The Zone of Silence

The Treehorn  Express

[Maintained by NZ educator Allan Alach]

 Treehorn is the hero of a masterful children’s book The Shrinking of Treehorn by Florence Heidi Parry that cleverly illustrates adult concerns for the welfare of school children. The little fellow kept shrinking and became so small that he could walk upright under his bed. Nobody – nobody – his parents, his teacher, his principal took any real interest in his well-being.except for an occasional nod. The message is a clear and simple one for all parents of school children, for less-than-ethical teachers and principals who just don’t care enough.


Diane Ravitch, once the second most powerful educator in the USA, then a ’passionate advocate for the conservative policies of testing and accountability, school choice, privatization and business-style management’  [Prof.Mark Bay] is now an ardent critic of blanket, standardized  testing, and is a powerful advocate for experience in school leadership and for learnacy  in classrooms, which entails ‘learning-how-to-learn’ as opposed to ‘learning-for tests’, said in The Wall Street Journal, “On our present course, we are disrupting communities, dumbing down our schools, giving students false reports of their progress, and creating a private sector that will undermine public education without improving it. Most significantly, we are not producing a generation of students who are knowledgeable. That is why I changed my mind about the current direction of school reform.”

Hello, ‘5 by 25’ Julia!  Your turn to do a 180.’.


The Zone of Silence

Something strange is going on with media coverage of serious educational issues in Australia. One has to wonder. It is mystifying. Why does the media not discuss important schooling issues? The citizenry and its various publics have been deprived of rich conversations on topics raised by distinguished visitors who know what they are taking about;. It has been denied access to the in-depth research into the effects of the GERM movement on schools and, consequently. It has become disinterested in finding the source of control, the money moguls, or of the control structure of scato-memes like blanket standardised testing [NAPLAN in Australia and ‘National Standards’ in N.Z.]. Media control of public opinion does not attempt to lead any serious debate about Charter Schools and their clones; nor the government control of teachers and parents’ rights to free speech; nor the legal aspects attached to a Code of Conduct; nor the billion dollar cost of NAPLAN ….

[There is the occasional banal item that a journalist or editor headlines: items about playground or cyber bullying; test scores that show ‘pupils struggling’; a schoolie on police charge; parents smoking at the school gate. Scriveners prescribe such issues for general discussion at business meetings, amongst bus or train travellers and at coffee breaks as if that is all that happens at our neighbourhood schools; and proscribe deep issues of interest and professional topics that effect the lives of school children.]

Let’s look at a few instances.

 1. Visit of Jouni Vakijarvi  In 2009, as it is now, a question on the lips of those members of the public who are interested in the collective good, was, “How come Finland scores so well on PISA tests, yet it does not encourage any forms of blanket testing within their system; and their kids don’t start school until 7 years of age? What did they decide during their reform era, 40 years ago ? What’s their secret?” Australian Secondary school principals were particularly interested.

To help themselves as responsible school leaders and to help the citizenry find out what was going on in Finland, the Secondary Principals Association invited Finland’s Head of Educational Research, Jouni Vakijarvi. to describe what has happened in Finland since its 1970 reforms. Why did the Finns abandon high-stakes testing? His valuable advice was comprehensively ignored by the press, and few people realised that he had come all that way to hit a brick wall. No one, beyond participants, knows what he told our secondary school leaders in 2009.

2. Visit of Director of Cambridge 6 year study Professor Robin Alexander, University of Cambridge, chaired the committee that produced the most detailed, comprehensive and most useful survey of primary schooling ever conducted in the western world. It took six years to compile and was presented to the world in October, 2009. Every school-based educator and every reliable education journalist would now own a copy of : “Your Child, Your Schools, Our Future. Building a 21st century school system’” . It is THE definitive compendium of schooling issues.

Professor Alexander was invited to Melbourne to present keynotes papers as the Miegunyah Distinguished Visiting Fellowship awardee for 2010. His presentations in March 2010, as any google search will reveal, were seminal,….clearly, of inestimable value for policy makers. Many, who take even a moderate interest in Australian schooling, have yet to read his papers. Like Jouni Vakijarvi. we schoolies and parents didn’t even know he was here. His papers remain crucial, unused, but….who cares?

3. APPA-NZPF Conference One of the largest and most important conferences ever held in Australia about the kinds of school leadership needed in Australia to guide us out of the present debilitating levels of learning in our schools, was held on 18-21 September, 2012 in Melbourne. Over one thousand primary school principals from Australia and New Zealand gathered to discuss issues with world-famous academics and organisational leaders. There was Yong Zhao of China, now based in Oregon, USA who is uniquely placed to comment on the rise of China in its PISA test results, so beloved by our own ‘5 by 25’ political controller [the all-powerful wielder of sanctions and true-believer in the use of fear as a motivator for learning.] If she was to speak to Yong instead of to Joel Klein, her idol, she would learn that China has found that it is a great mistake to test the life out of young pupils as preparation for better PISA results. Indeed, as Yong Zhao explains “…we [in China] have been testing our students out of real learning. Teachers have little time to inspire when they are ‘teaching to the test’; students miss out on exploration and creative experiences when judged strictly on how well they memorize meaningless material.”

Treehorn has been telling you this, Julia, for ages. Teach for Learnacy; and the learning world…silly tests and all…is your oyster. Are you deaf or are you waiting for the press to tell you about it?

Pasi Sahlberg told participants at the conference very clearly why children in Finland do so well at PISA tests. They ignore them and, like China now, have little faith in them to tell them anything useful. One would have thought that the press would really ask our government why Finland does better than we do on the silly tests…yet they have up to four years less at school by Age 15….as Pasi claimed. That’s a lot of free, creative, playful time not being devoted to test preparation. ???!!! Don’t our politicians and their testucators and journos wonder about this? Nobody interested in finding out why?

Then, the APPA-NZPF star of the show, a New Zealand primary principal, Paul Drummond, spoke directly to both NZ and Aussie politicians, “ You have unravelled a first class school system…you have removed the right of every child to follow the richness of a sound curriculum.”

Not one word about the conference in either the NZ or Australian press, despite the conference’s press releases. A truly amazing silence-up. Neither Murdoch nor Fairfax lads and ladies showed. Mystifying.

The biggest chance in many years for critical schooling issues to be aired, was comprehensively ignored.

4. Senate Inquiry But then, there’s more. On 11 September 2012 the Senate referred a very serious matter to the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committees. The Senate called for an’ inquiry and report’ on “Teaching and learning – maximising our investment in assisting children to realise their potential in Australian schools.”, appointed a committee of quality senators, some of whom had been on the previous Senate Inquiry into the administration of NAPLAN and went on to list six special aspects, the last being open. There are dozens of doctorates in each one of the first five terms of reference but submissions had to be submitted by 26 October. Despite its enormous coverage and the importance of the terms, there was no media interest whatsoever. Educators learned of its existence by accident. It was a ruddy blush for everyone.

Questions that need to be asked: What was the source of this call for the appointment of this committee of inquiry ? How and where did the suggestion originate? Who? Which political party? Yes. There must have been a serious debate in the Senate, but how many of us plebs have access to parliamentary proceedings and where do we start? What will happen to the report? If it recommends the kinds of initiatives that Australia needs to take, will there be bi-lateral support for a return to learning which must include the cessation of national blanket testing of any kind? The education knights of the two major parties [Garret and Pyne] have their riding instructions and are plainly committed to more of the same, with heavier punishments and sanctions, and with added gimmickry to divert public attention. It’s perplexing. What will happen? What will the press do? At present, it doesn’t know about the Inquiry or isn’t interested.

5. Teacher Opinion One thing has been clear ever since changes were made to the Sabre-tooth Curriculum : If classroom teachers dislike and do not support an imposed teaching-learning innovation, it is doomed to failure. When Greg Thompson of Murdoch Uni., revealed the statistics from his research into the “Effects of NAPLAN” in October 2012, as a first phase of a wider study, the outcomes were ground-breaking – front-page material. Clearly, teachers believe…

1. High-stakes testing narrows the curriculum, persuades teachers to adopt teacher-centred pedagogies and to teach to the test.

2. NAPLAN testing does not improve literacy and numeracy in classrooms and schools.

3. Trying to improve education outcomes through NAPLAN at the same time as it increases the stress of those involved would appear to be a self-defeating strategy.

4. Only a minority of teachers perceive NAPLAN has had some positives and that these positive are much less prevalent in the data than the perception of negative impacts.

Things look terribly messy as far as positive learning goes in our classrooms, don’t they? If teachers were allowed to vote on its maintenance, it would disappear.

You won’t read about this kind of research in any newspaper or magazine nor hear of it on the evening TV news. It doesn’t seem to be allowed, despite its enormous relevance to Australia’s future. It could be interpreted as being the beginning of the end of NAPLAN…but schools have to keep practising for tests on two generations of our beautiful school children until 2025. That’s an order!

6. Escaping from the Cone What happens when an issue is printed that Rupert or Joel or Bill would not like to read? It usually stops where it was printed, but interest swells through other quarters. When highly respected Washington Post education journalist, Valerie Strauss printed a letter that she received as to why a teacher quit, the reasons were repeated on Diane Ravitch’s blog [see the link below]. This blog went feral. Over 130,000 visited it and it was re-tweeted more than 800 times.

Even our little Treehorn’s blog [see access under the heading above] had a couple of hundred visits during the first twelve hours or so. There’s hope.

There are some quality education journalists in Australia, unafraid to express an opinion.


Check and read the submissions to the Senate Committee of Inquiry into Teaching and Learning

Any comment on No.6?


 ‘Serious journalists covered our reports fairly and in depth,only to find them translated into ludicrous headlines by their sub-editors. But it’s the headlines that set the tone and do the damage. It’s the headlines that sell newspapers. And it’s to the headlines that politicians feel obliged to respond” Prof. Robin Alexander, Chairman  : Cambridge Primary Review.

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