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Abstract

Australia’s schooling systems, like many around the globe, are currently pursuing a ‘school improvement’ policy agenda. Schools, and school leaders, are under pressure to improve student achievement as measured through high-stakes testing, the results of which are often publicised with little contextual information attached. Research has identified the problematic nature of some potential responses to this performative policy agenda, including a narrowing of the curriculum, a focus on what is easily measurable, and a standardisation of teaching and learning approaches. This paper explores the local conditions and contexts that influence one school leader’s practices, and how those conditions have enabled this school to resist some of the more potentially problematic influences of these performative policies. Drawing upon a longitudinal case study and data including interviews and document analysis, this paper provides insights into the ways school leaders might be able to lead towards a vision of education that differs from the narrow measures currently emphasised within performative school improvement policies.
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The$Influence$of$School$Context$on$School$Improvement$Policy$Enactment:$An$Australian$
Case$Study$
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Amanda!Heffernan!
!"#$%&'()*(+,$#"&-)./(0)."12(3.-4561-&'((
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Abstract$$
Australia’s!schooling!systems,!like!many!around!the!globe,!are!currently!pursuing!a!‘school!
improvement’!policy!agenda.!Schools,!and!school!leaders,!are!under!pressure!to!improve!
student!achievement!as!measured!through!high-stakes!testing,!the!results!of!which!are!
often!publicised!with!little!contextual!information!attached.!Research!has!identified!the!
problematic!nature!of!some!potential!responses!to!this!performative!policy!agenda,!
including!a!narrowing!of!the!curriculum,!a!focus!on!what!is!easily!measurable,!and!a!
standardisation!of!teaching!and!learning!approaches.!This!paper!explores!the!local!
conditions!and!contexts!that!influence!one!school!leader’s!practices,!and!how!those!
conditions!have!enabled!this!school!to!resist!some!of!the!more!potentially!problematic!
influences!of!these!performative!policies.!Drawing!upon!a!longitudinal!case!study!and!data!
including!interviews!and!document!analysis,!this!paper!provides!insights!into!the!ways!
school!leaders!might!be!able!to!lead!towards!a!vision!of!education!that!differs!from!the!
narrow!measures!currently!emphasised!within!performative!school!improvement!policies.!!
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Keywords:!educational!leadership,!principalship,!school!improvement,!educational!policy,!
case!study,!!
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Introduction$$
This!article!explores!the!impact!of!local!school!conditions!on!the!policy!enactment!work!of!
one!principal!in!Queensland,!Australia.!The!principal,!‘Anne’![a!pseudonym]!maintains!a!
focus!on!school!priorities!in!a!culture!of!performativity,!where!leaders’!work!is!being!steered!
by!‘school!improvement’!policies!and!heightened!external!accountabilities.!The!study!builds!
upon!research!focusing!on!principals’!policy!enactment!during!a!period!of!rapid!reform!and!
holds!relevance!to!leadership!research!in!contexts!with!similar!policy!conditions,!the!spread!
of!which!can!be!seen!through!Sahlberg’s!(2011)!notion!of!the!Global!Education!Reform!
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Movement![GERM].!These!conditions!are!currently!characterised!in!school!systems!around!
the!world!by!high-stakes!testing,!the!privileging!of!certain!‘academic’!subjects,!and!efforts!
towards!a!standardisation!of!education.!!
Previous!research!has!highlighted!the!possible!effects!of!these!policy!conditions!
which,!in!Australia,!include!heavy!external!accountabilities!including!annual!high-stakes!
nationwide!literacy!and!numeracy!(NAPLAN)!testing!for!students!in!Years!3,!5,!and!7!and!
government!policies!espousing!public!and!transparent!school!data.!In!such!a!climate,!the!
focus!of!education!can!become!narrowed!in!order!to!achieve!gains!in!these!certain!
measures!of!achievement!(Bhattacharyya,!Junot,!&!Clark,!2013;!Klenowski!&!Wyatt-Smith,!
2012;!Lingard,!Mills,!&!Hayes,!2000;!Minarechová,!2012),!which!Lingard!and!Sellar!(2013)!
referred!to!as!‘perverse!effects’!of!policy.!In!a!performative!climate!(Lyotard,!1984),!
principals’!quality!and!effectiveness!is!measured!and!judged!according!to!improvement!in!
these!metrics.!This!article!provides!a!contribution!to!the!field’s!collective!understanding!of!
how!principals!make!sense!of!their!work!under!school!improvement!policy!regimes!(Hardy,!
2014).!Further,!it!responds!to!calls!for!research!that!explores!the!intended!and!unintended!
effects!of!testing!(Thompson,!2016).!!
Theorised!through!a!lens!of!performativity,!this!study!provides!insights!into!the!ways!
principals!can!be!steered!towards!certain!practices!that!will!result!in!improved!school!data,!
and!the!local!conditions!that!enabled!one!principal’s!resistance!of!those!policy!influences.!In!
presenting!a!longitudinal!case!study!involving!the!pseudonymous!‘Foxvale!State!School’,!this!
paper!highlights!some!of!the!local!conditions!that!enabled!Foxvale’s!principal,!Anne,!to!lead!
with!an!emphasis!on!holistic!education!for!all!children.!This!approach!was!represented!in!
their!school’s!vision!which!was!central!to!everything!that!happened!at!the!school.!Anne!
succinctly!described!the!vision!as!‘we!value!the!individual’.!At!times,!this!meant!diverging!
from!the!performatively-oriented!practices!that!were!espoused!in!system!policy!and!
rhetoric.!!
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Literature$Review$$
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The!introduction!of!annual!NAPLAN!testing!in!2008!changed!the!landscape!for!educators!in!
Australian!schools.!In!Queensland,!in!particular,!the!state’s!perceived!poor!performance!in!
the!inaugural!NAPLAN!testing!had!a!significant!impact!on!the!work!being!undertaken!in!the!
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Department’s!1,!238!public!schools.!As!a!result,!the!strategic!agenda!for!the!system!has!
been!focused!intensely!around!discourses!of!school!improvement!and!in!the!years!since!
NAPLAN!was!introduced,!Queensland!schools!faced!an!onslaught!of!reforms!with!this!goal!in!
mind.!This!has!included!reforms!at!a!national!level!such!as!a!commitment!to!publicly!
transparent!school!data!via!the!launch!of!the!Australian!government’s!0';#2))%!website!
(ostensibly!intended!to!provide!parents!with!easy!access!to!data!for!all!schools!in!Australia,!
with!functionality!inbuilt!to!compare!schools!deemed!statistically!similar).!At!a!local!level,!
this!was!compounded!by!the!introduction!of!external!teaching!and!learning!audits,!and!
numerous!strategic!improvement!agendas!from!successive!governments.!The!focus!for!
principals!had!also!shifted!over!time!to!an!explicit!requirement!for!principals!to!enact!
instructional!or!educational!leadership.!Further!adding!complexity!to!this!shift!in!leadership!
expectations,!school!reform!experts!Michael!Fullan!and!colleagues,!engaged!by!the!
Department!as!consultants,!found!that!there!was!a!lack!of!clarity!among!Queensland!
principals!about!what!instructional!leadership!looked!like!in!practice!(Queensland!
Department!of!Education!and!Training![QDET],!2012).!These!external!accountabilities,!
changing!expectations,!and!complex!demands!that!are!inherent!within!performative!
cultures!have!been!identified!as!creating!a!‘sociality!of!anxiety’!(Keddie,!2013).!The!notion!of!
policy!creating!a!sense!of!urgency!is!not!new,!and!Black!(2008)!has!explored!effects!of!this!
on!leadership!practices.!Previous!research!(Heffernan,!2016,!2017)!has!identified!the!
pressure!felt!by!principals!in!this!specific!context,!and!the!influence!these!policies!and!
associated!school!improvement!discourses!have!had!on!principals’!leadership!practices.!
In!the!Queensland!context,!policies!required!principals!to!know!how!to!work!with!data!
to!improve!results,!to!have!an!‘unrelenting!focus!on!improvement’!(QDET,!2011)!and!to!
deliver!‘extraordinary!and!sustained!improvement!and!achievement’!(QDET,!2014)!as!well!
as!being!experts!in!teaching!and!learning,!while!still!managing!the!minutiae!of!daily!events!
that!arose!in!schools.!It!can!be!of!little!surprise,!then,!that!principals!have!reported!
significant!increases!in!workload!pressure,!stress,!and!professional!self-doubt!(Brown,!2005;!
Stronge,!Richard,!&!Catano,!2008).!External!accountabilities!that!served!to!control!the!work!
of!schools!from!a!distance!have!also!compounded!this,!by!steering!principals’!practices!
towards!certain!behaviours!that!fulfilled!system!requirements,!including!a!focus!on!
improving!measurable!data!such!as!NAPLAN!data.!Side!effects!of!this!focus!on!data!have!
included!a!potentially!narrowed!focus!on!education!that!emphasises!the!aspects!of!
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schooling!that!are!measured!and!valued!by!the!system!(Bhattacharyya!et!al.,!2013;!Lingard!
et!al.,!2000;!Minarechová,!2012).!Principals!in!these!case!studies!reported!significant!
pressure!to!improve!their!NAPLAN!data.!In!Queensland!in!particular,!principals’!leadership!
practices!have!been!influenced!by!the!continuous!dissemination!of!system-generated!school!
performance!data!profiles,!resulting!in!regularly!shifting!priorities!within!the!school!
(Heffernan,!2016).!These!priorities!leaned!towards!the!narrowed!measures!of!schooling!
contained!within!the!profile,!which!included!a!major!emphasis!on!NAPLAN!testing!data.!!
These!external!pressures!can!result!in!principals!working!in!a!reactive!state,!a!theory!
supported!by!findings!arising!from!this!case!study.!This!reactive!state!was!also!described!by!
Lyotard!(1984)!in!his!discussion!about!language!games!and!the!ways!systems!impact!upon!
people.!Lyotard!suggested!that!‘no!self!is!an!island’!(Lyotard,!1984,!p.!15)!and!people!are!
affected!by!systems!in!myriad!ways.!In!this!case,!each!event,!new!policy,!or!shift!in!rhetoric!
and!expectation!from!the!system!could!be!seen!as!a!‘move’!from!the!system;!each!move!
prompting!a!type!of!‘displacement’!for!the!principal!or!‘an!alteration!of!some!kind’,!that!
affects!their!behaviours!and!interactions!with!other!members!of!the!school!system!(Lyotard,!
1984,!p.!16).!He!went!on!to!suggest!that!each!of!these!moves!results!in!countermoves!‘and!
everyone!knows!that!a!countermove!that!is!merely!reactional!is!not!a!“good”!move’!
(Lyotard,!1984,!p.!16).!Anne’s!ability!to!work!in!a!more!strategic!way!when!enacting!these!
policies!is!therefore!worthy!of!further!investigation.!!
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This!paper!takes!up!the!notion!of!policy!enactment!(Ball,!Braun,!&!Maguire,!2012)!which!
acknowledges!that!for!leaders!and!schools,!policy!enactment!is!an!‘ambiguous,!messy!
process’!(Maguire,!Braun,!&!Ball,!2015,!p.!485).!It!involves!decoding!policy,!amid!layers!of!
discourse,!context,!and!relationship!building!(Maguire!et!al.,!2015)!that!is!involved!in!these!
negotiations!of!policy.!This!approach!also!explicitly!acknowledges!the!‘various!cultures,!
histories,!traditions,!and!communities!of!practice!that!exist!in!schools’!(Ball!et!al.,!2012,!p.!
5).!This!approach!to!policy!studies!is!particularly!relevant!when!examining!the!local!
conditions!that!influence!policy!enactment!in!ways!that!might!enable!schools!and!principals!
to!resist!performative!policy!influences.!This!study!contributes!to!the!body!of!research!that!
has!undertaken!in-depth!explorations!of!the!effects!or!enactment!reform!policies!at!a!
school!level!(for!examples,!see:!Atkinson,!2014;!Foster,!2006;!Niesche,!2011)!and!offers!new!
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insights!into!how!schools!might!negotiate!these!policy!moments!with!local!priorities!and!
contexts!in!mind.!!
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Research$Design$$
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The!data!presented!within!this!article!are!theorised!through!notions!of!performativity,!
drawing!upon!work!from!Lyotard!(1984)!and!Ball!(2003,!2005)!in!particular,!but!also!the!
breadth!of!research!in!the!same!geographic!context!of!Australian!or!Queensland!schools!
which!has!been!undertaken!in!recent!years,!exploring!the!effects!of!performativity!in!
various!ways!(for!examples,!see:!Hardy,!2014;!Lingard!&!Sellar,!2013;!Niesche,!2011,!2013).!
Features!of!performative!cultures!can!include!heavier!external!accountabilities,!
performance!being!measured!and!judged!according!to!externally!imposed!system!targets!
and!benchmarks,!and!complex!work!being!reduced!to!easily!measurable!data!sets.!In!
Queensland,!these!performative!policies!have!manifested!as!a!heavy!emphasis!on!national!
NAPLAN!testing!and!the!publication!of!NAPLAN!and!other!data!on!the!central!government!
website!0';#2))%(as!a!means!of!governing!principals’!work!from!a!distance!(Hardy!&!Boyle,!
2011;!Lingard!&!Sellar,!2013;!Niesche,!2013).!Other!features!of!performativity!in!
Queensland!include!external!school!reviews!being!undertaken!at!regular!intervals!with!a!
requirement!to!publish!the!results!on!the!school’s!website;!and!government!and!media!
rhetoric!about!the!need!to!improve!standards!and!the!quality!of!teachers!and!school!
leaders.!Mockler!(2013,!p.!37)!noted!that!these!discussions!of!quality!can!serve!as!a!means!
of!focusing!on!performative!outputs!by!measuring!and!judging!teachers’!work,!and!blaming!
teachers!when!students’!results!‘fail!to!measure!up’.!Principals!and!schools!in!performative!
cultures!are!judged!according!to!discourses!of!quality!and!are!thus!‘constantly!looking!to!
improve,!to!be!better,!to!be!excellent’!(Ball,!2003,!p.!220).!!
The!work!of!principals!and!schools!in!performative!climates!is!shaped!by!the!
aforementioned!external!accountabilities,!system!targets,!and!benchmarks!in!the!form!of!
high-stakes!testing!and!public!accountability!in!the!form!of!advocacy!for!transparent!data.!
Researchers!have!identified!the!potential!for!high-stakes!testing,!in!particular,!to!narrow!the!
focus!of!education!down!to!those!elements!that!will!impact!on!student!test!results,!whilst!
potentially!neglecting!other!elements!that!constitute!a!holistic!education!(Klenowski!&!
Wyatt-Smith,!2012;!Lingard!et!al.,!2000;!Minarechová,!2012).!Cranston!(2013)!described!this!
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as!a!double-edged!sword,!wherein!teachers!and!principals!are!expected!to!improve!student!
results!significantly!and!with!urgency!in!very!limited!areas!of!the!curriculum,!while!
associated!government!policies!espouse!the!importance!of!holistic!education!for!all!
students!(Ministerial!Council!on!Education,!Employment,!Training!and!Youth!Affairs!
[MCEETYA],!2008).!As!a!result,!concerns!have!been!raised!that!in!performative!schooling!
cultures,!elements!of!a!holistic!education!including!(but!not!limited!to)!critical!thinking,!
important!personal!and!social!skills!or!understandings,!and!social!justice!and!celebrations!of!
cultural!and!personal!diversity!are!being!sidelined!or!abandoned!in!favour!of!a!heavier!focus!
on!literacy!and!numeracy!(Agostino!&!Harcourt,!2010;!Keddie,!Mills,!&!Pendergast,!2011;!
Lingard!&!Sellar,!2013;!Minarechová,!2012).!This!article!uses!these!notions!associated!with!
performative!cultures!to!explore!the!ways!Anne!was!able!to!resist!some!of!these!potential!
policy!influences!by!working!to!maintain!a!focus!on!holistic!education,!while!still!meeting!
the!department’s!expectations!of!‘quality’!leadership.!!!
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The!study!was!drawn!from!a!wider!longitudinal!case!study!focusing!on!three!government!
school!principals!who!worked!in!the!same!geographical!region.!The!research!was!designed!
to!better!understand!principals’!changing!work!under!the!introduction!of!this!new!‘policy!
ensemble’!(Ball!et!al.,!2012,!p.!5)!echoing!many!reforms!from!around!the!world!that!seek!to!
improve!student!results!on!narrow!measures!of!achievement.!The!intention!of!the!case!
studies!was!to!better!understand!principals’!policy!enactment!in!this!period!of!rapid!
education!reform.!The!case!study!approach!enabled!a!deep!exploration!of!this!phenomenon!
and!allowed!for!a!number!of!methods!of!data!collection!during!fieldwork.!As!Yin!(2009)!
noted,!case!studies!are!most!appropriate!for!research!that!seeks!to!take!context!into!
account.!Fieldwork!was!undertaken!over!a!period!spanning!three!school!years,!with!school!
visits!being!undertaken!approximately!every!six!months.!This!enabled!an!understanding!of!
the!evolution!of!ideas!over!a!long!period!of!time,!and!the!development!of!deep!insights!into!
principals’!leadership!practices.!!
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Though!this!article!focuses!on!Anne’s!story,!this!case!study!formed!part!of!a!larger!group!of!
longitudinal!case!studies!of!three!government!school!principals!who!worked!in!the!same!
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geographical!region.!Each!of!the!three!principals!was!invited!to!participate!due!to!their!
breadth!of!experience!as!school!leaders!and!their!reputation!within!the!region!as!effective!
leaders.!This!reputational!factor!became!more!important!during!data!analysis!and!is!
revisited!in!the!findings!and!discussion!of!this!article.!Two!centrally-based!staff!members!
who!worked!closely!with!each!of!the!principals!also!participated:!‘John’,!an!Assistant!
Regional!Director!(ARD)!who!worked!as!supervisor!and!capability!developer!for!principals!
within!their!geographical!region;!and!‘Erin’,!a!project!officer!who!had!extensive!school!
leadership!experience!of!her!own,!whose!role!focused!particularly!on!leadership!and!school!
improvement!in!that!same!region.!!!!
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Data!were!gathered!primarily!through!interviews,!augmented!with!document!analysis.!In-
depth!individual!‘loosely!structured’!(Alvesson,!2011)!interviews!were!undertaken!at!
intervals!of!approximately!six!months!apart!via!school!visits!over!a!period!spanning!three!
school!years.!Interviews!ranged!between!one!and!three!hours,!depending!on!the!availability!
of!the!principal!at!the!time.!Initial!questions!sought!demographic!information!about!the!
participants,!their!leadership!experiences,!and!their!schools.!Questions!related!to!school!
improvement,!policy,!and!perceptions!of!reform!initiatives.!Further!questions!were!derived!
from!initial!policy!analysis!and!analysis!of!publicly-available!school!strategic!planning!and!
reporting!documents.!Document!analysis!(Rapley,!2007)!also!included!documents!provided!
by!the!principals!themselves,!such!as!internal!school!documents.!This!range!of!documents!
gave!insights!into!trends!and!school!priorities,!and!were!primarily!used!to!inform!interviews.!!
Analysis!of!interview!data!was!undertaken!via!a!theoretically-informed!thematic!
analysis,!using!a!multi-stage!approach!as!suggested!by!Braun!and!Clarke!(2006).!This!
approach!involved!transcribing!the!interview!data!and!becoming!immersed!in!it!through!
multiple!readings!in!order!to!identify!themes!relating!to!school!improvement.!Discourses!
related!to!performativity!were!drawn!out!through!this!approach,!in!order!to!theorise!the!
data!more!effectively.!In!a!theoretically-informed!thematic!analysis!such!as!this!one,!the!
literature!on!performativity,!accountability,!and!school!improvement!informed!the!
identification!of!themes!from!within!the!data.!!
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Anne!and!her!work!at!Foxvale!State!School!is!the!key!focus!of!this!article,!though!the!wider!
project!has!informed!the!interpretation!of!data!and!discussion!at!points!throughout!this!
article,!including!putting!Anne’s!work!into!a!wider!perspective.!To!get!a!clear!picture!of!
Anne’s!work,!it!is!important!to!first!better!understand!her!context.!She!had!been!principal!at!
Foxvale!State!School,!a!regional!public!primary!school!in!Queensland,!for!over!a!decade.!
Foxvale!serviced!approximately!550!students!from!Prep-Year!6.!Located!in!a!large!city,!it!was!
a!more!recently!established!school,!having!been!built!in!the!mid-1990s,!but!it!had!an!
extremely!strong!school!culture!and!school!community,!initially!developed!through!
participation!in!a!long-established!project!run!by!a!team!of!university-based!researchers,!
consulting!and!working!with!schools!to!create!shared!visions!and!school-wide!pedagogy!and!
planning!processes.!Though!Anne!joined!the!school!after!this!visioning!process,!she!was!
supportive!of!it!and!joined!the!school!community!in!sharing!their!vision.!Further!developing!
and!embedding!this!school!culture!had!been!a!major!focus!of!her!work.!!!
According!to!statistical!modelling,!the!majority!of!school!communities!in!Australia!
were!more!privileged!than!Foxvale’s!school!community,!and!Anne!referred!to!this!a!number!
of!times!when!describing!the!school’s!demographics.!In!addition!to!the!school’s!
demographic,!the!school!also!enrolled!a!large!number!of!students!with!families!for!whom!
English!was!an!additional!language!or!dialect![EAL/D],!as!well!as:!!
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a!lot!of!children!in!care,![…]!a!lot!of!children!from!some!really!difficult!backgrounds,!
and!some!blended!families!that!create!a!lot!of!complexities!within!the!school,!and!
then!on!top!of!that!we!have!the!large!SEP![Special!Education!Program]!and!that!
creates!a!lot!of!complexity!there!too,!and!a!high!percentage!–!we’re!way!above!the!
percentage!that!would!normally!be!in!a!school.!We’ve!got!ten!percent![of!students!
with!special!needs]!and!they!say!it!would!normally!only!be!about!four!or!five!percent!
in!a!school.!!
!
In!addition,!Foxvale’s!strengths!in!celebrating!diversity!and!catering!for!diverse!learner!
needs!had!resulted!in!a!reputation!that!meant!they!had!actually!been!attracting!students!
from!further!afield!who!presented!with!varied!needs.!Students!bypassed!other!schools!
within!the!city!to!attend!Foxvale,!and!some!families!even!moved!from!urban!centres!in!
!
!
9!
order!to!attend!Foxvale!due!to!positive!recommendations!or!referrals!from!current!and!past!
students!and!families!or!carers.!!
Anne!and!the!Foxvale!community!placed!significant!importance!on!the!concept!of!
holistic!education,!an!approach!at!odds!with!what!some!researchers!suggest!is!a!possible!
result!of!the!current!climate!of!education,!where!at!times!the!focus!can!emphasise!narrow!
measures!of!achievement!that!align!with!testing!regimes!(Bhattacharyya!et!al.,!2013;!
Klenowski!&!Wyatt-Smith,!2012;!Lingard!et!al.,!2000;!Minarechová,!2012).!Part!of!this!
emphasis!included!providing!students!with!the!opportunity!to!participate!in!a!range!of!
cultural!activities,!such!as!musicals,!Opti-Minds!(an!annual!critical!and!creative!thinking!
competition),!and!annual!music!and!performance!Eisteddfod!competitions.!Anne!indicated!
that!she!had!received!positive!feedback!from!students!and!parents!on!their!participation!in!
these!types!of!activities!over!the!years.!She!felt!strongly!that!these!types!of!endeavours!
should!still!be!included!in!the!curriculum,!so!much!so!that!the!school!explored!alternative!or!
self-described!‘creative’!ways!of!working!with!the!crowded!curriculum!to!ensure!students!
were!able!to!access!these!learning!experiences.!These!approaches!included!the!integration!
of!curriculum!areas,!and!making!use!of!before!school!and!break!periods!to!incorporate!
some!elements!such!as!values!education!and!social!skilling.!!!
!
Findings$
8$&&-.B(-&(-.&)(8561=5#&-45F(G..5H1(I)6A("1("(8)-.&()*(C-**565.#5((
Anne’s!resistance!to!performative!influences!was!most!evident!when!compared!to!the!
leadership!practices!and!associated!beliefs!of!her!peers.!When!analysing!data!from!these!
wider!case!studies!of!three!experienced!principals!who!were!all!perceived!to!be!high-
performing!school!leaders,!Anne’s!philosophies!and!practices!served!as!a!point!of!departure.!!
Whereas!Anne!emphasised!her!commitment!to!a!holistic!view!of!education!for!her!
school,!informed!by!the!strength!of!a!shared!vision,!her!contemporaries!were!more!visibly!
seduced!by!measurement!and!metricising!education!in!ways!that!were!heavily!valued!by!the!
Department.!These!approaches!included!practices!such!as!narrowing!the!teaching!focus!at!
the!school!to!emphasise!English,!Mathematics,!and!Science,!and!implementing!a!variety!of!
additional!data!collection!tools!to!further!measure!student!achievement!–!particularly!in!the!
areas!of!literacy!and!numeracy!as!measured!by!high-stakes!testing.!While!all!three!principals!
referred!to!data!regularly!when!talking!about!their!school!and!success,!only!Anne!spoke!in!
!
!
10!
depth!about!the!ways!she!remained!ambivalent!about!the!culture!of!performative!
measurement!that!had!pervaded!education!and!how!she!actively!worked!within!and!against!
these!discourses!and!policies.!
Thus,!this!paper!explores!these!local!conditions!that!Anne!described!as!enabling!her!
to!emphasise!a!holistic!education!beyond!the!potentially!narrowed!focus!of!schooling!that!
has!been!identified!as!a!possible!consequence!of!the!performative!high-stakes!policies!and!
discourses!inherent!within!education!in!this!context.!Data!from!these!case!studies!suggested!
that!principals!may!be!working!in!a!reactive!state,!making!countermoves!without!necessarily!
having!the!space!or!confidence!to!think!more!strategically!across!a!longer!period!of!time.!
Erin,!a!former!school!leader!working!as!a!project!officer!in!the!areas!of!leadership!and!
school!improvement,!suggested!that!the!majority!of!principals!with!whom!she!worked!were!
extremely!task-oriented,!which!resulted!in!superficial!‘quick-fix’!approaches!with!little!long-
term!change:!$
!
I!don’t!think!our!leaders!consciously!make!innovative!decisions!because!they!are!
so!‘I’ve!got!a!teaching!and!learning!audit!this!term,!I’ve!got!a!disciplinary!audit,!
NAPLAN!is!coming!out,!I’ve!got!to!apply!for!this!job’,!and!it’s!all!‘I,!I,!I’!and!I!don’t!
hear!anything!about!the!student!in!there,!much,!when!I’m!talking!with!leaders.!
Actually!-!now!that!I’m!thinking!about!it!-!rarely.!And!that’s!scary.!
!
Erin!suggested!that!the!majority!of!principals!were!focused!on!tackling!individual!tasks!as!
they!arose;!‘they’re!always!thinking!“what!else!is!coming,!what!else!is!coming?!I!don’t!have!
time,!I!have!to!do!this!and!this!and!this”’.!She!commented!that!these!principals!were!unable!
to!see!the!bigger!picture!and!engage!in!more!strategic!leadership!practices!which!Erin!
believed!would!allow!them!to:!!
!
take!that!helicopter!view,!and!I!don’t!think!anybody!gets!up!on!that!balcony!and!
looks!at!that!big!picture.!I!think!they’re!so!stuck!from!all!of!those!pressures!and!
there’s!always!something!new!coming!along!that!they!just...![pauses]!don’t!
know!it’s!an!option.!
!
!
!
11!
The!only!principal!Erin!identified!within!the!region!who!did!take!the!time!to!engage!in!
processes!deeply!and!develop!cultures!within!the!school!across!all!aspects!of!the!current!
agenda!was!Anne.!Both!Erin!and!John!(Anne’s!direct!supervisor)!suggested!that!Anne!was!
able!to!adopt!a!long-term!approach!to!leadership,!or!take!the!‘helicopter!view’!because!of!
the!centrality!of!the!school!vision!to!everything!that!happened!at!Foxvale.!In!addition!to!the!
school’s!vision,!a!number!of!additional!factors!arose!throughout!the!case!study!period!that!
supported!and!helped!guide!Anne’s!practices!in!relation!to!how!she!enacted!these!school!
improvement!policy!ensembles.!These!additional!factors!included!the!school’s!approach!to!
working!with!the!community,!and!Anne’s!‘track!record’!with!the!Department.!An!
exploration!of!these!factors!forms!the!basis!of!the!forthcoming!findings!and!discussion.!!
!
!)E4"%5H1(;2"65,(J-1-).()*(K)%-1&-#(+,$#"&-).((
In!performative!cultures!such!as!the!one!in!which!Anne!worked,!it!is!possible!that!
behaviours!without!easily!measurable!outcomes!might!be!set!aside!for!those!which!have!a!
clear!benefit!in!terms!of!what!the!system!values.!Lyotard!(1984)!suggested!that!as!a!result!
of!performative!cultures,!the!pursuit!of!efficiency!or!effectiveness!could!outweigh!the!
pursuit!of!knowledge!for!the!sake!of!it.!In!this!case,!an!example!of!efficiency!and!
effectiveness!in!terms!of!measurable!outcomes!might!be!an!approach!that!resulted!in!an!
increase!in!NAPLAN!data.!!
Other!schools!in!these!case!studies!have!certainly!followed!this!trend!and!have!
adopted!practices!such!as!a!narrowed!curriculum,!with!one!school!in!particular!focusing!on!
English,!maths,!and!science!(a!‘back!to!basics’!approach)!and!eschewing!other!areas!such!as!
the!arts,!history,!and!geography.!At!Foxvale,!however,!the!arts!and!creative!pursuits!reigned!
strong.!The!front!entry!of!their!administration!building!was!wallpapered!with!photos!and!
memorabilia!from!the!most!recent!school!musical,!and!trophies!and!awards!lined!the!walls!
for!music,!drama,!speaking,!and!Opti-minds,!a!competition!that!encourages!creativity!and!
higher!order!thinking!in!students.!It!may!be!argued!that!there!are!countless!positive!
outcomes!of!these!pursuits,!but!the!organisers!could!not!necessarily!claim!improvement!on!
NAPLAN!as!a!direct!outcome!for!participants.!!
Anne!commented!that!the!shift!in!the!aspects!of!education!valued!by!the!system!
towards!those!aspects!of!achievement!which!were!measured!through!practices!such!as!
!
!
12!
NAPLAN!was!evident!in!the!way!these!extra-curricular!activities!were!treated!in!discussions!
with!principals.!She!reflected!that!in!the!past:!!
!
You!could!do!lots!of!other!things!that!were!extra-curricular!stuff,!and!nobody!
asked!you!about!that,!whereas!now!you!have!to!justify!why!you!can!have!the!
extra-curricular!stuff,!because!you’ve!got!to!do!your!core.!!
!
Anne!suggested!that!she!and!her!team!had!to!find!creative!ways!to!ensure!their!students!
were!able!to!access!these!aspects.!She!commented!that!these!more!creative!pursuits!
provided!students!with!confidence!as!learners!that!could!extend!into!a!positive!self-image.!
Anne!also!felt!that!these!pursuits!led!to!improved!learning!outcomes!in!other!areas,!such!as!
those!heavily!measured!by!the!system!in!national!testing.!She!refused!to!let!those!pressures!
influence!the!teaching!at!Foxvale!in!potentially!negative!ways!–!there!was!no!chance!that!
they!would!stop!their!creative!pursuits,!as!she!believed!this!was!the!key!to!achievement!and!
lifelong!confidence!for!many!of!her!students.!!
She!suggested!that!schools!(including!one!of!the!other!case!study!sites)!who!have!
narrowed!their!focus!to!these!measures!of!education!have!‘[lost]!sight!of!the!whole!thing,!
and!put!it!in!isolation’.!She!elaborated!that:!!
!
You!can’t!just!have!them!coming!out!knowing!all!their!tables!–!that’s!a!core,!but!
it’s!not!just!about!that![…]!so!if!you!take!away!the!musicals,!if!you!take!away!all!
that!sort!of!stuff,!well!they’re!opportunities!for!kids!who!mightn’t!do!well!in!
class!to!become!confident,!and!they!bring!that!back!into!the!classroom!to!be!
able!to!be!risk!takers.!If!you!don’t!have!that,!they!won’t!be!able!to!become!risk!
takers!and!have!a!go.!
!
One!element!of!a!performative!culture!is!the!notion!of!discourses!of!‘quality’.!In!this!case,!
when!a!principal!was!seen!to!be!doing!quality!work,!or!to!be!effective!at!their!job,!they!may!
have!been!given!more!leeway!in!undertaking!their!role.!Anne,!viewed!by!her!supervisor!and!
colleagues!as!aligning!with!this!discourse!of!being!a!‘quality’!principal,!was!given!more!
freedom!to!work!in!ways!that!she!and!her!school!community!deemed!appropriate.!The!
centrality!of!their!school!vision!enabled!her!to!work!within!a!constantly-evolving!system!
!
!
13!
governed!by!shifting!expectations!for!leaders,!all!the!while!keeping!the!school’s!values!and!
aims!at!the!forefront!of!her!practices.!!
(
?25(L!)E4"%5(!":-%'HF(;#2))%(".,(7)::$.-&'(8"6&.5612-=1/(".,(<.,-4-,$"%(;&$,5.&(!)#$1(
When!asked!about!her!enactment!of!government!policies!espousing!public!and!transparent!
data!as!a!way!of!encouraging!school!improvement,!Anne!identified!pressures!from!external!
sources!(such!as!the!media)!as!being!more!of!an!issue!than!a!purpose-built!website!such!as!
0';#2))%.!Conversations!with!the!school!community!centred!more!frequently!around!
articles!that!appeared!in!newspapers!or!on!television.!Anne!suggested!that!the!flow-on!
effect!from!negative!media!reports!about!NAPLAN!results!had!an!impact!on!pressure!from!
her!school!community,!commenting!that:!
!
The!media,![…]!they’ve!released!the!results!last!week!and!so!straight!away!the!
next!day!they’ve!got!in!the!Courier!Mail!(Queensland’s!most!widely!circulated!
newspaper)!‘yadda!yadda!yadda’,!and!you’re!like!‘whoa’.!It’s!a!lot!of!pressure.!!
!
Anne’s!response,!and!the!wider!response!at!Foxvale,!to!community!concerns!about!NAPLAN!
data!was!to!focus!on!individual!student!growth!instead!of!the!overall!‘traffic!light’!colours!
presented!for!quick!consumption!on!the!Australian!Government’s!website,!0';#2))%,!
where!shades!of!green!represented!performance!exceeding!targets,!and!shades!of!red!
represented!below-target!performance:!!
!
But!then!you’ve!got!to!convince!your!community!to!say!that!we!are!doing!really!
well!in!that,!and!when!they!are!–!overall!we!don’t,!we’ve!got!red!there,!we’ve!
got!some!orange,!which!is!great!–!we!aren’t!ALL!red,!but!we!never!have!–!
actually!we’ve!got!a!couple!of!green,!in!grammar!and!writing!or!something,!but!
you!know!we!don’t!have!it!overall.!But![…]!parents![…]!really,!in!the!end,!lots!of!
them!are!only!interested!in!their!child,!and!their!growth.!!!
!
This!approach!of!focusing!on!individual!students!in!discussions!with!parents!rather!than!
focusing!on!the!red!and!green!of!the!school’s!overall!NAPLAN!data!seemed!to!provoke!more!
community!confidence!in!the!work!being!done!at!the!school.!Anne!commented!that!parents!
!
!
14!
understood!the!progress!being!made!by!their!own!child!‘from!point!A!to!point!B’.!This!could!
be!measured,!Anne!believed,!in!the!annual!opinion!surveys!where!‘we!get!100%!repeatedly!
all!the!time,![from]!staff,!parents,!".,!students’!in!response!to!the!question!of!whether!
students!get!a!good!education!at!this!school.!Here!we!can!see!that!unlike!another!possible!
response!to!this,!of!changing!educational!practices!at!the!school!that!researchers!argue!
could!lead!to!possible!narrowed!or!negative!practices,!Anne!led!with!an!emphasis!on!the!
individual!student.!Even!though!she!felt!the!pressure,!as!mentioned!earlier!in!this!article,!
she!persevered!with!a!strong!focus!on!individual!students!and!disregarded!the!‘red’!element!
of!their!bigger!picture!of!school!data.!This!research!is!significant!as!it!demonstrates!that,!in!a!
sense,!Anne!eschewed!many!aspects!of!performative!cultures!in!her!approach!here.!She!
was!certainly!working!within!a!performative!culture,!however!she!did!not!necessarily!
demonstrate!the!behaviours!or!responses!that!may!be!expected!within!these!performative!
cultures.!!
Anne’s!emphasis!on!valuing!people!and!holistic!education!extended!beyond!her!
students!and!to!her!staff!as!well!–!anecdotally,!other!principals!in!the!case!studies!referred!
to!her!without!prompting!when!discussing!relationship!building!and!valuing!staff!members!
as!well!as!parents!and!community!members!in!order!to!create!a!cohesive!school!
community.!This!was!possibly!due,!in!part,!to!Anne’s!own!personality!and!her!convictions!
that!leadership!should!be!about!strong!relationships.!Anne!revealed!that!her!motivations!in!
this!aspect!stemmed!from!her!own!experiences!working!with!experienced!teachers!and!
leaders!in!the!early!stages!of!her!career.!Some!of!Anne’s!principals!built!strong!relationships!
with!staff!and!communities,!but!others!(including!senior!teachers!with!whom!she!worked!as!
a!beginning!teacher)!were!lacking!in!what!she!saw!as!a!vital!area.!This!determination!to!
make!people!feel!valued!and!respected!manifested!in!the!way!Anne!interacted!with!her!
staff!as!well!as!the!school!team’s!approach,!which!emphasised!a!strong!focus!on!pastoral!
and!holistic!education,!and!valuing!each!individual!child.!In!fact,!Anne!saw!holistic!education!
as!part!of!Foxvale’s!‘brand’,!or!one!of!the!unique!characteristics!of!the!school.!She!noted!
that:!!
!
In!the!end!people!value!that!about!this!school,!that!we!do!have!those!things,!
and!they’re!looking!for!that,!and!when!they!come!in!it’s!not!just!about!the!
academic!stuff,!it’s!about!support.!!
!
!
15!
!
Anne!emphasised!that!they!provided!‘other!opportunities!for!kids!to!develop’,!beyond!
traditional!academia,!such!as!a!focus!on!visual!and!creative!arts.!In!addition!to!these!more!
creative!avenues!for!students!to!develop,!the!school!prided!itself!on!having!an!environment!
where!pastoral!care!was!a!strong!part!of!the!landscape.!Anne!suggested!that!parents!had!
come!from!across!the!city,!and!had!even!moved!from!other!cities!to!enrol!in!their!school!for!
this!reason.!The!school’s!vision!and!reputation!of!valuing!individual!students!and!being!‘the!
Foxvale!family’!was!often!cited!as!a!drawcard!for!families!when!enrolling!their!students!at!
the!school.!Anne!said!that:!!
!
It!isn’t!just!about!the!academia,!they’re!looking!for!‘what!are!you!going!to!do!in!
order!to!help!my!child?’!and!going!the!extra!mile,!and!we!have!that!pastoral!care!
thing,!and!we!are!a!family,!and![they!are]!part!of!that!family.!!
!
Anne!shared!a!sense!of!pride!that!parents!have!moved!from!metropolitan!centres!and!from!
other!local!schools!to!attend!Foxvale.!In!her!view,!the!attraction!of!people!from!outside!of!
the!traditional!enrolment!area!meant!the!school!was!doing!something!right!for!its!students,!
and!providing!a!quality!education!with!a!reputation!that!extended!beyond!the!local!area.!!
As!part!of!their!school!vision,!the!‘Foxvale!Family’,!she!emphasised!strong!partnerships!
between!the!school!and!parents!or!carers!and!ensured!that!they!were!consistently!kept!
informed!about!their!child’s!progress.!In!a!climate!where!data!was!heavily!emphasised!and!
presented!largely!uncontextualised!on!places!like!0';#2))%,!it!could!be!difficult!for!schools!
with!data!that!does!not!‘read’!as!well!as!schools!might!hope.!This!approach,!where!the!
Foxvale!teachers!looked!towards!individual!student!progress!rather!than!trying!to!focus!on!
improving!bigger!picture!school!data,!represents!a!departure!from!their!peers!and!provides!
an!alternative!approach!towards!dealing!with!a!data-driven!landscape!of!schooling.!!!
!
G..5H1(LM)),(?6"#A(D5#)6,H(@-&2(&25(C5="6&:5.&((
Anne!maintained!that!one!reason!she!was!able!to!work!in!ways!that!resisted!performative!
influences!was!due!to!her!‘good!track!record’!with!her!supervisors.!In!her!own!words,!Anne!
was!‘left!alone’!because!her!supervisors!knew!that!she!would!meet!the!requirements!met!
!
!
16!
by!the!system,!she!had!a!good!track!record!with!few!complaints!from!the!community!and!
with!steady!data!that!may!not!have!been!‘green’!but!nor!was!it!declining.!!
! Anne!also!noted!that!she!was!very!compliant!with!departmental!regulations.!Any!
forms,!required!reports,!or!documents!were!always!submitted!on!time!and!she!maintained!
clear!and!consistent!communication!with!her!supervisors.!There!were!levels!of!complexity!
to!establishing!and!maintaining!this!track!record.!There!were!lower-level!managerial!aspects!
like!basic!compliance,!but!also!more!complex!community!leadership!challenges!to!contend!
with.!Anne!attributed!her!ability!to!work!outside!the!system!and!performative!norms,!and!
focus!on!what!she!felt!mattered,!to!her!track!record.!In!her!words,!she!was!‘left!alone’!to!do!
what!she!wanted!to!do.!!
!
Discussion$&$Conclusion$$
A!number!of!factors!potentially!contributed!to!the!reasons!that!Anne!and!the!Foxvale!team!
were!able!to!confidently!resist!some!performative!influences!and!pursue!a!holistic!vision!of!
education!for!all!of!their!students.!Working!closely!with!the!school!community!and!directing!
parent!attention!towards!student!journeys!of!progress,!rather!than!final!achievement!
scores,!as!well!as!the!perception!of!Anne!as!a!quality!principal,!also!enabled!her!to!focus!on!
holistic!education!and!on!individual!students,!rather!than!being!influenced!by!the!potential!
pitfalls!of!performative!cultures.!Research!has!identified!the!potential!for!leadership!
practices!to!be!impacted!by!pressure!from!performative!policy!influences,!the!results!of!
which!could!include!a!narrowed!focus!on!curriculum!(Bhattacharyya!et!al.,!2013;!
Minarechová,!2012),!and!the!potential!loss!of!long-term!leadership!strategy!(Heffernan,!
2017).!This!could!be!theorised!as!leaders!working!in!a!reactive!state!as!a!result!of!frequent!
policy!moves!(Lyotard,!1984),!and!this!study!provides!insights!into!how!leaders!might!speak!
back!to!some!of!these!challenges.!!
Anne!had!an!understanding!of!the!contextual!factors!impacting!upon!the!school’s!
data,!which!enabled!her!to!confidently!focus!more!specifically!on!individual!student!
progress,!rather!than!on!improving!the!overall!trends!within!the!data!for!public!
consumption!such!as!it!may!appear!on!0';#2))%,!or!in!similar!public!reporting!methods.!!
Furthermore,!in!Anne’s!words,!she!was!‘left!alone’!because!her!supervisors!knew!that!she!
would!meet!performance!requirements,!she!had!‘a!good!track!record’,!and!she!was!seen!to!
be!‘performing!well’.!In!a!performative!culture,!these!discourses!of!quality!work!–!and!
!
!
17!
workers!–!are!important!elements.!Keddie!(2014)!noted!that!schools!(and,!I!advance,!
principals!with!good!track!records)!who!held!advantageous!positions!in!the!local!hierarchy!
would!take!up!autonomy!more!confidently.!This!is!evident!in!Anne’s!confidence!in!working!
towards!her!school’s!vision!of!a!wider!education!goal!than!was!emphasised!by!the!
Department’s!priorities!and!policies.!The!tension!here!is!evident!for!principals!in!
performative!cultures.!By!being!seen!as!a!quality!leader!within!the!current!climate!and!by!
enacting!these!school!improvement!policies!in!a!way!that!the!system!deemed!to!be!
effective,!Anne!was!provided!with!freedom!that!meant!she!could!more!easily!resist!the!
more!potentially!negative!influences!of!performative!cultures.!!
However,!this!required!Anne!to!be!compliant!with!departmental!procedures,!and!
demonstrate!that!school!data!was!(at!the!very!least)!stable.!Had!Anne’s!priorities!had!a!
negative!impact!on!the!data!valued!by!the!Department,!it!is!less!clear!what!she!might!have!
had!the!freedom!to!do.!With!that!said,!the!Foxvale!school!vision!enabled!Anne!and!her!team!
to!see!the!big!picture!of!their!goals!and!return!regularly!to!that!vision.!Any!development!of!
new!policies!or!school!based!procedures!in!relation!to!systemic!requirements!were!guided!
by,!and!linked!explicitly!back!to,!the!school’s!vision.!This!ensured!consistency!and!was!
demonstrative!of!Anne’s!ability!to!take!a!strategic!approach!towards!her!work!as!principal!at!
Foxvale,!not!working!in!a!reactive!state!and!making!the!automatic!countermoves!discussed!
by!Lyotard!(1984)!in!response!to!shifting!expectations!from!the!system,!and!the!pressures!
commonly!associated!with!performative!cultures.!These!factors!helped!Anne!to!achieve!her!
goal!of!maintaining!a!focus!on!ensuring!that!‘The!Foxvale!Family’!vision!was!embedded!and!
evident!throughout!the!culture!of!the!school;!her!work!to!develop!and!maintain!
relationships!with!staff,!students,!and!community!members;!and!the!instructional!
leadership!decisions!she!made!as!principal.!
!
<:=%-#"&-).1(*)6(=6"#&-#5(".,(*$&$65(6515"6#2(,-65#&-).1(
This!study!has!illustrated!how!one!principal!makes!sense!of!their!work!under!a!school!
improvement!policy!ensemble!(Hardy,!2014)!and,!at!the!same!time,!holds!some!implications!
for!practice.!By!highlighting!the!factors!that!influenced!Anne’s!ability!to!resist!performative!
policy!influences,!the!findings!of!the!study!could!be!translated!to!other!school!contexts.!The!
value!of!collaborating!with!communities!and!developing!visions!are!not!new!ideas,!but!
!
!
18!
perhaps!could!be!considered!by!leaders!as!means!of!enabling!them!to!work!in!new!ways.!It!
could!potentially!give!confidence!to!principals!in!similar!positions.!!
! Future!research!directions!will!focus!on!exploring!other!contexts,!and!leadership!
practices!in!schools!working!towards!a!wider!goal!of!education!than!might!be!valorised!by!
their!system!and!policy!conditions.!If!possible,!discerning!the!factors!that!influence!these!
approaches!can!give!schools!and!leaders!a!starting!point!if!they!are!seeking!to!take!a!similar!
approach.!!
!
! !
!
!
19!
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!
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!!
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!
22!
Biographical!Note!
!
Dr!Amanda!Heffernan!is!a!lecturer!in!Leadership!in!the!Faculty!of!Education!at!Monash!
University,!Australia.!Formerly!a!school!principal,!she!has!a!particular!interest!in!the!work!of!
public!school!principals!in!relation!to!policy!enactment,!school!improvement,!and!the!
changing!nature!of!the!Principalship.!Her!other!research!interests!include!leadership!for!
social!justice,!leadership!in!rural!and!remote!schools,!and!the!working!lives!of!school!
principals.!!
... This paper is underpinned by the systems leadership framework for school improvement, whereby a confluence of factors within specific contexts combines to influence school improvement. Heffernan (2018) emphasised the importance of considering contextual realities holistically to ensure effective curriculum implementation. The contextual factors are at three levels, namely, the school and community, the school districts and the national educational policies (Fullan, 2005). ...
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The most common criticism of standardized testing is that teachers find themselves “teaching to the test” instead of teaching the various content and skill areas of the curriculum. In recent years, standardized tests have become the predominant tool used to determine a student’s progress, to promote or retain a student at the current grade level, and to identify if a learning disability exists. The main problem with standardized tests is that they inhibit the kind of education that matters the most, preparing young people with “higher order thinking skills” to compete in a global economy. Does “teaching to the test”, an integral part of standardized tests, really increase student capabilities and knowledge, or does it simply put more pressure on teachers and students? Teachers want their students to excel on their standardized tests for both their benefit, as well as the benefit of their students. High scores become even more important because the school district uses individual school test scores to evaluate each school. In many cases, school ratings are now linked to funding and teacher evaluation. Novice teachers are the next generation of educators who will be teaching school children. These enthusiastic, optimistic young professionals have a unique perspective that has not been tainted by the educational bureaucracy. In this paper some novice teachers who were presently teaching voiced their concerns and opinions against standardized tests.
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Bringing together twenty years of research and writing, this book provides an overview of Stephen Ball's career and shows not only the development of his most important ideas but also the long-lasting contributions he has made to the field of educational policy analysis. This volume contains sixteen key essays divided into three sections: perspectives on policy research policy technologies and policy analysis social class and education policy. Each chapter presents innovative ways of thinking about public policy, asking probing questions about what policy is, how policy is influenced and what effects intentional and unintentional policies have. As a body of work, this collection raises issues of ethics and social justice which are often neglected in the mass of policies that now affect every aspect of our education systems.
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