Archive for January, 2015
Tuesday, January 27th, 2015
The school education policies of the Abbott government enunciated by Minister Christopher Pyne focus on several important features. These are a uniform curriculum, standardised testing of students, a didactic approach to teaching including “Direct Instruction”, school choice linked to support for private or independent schools based on the implication that government or public schools are failing and, implicitly, teacher accountability which can mean student test scores being the measure of teacher effectiveness. Pyne has said that those who oppose his policies are simply being politically correct.
The policies are unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. They largely follow the highly prescriptive conservative push which has typified the approach of the United States based on accountability and uniformity across schools. The policies are strongly advocated by the Institute for Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies, the former a particular influence on the Abbott government. Conservative individuals and groups in the US also have substantial influence on school education policies there. The policies are not ones followed by those countries which are successful in international student assessments. Those who have studied the approach to schooling in countries such as Finland point that out in respect of the US.
Two major issues are at stake and are the subject of major conflict: the relative importance of student inequality and influence of the school relative to other influences such as the home, peers and out-of-school activities. All impact on teaching and learning and on creativity.
The Pyne policy sidelines or even denies inequality as an issue. Rather, the view is that public schools are ineffective and the only way to achieve improvement is by encouraging independent schools. This is a policy pursued relentlessly in the US through charter schools and in the UK through Academies but not in European or Asian countries though the relative attention to inequality may vary. An essential correlate of the judgement about relative effectiveness of school is the emphasis on standardised tests and on uniform curriculum. Teachers are considered the key to effective learning, effective teachers should be rewarded financially and that many of the people employed as teachers are not suitable and should be dismissed. A high degree of autonomy for schools in respect of financial management and teacher recruitment is advocated. (These are issues which have been addressed elsewhere on this site.)
Early childhood intervention is a major contributor to student educational achievement. That is significantly influenced by the social and economic advantage of the family. Recognising that, most countries whose school students achieve high test scores support universal preschool: that brings greatest gains for less advantaged children. They also support government funded paid parental leave allowing parents to spend more time with the very young child during a critical period of life. The early years’ learning experiences influence the development of self-control which has a greater effect than any other influence on later life, as shown by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania in 2005.
Over 50 per cent of the contribution to school student achievement is contributed by what the child brings to school and a further proportion is contributed by out of school influences. In other words, most of the factors which influence student achievement are outside the control of the school. And, as John Hattie points out it is the school, not the teacher which has most influence. Almost all children are taught by many different teachers: to single out one teacher, as is done when teacher effectiveness is assessed on the basis of students’ test scores, is nonsense.
The Howard government from 1997 through 2006 had financially supported independent schools leading to a significant drift of students from public to independent schools. Writing in Quarterly Essay 36 (2009) writer Jane Caro quotes researcher Barbara Preston’s statement that by 2006 there were 16 low-income students to every 10 high-income students in high school playgrounds, compared with 13 students from low-income families 10 years earlier. The Rudd and Gillard governments continued support for independent schools by acknowledging, when the review of funding of education was announced, by undertaking that no school would lose money in any government policy flowing from the review.
The Gonski panel strongly supported special funding to address inequality. The Gillard government also sought substantial improvement in teacher training: though initially teacher progression and promotion was linked to student test scores, that was dropped in favour of linking teacher pay to individual teacher attainment of progression through an agreed professional performance framework.
The National Plan for School Improvement, the legislation implementing the Gonski recommendations, provided for increases in funding targeted at disadvantage and committed States to direct their funding to complement the Plan. Pyne removed those provisions in respect of Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory which had not signed up to the National Plan before the September 2013 election. He was loudly opposed by every member of the Gonski Panel and large sections of the community for these decisions.
Pursuit of Pyne’s policies will waste money and take Australian school education policy back decades. The accompanying policies of early childhood education introduced by the Gillard government have stalled amid claims that increases in salaries for teachers are a sop to unions.
The essays accompanying this post summarises a number of recent reports and studies bearing on the fundamentals of Pyne’s policies for schools. These include, in the first essay dealing with learning, creativity and early childhood
- studies of learning and creativity in very young (4 year old) children with implications for “direct instruction” and the issue of Indigenous children and education
- three studies of the contribution that independent and public schools make to later student achievement in university and employment and
- a related set of studies about early childhood and coping with stress in later life.
And in the second essay on teaching and school performance
- a comparison of the approach to teaching in Finland and the US and the results of a survey by the OECD of innovative practices introduced in those two countries and more generally,
- a note on recent events in New York in the war over school education and teachers
- a review of teachers and teaching practice in the US with implications more generally
- assertions by some educational researchers of the damaging impact of the PISA program and assertions derived from the PISA survey that Australia is “falling behind” Asian countries,
- results of the PISA 2012 study of creative problem solving
- a study of school performance “in context” published January 2015 which examined schools and society in nine countries including the US, UK, China and Finland
Continue to Learning, Creativity and Early Childhood