Stop measuring; start fixing!

by Be Bonham

Governments should stop measuring predictors of failure among Australian schoolchildren ... and start addressing them, according to Professor Johanna Wyn, presenter of the Sydney School of Education and Social Work's fourth Education Heresies colloquium.

“We've been identifying the same associations – low socioeconomic status, Aboriginality and isolation – for a quarter of a century," Professor Wyn said.

"And we are getting better and more sophisticated at measuring the inequality, to the point where measurement has become part of the problem. Once standardised testing dominates the thinking of schools, they 'teach to the test' to ensure their continued reputation and funding, and neglect teaching to producing well-adjusted, active learners."

Professor Wyn said it had been a costly social error to label the patterns of failure as a ‘gap’ that must be bridged (by bringing the failing students into line). Instead, she advocated recognising the achievements of individuals who were unsuited to the 'standardising' educational approach.

"We need to disrupt the concept of the achievement gap. Education is about what young people can do and be as well as what they know," she said.

"Since last 'education revolution' in the 1960s, in the hope of achieving greater equity, learning has been structured by age-based groupings; normative expectations of young people at each age level; a deficit notion of ‘student’; and the strict separation of school and learning from the community, families and workplaces. All these organisational changes make the mistake of regarding young people as being in the future – they don’t sufficiently acknowledge the present."

"The results have been an increase in inequality in wealth distribution, and schools that have failed to improve the outcomes for young Indigenous people, young people from poor families and young people in rural areas. It is apparent that changing in-school factors alone is not the answer."

Professor Wyn called on a reform of the education system, based on social outcomes.

"Education should be assisting young people (and older people) to manage complex lives," she said.

"Young Australians are actually highly connected to the labour market – they are juggling work and study when they are at secondary school. Yet, even despite the focus on education-for-work, schools barely acknowledge the work that young people are doing."

Professor Wyn said the precarity of work, and the pace of change meant that young people can no longer make career the focus of their lives.

"Work in their worlds has to fit into life – not be life. They need to learn attitudes and skills that enable them to do this."

A crucial element for successful education, according to Professor Wyn, is a link between school students, in a school setting, and members of professions other than teaching.

Current research, however, indicates that school interagency links are only occurring in a very limited way. Dr Dorothy Bottrell from the University of Sydney's Sydney School of Education and Social Work was the respondent to the presentation. She said research shows renewed policy focus on parental involvement although there are significant educational and social benefits in schools and community organisations working in partnership.