The term data in teaching evokes a range of responses. It has become a trigger word in recent years. The panel discussion with Thomas Alegounarias focussed on data in particular. Alegounarias has an extensive history in education, including his role in National Curriculum boards, the establishment of the NSW Institute of Teachers and Teaching Standards. As with all interviewees of the inquiry his credentials and experience is lengthy and diverse. If you want to know more see his biography here.
The Role of Data Analysis in Teaching & Learning
Alegounarias was questioned repeatedly on the role of data during the inquiry. He made multiple critical points about its complex, but crucial role in the day-to-day practice of teaching. Below are his key points on its role and the reality of its presence in teachers lives.
“The data isn’t going away. The question is what do we want to allow our profession to do with it for the sake of effectiveness.” While he said this in the midst of his elaborations below, this quote pointed to a fact that teachers will have to continue to face.
Alegounarias emphasised that effective teaching demands that data analysis is at the core of the practice. However, this isn’t just ‘big data’ numbers like what NAPLAN offers. Teachers should be expected to look at data or ‘evidence’ of how their students learning is progressing. He was quick to point out that teachers already do this in their own assessments and reflection of their lessons, which helps to then inform the next steps for further student learning.
Despite this reality, he also highlighted there is too much data to interpret yet this has created the pressure to do something with it. For some of the data that exists there is a need for statistical knowledge, but you can’t put a first year statistics course into a first year education course. Currently the system doesn’t have the structures to look at all the data available that is swimming around and is not being particularly helpful. The profession has also simply not had time to catch up to the technology around them.
Alegounarias was considered in recognising the balancing act that exists between ‘big data’ and internal assessment. He said it is important to recognise there is a uniformity and reliability that comes with external assessment. The HSC is a good example of this as a reference point to compare and create a reliable, standard measure. While giving trust to teachers is important – the judgements that happen by individuals in schools, in classrooms – there can’t be complete trust.
Data Accountability & the Culture Wars
Alegounarias elaborated on this balancing act in raising the issue of the data ‘culture wars’. “We need to get past the culture war [of data among teachers]. For some teachers data makes them roll their eyes while others believe they can solve all the problems with it. Data is simply evidence that you use for HSC, it’s qualitative, it’s in your judgements. Getting this mentality onboard would be an evolution for the profession.”
The exchanges with Dr. Kavanaugh began to really highlight the tight rope being walked in the system at the moment. Kavanaugh raised the point that “data was seen as an added extra outside of the 76-80% timeframe that teachers said was spent on teaching and learning. It seems like a problem that the data is not seen as a core part of the practice or profession. Teachers feel it’s one of the extras.” In response Alegounarias reiterated, “the day, support and guidance structures make it an extra rather than part of the day.”
Given the discussions up to this point, Kavanaugh seemed particularly frustrated with the inefficiencies in the education system. She raised the issue that “there are federal, state and education department compliance where lots of teachers don’t know where it’s going. No doubt the last 10 years has been a drastic change. Why aren’t people sitting down and talking to each other when the overwhelming majority of responses say the workload is an issue? Where is the sitting down to identify where there is cross-pollution or cross-demands? Where federal and state levels can communicate with each other to work on streamlining.”
As is becoming clear, the funding cuts, restructuring of the department and competing roles of organisations has understandably led to some of these issues. In response, Alegounarias noted that “the experience of teachers is often and largely that of data as accountability, comparing this school to others [creating the competitive culture], which deters and prevents this productive conversation to resolve those issues of inefficiency.”
Before, After & the Purpose of the Teaching Standards
Alegounarias was critical in helping to establish the National Teaching Standards so it’s unsurprising that he had positive points to raise about their role. He noted that before the teaching standards existed there were professional learning providers “selling metaphors for thousands of dollars”. There was also no mentorship program that he helped establish and the time to do professional learning wasn’t there. However, he said it is true though that they are in many places boxes just being ticked. He elaborated further that the problem has been that nothing was taken away. Effectively more was added onto to teachers during this introduction of the standards as well.
He went on to point out the other complexities facing their implementation. Part of the challenge is also that there are different generations of teachers so culturally the standards have been brought in with effective teachers already. So this can lead to part of the complaints about working towards them or the process that’s involved with the teaching standards as another thing not seen as the core business of teachers in teaching students. Alegounarias throughout the discussion was considered in raising concerns about the expectations and needed re-prioritisation of teaching. “You have to ask yourself is this viable? … A teacher would reasonably complain about everything – the staff meeting, whatever the form is – anything that is extraneous to the classroom. That’s not a sound basis for saying it’s worth doing or not doing. A lot of what teachers have to do is simply inescapable. What we need to do is restructure and reconsider the nature of teaching so that the most valuable parts are actually doable and so that the rhetoric of what is effective teaching reflects in the reality.”
Alegounarias showed the reality that a set of standards, an authoritative body and the monitoring of these in teachers is difficult to organise relative to other professions. He often said the teaching standards are there for a reference point for a professional discussion and not to be seen as an administrative arrangement. The panellists raised the issue that there seems to be a conflict of interest in having principals/the employer signing off on the accreditation of teachers. However, Alegounarias pointed out that a body like NESA or a standard accreditation body should also not be making a judgement “from Clarence Street” on whether a teacher is meeting the standards consistently “in Mt Druitt”. The principal as representative of the professional standards not their employer, should be assessing from a profession’s lens, not an employer, in order to fairly assess and support teachers. There are also processes to help manage this conflict of interest, though this is part of what makes it a complex process. As can be seen in this back and forth the role of the standards, while a critical one, has been challenging to administer fairly and supportively.
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Teacher Training Models & Preparation
Teacher training courses were discussed intermittently given the continued unravelling of just how complex the role of a teacher is in today’s society. The idea of a graduate program was suggested, where a teacher is eased into the profession as an internship style program. Alegounarias said, “I’m not endorsing the medical model, but it just highlights the issue of teacher preparation and the complexity of the role.” He elaborated that teachers are graduates until about 2-3 years of experience to have them prepared from a proficiency standpoint. He said the Teaching Standards were designed to recognise and support this. Being able to consistently meet the demands of teaching across 6-7 classes is behind the purpose and principal of proficiency. It recognises that a degree gives you a body of knowledge and the practicum can catch any red flags, but that it takes 2-3 years to be prepared for the expectations and skills of teaching.
Alegounarias went into more depth about the importance of the Teaching Standards as refocusing the profession on good practice. “Assessment, as one example of the teaching standards makes up a 5th of the standards, is something that should be a part of teachers deep, confident knowledge. While some courses deal with the concepts, this isn’t going to necessarily meet this need. There’s abundant evidence we don’t do it adequately. The shallow discussions around NAPLAN are an example, where its common to talk about it as a diagnostic when it can’t possibly be, yet it’s a given in the profession that goes unchallenged. We don’t have depth and confident depth. This highlights that just having a list that gets discussed in courses isn’t enough. It shows it needs to be in the practice.”
Given the potentially inflammatory response these discussions can trigger, Alegounarias did repeat that the expectations on teachers are quite unreasonable. The system has shifted quite quickly from one that expected only so many students to go through to a certain standard of literacy and numeracy (30% roughly) that would then go out into the workforce. He elaborated that now it is expected that 100% reach the same literacy and numeracy standards. There is also much more pressure and expectation that you will go onto year 12. This has brought in a diversity of students with vast ranges of social and cultural capital, which means catering to student engagement and behaviour management with this model has become more difficult. This is even more the case since the shift away from absolute authority that the profession had in the past.
Time, Time and more Time
Alongside these unrealistic expectations he repeated throughout that teacher’s need more time. Individual learning plans (ILPs) are a good example of simply not being realistic. In special education it is happening and happening effectively, but these have been talked about for decades and it doesn’t happen as discussed because it is indefensible. It’s simply not realistic. Teachers do monitor and have an idea about individual students tracking. But he reiterated that ILPs are simply unrealistic despite being expected and talked publicly like they’re a norm that is met.
The importance of collaboration for the effectiveness of teaching was raised as part of another time issue. Alegounarias highlighted that teachers do collaborate, such as with HSC marking. However in response to this, the example of primary school teachers only having 2 hours relief with no other teachers off class to collaborate was raised. This kind of collaboration is lacking with timetabling in schools, unless pushed further outside school hours. Alegounarias emphasised more time is important, but what’s reasonably possible considering the day and expectations of other professions? “If they have to research their content. If they have to assess its validity, its applicability to their context. If they have to apply all of this to a range of levels in the classroom, if not individuals, then two or three levels. Then evaluate the effectiveness and revisit it, test it against external measures … if they have to do all of this, what’s their working day look like? Because that’s what we’re telling teachers they have to do if this system is going to be effective.”
His above points were part of why Alegounarias said time is important but just adding it on or dictating how it should be is not what he’d encourage. Rather than just adding on time, there needs to be an understanding of what that time looks like and reasonably is needed to do it well. Alegounarias repeatedly referenced the Singapore model as an alternative and guide for how to move forward. In Singapore teachers are treated more like academics with literal days given for research and analysis. It’s also more common to be given more time to reflect on assessment, collaborate and look at the data to improve student outcomes.
Accountability deterring Dialogue amidst Decade of Change
Dr. Kavanaugh has been noticeably frustrated by the lack of elaboration and voice being given to the future directions from this inquiry. She has, often reasonably so, asked for more ideas and clarity about what the experts think needs to change. The exchange below really highlighted some of the challenges faced surrounding accountability, dialogue and culture in the system.
Kavanaugh stated, “there must be organisational problems here where the changes need to be analysed and someone needs to take lead on bringing these conversations together (such as states gathering and communicating what data they have at the federal level, principals sharing what they have and so on). With these changes there has to be an analysis of their effect on the whole”
Alegounarias in response, “my view is not a popular one. Many people in higher positions of administration are humanities based or primary school based and none of them are particularly in love with the idea of data analysis – it’s sort of a deep chronic problem, though it’s not just numbers, it’s also qualitative judgements.”
Kavanaugh: “it appears to me with Local Schools, Local Decisions it’s a managerial problem.”
Alegounarias in response, “I think it’s a professional culture problem, the knowledge base, the skills base has not caught up with the rapid change.” However, when asked more about teachers needing space and a system to give professionals the power to do this work Alegounarias was quick to point out that accountability mechanisms just don’t work. He emphasised this having spent 20 years looking at this himself.
Raising Status & Respect for the Profession
The issue of raising the status of teachers and respect for the profession was discussed again in this inquiry. Dr. Gallop noted that while Covid has improved the respect, pre and post, it’s [the culture wars] influencing politicians and the community.
Alegounarias repeated throughout the hearing the need for teachers to control the data. This was emphasised in this part of the discussion as one solution to the status question. He said, “Putting teachers’ judgement at the heart of the profession and system is critical for the changes here. Controlling the data and being able to intellectually discuss shortcomings and limitations in data is important to shifting this too. Anyone with any knowledge can point out the flaws in PISA trying to measure relative systems with a standard assessment. NAPLAN is dated and we can do better. More discussion is happening about what should the external measures look like, but the profession can’t just roll its eyes at ‘more data’. It needs to be able to discuss and own data in the public dialogue.”
Alegounarias also speculated that all the problems are leading to a straining relationship between teachers and parents. He highlighted, “In some parts of the community parents seem to think teaching is an old world profession and not up-to-date. If we want to break this the system needs to refocus on putting teachers exercising their professional judgement at the heart of the system. Alongside reconceiving the day and the week around supporting this. The days not organised around the time needed for teachers to meet the expectations. The current structure is functioning as part of the problem.”
The issue of Lead Teachers was raised as part of a reflection of the culture in the profession. Alegounarias saw this as another solution, but noted the problem that “the teaching culture has been uncomfortable with celebrating excellence. The process for accreditation needs to be streamlined and there needs to be a shift in people being open to these kinds of promotions. Celebrating and recognising excellence is part of raising the perception of the profession, but it’s an old working style culture of ‘don’t stick your hand up to get attention’ – this culture needs to be broken and the profession has not brought into that completely. We’ve not bought into the celebrating of excellence in the profession that other professions of ‘status’ do.”
Dr. Gallop suggested the accreditation process ought to be a powerful tool to improve the position of teaching in NSW (the professionalisation agenda).
However, Alegounarias said, “It can’t do the job, but the job can’t be done without these reference points.” Though he agreed with the value of the standards and accreditation process. He emphasised the expectation of universal attainment of literacy and numeracy as a significant reason for the increased challenges. It’s impact is often underestimated for the demands it put on teachers, yet it is very recent (it wasn’t really an expectation of the system 20-30 years ago).