Whose performance? Who will be learning? What will be taught?

I was hopeful that sense would prevail.

I am now fearful of what could happen to education in Victoria, at least.

I was troubled by the article in today’s Sunday Age about teacher salaries (performance pay) being linked to test results. This is disappointing news. I agree with the minister, Bronwyn Pike, that “..we owe it to kids to look at all the different ways that we can drive improvement”. I also agree that performance pay for teachers needs to be based on “..embracing new methodologies,..acknowledging where kids are at, and what is required for individual learning”

There are so many issues here, I hardly know where to begin.

From personal experience, I believe that if we get the assessment ‘right’, then instruction changes to fit this. Good assessment strategies can drive reform in the classroom. Furthermore, if every teacher has to ‘deliver’ on common assessment tasks then this reform can be managed across a course, a year level, through a school. BUT (and it’s a very large but), getting assessment ‘right’ is difficult. It is a long process that involves an action research approach and one that is continually changing and evolving. It doesn’t happen overnight. It means those who write the assessments having a common vision for the way that mathematics should be taught and assessed. It means having a coherent picture of what the big ideas are, what the main understandings are, how to write assessment items that tease out misconceptions in order for students and their teachers to learn from them and redirect instruction. Assessment can be used to drive educational reform, but not all assessment is about test-taking and test results aren’t always a good indication of learning.

The primary purpose of assessment should be to improve student learning. If we tie it to teacher salary, we are asking for trouble, in my view. Teachers might start seeing their students’ performances as the means to an end for themselves, not for the sole goal of improving their students’ learning. Note that I write ‘learning’, not ‘results’. Authentic, quality learning is the result of challenging learning experiences that promote and support thinking, not ‘template’ learning of set processes and set questions. The results of a single ‘snapshot’ test like the NAPLAN test cannot accurately reflect worthwhile, long-term learning of mathematics. The very nature of the test items mean that students rarely get a chance to make their thinking visible.

NAPLAN tests are held in May, Term 2 in Victoria. If we tie these results to teacher salaries, who gets the bonus? The teacher who took the students in the year of the test or the one of the year before who ‘covered’ the content applicable to the test? What if the student has been tutored outside the school for the year? Will the teacher still be able to claim the bonus?

What we need is a system that is intelligent. One that improves learning for the student and the teacher. Will students’ learning improve? Will teachers’ teaching improve? What will be taught in classes? I fear that teaching for understanding will be supplanted by teaching for a pay increase. This may improve students’ results in the narrowly defined NAPLAN tests but it may also mean that students have less grasp on what mathematics is actually about than any other generation.

The message from John Hattie’s research is clear: effective feedback is what moves learners (and their teachers!) forward. Effective feedback answers the questions: Where am I going? How am I going? Where to next? NAPLAN results give one small offering towards the feedback loop. They can be used as a diagnostic tool by teachers. However, the fact that the results come out so much later than when students sit the test (October) means that this test cannot be a very effective diagnostic tool. By the time the results come out, there is a single term left of the academic year. Far better are the everyday, formative assessment strategies that can be utilised by teachers. These provide instant feedback and can correct misconceptions before they develop into aberrant thinking behaviours.

I will resist this with every fibre of my being. Not passively, aggressively.

Yes, teachers deserve to be paid more. Yes, teachers need to be accountable and expect to be involved in sustained, ongoing, challenging thinking about their teaching and how to improve their performance. Tying bonus pay to results is not the intelligent way to do it. We need something that addresses Hattie’s six signposts towards excellence in education:

  1. Teachers are among the most powerful influences in learning
  2. Teachers need to be directive, influential, caring and actively engaged in the passion of teaching & learning
  3. Teachers need to be aware of what each and every student is thinking and knowing, to construct meaning and meaningful experiences in light of this knowledge, and have proficient knowledge and understanding of their content to provide meaningful and appropriate feedback such that each student moves progressively through the curriculum levels
  4. Teachers need to know the learning intentions and success criteria of their lessons, know how well they are attaining these criteria for all students and know where to go next in light of the gap between students’ current knowledge and understanding and the success criteria of “Where are you going” , “How are you going?” and “Where to next?”
  5. Teachers need to move from the single idea to multiple ideas and to relate and then extend these ideas such that learners construct and reconstruct knowledge and ideas. it is not the knowledge or the ideas, but the learner’s contruction of these that is critical
  6. School leaders and teachers need to create school, staffroom and classroom environments where error is welcomed as a learning opportunity, where discarding incorrect knowledge and understandings is welcomed and where participants can feel safe to learn, re-learn and explore knowledge and understanding.

I don’t think NAPLAN results can give us a good picture of how a teacher performs against the above. NAPLAN tells us a little about how students perform. I don’t think it can tell us much about how their teachers perform.

It’s hard to try and find a better way to do this but let’s try.

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About Linda

I have been involved in secondary mathematics education in Victoria, Australia for over 25 years.
This entry was posted in Assessment, Systems, The profession. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Whose performance? Who will be learning? What will be taught?

  1. Bill Healy says:

    Well argued Linda. I’m afraid politicians have a very one-dimensional, simplistic view of schools. No one should be allowed to be a minister of education without at least 5 years experience as a teacher.

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