Birmingham’s education reforms fail the first test

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27 July 2018

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham has big ideas for reforming the school curriculum. Unfortunately his plans are headed for disaster. The biggest casualty will be those people who are at the heart of our schools – teachers and students.

Without consulting school teachers or principals, Minister Birmingham wants the states and territories to sign an agreement forcing them to introduce new national learning progressions and online formative assessments to every classroom in the country.

His plans place at risk the intricate and important link between student assessment processes and what is actually taught and learnt in the classroom. Real-life trials have already shown that it just doesn’t work.

Recently the NSW Education Department trialled a new system to track each student’s progress in literacy and numeracy. However the Assessing Literacy and Numeracy (ALAN) program created a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare for teachers and schools.

By all accounts this trial of ‘learning progressions’, is unworkable, with many teachers raising the issue of their overwhelming additional workload.

We have now confirmed that Min. Birmingham plans to unleash a similar system of learning progressions and online formative assessment onto every school across the country. This would be the biggest Australian school curriculum reform in decades.

Min. Birmingham’s draft National School Reform Agreement (NSRA) plans to do it across FIFTEEN areas of the curriculum (the NSW trial only included two curriculum areas) within three years, without any additional support or funding to help roll the system out.

Min. Birmingham has made it clear that not only does NAPLAN stay, but now he plans to implement his NSRA without consulting the teaching profession.

Minister Birmingham expects the already-stretched teaching profession to implement these reforms despite having slashed the public education budget for the next two years.

Assessment must be purposeful, connected to teaching and learning, and used to enhance understanding of a student’s achievements. Sadly, this exercise in ticking boxes will prevent teachers from actually educating our children and instead confine them to an inflexible plan.

Simon Birmingham’s NSRA is nothing less than a direct attack on the professionalism of teachers and principals. Our members are telling us that they are gravely concerned about the potential disconnect in the classroom between a student’s teaching and learning and their teacher’s feedback and assessment.

And what is worse, these learning progressions were originally created as teaching guidelines. They were never meant to be used as a means of assessment.

The Turnbull Government’s continuing insistence on a phonics test being included as part of a formative assessment tool (something that was not canvassed by the Gonski Review) underlines the point that it is progressing its own agenda regardless of the evidence.

The teaching profession supports appropriate student assessment and we assert our professional rights to be at the heart of a national conversation about assessment. Politicians must understand it is teachers and principals who are best placed to judge how students are progressing.

Simon Birmingham’s educational reforms simply will not work to lift student outcomes if the government implements them without consulting the teaching profession.