Poor results are a failure of NAPLAN, not teachers.

What would Federal Minister for Education Simon Birmingham have done if this year’s topline NAPLAN results had shown a big leap in student performance?

Would he have said, “OMG! We were wrong, quick fund the full Gonski!”? I very much doubt it. The Federal LNP Government has hated Gonski from the get-go.

Why they should be so sullenly opposed to a fair and reasonable, sector-blind formula that directs funding according to real, evidence-based need is anyone’s guess. They have really only mounted two equally feeble justifications for their opposition.

The first is that Australia can’t afford it (say what — one of the richest countries on the planet can’t afford to invest in the educational opportunities of its poorest kids?). The second is that money doesn’t make any difference anyway.

I guess if this year’s NAPLAN had turned out differently, Birmingham would have used the first argument – ‘Well, that’s nice, but we can’t afford it.’ As it is, he’s used the second – ‘See, we told you, money doesn’t make any difference.’

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Here are my responses to both those perspectives.

First, the only reason Gonski costs what it does is because successive governments have decreed that no school can lose a dollar of their public funding – no, not even schools that charge more than $20,000 a year in fees and are already resourced up the wazoo. The morality of arguing that Gonski is too costly because we must keep publicly funding the very wealthiest schools to the tune of millions per annum really doesn’t bear thinking about.

My response to the second is an extension of the first. If money doesn’t make a difference to educational outcomes, why do we therefore insist on giving so much public money to kids who already have extraordinary resources devoted to their education? Do proponents of this view really believe that money only makes a difference to wealthy kids but no difference at all to poor ones?

In other words, not only are these two arguments very weak, they are actually directly contradictory. Either money makes a difference, Minister Birmingham, or it doesn’t, you can’t have it both ways.

But lets look at this year’s NAPLAN results and ask ourselves why we are not seeing the (ahem) ‘continuous improvement’ Simon Birmingham claimed on RN Breakfast that he was looking for. (Let’s put aside for the moment that these are topline results and some analysts are claiming that when we drill down there have been some really solid gains in literacy and numeracy scores amongst the really disadvantaged, particularly indigenous students.)

Watch: Mia Freedman and Leigh Sales on the most useful things they learned at school. (Post continues after video.)

First, human children have an irritating tendency not to behave like inert raw materials. They doggedly refuse to fit simple formulas. They do not – and never have – continuously improved. This year’s eight-year-olds need to meet their developmental milestones earlier than last year’s eight-year-olds ad infinitum, according to Birmingham’s convoluted logic.

Indeed, every school can tell you they can have an excellent cohort one year and a much less high achieving one the next; same school, same teachers, same curriculum, just different kids. Damn those human children and their stubborn refusal to respond in the same way to the same stimuli. They don’t even do it at home, little bastards. Every parent with more than one child can tell you that what works with one often utterly fails with the other.

Once upon a time, when a child did poorly in a test they got into trouble for it. It was assumed – sometimes correctly, sometimes unfairly – that the child had not worked hard enough or just wasn’t very bright. Now, we blame the child’s teacher. Clearly if every child in the class isn’t acing every test, the teacher is the one that is not working hard enough or isn’t up to the job.

After all, we have to blame something, and blaming poverty, generational disadvantage and decades of underfunding is much too hard (and might mean we’d have to fully fund Gonski). It is so much easier to give teachers a good kicking, and much more satisfying too. How dare the bloody teachers have the same problem the students do? How dare they be mere human beings who don’t react to neat formulas the way they should?

"How dare teachers and pupils be mere human beings who don’t react to neat formulas?" (Image: iStock)

Birmingham’s solution seems to be to refuse to fund the full Gonski, and therefore refuse to bring all Australia’s schools up to the minimum resource standard (yeah, keeping many of the schools doing the heaviest-lifting underfunded and under-resourced is bound to help improve results). He also wants to increase the amount of standardised testing, starting with six-year-olds, and use the results to judge their teachers accordingly.

This will, of course, have a hugely positive effect on teachers and make them love their jobs even more than they do now (it's estimated as many as 50 per cent of teachers have left the profession forever within the first five years). Constant testing will also really increase the joy of learning in our little ones. (Not)

There is an old saying that the most important thing a man can do for his children is love their mother. I often think that the most important thing a Minister of Education can do for the students of Australia is love (and listen to) their teachers.

We’re a long way from that, it seems.

Featured image: iStock

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