Nicole Mockler

What’s good ‘evidence-based’ practice for classrooms? We asked the teachers, here’s what they said

Calls for Australian schools and teachers to engage in ‘evidence-based practice’ have become increasingly loud over the past decade. Like ‘quality’, it’s hard to argue against evidence or the use of evidence in education, but also like ‘quality’, the devil’s in the detail: much depends on what we mean by ‘evidence’, what counts as ‘evidence’, and who gets to say what constitutes good ‘evidence’ of practice.

In this post we want to tell you about the conversations around what ‘evidence’ means when people talk about evidence-based practice in Australian schools, and importantly we want to tell you about our research into what teachers think good evidence is.

Often when people talk about ‘evidence’ in education they are talking about two different types of evidence. The first is the evidence of teacher professional judgment collected and used at classroom level involving things like student feedback and teacher self-assessment. The second is ‘objective’ or clinical evidence collected by tools like system-wide standardised tests.

Evidence of teacher professional judgment

This type of evidence is represented in the Australian Teacher Performance and Development Framework. For example, the framework suggests that good evidence of teachers’ practice is rich and complex, requiring that teachers possess and use sharp and well-honed professional judgement. It says: “an important part of effective professional practice is collecting evidence that provides the basis for ongoing feedback, reflection and further development. The complex work of teaching generates a rich and varied range of evidence that can inform meaningful evaluations of practice for both formative and summative purposes” (p.6). It goes on to suggest that sources of this kind of evidence might include observation, student feedback, parent feedback and teacher self-assessment and reflection, among others.

‘Objective’ evidence

The second discussion around evidence promotes good evidence of practice as something that should be ‘objective’ or clinical, something that should be independent of the ‘subjectivity’ of teacher judgement. We see this reflected in, for example, the much lauded “formative assessment tool” announced in the wake of Gonski 2.0 and to be developed by KPMG. The tool will track every child and ‘sound alarms’ if a child is slipping behind. It aims to remedy the purportedly unreliable nature of assessment of student learning that hasn’t been validated by standardising formative assessment practices. Indeed, the Gonski 2.0 report is very strongly imbued with the idea that evidence of learning that relies on teacher professional judgement is in need of being overridden by more objective measures.  

But what do teachers themselves think good evidence is?

We’ve been talking to teachers about their understanding and use of evidence, as part of our Teachers, Educational Data and Evidence-informed Practice project. We began with 21 interviews with teachers and school leaders in mid-2018, and have recently run an online questionnaire that gained over 500 responses from primary and secondary teachers around Australia.

Our research shows that teachers clearly think deeply about what constitutes good evidence of their practice. For many of them, the fact that students are engaged in their learning provides the best evidence of good teaching. Teachers were very expansive and articulate about what the indicators of such engagement are:

I know I’m teaching well based on how well my students synthesise their knowledge and readily apply it in different contexts. Also by the quality of their questions they ask me and each other in class. They come prepared to debate. Also when they help each other and are not afraid to take risks. When they send me essays and ideas they might be thinking about. Essentially I know I’m teaching well because the relationship is positive and students can articulate what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and can also show they understand, by teaching their peers. (Secondary teacher, NSW)

Furthermore, teachers know that ‘assessment’ is not something that stands independent of them – that the very act of using evidence to inform practice involves judgement. Their role in knowing their students, knowing about learning, and assessing and supporting their students to increase their knowledge and understanding is crucial. Balanced and thoughtful assessment of student learning relies on knowledge of how to assess, and of what constitutes good evidence.

Good evidence is gathering a range of pieces of student work to use to arrive at a balanced assessment. I believe I am teaching well when the student data shows learning and good outcomes. (Primary teacher, SA)

Gathering good evidence of teaching and learning is an iterative process, that is it is a process of evaluating and adjusting that teachers constantly repeat and build on. It is part of the very fabric of teaching, and something that good teachers do every day in order to make decisions about what needs to happen next.

I use strategies like exit cards sometimes to find out about content knowledge and also to hear questions from students about what they still need to know/understand. I use questioning strategies in class and make judgements based on the answers or further questions of my students. (Secondary teacher, Vic)

I get immediate feedback each class from my students.  I know them well and can see when they are engaged and learning and when I’m having very little effect. (Secondary teacher, Qld)

Where does NAPLAN sit as ‘evidence’ for teachers?

Teachers are not afraid to reflect on and gather evidence of their practice, but too often, calls for ‘evidence-based practice’ in education ignore the evidence that really counts. Narrow definitions of evidence where it is linked to external testing are highly problematic. While external testing is part of the puzzle, it can be harmful to use that evidence for purposes beyond what it can really tell us – as one of us has argued before. And the teachers in our study well understood this. For them, NAPLAN data, for instance, was bottom of the list when it comes to evidence of their practice, as seen in the chart below.

This doesn’t mean they discount the potentially, perhaps partially, informative value in such testing (after all, about 72% think it’s at least a ‘somewhat’ valid and reliable form of evidence), but it does mean that, in their view, the best evidence is that which is tied to the day to day work that goes on in their classrooms.

Evidence rated from not useful to extremely useful by teachers in our survey

Teachers value a range of sources of evidence of their practice, placing particular emphasis on that which has a front row seat to their work, their own reflections and observations, and those of the students they teach. Perhaps this is because they need this constant stream of information to enable them to make the thousands of decisions they make about their practice in the course of a day – or an hour, or a minute. The ‘complex work of teaching’ does not need a formalised, ‘objective’ tool to help it along. Instead, we need to properly recognise the complexity of teaching, and the inherent, interwoven necessity of teacher judgement that makes it what it is.

What do teachers want?

Teachers were very clear about what they didn’t want.

Teachers are time poor. We are tired. It sounds good to do all this extra stuff but unless we are given more time it will just be another layer of pressure. (Secondary teacher, NSW)

Teachers believe in and want to rely on useful data but they don’t have the time to do it well. (Primary teacher, NSW)

It must be practical, helpful and not EXTRA. (Primary teacher, Vic)

They don’t want “extra stuff” to do.

They want relevant, high quality and localised professional learning. They want to better understand and work with a range of forms of useful data and research. They particularly find in-school teacher research with support useful, along with access to curated readings with classroom value. Social media also features as a useful tool for teachers.

Our research is ongoing. Our next task is to work further with teachers to develop and refine resources to support them in these endeavours.

We believe teachers should be heard more clearly in the conversations about evidence; policy makers and other decision-makers need to listen to teachers. The type of evidence that teachers want and can use should be basic to any plan around ‘evidence-based’ or ‘evidence-informed’ teaching in Australian schools.

Dr Nicole Mockler is Associate Professor of Education, at the Sydney School of  Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She is a former teacher and  school leader, and her research and writing primarily focuses on education policy and  politics and teacher professional identity and learning. Her recent scholarly books  include Questioning the Language of improvement and reform in education: Reclaiming  meaning (Routledge, 2018) and Engaging with student voice in research, education and  community: Beyond legitimation and guardianship (Springer 2015), both co-authored  with Susan Groundwater-Smith. Nicole is currently Editor in Chief of The Australian  Educational Researcher.Nicole is on Twitter @nicolemockler

Dr Meghan Stacey is a lecturer in the sociology of education and education policy in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales. Taking a particular interest in teachers, her research considers how teachers’ work is framed by policy, as well as the effects of such policy for those who work with, within and against it. Meghan completed her PhD with the University of Sydney in 2018. Meghan is on Twitter@meghanrstacey

It’s time to be honest with parents about NAPLAN: your child’s report is misleading, here’s how

You know there is something going wrong with Australia’s national testing program when the education minister of the largest state calls for it to be axed. The testing program, which started today across the nation, should be urgently dumped according to NSW Education Minister, Rob Stokes, because it is being “used dishonestly as a school rating system” and that it has “sprouted an industry that extorts money from desperate families”.

I think it should be dumped too, in its current form, but for an even more compelling reason than Stokes has aired. I believe we are not being honest with parents about how misleading the results can be.

The Federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, has rejected the NSW minister’s call, of course, arguing that “parents like NAPLAN”. Birmingham is probably right. Many parents see NAPLAN scores as one of the few clear indications they get of how their child’s performance at school compares to other children.

Parents receive a NAPLAN student report showing their child’s score as dots on a band, clearly positioned in relation to their school average and national average. It all looks very precise.

But how precise are the NAPLAN results? Should parents, or any of us, be so trusting of the results?

There is considerable fallout from the reporting of NAPLAN results, so I believe it is important to talk about what is going on. The comparisons we make, the decisions we make, and the assumptions we make about those NAPLAN results can all be based on very imprecise data.

How NAPLAN results can be widely inaccurate

While communication of results to parents suggests a very high level of precision, the technical report issued by ACARA each year suggests something quite different. Professor Margaret Wu, a world leading expert in educational measurement and statistics, has done excellent and sustained work over a number of years on what national testing data can (and can’t) tell us.

Her work says that because of the relatively small number of questions asked in each section of NAPLAN tests, that are then used to estimate a child’s performance for each (very large) assessment area, there is a lot of what statisticians call ‘measurement error’ involved. This means that while parents are provided with an indication of their child’s performance that looks very precise, the real story is quite different.

Here’s an example of how wrong the results can be

Figure A is based on performance on the 2016 Year 7 Grammar and Punctuation test: in this case, the student has achieved a score of 615, placing them in the middle of Band 8. We can see that on the basis of this, we might conclude that they are performing above their school average of about 590 and well above the national average of 540. Furthermore, the student is at the cut-off of the 60% shaded area, which means their performance appears to be just in the top 20% of students nationally.

Figure A

However, Figure B tells a different story. Here we have the same result, with the ‘error bars’ added (using the figures provided in the 2016 NAPLAN Technical Report, and a 90% Confidence Interval, consistent with the MySchool website). The solid error bars on Figure B indicate that while the student has received a score of 615 on this particular test, we can be 90% confident on the basis of this that their true ability in grammar and punctuation lies somewhere between 558 and 672, about two bands worth. If we were to use a 95% confidence interval, which is the standard in educational statistics, the span would be even wider, from 547 to 683 – this is shown by the dotted error bars.

In other words, the student’s ‘true ability’ might be very close to the national average, toward the bottom of Band 7, or quite close to the top of Band 9.

That’s a very wide ‘window’ indeed.

Figure B

Wu goes on to note that NAPLAN is also not very good at representing student ability at the class or school level because of what statisticians call ‘sampling error’, the error caused by variation in mean scores of students due to the characteristics of different cohorts. (Sampling error is affected by the number of students in a year group – the smaller the cohort size, the larger the sampling error. Wu points out that the margin of error on school means can easily be close to, or indeed larger than, one year of expected annual growth. So for schools with cohorts of 50 or less, a very significant change in mean performance from one year to another would be possible just on the basis of sampling error.)

The problem is school NAPLAN results are published on the MySchool website. Major decisions are made based on them and on the information parents get in their child’s individual report; parents can spend a lot of money (tutoring, changing school, choosing a school) based on them. As Minister Stokes said a big industry has developed around selling NAPLAN text books, programs and tutoring services. But the results we get are not precise. The precision argument just doesn’t hold. Don’t fall for it.

Any teacher worth their salt, especially one who hadn’t felt the pressure to engage in weeks of NAPLAN preparation with their students, would be far more precise than any dot on a band, in assessing their students’ ability. Teachers continually assess their students and continually collect substantial evidence as to how their students are performing.

Research also suggests that publishing the NAPLAN results on the MySchool website has played a driving role in Australian teachers and students experiencing NAPLAN as ‘high stakes’.

So is NAPLAN good for anything?

At the national level, however, the story is different. What NAPLAN is good for, and indeed what it was originally designed for, is to provide a national snapshot of student ability, and conducting comparisons between different groups (for example, students with a language background other than English and students from English-speaking backgrounds) on a national level.

This is important data to have. It tells us where support and resources are needed in particular. But we could collect the data we need by using a rigorous sampling method, where a smaller number of children are tested (a sample) rather than having every student in every school sit tests every two years. This a move that would be a lot more cost effective, both financially and in terms of other costs to our education system.

So, does NAPLAN need to be urgently dumped?

Our current use of NAPLAN data definitely does need to be urgently dumped. We need to start using NAPLAN results for, and only for, the purpose for which they are fit. I believe we need to get the individual school results off the MySchool website for starters. That would quite quickly cut out much of the hype and anxiety. I think it is time, at the very least, to be honest with parents about what NAPLAN does and doesn’t tell them about their children’s learning and about their schools.

In the process we might free up some of that precious classroom time for more productive things than test preparation.

*With thanks to A/Prof James Ladwig for his helpful comments on the draft of this post.


Dr Nicole Mockler is an Associate Professor in Education at the University of Sydney. She has a background in secondary school teaching and teacher professional learning. In the past she has held senior leadership roles in secondary schools, and after completing her PhD in Education at the University of Sydney in 2008, she joined the University of Newcastle in 2009, where she was a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education until early 2015. Nicole’s research interests are in education policy and politics, professional learning and curriculum and pedagogy, and she also continues to work with teachers and schools in these areas.

Nicole is currently the Editor in Chief of The Australian Educational Researcher, and a member of the International Advisory Board of the British Educational Research Journal and Educational Action Research. She was the Communications Co-ordinator for the Australian Association for Research in Education from 2011 until 2016, and until December 2016 was Associate Editor for both Critical Studies in Education and Teaching and Teacher Education.

(Note to readers from the Ed. We are having tech problems with our share counters at the moment across some search engines and devices. For those interested – as of 5:25pm 18/5/18 this post had been shared over 1000 times (1K+) on FB and 102 on Twitter.)

TeachING quality is not teachER quality. How we talk about ‘quality’ matters

The language we use to discuss the work of teachers in the public domain matters. It matters to our shared understanding of education as a society and it impacts on teachers’ work both directly and indirectly. My research at the moment focuses in part on the notion of quality in education, specifically how issues of teacher quality are represented in the mainstream print media. As part of this work I decided to look more closely at the use of the terms teacher quality and teaching quality in mainstream print media.

It might seem at first glance that these terms are interchangeable or that if there is a difference, it is negligible. However there is a difference, and I became intrigued at how they are used differently in the media and how that difference can impact readers.

For my study I collected every newspaper article that used either ‘teacher quality’ or ‘teaching quality’ in the 12 national and capital city daily newspapers over a four-year period, from January 2014 to December 2017. There were 432 articles in all, spread fairly evenly over each of the four years, comprising over a quarter of a million words.

I used a range of different techniques to analyse the language used across the group of articles. To start I explored the use of the terms themselves (teacher quality and teaching quality) in context: which teachers were the journalists referring to and what exactly were they saying about the quality of said teachers and/or their teaching?

Use of the terms

While all the articles mentioned either teacher quality or teaching quality, some of them used the terms more than once: there were 369 mentions of teacher quality and 179 mentions of teaching quality in the 432 articles. So teacher quality was used in these articles over twice as many times as teaching quality. All 548 mentions referenced either school teachers or teachers in higher or vocational education institutions (universities and colleges).

Significantly, of the 369 instances of the use of teacher quality in the texts, 360 (that’s 98%) referenced school teachers, while only 9 (the remaining 2%) referenced teachers in higher or vocational education contexts. Somewhat conversely, of the 179 instances of teaching quality in the texts, only 57 (32%) related to school teachers, while the majority of references (122, or 68%) related to teachers in the higher and vocational education sectors.

Different uses

When ‘teacher quality’ is mentioned, with very few exceptions, the talk is about schools. So if the media report or comment is about quality issues in schools the term teacher quality is much more likely to be used than teaching quality.

The opposite is true of university lecturers and teachers in vocational and technical colleges, where issues are generally rendered in terms of teaching quality.

The different use matters

 The overwhelming use of term teacher quality when referring to schools implies that if there is a problem with quality in schools it is a problem with the teachers themselves. In this case quality is linked directly to who is doing the teaching.

On the other hand, the use of teaching quality while referring to universities and further education contexts implies the quality has to do with how a teacher is teaching. So if there is a problem with quality it is not a problem with the teachers themselves but with the teaching methods or curriculum they are using.

This issue might seem subtle, almost theoretical, but it has some very practical implications. In the paper Professional learning, pedagogical improvement, and the circulation of power researchers from the University of Newcastle drew attention to the difference between understanding good teaching as practised (as implied in ‘teaching quality’) and embodied (as implied in ‘teacher quality’), arguing that “where good teaching is understood as being about practices rather than bodies, there is likely to be a stronger receptivity to the idea of change in pedagogy”.

The ongoing use of teacher quality in relation to school teachers reinforces the idea that there is something implicitly wrong with the teachers themselves, rather than with their practices. I know from my considerable work alongside practising teachers in schools the relief that often comes from shifting the conversation to recognise that teaching is practised rather than embodied. In other words, the conversation shifts from one about who teachers are, to what teachers do, and in the process all kinds of doors open to honest critique and the hard work of collaboratively improving classroom practice.

When quality is viewed as a problem, and it inevitably is by the media, politicians and education bureaucrats, it would a much easier problem to solve if it is a problem with pedagogy and curriculum rather than a problem with the actual people who are employed to do the teaching. But it was interesting to delve further into my slice of media and look at who, ultimately, is seen to be responsible for solving any perceived problem with teacher quality.

Who is seen to have solutions to teacher quality problems?

My analysis of these articles found discussion of teacher quality most often occurred in the context of a broader discussion about improvement of teacher quality. Sometimes the discussion directly referenced improvement, while at other times it focused on falling quality (with the associated need for this to be remedied). Almost exclusively, however, the proposed agent of improvement lay beyond both the school and the teaching profession. Governments, accrediting bodies, departments of education and in some cases, universities were seen to have the power and responsibility for improving teacher quality, generally through enforcing stricter controls on who comes into the profession and what they learn on their way into teaching. In only the rarest of cases are teachers themselves positioned as active players in the improvement of teacher quality.

The influence of government use of the terms

 Of course, newspapers aren’t entirely responsible for the prevailing focus on teacher rather than teaching quality. Teacher quality is well and truly out there in the public space. It was one of the four pillars of the current Federal Government’s Students First strategy, and was a darling of the Rudd-Gillard Governments during the Education Revolution. It is embedded in numerous current national and state and territory education policy documents. These things have a knock-on effect to the way the education is reported in the press, and to the way teachers’ work gets discussed within the community and sometimes even by teachers and other educators themselves.

But here’s the thing: when it comes to education, if we’re really interested in quality, we need to shift the conversation. We need to make it more about helping teachers to improve the quality of what goes on in their classrooms, and less about casting them as personally or professionally inadequate in the public space. We need to make it more about teachers’ practices and less about teachers as people. We need to make it more about real, collegial professional learning for improvement and less about trying to regulate our way to quality.


Nicole Mockler is an Associate Professor in Education at the University of Sydney. She has a background in secondary school teaching and teacher professional learning. In the past she has held senior leadership roles in secondary schools, and after completing her PhD in Education at the University of Sydney in 2008, she joined the University of Newcastle in 2009, where she was a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education until early 2015. Nicole’s research interests are in education policy and politics, professional learning and curriculum and pedagogy, and she also continues to work with teachers and schools in these areas.

Nicole is currently the Editor in Chief of The Australian Educational Researcher, and a member of the International Advisory Board of the British Educational Research Journal and Educational Action Research. She was the Communications Co-ordinator for the Australian Association for Research in Education from 2011 until 2016, and until December 2016 was Associate Editor for both Critical Studies in Education and Teaching and Teacher Education.

Susan Groundwater-Smith and Nicole write about other issues related to the language of improvement and reform in their forthcoming book Questioning the Language of Improvement and Reform in Education: Reclaiming Meaning.

How we talk about teachers is changing. Does it matter?

The way teachers are talked about in the public space is important. It affects teacher morale and how people might interact with them both professionally and socially. It even affects the way new teachers perceive their career pathway unfolding, or not. As an educator working in teacher education I am especially interested in the way early career teachers are talked about, as this immediately affects our students when they graduate.

Early career teachers seem to be a current obsession of both politicians and media commentators. To me the message in the public space was going something like this: if new teachers in Australia were brighter/of a higher ‘quality’/more suitable/better trained/more dedicated/harder working/perfectly-chosen-in-every-way our standards would improve. It was a hunch that this is a change of direction in how early career teachers were being talked about in the public space so I decided to embark on an analysis of policy and media texts to explore how early career teachers are talked about and what, if anything has changed.

What I did

I chose to compare documents from 1998/99 to those from 2014/15. With over 100 reviews of teaching and teacher education having been held on a state and national scale since the late 1970s, there were plenty of sources to choose from.

Specifically, I examined the Commonwealth Government’s response, provided in 1999, to the report from a 1998 Senate Inquiry into the status of the teaching profession known as A Class Act, and the 2015 Commonwealth Government’s response to the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) report, Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers.

I chose the 2015 response because it represented the most recent ‘policy settlement’ in relation to early career teachers at the time of the research. I chose the response to the 1998 report because it was the most recent general review that had been conducted on a federal level, focused at least in part on early career teachers. I also considered that the 15 or so years between the two responses, and the fact that the responses both came from Coalition governments, made them a good comparison.

I supplemented these with 228 newspaper articles from the twelve national and capital city daily newspapers published in 1998/99 and 2014/15 identified using the search terms ‘graduate teachers’ and ‘teaching graduates’.

In analysing the texts, I was interested in whether and how far early career teachers were represented by government and news media sources as a ‘problem’, and whether this had changed over time. Some of this research has recently been published in the Journal of Education Policy.

What I found

1998: A Class Act

In a nutshell, the problem with early career teachers in 1998 was that there were not enough of them. There was a lot of talk about a current or impending shortage of new teachers. This was linked to an identified problem with the status of the teaching profession. (Status was low therefore people, supposedly, did not want a teaching career.) The report argues teacher status could and should be improved by the introduction of things like a “code of high professional standards” for teachers.

A very interesting aspect of all this was that the Government saw the implementation and ongoing assessment of professional practice against such standards as “the responsibility of the profession itself”. Oh how times have changed!

Other ideas to attract and retain teachers back in 1998 were to give beginning teachers better support through induction programs and improved employment conditions (including a move away from short-term contracts to secure employment).

In terms of teacher education, it was understood that while some national consistency was desirable, it was very important to ensure the differing needs of different states and territories were able to be met. Indeed, these observations about the tension between national consistency and local requirements infuse the whole Government response to A Class Act.

Early career teachers were understood to be novices, rather than ‘fully formed’, working toward becoming expert practitioners in this first part of their careers:

It is generally acknowledged by all those involved – university educators, practising teachers, education departments and beginning teachers themselves – that no pre-service training can fully prepare new teachers to perform at their full capacity from their first day at work. This is not a reflection on the quality of new teachers nor on the standard of pre-service training. It is a recognition of the complexity of teaching and of the large number of variables…affecting a teacher’s performance. (Commonwealth of Australia 1998, 204)

2015: Classroom Ready Teachers

Jump forward to 2015 and early career teachers are a problem on a number of fronts. They are said to be lacking in basic literacy and numeracy skills, lacking in the ‘right’ motivations for entering the profession, lacking the skills they need to make a positive impact on student learning and, of course, lacking in ‘classroom readiness’.

Absent from the 2015 response is the recognition that good teaching practice is something that begins development during initial teacher education and continues well into and beyond the early years of teaching. While the response does argue for “a nationally consistent approach to the induction and support of beginning teachers to make sure they reach their full potential once they enter the profession”, it also provides a strong vision of beginning teachers who can claim an impact on student learning and be ‘classroom ready’ from the outset.

Solutions proffered to the ‘problem’ of early career teachers in 2015 were many and varied. Alternative entry pathways for teacher education courses to catch those ‘unsuitable’ would-be teachers, is one. Others include the introduction of literacy and numeracy testing for initial teacher education students (designed to catch those with poor skills prior to graduation) and a ‘tightening up’ of requirements and processes for registration of initial teacher education courses.

Significantly, the delegation of greater powers to the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) is seen as a key mechanism for remedying the problems of early career teachers.

What has changed?

So there’s been a shift in how early career teachers are talked about in the public space. They have gone from having a problem (not enough of them, lacking in status, not getting enough help) to being the problem.

As I see it, there is political expediency in laying blame for ‘falling standards’ or ‘stagnating standards’ (or anything else that might be going wrong in schooling) onto new teachers. They’re an easy target. Also the focus on early career teachers has easily segued into further action to federalise control of teacher spaces.

I believe the way we talk about teachers in the public space does matter and how it plays (deliberately or not) into power shifts is important. Early career doctors are not blamed for all that is wrong with our health system, new politicians are not blamed for stagnation in government policy, new lawyers aren’t blamed for expensive out-dated practices in law.

Early career teachers are embarking on a career that can help change the world. They deserve as much support as we can give them, not an unfounded suspicion of their motives and skills, especially at a time when teacher retention and attrition are ongoing concerns.


Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Sydney. She has a background in secondary school teaching and teacher professional learning. In the past she has held senior leadership roles in secondary schools, and after completing her PhD in Education at the University of Sydney in 2008, she joined the University of Newcastle in 2009, where she was a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education until early 2015. Nicole’s research interests are in education policy and politics, professional learning and curriculum and pedagogy, and she also continues to work with teachers and schools in these areas.

Roll back curriculum constraints and give teachers the freedom to make professional judgements

The role of the teacher in an Australian classroom is changing, and not in a good way. As I see it, the relentless pressure for schools to perform well in NAPLAN, the demands of various mandated curriculum and the ubiquitous concerns about ‘quality teaching’ are making teachers lose confidence in their own professional abilities. There is little space left for them to make their own decisions and act on their own ideas and knowledge as educators.

I believe it is time in Australia to start reclaiming the notion of teacher as curriculum worker, that is someone who can translate and transform their professional knowledge into appropriate conditions for learning for their particular students in their particular schools. There needs to be a pushback to the current constraints.

We know from myriad research (just look at Finland) that teachers flourish and children learn when teachers are given such freedoms.

I am not saying we should embark on a mission to get rid of MySchool or NAPLAN, or try to dismantle the national curriculum, that would probably not be a fruitful mission for our energy. There are, however, I believe, some ways in which we, as an education community, each with our different roles, might walk this tension between the enabling and constraining factors to help teachers make this space for themselves.

How the problem grew

In their 2007 book Schooling by Design, Wiggins and McTighe expressed their frustration with what they saw as an uncomfortable relationship between teachers and curriculum:

Over the years, we have observed countless examples of teachers who, though industrious and well meaning, act in ways that suggest that they misunderstand their jobs. It may seem odd or even outrageous to say that many teachers misconceive their obligations. But we believe this is the case. Nor do we think this is surprising or an aspersion on the character or insight of teachers. We believe that teachers, in good faith, act on an inaccurate understanding of the role of “teacher” because they imitate what they experienced, and their supervisors rarely make clear that the job is to cause understanding, not merely to march through the curriculum and hope that some content will stick. (2007, p. 128)

This observation probably made them seriously unpopular with teachers, but I think the issue is at least as much a systemic one as it is an individual one. To be honest, I think we’ve been deprofessionalised in terms of our capacity as a profession to undertake curriculum work over the past 20 years.

As the amount of curriculum content has gone up, we’ve been encouraged to see the tick box list of dot points (as we like to call them in NSW) as the curriculum itself for the purposes of accountability, and like the frog in the pot of gradually boiling water, we perhaps haven’t noticed how stark the difference really is. Personally, I don’t think that initial teacher education programs have, as a rule, been good at supporting the development of ‘curriculum worker’ as a principal dimension of beginning teacher identity either, preoccupied largely with the ‘what’ and less than we should be with the ‘how’.

The original Shape of the Australian Curriculum paper, published in 2009, had the following to say about teachers as curriculum workers:

The curriculum should allow jurisdictions, systems and schools to implement it in a way that values teachers’ professional knowledge and that reflects the needs and interests evident in local contexts, as it will be teachers who decide how best to organise learning for students. Organisation of learning should take account of individual family, cultural and community backgrounds; acknowledge and build on prior learning experiences; and fill gaps in those experiences. (ACARA, 2009, p. 8)

The national curriculum will describe a learning entitlement for each Australian student, clearly explaining what is to be taught and learned in each area. Implementing the national curriculum, as in the case of state and territory curriculums, will rely on teachers’ professional judgments about how best to organise learning for students, how to reflect local and regional circumstances, and how best to take advantage of their own specialised professional knowledge and their students’ interests. (ACARA, 2009, p. 11)

By the 2012 version of the paper, these passages had morphed into:

Jurisdictions, systems and schools will be able to implement the Australian Curriculum in ways that value teachers’ professional knowledge, reflect local contexts and take into account individual students’ family, cultural and community backgrounds. Schools and teachers determine pedagogical and other delivery considerations. 
(ACARA, 2012, p. 11)

The Australian Curriculum makes clear to teachers what is to be taught. It also makes clear to students what they should learn and the quality of learning expected of them. Schools are able to decide how best to deliver the curriculum, drawing on integrated approaches where appropriate and using pedagogical approaches that account for students’ needs, interests and the school and community context. (ACARA, 2012, p. 25)

The differences are subtle but the shift from teachers deciding how best to organise learning for students to schools being able to decide how best to deliver the curriculum is not just a semantic one.

Teachers as curriculum workers

 The role I am thinking of is where teachers understand curriculum work as a complex process involving prioritisation, translation, and transformation of knowledge into appropriate conditions for learning. It is about understanding curriculum work as a deeply creative and productive process that relies on confidence with and command of content; deep pedagogical expertise; and a good understanding of the learners in question. It is understanding teaching as scholarly work, as intellectual work, as knowledge work.

As I see it, it is around embracing and consciously growing teacher professional judgement as a matter of professional development priority. Teacher professional judgement has been regarded with increasing suspicion over the past 20 years, but so much of teachers’ curriculum work, not to mention other work, relies on finely honed professional judgement. We’ve come to think of it as unreliable and ‘subjective’, when in actual fact we should be fighting this take on it and working collaboratively to sharpen it.

We might do this by sustaining real conversations about curricular and pedagogical practice, pushing each other to draw evidence from a broad range of sources and use it in both employing our judgement and opening that judgement up to the scrutiny of others. I know of no teacher in touch with their students and their learning who can’t tell you vastly more about those students’ performance than a supposedly objective test score.

I won’t pretend that professional judgement is the ‘silver bullet’ that professional standards were posed to be in the early 2000s, but so much of engaging in critical curriculum work relies on confident and well developed professional judgement that I believe we must focus on this as a matter of priority, lest it disappear entirely down the rabbit hole in our fixation on ‘objective data’.

We’re hearing a lot of late about the possibilities for curriculum integration in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Without teachers being supported to embrace their identity as curriculum workers more overtly, more stridently and more expansively, visions of integration, whether oriented toward STEM, STEAM (STEM + Arts), or anything else, are, to my mind, unlikely to come about.

Dr Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Sydney. She has a background in secondary school teaching and teacher professional learning. In the past she has held senior leadership roles in secondary schools, and after completing her PhD in Education at the University of Sydney in 2008, she joined the University of Newcastle in 2009, where she was a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education until early 2015. Nicole’s research interests are in education policy and politics, professional learning and curriculum and pedagogy, and she also continues to work with teachers and schools in these areas.

What’s a Good Education System Worth?

The Turnbull Government’s education election manifesto, Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes claims (several times over) that when it comes to the funding of schooling, it matters less how much is spent and more how the resources are spent.

This is a convenient argument for a government chasing a budget surplus, and the Turnbull Government makes no secret of its plans for future funding arrangements, “the funding must be affordable, based on a realistic appraisal of the current budget situation”.

Budgets are all about political priorities
A first point to be made here is that budgets are about priorities, and economic decisions are just that, decisions by politicians running their political agenda, rather than ‘givens’.  When it comes to education, surely our first concern should be about the long term health of our society rather than a quick, politically narrow focus on the immediate health of our economy.

Where’s the evidence that how funding is spent is more important than how much?Secondly, where did the claim come from that ‘how’ is more important than ‘how much’ in relation to spending on education? The primary evidence presented for this argument in Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes comes from an OECD report published in 2012, entitled Does money buy strong performance in PISA?.

The first thing important to note is the OECD is reporting on performance on international standardised testing, not on the general health and performance of a national system of schooling.

Unfortunately, in Australia we tend to have bipartisan support for the conflation of these two things. The last Labor Government gave us the Australian Education Act (2013), in which “top 5 by 2025” is enshrined. But just because we haven’t had a national conversation about how far performance on international standardised testing counts as a proxy for the quality of our education system doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. And in fact, we absolutely should.

Nevertheless, let’s for a moment accept the premise that the two are interrelated. What exactly does the OECD say about the relative importance of how much is spent on education funding and how the funding is spent? Drawing on the 2009 PISA results, the OECD report indicates that the amount that high-income countries (defined as those countries with a per capita GDP of above $20,000USD) spend on education is not related to performance on PISA.

For example, countries that spend more than USD 100 000 per student from the age of 6 to 15, such as Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland and the United States, show similar levels of performance as countries that spend less than half that amount per student, such as Estonia, Hungary and Poland. Meanwhile, New Zealand, a top performer in PISA, spends a lower-than-average amount per student from the age of 6 to 15. (p.2)

So what does make a difference, in the eyes of the OECD? We might come away from a reading of Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes thinking that the OECD is silent on this, but in fact the report goes on to point to the higher salaries and status of teachers in high-performing systems on PISA.

Higher teacher salaries and higher status of teacher makes the difference
This is what the OECD has to say about what has ‘greater impact’:

A school system’s attitudes towards teachers and students have a greater impact on student performance. The strongest performers among high-income countries and economies tend to invest more in teachers…In general, the countries that perform well in PISA attract the best students into the teaching profession by offering them higher salaries and greater professional status. (p.3)

So while we see the dictum that it matters less how much is spent and more how the resources are spent oft-repeated, what kind of attitudes toward, and how much real investment in, teachers can we see mooted in in Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes?

Is investment in quality teaching or yet another low cost political fix?

There’s a proud emphasis on Quality Teaching, specifically through the implementation of recommendations from the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers.  As it notes, the recommendations are grouped into five themes: stronger quality assurance of teacher education courses; rigorous selection for entry to teacher education; improved and structured practical experience for teaching students; robust assessment of graduates to ensure classroom readiness; and improved national research and workforce planning.

Further reforms around standards and accountability are also part of the strategy, despite both research and anecdotal evidence suggesting that these reforms may cost the teaching profession, and the quest for “quality teaching” more than they reap.

It’s no secret that members of the current government declared initial teacher education rather than funding “the problem” even before they were in government. On the 23rd of February 2013, seven months prior to the election, the then Shadow Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, told ABC Radio National:

… the first thing we would do is address issues of teacher quality in our universities.  The first thing we could do is to make sure that the training of our teachers at university is of world standard. … We would immediately instigate a very short term Ministerial advisory group to advise me on the best model for teaching in the world.  How to bring out more practical teaching methods, based on more didactic teaching methods or more traditional methods rather than the child centred learning that has dominated the system for the last 20, 30 or 40 years, so teaching quality would be at my highest priority, followed by a robust curriculum, principal autonomy and more traditional pedagogy.  So I want to make the education debate, move it on from this almost asinine debate about more money and make it about values because while money is important Fran, what we are teaching our children and how we are teaching them and who is teaching them is all much more important. (Kelly, 2013, February 23)

The TEMAG report, however, did not suggest an end to child centred learning or a focus on “traditional” pedagogy. While it’s hard to argue against “quality assurance” or “rigorous selection”, it could be argued that once again in Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes, we see an attendance to the ‘low hanging fruit’ of keeping ‘undesirables’ out of the teaching profession and tidying up the edges of initial teacher education, both of which come at a relatively low cost of any kind to the Government. They do, however, come with the bonus of having tangible outcomes within the confines of an election cycle.

Teacher education is the cheaper, easier political target
Higher salaries and greater professional status for teachers, those things that the OECD claims are associated with higher performance, are far more difficult to attain. Furthermore, we won’t get there by creating a smokescreen wherein initial teacher education is constituted as the primary problem that we can assiduously ‘solve’. Nor will we get there by crafting an argument that says that “effective teachers” will only be produced through new, rigorous selection processes for teaching candidates, an argument at whose very core lies a deep disrespect for the teaching profession.

Performance pay for teachers is an old, failed idea
We also won’t get there via the Government’s mooted plan for performance-based pay for teachers. On this, Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes claims that:

Research has shown that teacher effectiveness can be increased by recognising high performing teachers and rewarding them with increased pay by linking their performance to higher bands of pay in industrial agreements. (p.10)

The evidence provided for this claim is a report published by the Grattan Institute in 2010, which in fact does not mention performance pay for teachers at all.  Research has actually shown repeatedly that there is no link between performance pay and improved student learning, with the OECD itself arguing that “a look at the overall picture reveals no relationship between average student performance in a country and the use of performance-based pay schemes…but the picture changes when taking into account how well teachers are paid overall in comparison with national income”.

What does matter
If the Government wants to take the advice of the OECD on how the amount of funding for education doesn’t really matter, then it needs to also pay attention to the other half of the equation, which is about what does.

Higher salaries for teachers and greater professional status would be a good start (although only a start), but higher salaries won’t come without prioritising social factors over economic ones; and greater professional status won’t come via undermining teacher professionalism while repeating the mantra of “Quality Teaching”.

The bottom line is there is no easy or cheap fix that can be conjured up via teacher education or by imposing any other simple, politically focussed “education reform”.

Perhaps real progress will come only when governments of all persuasions recognise that, to borrow the words of Ryan Fuller, who has worked as both a rocket scientist and a teacher, “teaching isn’t rocket science – it’s harder”.

MocklerDr Nicole Mockler is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Sydney. She has a background in secondary school teaching and teacher professional learning. In the past she has held senior leadership roles in secondary schools, and after completing her PhD in Education at the University of Sydney in 2008, she joined the University of Newcastle in 2009, where she was a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education until early 2015. Nicole’s research interests are in education policy and politics, professional learning and curriculum and pedagogy, and she also continues to work with teachers and schools in these areas.

Three issues I have with the minister’s Gayby Baby intervention

Many thousands of words have been written about Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, intervening to stop Burwood Girls High School screening the documentary film Gayby Baby in school time. As an educator and educational researcher, three important issues were raised for me. But first a quick recap of the episode.

What happened

The NSW Education Minister intervened to stop a public high school screening the documentary film Gayby Baby, as part of their Wear it Purple Day celebrations. This was a result of a front page story in the Daily Telegraph which claimed parents at the school were outraged. It later transpired neither the school nor the Department of Education had received complaints from parents. However, by then the Minister had sent a memo to all NSW public school principals ordering them not to show the film, “so as not to impact on the delivery of planned lessons”.

It’s worthy to note it has since been claimed the school received four emails “expressing concern” about the documentary. If this is true and the emails might be construed as “complaints” it would represent approximately 0.3% of the student population. Neither the Department of Education nor the school have commented on this to date.

On the same day the article was published the Minister told 2GB radio “…during school hours we expect them to be doing maths and English and curriculum matters. This movie is not part of the curriculum and that’s why I’ve made that direction”. He noted in the same interview that he had not actually seen the film in question.

Three big issues

Appropriateness/politics of the films content

Much opinion has been given as to the inappropriateness of showing the film to secondary students because same sex couples are involved, that showing it is an attempt to subvert young people and to politicise the curriculum.

I have not seen one article condemning it by someone who has actually seen it.

As for politicising the curriculum, anyone who thinks small-p politics can be kept out of contemporary schooling does not understand what school is about. As curriculum theorist James MacDonald wrote 40 years ago:

“…all curriculum design is political in nature; that is, it is an attempt to facilitate someone else’s idea of the good life. By creating social processes and structuring the environment for learning, curriculum design is thus a form of ‘utopianism’, a form of political and social philosophising and theorising.”

What constitutes a waste of school time?

The second issue is around what we expect children and young people to be doing “in school hours”. If the concern is precious school time was to be spent on an activity not directly related to the curriculum (although I could provide a substantial list of places across the 7-12 curriculum where a film such as this could be directly relevant) what does this mean for the way schools operate?

Sports and swimming carnivals, school concert rehearsals, Harmony Day, all take time away from ‘normal’ class and redirect it elsewhere: to the building of community, and the celebration of diverse strengths within the community. In most secondary schools around the state over the next two weeks, classes will be suspended as students bid a fond farewell to Year 12. This too will be time lost from maths and English. School photo days, visits by local and not so local politicians and, dare I say it, scripture classes, all take ‘time away’ from “maths and English and curriculum matters”, if we define the curriculum in purely narrow terms.

We hardly, however, raise an eyebrow at any of these. The general acceptance of these activities, and more, suggests as a society we expect more will happen in our schools than such a narrow rendering of curriculum would suggest.

The impact on public school principals

The third issue is around the work and role of the principal. If teaching, done well, is an impossible task, then being a principal must rate even higher than teaching on the impossibility scale.

We experience notorious difficulty in attracting good people to principalship: anecdotally, I could name 10 outstanding educators of my generation who would have made excellent principals but made the decision years ago that the job was impossibly demanding and often thankless. One of the contributing factors to this is seen to be the difficulty of needing to “please all of the people all of the time”: walking the tension between doing what’s right for the school community and conforming to the many requirements put in place by systems and governments.

While it’s easy to whip up outrage in the public space, it’s also important to note that the school in question has a long history with ‘Wear it Purple’: the student-run organization established to combat homophobia in schools was in fact co-founded by an ex-student of the school, and the school has participated in the event each year since its inception. The film, which has received national acclaim, was directed by an ex-student of the school.

Again, it’s salient to note that according to the school and the Department of Education, no complaints about the screening of the film were received from parents at the school. If the recent reports are correct and 0.3% of parents emailed the school about it, then that still says there was overwhelmingly widespread support for the initiative within the school community.

While a local Presbyterian minister reported “heaps” of complaints having been made to him, he was unable to substantiate or even quantify his own claim.

So it appears that we might take from this case that decisions made by school principals, taking into account the nuances of their school communities, about such things as the allocation of time and the opportunities offered to students, may now be subject to unilateral decisions spurred on by anonymous complaints made to media outlets.

I’m a fairly astute observer of the relationship between education policy and the mainstream media, but even for the casual observer it’s not hard to see the difficulty in this. The erosion of principal autonomy and lack of trust implicit in this approach isn’t likely to make principalship more attractive to outstanding educators: quite the opposite.

Finally, in this era of Local Schools, Local Decisions, are we left to assume that the power to make local decisions on the part of principals is now limited to what the tabloid newspapers find acceptable? Because that’s an expression of ‘school autonomy’ I think we could all do without.



Dr Nicole Mockler is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Sydney. She has a background in secondary school teaching and teacher professional learning. In the past she has held senior leadership roles in secondary schools, and after completing her PhD in Education at the University of Sydney in 2008, she joined the University of Newcastle in 2009, where she was a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education until early 2015. Nicole’s research interests are in education policy and politics, professional learning and curriculum and pedagogy, and she also continues to work with teachers and schools in these areas.


More measuring, few solutions for teacher education under recommendations to Abbott Govt

The long-awaited report of the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) was released last week, with the catchy title Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers.

Action is very much a theme of the report, which gives us five ‘key directions’, six ‘key proposals’ and 38 recommendations. Most of them focus on the creation of new accountability measures or the ‘strengthening’ of old ones. Basically it is saying teacher education courses have to show they are producing ‘quality’, ‘classroom ready’ teachers.

Nothing wrong with that you would say, but I am bemused in the least. Surely if accountability and compliance were the answer to intractable educational problems, we would not still be talking about what makes a ‘quality teacher’ – or having governments tell us how to produce them. We have been awash with suggestions and answers to the question of what makes a good teacher for decades. And yes every institution that offers teacher education courses has been paying attention.

The report predictably calls for increased rigour in processes of accreditation of teacher education programs. I am one of many involved in teacher education who are not particularly impressed. Tales abound within the sector of universities transporting truckloads (literally, truckloads) of paper to accrediting agencies for the current round of accreditation of initial teacher education programs in the name of rigour. The mind boggles to think what this new, enhanced version of rigour might look like as stacks of paper.

Provisional approval will be given, under new regulations, to initial teacher education programs upon application, with full accreditation given when institutions have provided evidence of producing high-quality beginning teachers, supported by ‘data’.

What data? Who will collect and track the data? Neither is clearly articulated in the report. All we know is it will involve the development of a ‘national assessment framework’ to provide ‘robust assurance of classroom readiness’. This points to yet another framework for compliance that universities and schools will have to deal with.

Institutions that are unable to produce ‘robust assurance’ will be provided with ‘stronger accreditation requirements’, which ‘will not preclude innovation in program design and delivery, but will require evidence and research to support innovative approaches to the delivery of initial teacher education’.

I see this as one of the most interesting aspects of the report, for in it we find a kernel of something bigger.

If institutions use predominantly out of date or ‘traditional’ approaches to initial teacher education, will they also be required to provide evidence and research to support the employment of their (maybe outmoded) practices? Or perhaps it seems impossible to TEMAG that those institutions who stick to the ‘traditional’ would ever find themselves in such a position. It reads to me as though innovation is to be regarded with suspicion.

‘Sophisticated and transparent selection for entry to teaching’ is another interesting proposal. It’s hard to argue against ‘transparency’, but at the same time it’s hard to identify a teacher education program (or, for that matter, a dentistry program, a fine arts program, a physiotherapy program) where the selection process is not made clear to potential applicants (or anyone who wants to read the entry requirements) at the outset.

While some teacher education programs, as noted in the report, do incorporate selection methods other than the blunt instrument of ATAR, these are generally small boutique programs where economies of scale are not an issue. The challenge of applying ‘sophisticated’ processes that incorporate ‘desirable personal attributes’ for selection of students into the 28,000 commencing places in initial teacher education programs nationally is considerable.

My prediction is that an online test will appear on the scene soon as the answer to this one. I predict heated debates around whether such a solution responds to the call for ‘sophisticated entry selection’.

What I do like about the report (yes I like some of it) are ideas around portfolios for pre-service teachers, and stronger partnerships between universities, school systems and schools. These suggestions seem sensible to me. However I will point out the vast majority of universities already see these things as priorities, have for some time, and most have acted on them.

The question remains for me: will anything around teacher selection and education be improved or enhanced by the addition of more layers of standardisation and compliance, mostly in the name of ‘consistency’?

There’s an old farming saying that goes ‘you don’t make a pig fatter by weighing it’. What we find in the TEMAG report are many recommendations for weighing the pig and very few for fattening it up.





Dr Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle and Convenor of the University’s (unashamedly innovative) Master of Teaching Primary and Secondary Programs.

Donnelly’s review set to limit future for young Australians

The final report of the Australian Curriculum Review conducted by Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire has recently been handed to Minister Pyne, according to leaks reported in the media.  Apparently “vague” and “broad” “postmodern themes” will be swept aside in favour of a greater focus on basic literacy and numeracy.

Basic literacy and numeracy are important of course.  They underpin the curriculum.  The argument goes that if our young people don’t have basic literacy and numeracy skills, it’s hardly worth trying to teach them more sophisticated skills.  But for a country such as Australia to treat basic literacy and numeracy as an end point rather than as the starting point they should be, is to promote a very impoverished vision of education.

To go further and relegate creativity, ethical understanding and intercultural awareness to the category of “broad postmodern themes” dismisses the foundations we need to succeed as a nation. Let’s break it down.

Creativity is the basis of innovation.  If we’re intent on even half-heartedly delivering on our claim to be the ‘clever country’, we won’t get there on basic literacy and numeracy alone.  Far from being a vague postmodern theme, creative thinking is essential for the creation of knowledge across every field of human endeavour, from science to history to mathematics to the arts.

Ethical understanding is, as a friend and colleague reminded me on social media recently, hardly an invention of the postmodern age.  To suggest that ethics is somehow marginal while at the same time advocating a return to the values of the past is hypocritical.

And then there’s intercultural awareness.  It’s hard to imagine an educated, tuned in Australian who wouldn’t recognise the growing importance of intercultural understanding, defined within the Australian Curriculum as learning to “value their own cultures, languages and beliefs and those of others”, in the 21st century.

One need look no further than a recent front page headline in The Australian declaring that “We’ll fight Islam 100 years” to see how desperately wrong we can get it and why we need more, not less, intercultural awareness if our communities, from local to global, are to flourish in the 21st century.

Of course, until the report is made public, all we have is the mainstream media’s particular take on what it contains. We may find that the report has been grossly misrepresented.  It’s worth noting, however, that Donnelly has in the past decried many things he disagrees with as “postmodern”, and so such a finding within the review would not seem out of place.

Donnelly has tarred formative assessment, outcomes based education, contemporary expressions of civics and citizenship education and of course critical literacy with the ‘postmodern’ brush in his writings over the years.

It seems like common sense to say that our kids need basic literacy and numeracy.  But the fact is, our kids need much more than that if they’re to build successful lives in the messy, complex, sometimes bewildering world of the 21st century.  We should wish for them much, much more than basic literacy and numeracy skills.



Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests include teacher professional learning and identity and the politics of education, and she teaches in the areas of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice and research methods. Her published work includes Student Voice: Beyond Legitimation and Guardianship (Springer, Forthcoming) and the Australian Curriculum: Classroom Approaches series (Palgrave, 2013).  She is a member of the Executive of the Australian Association for Research in Education, an Associate Editor of Critical Studies in Education, and a General Editor of the book series Local/Global Issues in Education.


Read the mainstream media leaks on the report HERE

Manufactured panic around teacher quality obscures the bigger issue

Politicians of all persuasions use the language of panic and crisis to whip up fear about the ‘quality’ of teachers, and their teaching.

The consequence of this deliberate attempt to shape public opinion, is that ‘quality’ has effectively become a smoke screen, obscuring the real and serious educational equity problems we have in Australia.

Equity is the equal opportunity for all children to get a decent education in schools that are adequately funded and resourced.

Some of my recent research has looked at how the language of panic and crisis are playing a role in public discussions about schooling in Australia.

In 2011, Australian writer David Marr wrote Panic, a collection of essays in which he examined the use of moral panic by Australian politicians in the shaping of public discourse in relation to different areas of social life.  On the dynamic of panic within Australian society, he wrote:

I’ve come to believe the fundamental contest in Australian politics is not so much between Right and Left as panic and calm…This is an issue that goes deeper than division between the parties.  It’s about the odd willingness of Australia’s leaders to beat up on the nation’s fears.  They coarsen politics. They narrow our sympathies. They make careers for themselves in this peaceful and good-hearted country in states of exaggerated alarm…

Education is fertile ground for panic, as it provides a mass point of reference for the electorate: most voters attended school themselves and a large proportion of the population at any given time has children at school.

As Marr suggests, the key consequence of moral panic is fear.  Along with panics regarding ‘law and order’ (pink jumpsuits for bikies, anyone?) or the ‘takeover’ by immigrants and asylum seekers, educational panic seeks to undermine social trust while at the same time offering a simple solution to a complex problem.  In this case the solution is “improving teacher quality.”

I recently analysed 42 Prime Ministerial and Ministerial speeches, media releases and interviews, along with related print media articles, produced over a period of one week in September 2012.  The week in question began with the announcement, in an address given by the then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the National Press Club, of the ‘National Plan for School Improvement’ (NPSI).  The NPSI was the long-awaited Government response to the Independent Review of School Funding conducted by a panel chaired by David Gonski AC (otherwise known as the ‘Gonski review’).

The Government’s response at the time was surprising.  While the Gonski review had been set up to make recommendations about achieving greater equity, the response that came out the other end was largely about quality.  Largely absent from the ‘solution’ was any sense that the ‘problem’ was one of fairness and equity.  The NPSI looked more like a response to a review of teacher quality itself.

The claim that “nothing matters more to the quality of a child’s education than the quality of the teacher standing in front of the class room” is dominant in these texts.  This notion is deeply troubling because it discounts students’ background and simplifies the education discussion to the point where success or failure hinges on the quality of the teacher ‘in front of’ the class.

Kevin Donnelly, long-term opponent of “progressive fads” in education, like current Education Minister Christopher Pyne, extended the argument to suggest that the key problem here lies in “teacher training institutes”:

Attempting to lift teacher quality, by mentoring beginning teachers and ensuring trainee teachers have more practical experience, will come to naught unless teacher training institutes are forced to base what they teach on evidence-based research about effective pedagogy and less on postmodern, new-age, politically correct theory.

Accepted is the claim is that teachers are not effective enough, not literate and numerate enough, not skilled enough, seduced by dubious ‘fads’ and entranced by political correctness.

As Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, argued in a recent address on this issue in the US:

We need to stop chasing silver bullets and shibboleths if we are going to create genuine educational opportunities for all.  And finally, if American education is to improve we will need to support rather than blame our teachers.

The issue raised by Darling-Hammond of support rather than blame for teachers, is a salient one here in Australia. No matter how far we see that our educational problems as a society are complex consequences of a lack of equity, teacher quality is repeatedly named as the problem that needs to be fixed.

Australian politics has been particularly volatile in the months since the completion of my study.  First we saw the exit of Gillard and Garrett, the key champions of the NPSI, and subsequently the defeat of the Rudd-Gillard Government by the Abbott Liberal Government.

However the points I make about the role of panic and crisis in manipulation by politicians are perhaps even more salient now.

Current Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne tells us our education performance is falling according to OECD measures (as did Julia Gillard) but he said,

It is not money or smaller classrooms that make a difference because we have increased spending by 44 per cent in the past decade and reduced classroom numbers by 40 per cent. It is the quality of our teacher education training and the way we teach that has impact on student performance.

He also said at the same time,

Teacher education quality has been put in the too-hard basket for too long. A quality education system must be underpinned by quality teachers. The profession knows it, parents want it, our students deserve it and the nation needs it.

In other words, it’s all about teacher quality.  No equity issues to look at here, folks. (Read the full text of his piece HERE.)

All of this is not to argue against accountability.  Teachers must be accountable for their practice – to their students, their colleagues and their school communities.  But the kind of accountability embedded in critiques and crises of quality not only undermines trust in the profession but is also unlikely to bring about actual improvements in quality, despite ‘ticking all the boxes’.  The sad truth is that the vision of ‘teacher quality’ embedded in this version of accountability is an impoverished one.

Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the goal of attracting the ‘best and brightest’ into the teaching profession will be met under the current conditions and trajectory of accountability. What is required is perhaps a more intelligent form of accountability, described thus by Onora O’Neill, a teacher, philosopher and crossbench member of the House of Lords, in her BBC Reith Lectures in 2002:

Perhaps the present revolution in accountability will make us all trustworthier. Perhaps we shall be trusted once again. But I think that this is a vain hope – not because accountability is undesirable or unnecessary, but because currently fashionable methods of accountability damage rather than repair trust. If we want greater accountability without damaging professional performance we need intelligent accountability…Intelligent accountability, I suspect, requires more attention to good governance and fewer fantasies about total control.

For those of us within the teaching profession, there are specific implications and imperatives from this manufactured ‘crisis’.  We need to understand more deeply the political context of our work and the political processes that capture education.

We need to play a part in public debate and discussions of education, to address misconceptions and misunderstandings, to reject the premise of politically expedient yet educationally empty strategies and to suggest good alternatives.  We all – teachers, teacher educators, educational researchers – have a part to play in this.

Anything less is likely to contribute to, rather than address, a very real crisis of educational quality.


Mockler2Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests include teacher professional learning and identity and the politics of education, and she teaches in the areas of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice and research methods. Her published work includes Student Voice: Beyond Legitimation and Guardianship (Springer, Forthcoming) and the Australian Curriculum: Classroom Approaches series (Palgrave, 2013).  She is a member of the Executive of the Australian Association for Research in Education, an Associate Editor of Critical Studies in Education, and a General Editor of the book series Local/Global Issues in Education.