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Teaching and School Performance

This essay summarises a number of recent studies concerning teaching, student assessment and comparisons of school systems.

Specifically the topics are

Different School Systems, Different Processes: Finland and US

Two recent articles by Finland’s Pasi Sahlberg about the system in Finland and the OECD’s recent report on measuring innovation in education show clearly why a highly prescriptive approach will not lead to better outcomes. Separately, two studies of very young children demonstrate how creativity is suppressed by strongly didactic approaches to teaching. Taken together with ongoing evidence from the OECD about the economics of education published as Education at a Glance and other studies, the conclusion is inevitable that every aspect of the Pyne school education policy is fundamentally flawed.

In the first of two articles in the Washington Post, in May 2013, Sahlberg examined the approaches that American “school reformers” have pursued and whether having Finnish teachers teach in the US would lead to improved educational outcomes for American students. He concluded that the tightly controlled, standardised testing and uniform curriculum regime of US schools would lead to most Finnish educators abandoning the teaching profession after five or so years. “Education policies in Indiana and many other states in the United States create a context for teaching that limits (Finnish) teachers to use their skills, wisdom and shared knowledge for the good of their students’ learning.” US teachers transposed to Finland would likely flourish “on account of the freedom to teach without the constraints of standardized curricula and the pressure of standardized testing; strong leadership from principals who know the classroom from years of experience as teachers; a professional culture of collaboration; and support from homes unchallenged by poverty”.

In the second article, published July 2014, Sahlberg highlighted the important contribution that education researchers in the US have made to elucidating major principles of effective education: no notice is taken in the US of the their research. However, great attention is paid to them in Finland. Sahlberg, observes that what “current high-performing school systems have in common is that they all, some more than the others, have derived critical lessons from abroad.”

Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and recently China have all benefitted from studies of education innovation in other countries, not least in the United States! So has Canada. The difference is that the students in all those countries do well in PISA tests of various kinds but US students do not.

Amongst those US innovations which have been important to Finland is the child-centred thinking of John Dewey. Indeed Sahlberg writes that John Dewey’s philosophy of education forms a foundation for academic, research-based teacher education in Finland as does the work of the most influential Finnish scholar professor Matti Koskenniemi in the 1940s. “All primary school teachers read and explore Dewey’s and Koskenniemi’s ideas as part of their courses leading to the master’s degree. Many Finnish schools have adopted Dewey’s view of education for democracy by enhancing students’ access to decision-making regarding their own lives and studying in school. Some visitors to Finland … have observed that the entire Finnish school system looks like John Dewey’s laboratory school in the U.S.”

Sahlberg also lists cooperative learning, recognition of Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (and its application to students having opportunities to develop “all aspects of their minds”), alternative classroom assessments and peer coaching as influencing Finnish educational practice.

Sahlberg points to three fallacies of teacher effectiveness in the US. There is an assumption that teachers work for the most part independently and that the quality of the education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers: teachers mostly work in teams.

Secondly the assumption that the teacher is the most important single factor in improving quality education ignores family background and peer influences and much else; indeed a “commonly used conclusion is that 10% to 20% of the variance in measured student achievement belongs to the classroom, i.e., teachers and teaching, and a similar amount is attributable to schools, i.e., school climate, facilities and leadership”.

Thirdly the belief that a succession of several great teachers in a row would lead to achievement very significantly improving which ignores the practical difficulties about judging capability of teachers at time of recruitment and the time taken for superior competence to develop.

Sahlberg advocates more focus on teacher education, abandoning the “toxic” use of accountability and improvement in school policies including better working conditions for teachers.

The OECD recently published a report on innovation in educational practice between 2003 and 2011. “One conclusion of the OECD’s measurement of innovation … is that “there have been large increases in innovative pedagogic practices across all countries … in areas such as relating lessons to real life, higher order skills, data and text interpretation and personalization of teaching.” The Report noted that “Contrary to common belief, there is a fair level of innovation in the education sector, both relative to other sectors and in absolute terms.

? Within education, innovation intensity is greatest in higher education, with secondary and primary education approximately equal.

? Compared to other sectors, knowledge and method innovation is above average in education, product and service innovation is below average, and technology innovation is at the average sectorial level. Issues such as testing, methods of instruction and so on, so central to the Pyne agenda, are not mentioned.

In Australia, the innovations noted in organisational policy and practice were

Innovations in pedagogic practice included


Recent events in New York

It is appropriate to mention some recent events in New York. It was here in 2002-10 that then City Education Chancellor Joel Klein claimed great success for his policies in improving educational achievement for the city’s children only to have his claims overturned by a university sociology graduate student who pointed to severe statistical problems in his assertions.

In 2013 Bill de Blasio was elected the first Democrat Mayor of New York in 20 years and took up office in January 2014. His campaign promised an end to stop and frisk and healing of bitter relations between the New York Police Department and New Yorkers of colour. He has notably come into conflict with the police union over his statements about police involvement in African American deaths. His tenure has seen a spike in anti-police protests and disaffection with law enforcement, and he has been charged by the NYPD union with putting the interests of protesters above those of the police.

Katrina vanden Heuvel’s blog of January 2014 on the Washington Post site describes his first month in office: “First came dueling news conferences last Monday. Cuomo [New York Governor] stood before the Albany press corps, announcing his plan to cut taxes by $2 billion, while de Blasio was in a Harlem classroom, joined by a bevy of labor leaders who pledged their support for his signature policy initiative: funding universal pre-K for 4-year-olds (and after-school programs for all middle schoolers) by increasing the income taxes of New Yorkers making over $500,000 a year by about a half-percentage point

What is interesting is that both of De Blasio’s proposals are grounded in very good research. It is clearly established that intervention in early childhood makes a substantial difference for children from less advantaged backgrounds in situations where the preschool staff are properly qualified. (This is explained elsewhere on this site.)

Research on adolescents shows significant events in brain development at this time of life with adolescents being less responsive to risk than older adults. Duke University’s Laurence Steinberg makes the point that minimising substance abuse and unwanted sexual liaisons is helped by adult-supervised activities after school. The Carnegie Corporation published a report 20 years ago drawing attention to the same issues!

So, did de Blasio’s policies gain support? No they did not.

De Blasio first ran into problems with friends of Governor Cuomo (also a Democrat). Eva Moskowitz runs a chain of charter schools in New York called Success Academy and had applied for licenses to run more. De Blasio did not approve all her requests. De Blasio had also blocked charter schools from using public school space rent-free. The result? Outraged, Moskowitz sought and obtained assistance from the Governor and Rupert Murdoch’s media. A blitz by the Murdoch press accused de Blasio’s policies of hurting “poor families who only want a better school for their kids.”. On Fox News one host claimed de Blasio had declared war on children.

As Diane Ravitch reported in October 2014, the New York legislature quickly passed legislation guaranteeing Moskowitz the right to expand, forbade the city from charging rent to charters, and required the city to pay the rent for private space for charter schools. The city will pay $39 a square foot in the coming three years for Success Academy Washington Heights and Success Academy Harlem Central; its analysis found a market range of $24 to $27 a square foot for comparable space. The rents will rise over time… The rental fees come on top of $13,777 for every student that taxpayers provide to charters, which are publicly funded and independently operated”.

Governor Cuomo has not stopped there however. Recently, as reported by Diane Ravitch in January 2015, the Governor’s Office, together with Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch, has proposed reforms to education. They include the following:

Growth scores (improvement) should count for 40% of teacher evaluation, any teacher not achieving that should be considered ineffective overall, two consecutive ineffective ratings would mean the teacher would not be allowed back into the classroom, no student could be scheduled to have an ineffective teacher two years in a row, merit pay would be established and managed at district level where innovative models based on performance would be developed. Teachers would be required to wait five years before being granted tenure. Schools not meeting expectations would be closed and replaced with “institutions that are up to the task”, most likely forprofit charter schools.

Tisch is connected to powerful New York families; she is a Republican and supporter of Joe Lhota, deputy Mayor under Rudolph Guiliani. Lhota stood for Mayor in the election which de Blasio won convincingly. Tisch has extremely conservative views on education reform and is highly critical of teacher unions. She is not alone in that in a country which has been bitterly opposing unions for decades. There is a war going on in New York between teachers on one side and Chancellor Tisch and Governor Cuomo on the other.

How can one imagine the US achieving gains in education? Consider federal and state policies on education; these are discussed in Education Reform: the Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity.


What, if anything, is wrong with teachers?

The recruitment and instruction of teachers is a further issue which the Pyne agenda deals with only superficially, without recourse to significant experience of teachers themselves or any studies of the issues. (There are numerous studies of this including extraordinarily detailed ones by the Australian Centre for Educational Research or ACER and many studies in the US and elsewhere.) Whilst it is claimed that student outcomes are dependent on good teaching this is marginally true because there are myriad influences on student achievement, as pointed out by Sahlberg.

Moreover the entirely wrong approach has been taken to assessment of teacher contribution, the untruth has been put about that a good education can overcome poverty, which it cannot. And increasingly school education is proclaimed as the way to gain employment after leaving school.

The large number of college and university graduates in many countries who remain unemployed or underemployed is an issue not yet addressed by governments. Unemployment of young people generally has emerged as a major issue. Overcoming poverty requires numerous interventions on several fronts starting with support for the less advantaged in society, many of whom have ended up there through no fault of their own but rather because of policies adopted by government and advocated by the already advantaged. The Horace Mann study described below points to that!

In a review in the New York Review of Books for December 4 2014 of several books on teaching in the US, Jonathan Zimmerman, Professor of Education and History at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University, points to the myths surrounding teaching and the simplistic remedies applied to the alleged failings.

This statement is critical: “Thanks to the No Child Left Behind law passed under the Bush administration in 2001, schools are now rewarded or penalized based on their students’ performance on standardized tests. More recently, the federal Race to the Top program sponsored by the Obama administration encouraged schools to use students’ test scores in evaluating individual teachers. The primary responsibility of teachers is no longer to encourage good behavior in future citizens… Instead, it’s to ensure that they get the right answers on a high-stakes test.”

As Zimmerman points out, a system committed to “academic” goals has made teaching more routinized and so tied to accountability as assessed by standardised tests that “no serious scholar would want to teach it”. The opening up of many jobs for women has meant fewer become teachers in a profession once almost reserved for them. And racial integration led to closing of all-black schools and dismissal of thousands of experienced African-American teachers (and principals). Gone are the days of the Great Depression when teaching attracted high quality students including Ph.D’s who couldn’t get jobs elsewhere.

The “solution” of recruiting academically qualified young people and giving them a quick several week long training in teaching, the Teach for America scheme, is an approach no other profession would be allowed to put in place. Were a similar scheme introduced for nursing there would be strong political protest and an enhanced opportunity for lawsuits. As studies such as those by Linda Darling-Hammond have shown, the scheme produces teachers less effective than certificated teachers.

Unfortunately, persuaded that the problem with teachers was lack of subject knowledge, the Gillard government encouraged the introduction of a similar scheme in Australia. Again, as Zimmerman points out, as cognitive psychologists have shown, each discipline has its own epistemology and trying to teach that discipline without understanding it leads to superficiality. Teachers, no matter how good, cannot just teach any subject, notwithstanding that pedagogical skill is an extremely important requirement for effective teaching.

Many advanced countries “have institutionalized critical commentary by peers and also provide intellectual support to improve skills and learning as part of teachers’ professional practice… In Finland … students of education take carefully constructed courses in the subject they will teach; they then spend a full year apprenticing in a school, receiving regular feedback from several mentors; and finally, they research and write an original thesis on a scholarly trend or controversy within their fields.”

Zimmerman blasts several aspects of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, as have other educational researchers. New measures purporting to identify the effectiveness of each teacher based on students’ test scores “are notoriously imprecise. The entire concept of accountability is an insult to the intelligence of teachers taking little account of the demanding intellectual activity that teaching involves.” In fact accountability makes best teachers do their job worse. These are views also expressed by Australian educational researchers.

Teachers can and do make a difference to people’s lives but “every piece of credible social science research confirms that schools cannot overcome the crippling effects of poverty. Telling teachers they can represents yet another insult to their intelligence…”

He concludes, anything less than [“an entirely different system of teacher education, stressing cognitive skills above all else”] “will leave our teachers languishing in “intellectual stagnation””.


Is the PISA program having a negative impact on school practice?

In 2009 the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) included a number of East Asian cities or city states such as Shanghai and Hong Kong for the first time. Students in these “states”, along with Singapore and some other Asian cities, achieved very high scores which led to assertions over the next several years that Australia (and the US) were “falling behind”. Concern was expressed that Australia needed to compete with Asia and that therefore the performance of Asian students was very significant. One of the reports accompanying the PISA 2009 results reported on approaches to education in several of the participating countries including Shanghai-China, Hong Kong-China, Japan and Singapore.

In broad terms many of the features of the systems in these Asian countries whose students achieved superior results were similar to those characterising Ontario-Canada and Finland whose students had achieved superior results in PISA. Amongst these features were requirements that teachers be highly qualified with a degree and professional certification, a requirements that they engage in substantial professional development, pairing better schools with weaker schools, sending experienced, including retired, teachers to weaker schools to mentor teachers, reduction of class sizes and use of mentors.

Nevertheless claims were made that Asian students did well because of substantial out of school coaching and parents’ consistent encouragement of students to achieve the best. There did not seem to be any reference to the PISA reports. And in any event no effort was made to highlight any of the features of these school systems any more than was the case with Finish or Ontario schools (where, in cooperation with the teachers’ union, special attention also was given to students experiencing difficulty). Ideology prevailed, some people accused PISA of using biased questions and a petition was got up accusing the OECD of driving short-run gains based on standardised tests through its PISA program, tests which narrowed the curriculum and diminished the joy of learning.

The letter of 6 May 2014 from academics around the world expressing concern about the impact of PISA testing and calling for a halt to the next round was published in The Guardian newspaper. Two days later Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary General OECD Andreas Schleicher wrote refuting the claims, in particular denying that any particular company was given favourable treatment in any of the PISA related programs.

In a separate article on December 3 2013, “What we learn from the PISA 2012 results” in OECD education insights blog educationtoday Schleicher wrote, “High performers have also moved on from administrative control and accountability to professional forms of accountability and work organisation. They support their teachers in developing innovations in pedagogy, in improving their own performance and that of their colleagues, and in pursuing professional development that leads to stronger education practice. The goal of the past was standardisation and compliance; now, top performers enable teachers to be inventive. In the past, the policy focus was on providing education; in today’s top school systems, it’s [about] looking outwards to the next teacher, the next school, about creating networks of innovation”.

Professor Yong Zhao at the University of Oregon, who has written on the education system in China which he describes as both the best and the worst in the world, is one of the principal educators who claims significant influence for PISA. He currently talks of China moving away from testing and learning by wrote.

PISA does not simply conduct standardised tests but analyses a wide range of factors which contribute to literacy in the three main subject areas of reading, mathematics and science. An important report from the 2012 project examined creative problem solving. Recent reports from OECD have focused on several issues of considerable significance; the survey of innovations has already been mentioned.

The universal application of annual standardised tests is a different matter as the debate about No Child Left Behind in the US and NAPLAN in Australia shows. The latter is dealt with below.

Is Australia falling behind educationally?

The entry of a number of Asian cities and countries into the PISA program has displaced Finland and other countries from their former top places in the rankings. To those who pay no attention to the statistical variances associated with each country score and ignore the variation in student scores between each PISA exercise this is a great worry. A number of analyses have been done comparing the school systems and practices in Asian countries with Australia. Virtually no comment has been made on reasons for declines in scores.

Stephen Dinham and Catherine Lomas Scott, writing in The Conversation 14 September 2012, pointed out that comparisons between countries and cities are not particularly meaningful. “When we consider our performance against similar countries such as the USA, the UK, New Zealand, Canada, France and Germany, a different picture emerges. In reading, maths and science, New Zealand and Canada are just ahead of us. But Germany, France, the USA and the UK are all behind us on each measure. Sometimes quite far behind; for example in maths we come 15th, while the USA comes in at 31st place. In reading, we place 9th, while the UK languishes at 25th.”

They also pointed out that American researcher Dr Kyung Hee Kim had documented the decline in creativity among American students, which, she maintains, has accompanied an increasing emphasis on doing well on standardised tests as the sole measure of educational excellence; using results on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, Kim demonstrated that levels of measured creativity in the US have been declining since 1990 in all age groups but particularly for young students. They observed, “Kim’s findings are highly significant. The Torrance test can help predict individuals’ lifetime creative achievement three times better than intelligence tests.”

In a comment on the recommendations of the panel on school funding chaired by David Gonski Pasi Sahlberg and Dennis Shirley writing in ABC’s The Drum in June 2014 had this to say: “Politicians are often eager to announce that the performance of their education systems is getting worse only to justify new reforms.

“In Canada, England, New Zealand, and Australia, school systems have declined in rankings on international tests. When the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results were released last December, several commentators concluded that the Australian school system is in crisis and needs to be reformed.

“Beyond the headlines, in cases such as these, little attention is given to the topic of how equitable school systems are for children with different life circumstances. The OECD has concluded in its 2012 PISA study that “the highest-performing education systems across the OECD countries are those that combine quality with equity. That same study found that Australia is the only country where differences in learning mathematics between advantaged and disadvantaged students are large, while the relationship between students’ achievement in school and their family background is weaker than average. This indicates that there is an equity problem in Australia but that public schools are able to cope with much of the inequality that the pupils bring with them to school every day.

“The fact of the matter is that all the world’s successful education systems have carefully designed mechanisms to allocate resources equitably to their schools.

“Finland, Korea and Singapore all resource their schools based on students’ needs, not just a headcount. The Review of Funding for Schooling by the expert panel that David Gonski led is exactly what Australia needs to enhance the equity and the excellence of its schools.”

Interestingly, Sahlberg in commenting on the decline by Finnish students in scores for mathematics in PISA 2012 reported, “Our new Minister of Education promised to conduct a national campaign to examine the results and make recommendations that could lead to a renewal of the whole compulsory education system.  She does not want to look at just math and science.  In fact, no one has responded to the data by saying Finland needs to focus just on math and reading, or on any other silver bullet.  Instead, the discussion is about how Finland can improve the system as a whole and increase enjoyment in learning.  It is not just about how to improve our performance on PISA.”

He also said this: “In the US, there are advanced schools that are doing things that Finnish schools should be doing.  Finnish high school students who spend a year in some U.S. high schools say that these schools are better than their opposite numbers in Finland at helping students communicate, present ideas and debate meaningful issues.  And there are pockets of excellent practice and innovation in some American schools in the area of integrating technology and new learning devices into the schools.   Shanghai has built a system for low-performing schools to get help from others that Finland can learn from.  The lesson study idea and way it is used in Japan and Singapore is very attractive.  There is not one country’s system that the Finns should simply imitate. Finns need to realize that they have a lot to learn from all of their international partners in both the East and the West, but at the same time, further advance equity-oriented policies and reforms.”

The United Nations Development Program Report for 2009, Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development (United Nations Human Development Report 2010 —20th Anniversary Edition. Chapter 3. New York: United Nations) improvements around the world in education and health have been due principally to cross border transfer of ideas: there is little if any correlation with economic growth! In other words we can learn a great deal from other countries and other domains: seeking out those lessons is vitally important.

(Why do governments in Australia continue their silly policy of restricting overseas travel by their staff on the spurious reason that such trips are a junket?)

What does NAPLAN show?

From the beginning, the establishment in Australia of regular standardised tests, NAPLAN (The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) which school students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 sit every year, has been controversial. Although Prime Minister Gillard made it clear every year that the results would be used to assist parents to understand the progress of their children and not as a way of ranking schools, it has nevertheless been used for that purpose by some, including The Australian newspaper. Judging schools and teachers on the basis of these tests without having regard to socio- economic background is more than fraught and indeed the tests, if they indicate anything, reveal whatever they do only with a very small part of the curriculum and are no indicator at all of deep learning as many have pointed out.

Nevertheless Minister Pyne, devoted as he is to the issue of “accountability”, intends to place the tests on line.

The other essay in this set reports on analyses by Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools which show that students in non-government schools do no better than students in public schools and indeed in some cases attain lower scores after adjusting for socio-economic background of the family.

Studies commissioned by the Whitlam Institute and conducted by Melbourne University reveal that NAPLAN is failing to meet its goals and is having unintended negative consequences including causing high levels of stress among some students and parents. Secondary schools in some cases demand to know the NAPLAN results of students who seek to enrol. As in the US various commercial firms have entered the market to offer publications helping students prepare for tests and coaching services have blossomed.

Problem-solving is not a standardised test

There are a couple of other very important conclusions which have emerged from recent OECD studies dealing with financial support and costs of the US and other systems and an analysis of innovation in education in OECD countries. The other focused on problem-solving and was conducted in concert with the 2012 PISA survey.

The problem-solving framework adopted by PISA in the report, PISA 2012 Results: Creative Problem Solving: Students’ skills in tackling real-life problems (Volume V) asked questions about the nature of the problem situation, the main cognitive processes involved in the particular task and the everyday scenario in which the problem was embedded. (Examples of the specific problems are given in at the end of Chapter 1 of the Report.)

Students from Korea, Singapore and Japan achieved the highest scores followed by the Chinese cities Hong Kong, Shanghai, Macao and Taipei. After those, and in the top 10 came Canada, Australia and Finland as well as England (UK). Australia is in fact equal fourth allowing for statistical variation in the scores.

Students who do well in math, reading and science tend to do well in problem-solving since “the correlation hinges on generic skills”. However, the Report says, “Comparing the strength of the association among the skills measured in PISA clearly proves that problem solving constitutes a separate domain from mathematics, reading and science  … On average, about 68% of the problem-solving score reflects skills that are also measured in one of the three regular assessment domains.” There are however wide variations. Finland is one country where students’ performance in problem solving is lower than what would be expected from performance in the other three areas. Australia, along with Korea, Japan, Singapore and Canada are countries whose students’’ performance is higher than would be expected.

The foreword to the Report says, “PISA 2012 also finds that the highest-performing school systems are those that allocate educational resources more equitably among advantaged and disadvantaged schools and that grant more autonomy over curricula and assessments to individual schools. A belief that all students can achieve at a high level and a willingness to engage all stakeholders in education – including students, through such channels as seeking student feedback on teaching practices – are hallmarks of successful school systems.”

It would not seem appropriate to conclude from this study that Australian school education is in crisis or even that a highly ambitious goal, such as that spelled out by the Gillard government to be in the top five in the world, is essential. If it is meaningful at all.

Assessing Schools in Context

The study School Performance in Context: Indicators of School Inputs and Outputs in Nine Similar Nations published 20 January 2014 (“hot off the press” as I write) by the Horace Mann League and the National Superintendents Roundtable was a reaction to “concerns expressed by experienced professional educators regarding large-scale international education assessments (ILSAs). The highly publicized scores, ratings, and rankings—a frequent product of those assessments—have led to an impression that numbers on a limited set of assessment criteria are really all that counts. What’s needed is full attention to the social, economic, and cultural factors that influence the results these assessments produce.

“While results of ILSAs are potentially valuable, they are simply one of many potential indicators. Others should also be considered. Taken together and viewed holistically, a portfolio of indicators can provide a more comprehensive view of the context in which any nation’s public schools operate—and a more accurate guide for action.”

The study identified 24 indicators divided into six major dimensions. Each has profound implications for not only the well-being of children but also how well they perform in school. All should be considered basic to understanding what stands behind these rankings. The Six Dimensions included:

The US was found to have the most highly educated adult population of the nine nations in the study as measured by years of schooling and proportion of the population with basic post-secondary qualifications. But in respect of inequity, social stress and support for young families – all correlated with levels of school performance – the results for the US were found to be disappointing in the extreme, a society 13-16 more violence-prone than other nations in the study.

China was found to display the poorest system outcomes and greatest economic inequities. But “Canada can take great pride in its performance relative to the other eight nations on school support, student outcomes, and system outcomes. Finland demonstrates impressive results in terms of low levels of economic inequity and social stress along with high levels of school support and high student outcomes.”

(System outcomes included the indicators average years of schooling, percentage of adults with high school diploma and, separately, with bachelor’s degree and global share of PISA high achievers in science.)

The Report concluded with some harsh comments. “In many ways, American policymakers and the American people need to ask themselves some difficult questions. How do we reconcile being, on average, the wealthiest nation on earth while demonstrating remarkably high levels of infant mortality, children living in poverty, and families living without support amidst great social stress? How do we reconcile being so wealthy while having the lowest-levels of support for the non-educational needs of children and their families? And how can we, as adults who have reaped such enormous benefits from American schools, live with the disappointing results we see from PISA results for today’s students at the age of 15?

“The levels of economic inequity, childhood poverty, and violence in American communities outlined in this document will probably shock the American people. These are direct and immediate assaults on the quality of life of children and adults, indeed on life itself. They are not simply potential threats that might undermine the American economy at some point in the future.  The indicators suggest a policy response unrelated to schools is essential”

The PISA 2009 Report, Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education. Lessons from PISA for the United State. (OECD, Paris, 2010), comments on the system in the US and makes some important and telling points. Attention was specially drawn to the gross inequities in funding which characterise the US system. “The relationship between the total amount spent, without respect to how it is distributed, and the results obtained for what is spent, may be the single most important factor for the US.” The problems remain unaddressed!



Most criticisms of teachers are based on untruths and irrelevancies: in countries with successful school systems teachers are trusted. Professors David Berliner of Arizona and John Hattie of Melbourne are among the many who have pointed this out. In those systems teachers are also relatively well paid and substantial resources are devoted to training and development. Authentic leadership, consultative performance management and appropriate physical and intellectual resources achieve gains in individual contribution, promises of bonuses and threats of dismissal do not. That does not seem to be obvious to the uninvolved “experts” who have far too much influence on policy.

Though clearly there are issues of importance concerning inequalities of opportunities and standards of education provision the situation in Australia is not a crisis. There is high quality research available and that is important in guiding the systems of some countries whose students do well, including Finland’s system.

Standardized curricula and standardised testing combined with inflexible school organisation stifle the collaboration and development of skills important in successful teaching, something noted in New Zealand over many years.

Comparing achievement of Australian students with that of students of other countries needs to be very carefully done and is not something to be lightly skimmed over. Research in education in the US is important: US school education policy has largely failed, something that Americans find hard to accept (as they do in respect of health policy and foreign affairs.)

Sufficient attention has not been paid in Australian policy making to teacher quality, school organisation and support for those students having difficulty. The issue of inequality is of very significant importance and is ignored by the drive for independent schools. Issues of autonomy of principals in respect of budgets and staffing have been shown in other studies to be not very important. Yet that is being advocated by Minister Pyne and being pursued in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

There are correlations between achievements in mathematics, reading and science on the one hand and problem solving on the other. In the last of these Australian students do well. The results of the PISA 2012 problem-solving study suggest that out-of school study in Asian schools is not sufficient to explain superior results.

Highly prescriptive approaches to instruction like Direct Instruction diminish creativity and are inappropriate. PISA reports and other studies have already concluded that strongly didactic instruction is not effective. Creativity matters!

Students at private schools in Australia do not achieve better education outcomes at university or in gaining well-paid jobs than do students from public schools. These findings take account of socioeconomic background, a factor often ignored in this arena.

(Poverty is not eliminated by better education though education can contribute to improved economic outcomes when other interventions are in place. Diminishing access to education opportunity is a major factor driving poverty. The greatest influences on education achievement are outside the control of the school.)

Many of the “failings” in school education systems are failings of governments and the advocacy of choice, competition, independent schools and standardised testing, not of teachers. Or of students! Minister Pyne needs to face up to evidence, not embrace myths which suit his economic philosophy. It is not politically correct!

I finish with an extract from a blog early this year by one of Australia’s leading school principals, John Goh from East Merrylands Public School in Sydney. Talking of school transformation he highlights some of the principal requirements and difficulties.

  1. Schools cannot transform without a long term principal and stable leadership team.
  2. Schools cannot transform without leaders at all levels of a system having an understanding of 21st century learning.
  3. Schools transformation cannot take place without adequate resourcing and support.

Goh refers to a recent Harvard Business Review article which points out that innovative companies typically have stable leadership over many years. It takes time to develop and implement change. But this goes against the business mantra of frequent change to bring in new ideas. Whoever thought that up could contemplate a number of very successful cultural organisations like Nederland Dans Theatre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Goh right laments the seeming influence of critics and their superficial and uninspiring approach to transformation, like the people at sporting events who have never played the game yelling advice to the referees, players and coaches. In the cultural area such approaches may be found at board level.

And anyone who has worked in the public sector will surely identify with the deficit model where, unlike the situation in business, schools that have shown improvement find their resources decreased, diverted and reallocated. In schools, in this situation, staff just do more!

(I have referred to this in my paper of 24 years ago: ‘Museums: Governance, Management and Government, or why are so many of the apples on the ground so far from the tree? Museum Management and Curatorship 10 (3):293-304, 1991. Governments would do much better to consistently encourage best practice and continual learning from other organisations instead of trying to manage them by such blunt and destructive instruments as efficiency dividends which leads to the best people leaving and deskilling of the organisation.)

Try replacing the word school with whatever organisational class you would like and see how it seems. It leads to the realisation that what is important is leadership, domain knowledge and support!

There are very important instances of recognition of that in David Gonski’s Jean Blackburn oration given last year.

I repeat the quotes from the oration from a recent post on this site:

“I found most of the schools happy places – places of potential but where there was disadvantage the problems were clear and marked.

“To this day I remember a principal at a primary school in a very low socioeconomic area in the west of Sydney looking at me when I asked had he had any success in getting parents involved with the school. He noted that 40% of his student roll changed each year and that getting the kids to school within an hour of commencement each morning was his personal goal for the year – involvement of parents he had tried but just at the moment felt it was too hard.

Continuing to talk of what he saw, Gonski noted, “The outstanding professionalism of both the leaders of the commonwealth department involved in school education and a number of the equivalents in states.

“I confess that my un-researched approach was to assume they were the problem and that bureaucracies were crippling getting on with the job. I did not witness that in actuality at all and indeed saw the opposite. The people I met, who dealt with me, were on the whole open to change, experienced, intelligent and well-meaning. In my view we are lucky to have them.

“I should also mention that dealing with the representatives of the various sectors be they from the catholic system, the independent school sector, the education unions and others was a pleasure. All had designated views and agendas but all dealt with us cooperatively and constructively. This I found very reassuring for the future – and I take the opportunity of this “postscript speech” to thank them.”