Governance by numbers and the reorientation of teachers’ work

Year: 2016

Author: Spina, Nerida

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The emergence of governance by numbers is recognized as a ubiquitous educational phenomenon. Large-scale assessment data are regularly used as part of accountability regimes that claim to ensure teachers’ work is focused on both excellence and equity.Yet perverse and unintended consequences such as “teaching to the test” continue to be documented in the media and the academic literature. Policy makers in Australia have attempted to address unintended consequence of “teaching to the test” by making policy changes such as not informing teachers of the generic structure being tested in the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) writing task and mandating a Code of Conduct that requires teachers to avoid “excessive test preparation” that might lead to “unfair advantage”. Despite these attempts to close down purportedly unfair practices, a large number of policy texts exist at various levels – from the federal government, to state governments, education departments and locally within schools – that are focused around achieving improvements on standardized tests. This paper takes an institutional ethnographic approach that aims to explicate how teachers’ work has come to be as it is. By mapping various policy ensembles that are oriented towards numeric data improvement, it becomes evident that a myriad of textual demands focused around “data improvement” cascade into teachers’ work. In this presentation, I draw on the experiences of teachers and school principals working in six Australian schools to trace how series of policies and texts flow from governments, the media and policy makers into schools. At the local level, school principals often responded to regional and departmental demands to meet benchmarks and “improve their data” on NAPLAN by instituting school based policies that had a significant effect on teachers’ work. These included mandating the collection of additional numeric data, mandating a focus on literacy and numeracy teaching and mandating so-called “high yield” pedagogies. Understanding how teachers’ and principals’ experiences are coordinated by these texts constructs a picture of the volume of teaching practices shaped by enumeration. These practices have created schools in which the dominant concerns are oriented towards improving achievement on standardized tests.