Whose deficit?


Scott Poynting, Megan Watkins,
Greg Noble & Peter Knapp




Over the last few years there has been a lot of time and energy invested into deciding just who is 'to blame' for the 'disgraceful' lack of literacy to be found amongst schoolchildren. Is it the teachers? The Department of School Education? The parents? Or maybe the kids themselves? For a long time now this search for a scapegoat has ebbed and flowed in response to reports, surveys and exasperated observations, the stock-in-trade of talkback radio hosts; desperate editors and subeditors; and current affairs teams in search of a 'dead-cert' for a populist story. The most recent bout has pitted the NSW Teachers Federation against the Department of School Education and its programs designed to test student literacy, for the publication of such literacy test data, Teachers Federation representatives believe, will give the media the fuel for another sustained campaign of teacher bashing.

Surely, however, the time for apportioning such blame is well and truly over. Surely it's time that the ideological battles over reading, writing and grammar were quietly brought to an end and a concerted and coordinated plan for addressing inadequacies in the system allowed to begin.

Clearly there is a 'literacy problem' haunting our schools. Any Year 7 teacher will tell you that they have to deal with writing which almost verges on the incomprehensible every day of their working lives. For research clearly demonstrates that, despite being encouraged to write every day at school, a great many students still experience extraordinary difficulties in doing so.

'One day Roy went to the Basketball ground to have to shoots so he walk on and when he go there he shoot the ball if he could get the ball in and he missed it a man was watching him. Roy was shoot the ball he tryed to get it in but he couldn't the shoot around 35 times and not 1 ball had gone in.'

It is clear that this Year 7 student, although he comes from an English-speaking background and is in his eighth year of schooling, knows little about the basic characteristics of an English sentence. And this is hardly surprising for he has not even been taught, and consequently has been unable to learn, the rudiments of basic grammar. Furthermore, if his teacher decided to teach this student something about the syntax of writing sentences, he or she would find very little of use in the NSW Board of Studies syllabus documents, or for that matter, in the Department of School Education curriculum support materials.

While there have been notable improvements in recent English Syllabus documents concerning the ways in which different types of texts are written, the current English Syllabus still fails to deal with the syntax or basic components of an English sentence itself. It still deals only with the whole, not with the basic parts of that whole. So students are taught to write 'reports' or 'narratives' but not to construct the sentences which make up these genres. And even if it was decreed that they were to be instructed about how to do so, many teachers would have difficulty in teaching these skills because the explicit teaching of the English language was removed from the primary curriculum in 1974, resulting in a whole generation of teachers who know very little about grammar themselves.

Fortunately the Department of School Education, while not admitting the existence of this particular teaching problem, has recently piloted the English Language and Literacy Assessment (ELLA) for Year 7 in an attempt to come to terms with the symptoms of mass illiteracy. For tests like ELLA and the primary school Basic Skills Tests (BST) are able to provide researchers with information on students' knowledge and use of the English language. The Year 7 ELLA writing test for example, could tell teachers in explicit terms, any specific grammatical difficulties students may be having with their writing. These tests, therefore, have the potential to provide important diagnostic data on individual student achievement in reading and writing.

Recent media 'debates' on the 'right of the public to know' and, therefore, dole out a suitable serving of 'blame', tend to overlook this diagnostic side of testing. The NSW Teachers Federation has condemned such testing in its attempt to protect the teachers they represent, however such a stance only serves to pour petrol on the fire. While schools and the education system do have a responsibility to be accountable to the public for their effectiveness in educating students, the sensationalised reporting of data which compares school and student attainment levels only tends to swamp the real issues that this same data reveals. One outcome of this is that the diagnostic potential of such testing is not being realised as its real value is defused by diversionary tactics and name calling. While accountability is important, it should not be allowed to dictate an agenda which effectively masks inequalities (such as, for example, socioeconomic disadvantage) by forcing attention onto simplistic performance comparisons between schools and students.

A major problem in utilising testing data is that even though schools receive diagnostic information about grammar and syntax, teachers are rarely able to use this for diagnostic purposes. Nor can teachers themselves be blamed for this situation, for many of them are unable to interpret the test analyses adequately. The system needs to redress this by providing training and development on the basics of syntactical grammar in relation to the analysis of test data. This is even more pressing considering that NSW has been testing its students now for the past eight years and providing schools with detailed analyses of individual student performance in literacy in the terms of syntactical grammar.

Department of School Education Assistant Director-General Dr Laughlin's report into the 1996 HSC results at Mount Druitt High School has called for the introduction of more literacy programs in schools. Such is the power of a concerted public outcry. However, it is the quality rather than the quantity of programs which is important here and if this is just another spate of pro-literacy rhetoric in an attempt to quieten another outbreak of teacher bashing it will, once more, effectively achieve precisely nothing in the final analysis. Indeed, a changing parade of 'literacy programs' has been a feature in schools throughout the 80s and 90s with little visible effect. For what passes for new literacy education programs are more often than not 'quick-fix', 'feel-good' methods such as whole language, brain theory, and accelerative learning techniques which, despite Government opposition, are still being promoted to schools as an educational panacea. Certainly, these approaches are more concerned with changing the way in which students 'feel' about their writing rather than with providing them with explicit and systematic knowledge of how to use English language in a range of contexts. Giving students the power to be able to effectively practice the skill of writing is ultimately the only way in which to transform the way the student 'feels' about his or her writing.

Dr Laughlin's claim that students come to school with 'a range of deficits such as literacy' conveniently focuses the blame on kids and their parents for a 'deficit' which more correctly belongs to the inadequacies of the current approaches to literacy. All students come to school with the capacity to be literate and the fact that so many fail is an indictment of the system not the child or the teacher.

Inequalities in the system, which are clearly made evident through data derived from testing, need to be open to wider discussion which is constructive not destructive; analytical not condemnatory. No one should expect all students to attain the same levels of achievement; there are too many other factors which need to be taken into account during data analysis. However, the present restrictions being imposed by the Teachers Federation on testing, effectively stops all access to the type of data which will expose these systemic inequalities. It does nothing to redress the problem for which their representatives are currently being scapegoated at regular intervals.

Finding a solution, of course, cannot be the sole responsibility of the Department of School Education. University teacher training courses must also assume at least part of the responsibility for the narrow approach to grammar currently pursued by the NSW Board of Studies. What is required is a coordinated approach to literacy education with a focus on, first and foremost, the explicit teaching of the basic syntax of writing. This, of course, is already official government policy with the Premier demanding that educators construct appropriate curriculum and training procedures. Many educators, unfortunately, see this government directive as simply another front in the continuing battle of ideological positions and actively seek to subvert the Government's agenda. The end result, up until now, is that teachers in schools receive confused messages about literacy and little practical support which leaves their students as the victims of this complex and ongoing educational debate.

Scott Poynting, Faculty of Education, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur.
Greg Noble, Faculty of Humanities, University of Western Sydney, Nepean.
Megan Watkins, Faculty of Education, University of Western Sydney, Nepean.
Peter Knapp, Faculty of Humanities, University of Technology, Sydney.


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