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The Education of Christopher Pyne

The approach to education reform intended by the new Government, as enunciated especially by Education Minister Pyne, is based on serious misunderstandings of the nature of education and the latest contribution to knowledge about it. “People need to understand that the government has changed in Canberra, that we’re not simply administering the previous government’s policies or views”.

The National Plan for School Improvement passed by the Parliament in June represents substantial advances over the existing school education system. Save Our School’s Trevor Cobbold points to the priority given in the Plan to reducing disadvantage.

The Plan breaks the link between government and private schools which allowed that every time state governments increased funding for disadvantaged students in government schools, a portion of it flowed through to private schools. The funding for disadvantaged schools is unfortunately spread more broadly than the Gonski Panel recommended. The reduction of funding to universities in order to fund the Plan is very unfortunate.

Five areas of concern arise from the statements by Minister Pyne about school education. They are first, the proposition that ‘the present model is not broken’, then the influence of standardised testing, the nature of school leadership, the nature of effective learning and teaching and the nature of the disciplines which form the curriculum, especially history, and the ways they are taught.

The present model is broken! Gonski Panel member Kathryn Greiner said that strongly in an interview on ABC’s RN. The evidence is clear: the disparity between the achievement of Australian kids in well resourced city schools and those in less advantaged schools and from less advantaged backgrounds, especially in remote areas and in indigenous communities, is amongst the highest in OECD countries and is growing.

Standardised testing does not improve student achievement. The main argument is that the tests help improve student achievement. However, variation of scores within a school is substantial so that comparison of schools is near meaningless: scores vary from year to year and subject to subject. School league tables are meaningless!

Attempts to link test scores to teacher performance: a survey of over 200 New York City public schools by Roland Fryer of Harvard University’s Department of Economics in 2011 found no evidence whatsoever that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, graduation or teacher behaviour. Study after study and commentary after commentary have strongly criticised the emphasis on test scores. They have negative effects on student health and wellbeing, as found by the Whitlam Institute. Standardised tests narrow the curriculum. The US group Common Core found a rich curriculum to be the distinguishing feature of school systems in countries whose students did well.

Adults reflecting on their positive recollections of schooling talk of teachers who inspired them by the genuine concern for their individual achievement! How much of Minister Pyne’s policies reflect that, the fact that teacher’s views of student performance are in fact superior to the results of standardised tests and that in countries whose students do well in international tests, teachers are trusted?

School leadership is not management or administration. The Abbott government and its supporters have praised the emergence of ‘independent’ public schools scheme started recently in Western Australia. This and policies of several state governments announced in the last year or so intend to give school principals greater control over budgets and hiring of teachers. The PISA reports make clear that the independence for schools which raises student achievement is not achieved by increasing the administrative burden. Effective school leadership is the same as for leadership in any organisation: strong support for teaching staff including setting high performance standards and developing good relations with the community as is shown in longitudinal studies in disadvantaged south Chicago.

The support for independent schools has led to greater homogeneity in classes as schools better resourced by federal government, student fees and private support attract already advantaged students leaving less advantaged to the meanness of struggling public schools and their dedicated but struggling teachers.

That the average scores of students in the highest quartile in the international tests administered by the PISA program have declined is surely evidence that the reforms of the Howard Government and its support for independent schools have not worked. Socioeconomic background of the class can make a difference of two years or more to the achievement of a child.

Effective learning is student-centred. Mr Pyne favours replacing student-centred learning with a ‘more didactic approach’ to teaching and said so on ABC TV’s Q&A . It ignores the evidence from studies by Stanford’s Jonathan Osborne together with Deakin University’s Russell Tytler and by University of Pittsburgh’s Lauren Resnick about genuine engagement of students in discussion: argumentation and ‘accountable talk’.

That teaching has been didactic and devoid of any human element is a significant reason why history and science teaching so often fails. It ignores the importance of meaningful feedback, as opposed to indiscriminate praise, by teachers to student as revealed by Melbourne University’s John Hattie and Helen Timperley of Auckland University and research in England. And it ignores the importance of intrinsic motivation revealed by University of Sydney’s Andrew Martin.

A challenging and engaging curriculum is essential. Minister Pyne, like Prime Minister Howard, criticises history curricula for promoting ‘left-leaning’ views.

History and science and every area of knowledge are evolving all the time, new themes and new views emerge, older theories are overturned. If curricula are to be alive and engaging new understandings from new research must be incorporated.

In areas considered difficult special efforts must be made: distinguished mathematics educator Celia Hoyles from the UK, speaking at a conference on curricula two years ago, recommended an extra specialist math teacher in every school. Australian students don’t do all that well in mathematics as shown by the latest OECD study of adult literacy and numeracy: Hoyle’s comments went unreported!

The traditional approach to education results in school leavers being able to repeat learned facts but cannot engage in analysis of the issues involved in those domains of knowledge. Those qualities are considered to be essential by many employers outside the fast food and similar industries.

The overall approach of the Coalition’s education policies completely ignores the critical importance of early childhood, relationships of the very young child with the mother and the vital importance of the education of girls and support for mothers. The latest Human Development Report, for 2013, from the United Nations points out that a mother’s education level is more important to child survival than is household income.

The single greatest contribution to improving educational achievement would be support for early childhood including preschool and interventions such as equitable access to parental leave. The gains are particularly strong for children from disadvantaged backgrounds: provision of qualified preschool teachers is essential. It is not child-minding.

By next year, according to the 2008 National Partnership Agreement on Early Childhood Education every child should have access set a target of all children in the year before they attend formal schooling should have access to pre-school delivered by a university qualified early childhood teacher for 15 hours a week, 40 weeks a year. Support for these agreements is essential.

Education does not, by itself, diminish poverty!

Actor and comedian Tim Minchin said much more interesting things about education at the University of Western Australia. Like, “life is best filled by learning as much as you can about as much as you can, taking pride in whatever you’re doing, having compassion, sharing ideas, running(!), being enthusiastic”.

Much of this education reform is just the unwinding of intelligence and creativity!

Mr Pyne could learn a great deal just by listening to ABC RN programs.

A longer version of this article is on On Line Opinion

This item is also posted on my blog