Assessment resistance and reformation: A tale of two Irish teacher unions and the implications for teacher’s practice

Year: 2019

Author: MacPhail, Ann, Mooney, Amanda

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

A hallmark of socially-just education is teachers’ capacities to understand their learners, and contextualised classroom-based assessment practices are integral to this process. While curriculum reform in Ireland has attempted to address this, such is the continuing dominance of high-stakes summative discourse that discussions of assessment reform and its implications for teacher’s practice have been somewhat slower to emerge. In particular, assessment is considered much more as a means of making summative judgements and less as a support of learning and its role in supporting learning and teaching is not always explicitly recognised. Irish teacher trade unions’ perspectives are a factor associated with, and impacting on, policy directions and the national implementation of school-based assessment through training and support.

This study captures the tensions between educational reformers and teachers’ unions, posing the question, ‘How, if evidence for reform is too great and the need so desperate, are teachers’ unions able to block reforms that are in students’ best interests?’. This study explores how, while change has continued, it has been contested at every point by teaching unions. Specifically, Critical Discourse Analysis is applied to policy and teacher union directives (and other available text) related to assessment-related curriculum reform in the junior cycle curriculum (first three years of post-primary education). Critically viewing language as a form of social practice provides an insight into how social relations are reproduced or contested and different interests are served.

The story evolves as one of government policy intent on promoting a teacher-led, learning-oriented assessment practice, which has been actively resisted by teacher unions through their insistence that a centralised, externally-conducted assessment for students aged 14-15 years is preferable to classroom-based, teacher-led assessments. As policy documents were revisited, they conveyed a less prescriptive discourse than previous documentation with respect to assessment, and this is mapped to teaching unions issued directives to their respective members. Analyses highlight the need for further exploration into the relationship between teacher unions’ discourse, the impact of these discourses, and teacher’s enactment of assessment practices. Insights into the interests that drive unions, both in terms of the action they take and the impact they have, become central in progressing a socially-just education agenda in Ireland. We argue, questions of how teacher unions, and by association, teachers construct opportunities to exercise agency by resisting and reforming dominant discourses in assessment practices are integral to this.