Tagged: naplan

Governed by freedom

I can pinpoint the moment that made it clear to me what I want to do as the topic of my PhD.

Last July, while visiting  the NetSpot offices in Adelaide, Mark Drechsler, a dear friend, colleague, a maths whiz, tertiary-educated, edu and tech-savvy, prudent and very ‘with it’ (please, this is a ramble, not a piece of sharp academic writing…) parent of an 8 year old told me a story. He wanted to check how his son would go against the NAPLAN literacy tests. The nub of Mark’s story, told in the clip below is this – after about 30 minutes of checking out laid out samples, graphs, bars, averages and bands provided by ACARA, he was frustrated with no clearer to his goal of finding out how his son would go, particularly when compared to his peers.

Here is Mark. A great, raw, un-edited, straight story from a parent-of-a-NAPLAN-kid! (and the insight of his son is … priceless!)


Right there and then I thought – what do parents make of NAPLAN? What about MySchool? For the next three years, this will remain my throw-away, BBQ line when someone asks me “what are you doing for your PhD?”…

Of course, these broad questions branch out and just invite more questions. One such tangent: If a parent like Mark can’t make sense of the info to parents provided in the name of transparency, what hopes do the parents of most of the kids I have worked with as a teacher have in interpreting it, using it, and for what purpose(s)? If used, how do they make sense of the samples, the bars, the charts, the bubbles, graphs, lines with a smattering of edu-lingo?

Soon after coming back to Perth, I did a quick readability test (text) of documents provided by ACARA to parents. If the stats provided by the Australian Bureaus of Statistics and a few online readability engines are to be believed, about half of the population would not actually understand the text on offer! Not to mention the graphs, charts and bands representing some pretty advanced algorithms.

What does that mean? Well, selfishly, there’s probably a conference paper on it. Something along the lines of a working title “MySchool – transparent but complex; implications for parents making ‘the right choice’ as governed self”

There is a body of literature on readability of documents with implications for people with poor(er) literacy, numeracy and graphicacy skills. Much of it comes from the medical contexts, where not understanding the information could carry serious health effects.

I will try to test the text presented with a few standard readability engines and measures. I am still looking for some sort of measurement tool for the degree of difficulty of understanding mathematical concepts in charts and graphs (if you know one, please do let me know! Thousand thanks!).

I could leave it there but the budding educational theorist in me needs to connect this to the field. As the second part of the working title suggests, I’m keen to see this through the lens on Foucault’s notion of governmentality as used and developed by Nikolas Rose in his classic ‘Governing The Soul’. The main idea of it is that we are governed not by oppression and top-down coercion but through our freedoms and choices that we make. Or rather – we are not governed, we govern ourselves instead. We are regulated ‘from inside’, knowing what ‘right’ choices we need to make in the ‘market’ as the dominant, pervasive way to imagine human relations in the late capitalist/advanced liberal democracies. We not only choose, we are expected to construe the course of our lives as the outcome of such choices, and to account for our lives in terms of the reasons for those choices. What I mention here is but a sketch, I do invite you to read more on it.

NAPLAN, MySchool materials are there for parents to make choices. Nowhere does it say what those choices may be but the weight, or rather the web, of societal, economic, political, educational expectations make the ‘right’ choices for us neoliberal subjects implicit – and very powerfully so.

And if we can’t choose, particularly where we are ‘meant to’? If we don’t understand the information upon which our choices depend on? These and more questions, asked by Mark and parents like Mark alike will keep yours truly dig, write, think and elaborate further. Just so I can publish a conference paper and be more marketable post-PhD …

Oh, the irony.

What is it I do?


What happens there?

A number of people have asked me ‘what are you doing your PhD in?’  Sometimes, ‘education’ is enough but many who know me better or are a little more interested in what I do deserve a more thorough answer but without giving out  my 12,000 word proposal to read – that may be unkind. You can skip straight to the slideshow but the outline below will give a lot better idea.

National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is the annual high-stakes standardised testing of children aged between 8 and 14 in every Australian school in literacy, numeracy and grammar conventions. NAPLAN is a major part of the Federal Government’s education reform (no wait, ‘revolution’). Publishing of NAPLAN results and detailed school data on the MySchool website aims to encourage parents to hold schools accountable for student performance. MySchool is there to empower parents with data (NAPLAN, school profile, finances, staffing, socieoconomic indicators to name a few) about the school their children attend. Our current PM has publicly and repeatedly hoped that NAPLAN and MySchool website ‘encourage robust discussions between the parents and the schools’. Her predecessor (equally) famously claimed that ‘if parents vote with their feet [if schools aren’t performing] that is exactly what the system is designed to do’. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Makes sense? I mean, schools have to be accountable, everyone is these days… And while the policy unproblematically attempts to empower parents, there is a serious lack of research on how they respond to the challenges and opportunities created by NAPLAN and MySchool.

This push for accountability and business-like application of neoliberal market principles in education (‘GERM’; Sahlberg) runs hand in hand with another powerful manufacturer of ‘common sense’ – performativity. While performativity is nothing new, it has intensified over the past two decades in its influence on both educational policy development and parental responses to it. This intensification has been fuelled by the ascendancy of the mentioned neoliberal market-based ideology and proliferation of technological tools of measurement and surveillance.

Central to the functioning of performativity is “translation of complex social processes and events into simple figures and categories of judgement ” (Ball,  2003, p. 217). This transforms the view of education and its complexities into a set of indicators we can use to name, differentiate and, importantly, compare individuals, organisations, even entire educational systems in a seemingly hyper-rational, objective, unproblematic way. Constructed metrics encapsulate and represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or a school. Their reified and strategic use normalises and regulates what is valued and desirable as ‘quality’ and directs human effort towards what seems, in economic sense, a perfectly desirable, logical goal – a series of calculated performances to achieve the targeted outputs efficiently and with minimum of inputs. Schools, students, teachers have been getting in on the act and/or avoiding it in a myriad of ways. Much has been written about it. But we don’t know much about how this plays out with the parents, the increasingly important ‘educational consumers’.

Which brings me to the third ‘force’ in play here – parenting. Just how does NAPLAN feature, play out in parents’ lives? What do they (not) do about it? Anything differently? How well do the lofty goals of parent power envisaged and spruiked by our leaders really play out on the ground? And just how does NAPLAN and associated MySchool play out with parents coming from different socioeconomic, cultural backgrounds and experiences, rewards of schooling? How much or do the parents fear NAPLAN or do they see it as an opportunity? You see, the questions are … endless.

So, for the next three years I will be deeply interested in what happens at the intersection of policy, performativity and parenting in the context of NAPLAN by the parents of kids in three public primary schools.

In the early 2013, I will be visiting parents of kids in three very different primary schools – one comfortable middle/upper class pushing for and publishing NAPLAN results prominently, one middle-of-the-road with great focus on arts (area that, with sport, usually suffers first in the rush to prepare for NAPLAN), and one … what label shall we use: working class? lower class? struggling? disadvantaged? The kinda school I had worked in most of my career (if you’ve read any of my posts tagged ‘teaching’ you’ll get the idea). I will go there to talk to parents and learn, collect and interpret stories.

No, I am not trying to work out “what Australian parents think of NAPLAN”.  The aim of my study is to optimise understanding of the case rather than generalise beyond it. My study (a case study of parents in three very different primary schools) will not seek to represent all responses to NAPLAN by Australian parents. It will seek to capture, interpret and compare the cases of parents at each of the three proposed research sites and gain valuable local, regional, contextual knowledge Foucault speaks of.

At the same time, this may help us advance understanding the broader issue of NAPLAN, high stakes testing, performativity, and parenting and serve as a stimulus for other work in the area. A case study like this can be usefully seen as a small step toward grand generalisations or perhaps signal limitations to the existing grand generalisations.

I am fascinated by parents (well, I am one) and pressures, expectations, stresses they are put under as well as their ingenuity, commitment, understanding and sometimes plain rudeness and cold ruthlessness. While I have necessarily narrowed and deepened my PhD project, I think it is important to keep an eye on the broader trends, events and incidents that affect parents of school kids here in Australia and beyond. If you see any useful posts, tweets, sites, projects etc that have something to do with parents and education please do ping me on Twitter, here or otherwise. Many thanks.

Here are the slides … (link if the slides don’t show for some reason)

Enough to keep me busy for three years at least 😉 !

Ball, S. (2003b). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228.