The darker purpose

Maurie Mulheron

From where do bad ideas in education spring and how are they spread?

A couple of years ago, I contributed a chapter to a book released in the UK titled Global education ‘reform'. My chapter was called The impact of the USA and UK on public education in Australia.

In my contribution I argued: “Education has always been an area of public policy hotly contested. After all, it has been where the tensions between church and state have been, and are still, played out, where individual privilege keeps defending its territory from encroaching ideas of public good and where social conservatives have consistently attempted to intervene in the school curriculum.

“But the last three to four decades has seen a much more organised, coherent and well-funded campaign underpinned by the ideology of the market.

"It is this influence of neoliberal ideology that is having the most dramatic effect on public education around the world as it is so much more than just a contest of ideas.”

The recent policy announcement about phonics testing of six-year-olds is the latest example of a failed idea plagiarised by Australian conservative politicians from their UK counterparts. Controversial neoliberal think tanks like the Centre for Independent Studies, which is funded by corporations and has deep links inside the Liberal Party, are the conduit posing as researchers.

We need to call it. Underpinning most testing regimes is a deep mistrust of teachers. That is why around the world, mass standardised tests have nearly always been introduced by Right-wing governments.

Indeed, in the UK, teacher-bashing rivals football as the national sport for conservatives and the testing of children has become an adult spectator sport.

Quite rightly the latest imported educational “solution”, another test, has drawn criticism from across the profession: teachers, principals, academics and literacy experts.

Let us be clear: teachers teach and assess phonics. It is mandated in the curriculum. But the pedagogy behind the teaching of reading is much more complex and educational policy that is politically motivated and amplified through simplistic news grabs is dangerous.

In education too often the voice of the unqualified is loudest, drowning out the real experts.

So, what is the teaching profession saying?

Robyn Ewing, Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at the University of Sydney, states it bluntly: “Stop telling teachers there is a simplistic way to teach reading.

"Like many educators, I am fed up with the suggestion that teachers and principals, parents and policymakers are unaware of the importance of teaching these [phonics] skills.”

She goes on to argue that teachers “already have a deep understanding of the repertoire of strategies and approaches that need to be chosen to suit the intellectual and learning needs of individual children. They know how important it is to make sure that all children learn to read for meaning and to enjoy the process.”

Emmitt, Hornsby and Wilson explain the complex and simultaneous processes at work when children are learning to read. “Three important sources of information in text are meaning, grammar and letter-sound relationships — often referred to as semantics, syntax and graphophonic relationships, respectively.”

However, the UK experiment with phonics testing, which is the source of the Federal Government’s push in this area, is based on one narrow and controversial area only, synthetic phonics — the connecting of sounds to letters using made-up words devoid of any meaning.

As Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL at the University of Canberra explains: “As the test has already been in use for six years in England, we are fortunate to be able to learn from their experience. A major evaluation of the test conducted by the Department for Education in England found that the test is not delivering improvements in literacy capabilities, and in fact, is delivering some unwanted side effects, like class time being spent learning to read nonsense words rather than real words.”

Professor Adoniou goes on to sound this warning. “And so far, the phonics test in England has not improved reading comprehension scores. As the test only tests single syllable words with regular phonic patterns, it is not possible to know how many English children can read words like ‘one’, ‘was’, ‘two’, ‘love’, ‘what’, ‘who’, or ‘because’, as such words are not included in the test. This is unfortunate because these are amongst the 100 most common words in the English language, which in turn make up 50 per cent of the words we read every day, whether in a novel, a newspaper article or a government form. ‘Yune’, ‘thrand’ and ‘poth’, on the other hand, make zero per cent of the words we read.”

Let us also be clear about this: no test has been devised that is more accurate than teacher judgement.

So the motivation to impose another test on children and teachers must serve a darker purpose. One is to distract the public from the fact that Australia is a low-equity nation in the resourcing of schools because the country has among the largest disparities in the resources available to low and high socioeconomic schools across the OECD.

As Professor Ewing argues, that instead of embracing simplistic experiments, “we should be investing in more teachers to work with the children who need more intensive support. Our public schools should be appropriately funded to provide rich authentic resources and ongoing teacher professional learning. These are the things that will make a difference.”

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