Where’s the evidence?

This week I have found myself in situations faced with dramatically different visions for the future of education. One was a vision of increased engagement, developing a system and practices that engaged learners, that was responsive, that identified the challenges inherent in education today and suggested ways of meeting those challenges to ensure Australian learners were prepared for whatever the future might look like. The other presented a vision for education that looks to the past, frowns upon innovation and cuts funding at a time when surely education is of utmost importance.

There has been a lot (really quite a ridiculous amount) of talk by politicians, by ‘research’ organisations and by some sectors of the media about phonics. Not just about phonics but that teachers aren’t teaching phonics and if only everyone taught phonics then the world would be a better place. Our esteemed Federal Education Minister said this “We are very determined and I am personally very determined to drive an agenda in literacy that focuses on phonics. It’s far too important to turn a blind eye to what is failing our students in Australia and I am not prepared to do it.” on the weekend in an article you can read here. His reasons for demanding a ‘return’ to phonics is because he believes that: “While it might have been pursued with all the goodwill in the world, there’s no doubt that literacy standards for Australian students have declined measurably,”

I have a few difficulties with these statements. Well, I have a few that I have space to explore here, to go into all of them would take far too long. Firstly, where is the evidence that Australian literacy standards have “declined measurably”? To believe this statement we need to ask a few questions; against what measure have standards declined, is the decline a decline within Australia, that is; are students today reading at lower levels than they were 10 years ago or is this a decline against other countries? If the latter then we could argue that this is not a decline in standards but in ranking and could be attributed to any number of external factors. A decline in standards is a serious thing, my question is: where is the evidence? The problem with this sort of statement is that it appears as fact, it implies evidence, and therefore evidence is very rarely explicitly asked for. What are the standards Mr Pyne is using and how big is the decline? Is there an actual, measurable decline in standards? Where is the evidence?

My second concern is this perception that teachers don’t teach phonics. I don’t know who started this nasty rumour but again, I’d like to ask the question, where is the evidence? I’ve done a little of my own asking around and I am yet to find a teacher who does not teach phonics and recognise the importance of such skills and knowledge. Here is a link to the Australian Curriculum for English. A quick glance through it should show Mr Pyne that phonics is indeed part of our curriculum content. Who is it that isn’t teaching phonics and who is it that keeps telling everyone it’s not being taught? Where’s the evidence? I’m tempted to do a quick twitter poll to find out if schools are teaching phonics. If you’re interested in joining in use the hashtag #phonicstruths and tweet what your school teaches. I am fairly certain that we would be hard pushed to find a school that is not teaching phonics or a teacher who cannot explain how and why they teach it.

Enough with the mudslinging and the half(un)-truths. Enough with the accusations and the belittling of educators. Enough, Mr Pyne, enough. Where’s your evidence?

I’m going to keep hold of the positive vision of an education that inspires, engages and equips learners. The vision that I see shared by those educators on twitter and in our schools going above and beyond the hours, the expectations and the already high demands placed upon them. A vision that sees education as a community responsibility, that seeks to unite not divide. I’m going to keep asking ‘Where’s the evidence?’ every time someone accuses teachers of doing anything other than the very best for our students. I encourage you to do the same.

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