D is for Disengagement

School reports are degrading, not just for students but for us too

Vincent Conlan

Teachers are a powerful force in society. We are all highly educated writers. Our audience embraces everyone. How did we let the school reports system set in?

I’ll tell you how: we have been kicked so hard, for so long, that we have surrendered our voice. Our silence has allowed buffoons to hijack educational reform and nothing illustrates this better than our current A-E rankings and single-paragraph comments on half a year’s worth of learning.

The A-E rankings are primitive: they were designed during the Industrial Revolution and are as outmoded as steam engines. They hark back to an educational era before neuroscience, brain mapping, neurogenetics, or the realisation of our brains’ plasticity. They belong in the mythical “good old days” and, along with their advocates, should be sent back there.

The A-E scale reporting system is actually harming our students. Low grades are a major cause of student disengagement. High grades can replace knowledge as the reason for learning. All grades promote a fixed mindset towards self-determination.

Every grade is a direct and offensive statement about each student’s social status. C is a pass — just. D and E simply mean Disengage, now! Why not also bring back the cane, the dunce hat and systematic repetition? Education should be a map to achieving our goals, not a series of hurdles to be overcome.

As if grading is not degrading enough, teachers are compelled to write a one-paragraph comment for each key learning area. These comments are meant for parents and carers but our students also read them. This creates a conflict of audience. To make matters worse, the comments are read weeks after the assessment and isolated from any actual learning task. So, in one paragraph, teachers are meant to articulate half a year’s worth of learning, address two age groups with two different agendas, reflect upon summative assessments and suggest goals for improvement about events long past. It is like providing 1:1 instructional feedback long after the point of need to parents, carers and students who are absent. Report comments have as much meaning as a dog barking into the void. No one cares! Not even the dog.

Why, as a union, as a profession, do we allow this travesty? We can change it but we need to start now.

Firstly, we must continuously report student achievements on a continuum. That means no grades, just a delineation of what each student can do and what skills they need in order to progress. Secondly, dialogue between teachers, parents, carers and the community should be continuous, with frequent discussions about activities families can do at home that will help each individual child. These discussions should encourage good learning habits and challenge students to become masters of their own fate.

To do this well we need good curriculum and continuums that do not need to be “unpacked” but clearly illustrate measurable progression. If it can’t be measured, it can’t be on a continuum.

Our current continuums don’t quite do that, but that is okay. We live in the digital age; curriculum and continuums are not static. Education has become organic and refinements to curriculum or continuums can wing their way across four dimensions by pressing a return key. This means they can be constantly reviewed, revised and rebooted back into circulation. In the Department of Education’s publishing stable every teacher is an author.

Sceptics might not believe this is possible. We are inundated with spittle-laced rhetoric from the ill-informed who bemoan the poor state of Australian schools. This constant belittling by politicians, media personalities and even real people is about control.

This is the truth: our education system is one of the best in the world. It is time that we teachers recognise our strength. We all have access to social media. Every teacher is an author, a highly-educated, articulate force with a massive audience that encompasses every individual with a vested interest in education.

Let us fix the current report system. Let us lampoon anyone who reminisces about the “good old days of education”. Let us destroy the political aspirations of every fool who does not support Gonski. If we want increased status in society we need to go and get it.

Vincent Conlan teaches at Griffith East Public School