tanks and related organisations. Check their boards, their backers and their networks. Unfortunately, don’t expect teachers to articulate it either, for one they are too busy helping students getting band aids, taking music, counselling children, dealing with crises or writing reports. Sure teachers get it, but they get it intuitively, they don’t have the language or the time. They rely and expect system mangers to articulate and argue for them, and on this they have been poorly let down by coteries of vested interest.

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