Education Reform is going Where?
January 21st, 2017
As has been pointed out in several earlier posts and essays on this website, education policy in the last 40 or so years, in a number of western countries though not to the same extent in much of Europe and Asia, has increasingly focused on the school years, emphasised parent choice as to the school the child attends, demands accountability in the form of standardised tests on a few core subjects, tends, in a few countries, to favour independent schools rather than public or government schools and seeks to hold teachers to account for the achievement of the students.
The high quality research on the other hand reveals early childhood as critical in terms of brain development and cognitive gain and recognises socioeconomic status of the family to play a major role in the early years which follows through to later experience. The reason is to be found in the very different advantage enjoyed by high socio-economic level families, the greater variety of experiences and much higher level of support of the growing child. Just like health, as Boyer lecturer Michael Marmot so lucidly explains.
As to school, substantial research shows that, by controlling for socioeconomic background, independent schools return no greater student performance than do public schools. It is the value added and the fact that school is by no means the only influence: there are also peers and out of school informal learning experiences. Teacher competence is vital, greatest successes being achieved when entry standards for teachers are high, teaching is recognised as important, teachers trusted and school leadership focuses on supporting the role of teachers in learning and encourages cooperation, preferably among schools, not just within each one.
It is not schools that make the difference but teachers. Competition among schools hinders cooperation which New Zealand found in its 1990 reforms. And parents don’t choose schools only on the basis of academic performance: the background of other students enrolled, something more amenable to parental investigation than learning achievement relative to that at other schools, may be very important. So what is the point?
In a number of countries debate focuses nearly exclusively on the release of results from standardised tests and media commentary attends hardly at all to agreed understandings from research as to what makes a difference: there is an obsession with school average scores and rank, and in international tests with country rank and trend across test years of the individual country. In the US, the UK and Australia this is especially so.
Important results of tests were released in the last two months of 2016 and debate followed the usual course. But extremely important research and commentary also appeared: the research was not of much interest to media or politicians in Australia. Social determinants of education were not exactly ignored in Australia but the strong position of non-government schools achieved very much as a result of increased funding by the Australian government from the time of the Howard government made consideration of inequality much less of an issue than it should be: some commentators ignored or denied the importance of such issues.
Inequality was a major feature of the very important report by the Panel chaired by David Gonski: the adoption of some of the recommendations led to legislation envisaging increased funding to address school need, something also addressed 40 years earlier by the Whitlam government. The government of Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull refuse to recognise the importance of this and continually talk of substantially increased expenditure on schools that their government has provided, an increase which is illusory, and of course, the importance of quality teaching. Meaning what, exactly?
The latest national tests administered as part of the NAPLAN program in December produced the usual flurry. The fact is the program’s value is suspect and there is no evidence it has contributed to improved ahcviement, a point made already! Disability of various kinds, remoteness and indigeneity are revealed as negative contributors. One does not need standardised tests to reveal that.
Tests are summative and not accompanied by any real analysis of contributory factors. Minister Simon Birmingham, like his predecessor Christopher Pyne, intends to bring the tests on line and favours introducing the test to an even earlier school year than at present. Some people ridiculously obsessed with accountability in the name of finding out which students need special help, as if teachers do not know that already, want tests introduced to preschool kids. Creativity anyone? Is play irrelevant? Important research on formative evaluation, to which student self-assessment makes a vital contribution, is ignored in the government’s approach.
Some of the commentary in the context of the NAPLAN talkfest addressed the need to trust teachers and others asserted the Minister was wrong in his intention to not fund the reforms resulting from the Gonski Panel. Presumably the Coalition would have agreed. So it was interesting to find that Minister Birmingham raised the fact that a number of schools – specifically a large number of independent ones – were overfunded and presumably should lose money through redistribution. Researchers were able to identify the overfunding and its location. Next?
It is hard to go past the most recent claims by Senator Simon Birmingham’s recent claims about funding and achievement as an indication of the way in which the government continues to distort claims about school education. Birmingham continually claims huge increases in funding by government and points to poor results from the funding.
A recent “Education Brief” from Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools addresses the claim by the Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, that a 50 per cent increase in Federal funding of schools since 2003 failed to improve student achievement is highly misleading in several ways. Cobbold’s research “Birmingham is Wrong Again on School Funding and Outcomes” of Sunday January 22, 2017 shows that “the increase in total government funding (from Commonwealth and state/territory sources) per student, adjusted for inflation, for the nine years from 2004-05 to 2013-14 was only 4.5 per cent”. Most of the increase in total funding per student favoured private schools (9.8 per cent) who enrol only a small proportion of disadvantaged students; for public schools it was only 3.3 per cent.”
Cobbold also pointed out that Minister Birmingham ignored “significant improvements in Year 12 outcomes that are in sharp contrast to the PISA results. The average retention rate to Year 12, the Year 12 completion rate, the proportion of students achieving an ATAR score of 50 or more, and the proportion of young adults with Year 12 or equivalent vocational qualification have all increased significantly over the past 10-15 years”.
Last, Cobbold again pointed out that the Minister ignored the many academic studies, “including five in the past year”, which showed that increased funding does improve school outcomes, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The shortfalls of NAPLAN are to a large extent offset in the OECD program PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) because its reports are not just lists of scores but includes substantial analysis of contributory factors, a fact generally ignored in commentary. PISA results largely confirm and amplify other research so when some in the US particularly seek to downplay the results because of behaviours in some countries such as intense after school coaching or because, non-random sampling to game the system – really? – it isn’t much of a contribution. Much of the analysis is ignored in a lot of the commentary though not by researchers, or the conclusions even contradicted.
Years ago, a leader of the ALP Opposition proposed that independent schools had too much money and should reallocate some of it to government schools. He was roundly condemned. Prime Minister Julia Gillard tried to avoid this outcome by having as one of the terms of reference for the Gonski Inquiry, which was to focus on school funding only, that no school would lose funds as a result of any reforms. The renewed debate forgot that small point and didn’t got to the fact that the Gillard Government in legislating recommendations from the Gonski Panel did not provide for an independent body to establish and monitor school need. Now the issue has resurfaced. Is inequality being kept to the fore? Problems do exist with the measure of socioeconomic background of the students at each school and that is not being addressed either.
There is a view that support for almost any approach to school education can be found in the PISA results; moreover, last year’s results are not the product of last year’s teaching but of the previous 10 years, based probably on policy formulated 10 years before that.
Two major contributions appeared but received not much attention. Both are among the most important of recent years. Distinguished researcher John Hattie of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education presented a special lecture reviewing the current situation, emphasising many of the most important features of successful schooling and teaching and learning and criticising some of the abject failures of the present system. Hattie’s research involves substantial meta-analysis. He called for a rebooting of school education and also lamented the presently inadequate attention to teacher training, explained the importance of classroom feedback to the teacher and the tragic neglect of early childhood.
A major study at the Mitchell Institute’s Centre for International Research on Education Systems by Professor Stephen Lamb and colleagues gathered data from many different sources to review educational opportunity, who succeeds and who misses out at important stages of life from early childhood through to the early years of adulthood after emergence from the formal education system. Very important commentary is contributed about the factors contributing to why some win and others loose.
Continue to the associated essay Educational Opportunity and Education Reform
One of the major areas of real concern is the achievement level in science and mathematics and related subjects. Substantial research in this area elucidates what is likely to lead to superior achievement through genuine engagement of students, schools working with students and portrayal of the scientific enterprise as conducted by real people struggling to understand, not a litany of facts. There are many examples of exciting success though they don’t necessarily end up on the front pages or Minister’s speeches, even when they are Prime Minister’s prizes. A recent post by Professor Russell Tytler of Deakin University merits attention.