Archive for the 'Early Childhood' Category
Saturday, 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.
Sunday, April 24th, 2016
At the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai in March Education Director for the OECD Andreas Schleicher criticised the Australian education system for falling behind global standards. He pointed to the very significant drop in the results of students at the top of the PISA test rankings in the past year. He said “[Australia] more or less defines teachers by the number of hours that [they] teach in front of students. That is part of the problem. We treat teachers as interchangeable widgets on the frontline – they are just there to implement prefabricated knowledge.” Schleicher said many countries were struggling to keep the best teachers in the profession because of curriculums that restrict creativity.
The OECD through its PISA program which explores literacy in 15 year olds in writing, math and science every three years has been criticised very heavily in some countries as driving the education agenda. Countries determine their own policies but unfortunately the ideology which underlies PISA – standardised testing, along with performance pay and independent schooling – has been adopted too vigorously by some countries. The important findings about effective school education policies and practices brought out in the comprehensive reports of PISA and Education at a Glance are ignored or even deliberately misinterpreted.
In Australia parents are moving their kids in ever larger numbers to schools they perceive to be better based mainly on scores in standardised tests – NAPLAN – published on the MySchool website. What is happening is a drift of students from advantaged backgrounds away from public schools, which generally have large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, to independent schools. As a result learning gaps between children from different backgrounds are widening. Parents are responding to test scores and to other factors. That should have been anticipated by those deciding to privilege standardised testing and support extra funding for independent schools.
The Myth of School Choice: Government support for Independent Schools and Standardised Tests traverses the recent report from the Grattan Institute which illuminates important outcomes of the Howard Government’s support of independent schools and the reactions of parents to that. The focus on NAPLAN has problems drawn out in a report by Chris Bonner and Bernie Shepherd for the Centre for Policy Development and a study by David Zyngier of Monash University. That independent schools do not contribute to better educational achievement when socioeconomic background is taken into account is shown by a sophisticated report by researchers from the University of Queensland and colleagues. As it has been by many previous analyses!
Study after study has shown no significant educational gain by the much better resourced independent schools. The extra funds would have been better spent supporting those children with greatest needs, those from disadvantaged backgrounds having trouble with the learning program.
The Turnbull Coalition Government, like the Abbott Government before it, has refused to fund the last two years of the National Plan for School Improvement framed in response to the Gonski Panel’s recommendations: it maintains there are insufficient funds. However, there is substantial evidence to the effect that funds are available by addressing the substantial tax expenditures – tax concessions – introduced in recent years; Australia is a relatively low tax country and a major contribution to debt is private debt funding purchase of houses and apartments.
The response by the Turnbull Government to the States’ refusal to consider operating their own income tax systems has left unresolved the funding of schools (and hospitals) through agreements between the former government and the states, with the Prime Minister maintaining that the states have no grounds on which to ask the Commonwealth to raise taxes and claiming the previous agreements were made in “barely credible circumstances”. The Myth of School Choice: the Economics of Independent Schools and Australian Government Policy shows just how wrong this is and how billions of taxpayer funds have been wasted. A report by Lyndsay Connors and Jim McMorrow and detailed analysis by Trevor Cobbold illuminate the situation.
Proposals to have the Commonwealth fund independent schools and the States fund public schools were strongly criticised and are not supported by the Government’s own Green Paper on the Future of the Federation. In Victoria a review by former Premier Steve Bracks recommends policies reinforcing the Gonski reforms.
Despite adoption of policies in the US and UK based mainly on neoclassical economics which privilege private sector participation in generating public goods like education, favour competition and choice and deploy financial incentives to drive change, there are examples in those countries, as in Australia, of exciting outcomes from schools which do address the main features of effective learning in schools.
The Myth of School Choice: Genuine improvement happens when everyone collaborates for the benefit of the children summarises an important review by education historian Diane Ravitch of two very interesting books on schools in the United States. It isn’t simply quality teachers or the administrative independence of school principals and it certainly isn’t standardised testing which make the difference! Kristina Rizga, author of Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph, about a high school in San Francisco with an enrolment of students from a wide cultural diversity, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, points out, “too many politicians, powerful bureaucrats, management and business experts, economists, and philanthropists are making decisions about the best solutions for schools. In short, the people in charge don’t know nearly as much about schooling as the students and teachers they are trying to “fix.””
Despite everything, at Mission High in San Francisco great gains were made by students through the intense enthusiasm of their teachers.
Rizga says, “What matters in quality education – critical thinking, intrinsic motivation, resilience, self-management, resourcefulness, and relationship skills – exist in realms that can’t be easily measured by statistical measures and computer algorithms, but can be detected by teachers using human judgment. America’s business-inspired obsession with prioritizing “metrics” in a complex world that deals with the development of individual minds has become the primary cause of mediocrity in American schools.”
Diane Ravitch points out “grand ideas cannot be imposed on people without their assent. Money and power are not sufficient to improve schools. Genuine improvement happens when students, teachers, principals, parents, and the local community collaborate for the benefit of the children.”
And education does not by itself fix poverty.
Wednesday, April 8th, 2015
The heightened attention to inequality in society, in developed countries more than developing, and the seeming impossibility of gaining the attention of those with influence to the need to understand how inequality affects the achievement of the goals of improving education leads me to publish another edited extract from the book Education: The Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity (Springer, 2014). The publication of sociologist Robert Putnam’s latest book, subtitled The American Dream in Crisis is relevant to these issues.
The overcoming of disadvantage, evident in homelessness and the housing crisis, urban decay, inadequate public infrastructure including public transport and recreation facilities, resort to substance abuse, increased stress in families trying to cope with government policies and the practices of many commercial organisations, including greedy financial institutions, cannot be judged as recognised by those with the responsibility for governance in countries overrun by adherence to market economics and small government which regards elimination of deficits and debts as the primary goal of responsible government.
I recall that perspective on the United States in relation to health care. When people are asked what they would like to see by way of health policy they frequently mention Canada. But when they are told that Canadian polices are very like those in Scandinavia and much of Europe, the response is, “Oh no, we don’t want that, that is socialism!” We have heard that cry in Australia from time to time. That those countries’ economic performance in many dimensions is superior to that of many other countries is seldom reported, and those with influence see no reason to enlighten us.
Of the issues which must be tackled if inequality is to be seriously addressed education and health are amongst the most important. In the US especially neither area can be regarded honestly as anything but dysfunctional. In Australia, genuine progress in education is stalled, as discussed on this site already. The Abbott government’s health policies, founded on cutting costs grounded in phoney arithmetic and a lack of courage, are irrelevant: as in education and every other area, there are experts in Australia extremely well informed about all these areas. The government sees no reason to take any notice of them.
So, another two essays address these issues, one dealing with education and inequality, the other a review of Putnam’s book, or at least the account of it in a recent article in The Economist. I have recently again addressed early childhood issues at the end of the essay Learning, Creativity and Early Childhood. Economic issues and early childhood are also dealt with in the first six essays on education, also edited extracts from Education: The Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity.
Saturday, February 14th, 2015
The following post was first published on the website of Civil Liberties Australia under the title, Aborigines: resilience, courage and humour. The post is a response to the Report by the Productivity Commission, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage published 19 Nov 2014. It is also cross posted on my blog.
As the lights go down at the Belvoir Theatre, an elderly man with a wonderful white beard leads other actors in a recalled presentation to a Royal Commission.
In 1874 the Victorian government moved to close an economically successful enterprise at Coranderrk, near Healesville. Nearby farmers protested the land was too valuable for Aboriginal people. The people resisted. But anyway the area was closed in 1924 despite protests from Wurundjeri men, returned soldiers from the Great War: people were moved to Lake Tyers. There are scores of similar stories, hardly known.
Uncle Jack Charles, now 72, was taken from his mother at Cummeragunja mission as a one year old and raised in a boys’ home at suburban Box Hill. He was the only Aboriginal child there: they ”thrashed the living bejesus out of me’’, and worse. Jack was in and out of jail for minor crime and substance abuse. Reunited with some family at age 17, it was two more years before that included his mother. Jack is considered a founder of black theatre: he now helps young Aboriginal people.
As I watch Uncle Jack Charles perform, I perceive the resilience, courage and humour permeating every performance, comprising cultural achievement in spite of a life lived against the odds. (The play Beautiful One Day, also performed at Belvoir, has the same characteristics.)
Indigenous people are still here, teaching us cultural lessons, as we who are not indigenous have passed from hideous assimilation to integration through policies based on arrogance and now ignorance.
Denial, exploitation, removal of children, murder and rape, suppression of language. Refusal to acknowledge the past. Refusal to acknowledge a unique relationship with land with all its meanings, and managing the land through ice-age and desert periods. Refusal of equal rights despite judgements of the High Court, despite legislation, despite Royal Commissions, despite so many statements from elders white and black, despite increasing achievements in every field, not only music, painting and literature.
Disadvantage: Closing the Gap?
The extraordinarily comprehensive and, in some places, terribly disturbing Productivity Commission Report of late 2014 reveals trends that are a disgrace of international proportion against global standards. The report is comprehensive and detailed: every aspect of Indigenous disadvantage explored. It contains numerous examples of “Things that Work”. And it received about as much media attention as the chime on a time clock.
Horrendous statistics overshadow small gains and losses. Health, education and housing, which characterise Indigenous peoples’ problems worldwide, remain major issues. Australia is worse than anywhere: 78% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander households lack acceptable access to water, sewerage and electricity service, but that figure is 5 points down from 2008…so overcrowding declined!
There is no progress in employment (likely affected by changes in the Community Employment Program), or in disability and chronic disease at 1.7 times the incidence for non-Indigenous people.
An increase in the non-Indigenous rate of family and community violence means the Indigenous rate remains 2.2 times the non-Indigenous rate. Over the nine years to 2012-13 the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children on care and protection orders increased almost five times from 11 to 49 per 1000 children; for non-Indigenous children the rate was between 3 and 6 per 1000 children.
Adult Indigenous jailing increased by 57% in the past 14 years. Youth imprisonment increased sharply to 2008 and has since remained at about 24 times the non-Indigenous rate. Repeat offending is 1.5 times the rate of 55% for non-Indigenous prisoners, as in 2000.
The over-representation of indigenous people in prison in Australia is 10 times that of the USA!
The suicide rate in the five years to 2012 was almost twice the rate for non-Indigenous Australians. The hospitalisation rate for intentional self-harm increased by almost 50% to more than 400 per 100,000 in the past eight years; for other Australians it remained relatively stable.
In education, the figures are also far worse than for Indigenous people in other countries. In New Zealand, 85% of Maori have post-school qualifications and in the US it is about 65% of Native Americans: in Australia less than 20% have such qualifications.
Decades of continuing discrimination
Gough Whitlam, on election as Prime Minister of Australia in 1972, directed one of his first two major initiatives at Aboriginal people: no more grants of leases on Aboriginal reserves in the Northern Territory, appointment of Justice Woodward to commence an inquiry into land rights, and establishment of special schools.
Before and since Whitlam, any moves to advantage Indigenous peoples have been opposed by special interests in pastoral and mining activities and by state governments, except South Australia. In Western Australia discrimination continues as Premier Colin Barnett does his best to remove Indigenous people from remote areas, refusing allocation of mining royalties to support them and maintains mandatory sentencing for minor crime.
In 2006 Prime Minister Howard and Minister Mal Brough established the Northern Territory Intervention or National Emergency Response (NTER) to address alleged high levels of child abuse and neglect, with some allegations later found to be fraudulent and invented by an employee in the Minister’s office. The army was sent in, social security payments were managed, the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended. Contrary to recommendations from a government-commissioned report, action was centralised.
Delivering the 2007 Vincent Lingiari lecture, Reconciliation Australia co-chair Fred Chaney expressed shock: the Intervention was contemptuous of Aboriginal property rights and the principles of non-discrimination, authorised micro management of lives, forced people into towns with devastating social consequences likely returning people to dependence, crushing the engagement essential to progress.
The Intervention has produced no gains. In the five years to 2011 Indigenous hospitalisation rates increased by 14%, income support recipients by 20%, reported child abuse by 56% and school attendance declined by 2 percentage points according to emeritus Professor Jon Altman.
Professor Larissa Behrendt says trying to change behaviour through welfare quarantining in an already dysfunctional situation likely exacerbates the stress on households. Improved attendance would be better achieved by breakfast and lunch programs, bringing the Aboriginal community, especially elders, into schools; teacher’s aides and Aboriginal teachers; a curriculum engaging for Aboriginal children which blends development self-esteem and confidence through engaging with culture as well as academic excellence.
A failure of policy: What could have been
Dr Christine Nicholls, now at Flinders University, was principal of Lajamanu School in Yuendumu for almost a decade. In Quarterly Essay 36 (2009), she points out that the issues of housing, health and employment need to be equal, simultaneous and concurrent foci of government and private attention before education can bring about real and lasting change.
People visited from government agencies out of town but nothing happened! The kids have otitis media (a disease of the Third World!) and can’t hear properly: if you can’t hear, you muck up in school, and don’t learn. It is ignored.
Few ESL teachers are employed, the value of teaching in language is denied, housing construction is appalling (and successive governments have done nothing about it). There is nowhere at home to do homework, overcrowding (with its attendant problems of potential child abuse), compromised health and hygiene. Lack of work for parents. Successive governments come to power wanting to be the one that fixes “the problem”. None do, small successes are not built on.
Many programs to advance Indigenous people are supported by private donations, corporate philanthropy, some together with government. Several help young people particularly. What on earth persuaded the Howard and Abbott governments to force on to Indigenous people wholly ineffectual policies that simply repeat all the mistakes of the past, are based on colonial and assimilative policies and in the end waste money and destroy people’s lives?
Governments could have decided to be far more engaged in ensuring proper housing, education and health programs. They could have ensured a substantial funding component of every initiative went to training Indigenous people. They could have stopped trying to justify policy by lying! And the federal government could have rejected the sometimes racist and backward looking objections of many provincial governments. Almost none have the courage to face down critics wanting to solve it all through rational economic solutions like private ownership and put everything in the “they need to adapt to our society” basket.
The majority of Indigenous people live in New South Wales and Victoria. The situations revealed in the Aboriginal-directed and -produced, award-winning TV dramas Redfern Now are situations of all people in towns and cities on the margin: difficulties of employment and daily living: health issues flowing from bad diet, cheap fast food, substance and alcohol abuse, poor housing.
There are three fundamental requirements: Self Determination, Financial Security, and support of Women/Early Childhood and Parenting
The right to self-determination must be embraced completely. Sovereignty matters! The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development has run hundreds of research studies over more than two decades in Native American communities. When Native Americans make their own decisions about what development approaches to take, they consistently out-perform external decision makers on matters as diverse as governmental forms, natural resource management, economic development, health care and social service provision.
Self-determination is a constant theme in every speech by Indigenous people. It is an expression of control over one’s own life. Many, non-Indigenous and Indigenous, have pointed out that redressing disadvantage in the longer term depends upon people having the power to make decisions that affect them, to be responsible for the programs designed to meet their needs, and accountable for the successes and failures that follow.
Michael Dockery of Curtin University has found these same outcomes for Indigenous people in Australia. But no notice is taken. What is axiomatic for white groups in society is seen as a threat if given to black groups! Capable institutions of governance, adoption of stable decision rules, establishment of fair and independent mechanisms of dispute resolution and leaders who introduce new knowledge and experiences, challenge assumptions, and propose change are recognised as essential by Harvard.
Second is equitable funding as the bottom line, and more beyond that as success builds. Under-funding has typified programs for more than 100 years. Except for the Whitlam government, almost every federal government has strenuously failed to adequately fund Indigenous programs. Wages and social security payments have been withheld and compensation ignored. The funding must acknowledge the right to determine the nature of projects directed to community improvement.
Under the government of Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Tony Abbott:
- $43 million will be removed from legal aid over four years;
- $160 million is being cut from health programs;
- language support has lost money; and
- funding for the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples was eliminated.
Recently Prof Altman has pointed to the success of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme which began in the 1970s: it increased earnings, provided more time for ceremonial activities, and crime decreased. Howard cancelled the increasingly demonised scheme because it wasn’t “real work”. In December 2014 the Abbott government announced a work for the dole scheme for remote Australia. Utterly pointless!
Early childhood and parenting
Australian and international understanding of early childhood, mother–child relationships, cognitive development and the impact on later life has increased significantly. These relationships are critical. The stimulation and warmth of the relationship contributes to a successful later life. Young children learn how to behave, and about human relationships and self-control which is a greater predictor of later “success” than any other indicator. And they learn self-confidence which helps manage the stress of later life better.
Recalled experiences in early childhood carry over to later parenting situations. So a potential cycle is developed. Therefore maximum support must be given to women and young families. Preschool staffed by qualified teachers and before that maximum effective support. Later, while Indigenous parents may not be clear about what school has to do with education, because of their background, that does not mean they have no interest in education. On the other hand intervening at school age will not likely undo the damage of early life. And availability of jobs after schooling is completed is essential.
The Productivity Commission and many people working and studying in the area have identified successes. But generally governments have not addressed the causes of problems, they have not co-ordinated the policies across significant areas and have not recognised the obligations to First Peoples whose right to the land was denied for 200 years. The invidious comparisons with the Indigenous peoples of other countries testifies to that.
There is a crisis of intellectual laziness combined with arrogance. In particular, the critical importance of cultural issues have not been attended to, nor has the impact of removal from land and of forced removal of children from families, which continues. Nothing has been learned from elsewhere.
The paternalistic approach which denies people any sense of control over their own lives leaves them more than marginalised. A friend points to the fact that many Aboriginal people have little understanding of white institutions and the implications of such things as court judgements.
But they know very well what denial of liberty means. Anything approaching racial profiling, failure to deliver in the judicial and police arena, criminalising minor crimes, mandatory sentencing and imprisonment produces more destructive behaviour and undermines progress elsewhere. It should be stopped immediately. Everything should be geared to developing a sense of self-worth grounded in a unique culture so that Indigenous identity is genuinely valued by the whole Australian community. Surprising as it may seem, many Aboriginal people regard all white people as of greater value than any Aboriginal person.
David Gulpilil won best lead actor for his role in Rolf de Heer’s film Charlie’s Country at the annual Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) event in January 2015. There are lessons in that if we only think about them.
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
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