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‘Unicorns and Trees’: Why education reform isn’t working.


On the Ides of March some 2000 years ago, the ‘faction’ driven by Cassius and bent on assassinating Julius Caesar ‘in the interests of the future of Rome and the liberty of its citizens’ met at dawn in the house of that noble Roman Brutus.

Cassius wonders whether Caesar will in fact go to the Capitol that morning because he had grown superstitious of late and his augurers may well persuade him otherwise because of the terrors of the previous night.[1] However, one of the conspirators reassures them:

If he be so resolved,

I can o’ersway him: for he loves to hear

That unicorns may be betrayed with trees,

And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,

Lions with toils, and men with flatterers.

But when I tell him he hates flatterers, he says he does, being then most flattered.

I have always taken this as a metaphor for the fact that things are not what they seem to be. In particular, events are interpreted as the narrator sees them which is not necessarily how others see them. Indeed that may be deliberately so.

In public policy, ideology has a tendency to prevail over evidence and analysis. The result can be disastrous. This is as true in the area of education policy as in any other. One of the major problems is, I suggest, that the debate focuses only on schools and not on the many other factors which impact on educational outcomes.

What should be done about education?

Everyone knows what should be done about education. We should be able to choose what school our children go to because choice is a democratic right. The solution is independent schools because public schools fail, standardised tests (which in some cases translate to league tables) the results of which are linked to teacher performance to be rewarded by bonuses whilst consistently poorly performing teachers are sacked and schools that don’t achieve required results are closed. In other words accountability and transparency.

These particular reforms are based in neoclassical economics and its organisational outgrowth neoliberalism. They assume competition drives efficiency, and financial incentives drive performance improvement. These reforms have failed because the arguments are wrong.

We know that because the reforms in those countries where students do well do not follow these strategies.[2] The best performing countries recruit teachers from the highest achievement levels and pay them somewhat better than average. Teachers are trusted and respected and professional development is considered vitally important. Cooperation between teachers is emphasised and high standards of instruction are demanded. There are no standardised tests: student evaluation is used by teachers to inform their own performance. We know it just as particularly because the fundamentals of neoclassical economics are wrong.[3]

Business is particularly active in telling everybody what should be done. Groups such as the Business Council of Australia strongly advocate greater attention to numeracy and literacy in school and skill development.[4] Their advocacy often lacks depth and misunderstands the larger purpose of education.

In fact, Australian student achievement in reading, mathematics and science literacy is examined internationally by the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Australian students do “very well” though there is room for improvement.[5] Achievement at the higher levels has declined in reading literacy; scores for students of some other countries have also declined. Several Asian countries whose students have not previously participated now top the scores.

Nationally, Australian students in odd numbered school years are assessed annually: the 2011 NAPLAN results show no improvement over the last four years except for Year 3 reading and Year 5 numeracy.[6] Scores for individual schools have mostly remained the same. But they have not declined!

Professor Barry Mcgaw, Chair of ACARA which is responsible for the My School website, said in a special supplement to The Australian in April 2012: “THE Australian school system is high performing compared with others across the world….”[7] He also said, “Between 2009 and last year, students in 526 schools made gains in their average reading score that were significantly above those made by all other students in the nation with the same starting scores. In numeracy, the scores of students in 693 schools rose much higher than others who started at the same point.

Commonwealth Support for Schools

Commonwealth government financial support for independent schools over the last 14 years has exacerbated inequity in the system and further confused policy. Independent schools choose who may enrol: average socioeconomic level of the school class influences the achievement of the individual student by as much as two years of schooling.[8] The gap between the top and bottom 10% is equivalent to six years of learning. The gap in reading between the bottom and top 25% of 15 year-old students by socio-economic status (SES) is 91 points, which is equivalent to nearly three years of schooling. The achievement gap is similar to the OECD average.

The overseas experience is instructive. In those countries where overall improvements in educational attainment is achieved there is attention to equity. Finland did not start out trying to have a great education system: it started out trying to ensure equity. In Ontario Premier McGuinty deliberately introduced additional teachers and programs to support students disadvantaged by language and other factors. In Shanghai China retired teachers are brought in to assist other teachers in suburbs with high enrolments of poorer children. In better countries, teachers are highly respected and given substantial freedom. In Australia as in the US and the UK it is teachers who are blamed for the failings of schools.

The major issue in education is not only that there is a too narrow focus – on schools as if no other institution or part of life contributes to education outcomes – but, in countries such as Australia, the many other influences on education including poverty, urban planning, housing, social services, media policy and government financial policies are marginalised in the debate. We do not have what are called “joined up solutions”. Most especially there is too little attention to early childhood, the most important time of our lives so far as learning is concerned.

Early Childhood Education

In Australia early childhood is still being treated as a child care issue: the Coalition advocating government supports “nannies” whilst refusing to modify present policies of substantial support for independent schools that cater for the mostly already advantaged. Nothing if not consistent. Unfortunately, irrelevant to the principal issue.

We can see why the principal correlate with educational achievement is parents’ social and economic situation when we look at what happens in early childhood. In the homes of higher socially and economically advantaged parents children are given considerable stimulation of all kinds and opportunities to read, learn music and many other things.[9] And in later life, participate in family discussions. In poor households parents can be absent at work for much of the time, opportunities are poor, playgrounds and libraries are inadequate. The need for self respect is challenged every day.

Very importantly, effective intervention requires trained professional early childhood educators and it is the children of the poorer sections of society who gain most. The economic returns in later life from investment are substantial and there are no downside risks.

Early childhood is a period of establishing relationships. The mother’s recalled memories of her early childhood experiences affect her parenting behaviour: poor experiences likely get passed on in inadequate or even abusive parenting.

Parental leave is of great importance. That is recognised in countries in Europe and Asia: in Singapore subsidies are provided for preschool attendance if parents have difficulty paying. In Finland all children attend preschool and don’t start school until they are 7. For the better off by and large what happens after children start school makes less difference than is alleged. Around 50 per cent of the educational achievement of children at school is contributed by what the child brings to school.

Lack of action on early childhood education is not a consequence of lack of evidence as to its value. It is a reflection of laziness by many politicians in seeking out the evidence and of the triumph of ideology that sees the issue as child minding for those women who want to work, not only those who have to work.

Overcrowding of inner urban areas and poor infrastructure exacerbates disadvantage. It is due to a lack of concern for the human dimensions of living by everyone, something seen also in the rise in housing unaffordability whilst tax offsetting of losses on rental property persists to benefit the better off. The consequences of poverty are poor health which stunts physical growth and cognitive development.


Poverty is not something that just happens. Nor is it the fault of those who are poor! It is a mostly a consequence of the economic policies that we in the community allow to persist. In some cases it is deliberately exacerbated by those with influence. The ‘Great Divergence’ in the US for instance – the opening up of a huge gap in wealth between the super rich and the poor since 1980 which has seen the share of income going to the top 0.1 percent of the population increase fourfold – is due mainly to legislation limiting basic wage increases granting reductions in taxes to the better off, subsidies to big business and limitations on funding of education, all driven by conservative politicians.

Schools in high poverty areas which succeed make a special effort to link with the community, principals especially support teamwork amongst teachers, set high standards and maintain a high degree of freedom. High levels of parent involvement in their children’s learning are vitally important. Factors important in the south side of Chicago are the factors important in rural Tasmania![10] Leadership counts!

Support of women is important because of their greater investment in children. A major conclusion from recent studies is that progress in health and education is not principally due to economic growth but to cross country flows of ideas. Community concern for the disadvantaged and less fortunate is a major contributor to equality of opportunity. The nature of political institutions determines prosperity. The consequences of inequities in society are profound.

The countries whose students now lead the world in international educational assessments are ones that less than 30 years ago were in severe trouble economically and socially: Finland and Korea are particular examples. In all cases reform in these countries has been driven by strong political leadership and commitment: their citizens have been persuaded to make the choices needed to show that they value education more than other things. In Canada, as in Germany, participation of unions has been critical.


Education reform is confounded by a severe misunderstanding of the nature of learning and the purpose of education.

Learning is not the accumulation of facts but an ongoing process involving the incorporation of experiences throughout life. It is constructivist. In other words meaning is constructed from the impact of new experiences on what is already understood. We do not perceive the world as it is. Professor Lauren Resnick of the University of Pittsburgh points out that children become smart by being treated as if they already were intelligent.[11] “This is a hallmark of knowledge-based constructivist pedagogy.”

The child growing up is influenced by the attitudes and behaviours of the people around them and their own experiences in interacting with the natural and physical environment. That is so especially in the classroom. Other children are part of the learning environment as much as the teacher is.

David Eagleman[12] of Baylor College Texas points out that plenty of information is riding on channels to which we have no access.  Our opinions on normality, custom, dress codes and local superstitions are absorbed into our neural circuitry from the social forest around us. Brains and culture operate in a feedback loop, each influencing the other. We don’t have a strong grasp of what reality “out there” even is, because we detect such an unbearably small slice of it. Limited knowledge, unobtainable information and unimagined possibilities.

Some of the best information about effective learning comes from recording what students say and do in learning environments such as classrooms or museums. Graham Nuthall in New Zealand put microphones around kids’ necks and also videoed them. His findings challenge some notions of effective instruction.[13]

Zadie Smith captures the reality of learning[14]:

In the old age black was not counted fair,’ continued Francis Stone in the catatonic drone with which students read Elizabethan verse. ‘Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name.’

Irie put her right hand on her stomach, sucked in and tried to catch Millat’s eye. But Millat was busy showing pretty Nikki Tyler how he could manipulate his tongue into a narrow role, a flute. Nikki Tyler was showing him how the lobes of her ears were attached to the side of her head rather than loose. Flirtatious remnants of this morning’s science lesson: inherited characteristics. Part One


Of course teachers make a difference. But not simply through what knowledge and understanding of the topic they have, important as those are, but through their enthusiasm for the subject and the way they engage the student in argumentation, in traversing and exploring the subject and in giving feedback to the student. The assessments of the students’ progress are of most value to the teacher, not the student. The most important motivator of the students’ ongoing learning is the intrinsic motivation, the wish to do better than before. The most important feedback is constructive criticism of the student’s achievement, not praise, not punishment, not individual grades and certainly not the grades of the class or school.

We are importing ideas from the United States which as Gore Vidal said 20 years ago is now falling behind in the civilisation sweepstakes.[15] School boards determine what is right to learn, education funding depends on local economy, reform depends on ideology and the rich are advantaged whilst the poor are ignored or even punished. The value of university education is challenged, teaching is left to postgraduate students and sports stars get the scholarships.

Barry Jones is right. In his Daniel Mannix lecture he said “Since Gough Whitlam’s time, Australia has undergone a serious decline in the quality of debate on public policy – and the same phenomenon has occurred in the US, Canada and Europe. British journalist Robert Fisk has called this ”the infantilisation of debate”.[16]

Then there is neoclassical economics. Talking of some economists’ obsession with growth, Professor Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey observes, “We evolved as much as social beings as we did as individual beings. … what we’ve done in the consumer economy is to … privilege novelty-seeking selfish behaviour because that is what we need to keep the system going.”[17]


We need to put aside the myths of neoclassical economics and its obsession with growth. The gains in health and education in most countries have come not from increasing wealth but from the cross country flow of ideas.

We need genuine understanding of the nature of learning, the way schools function, the motivations of teachers and students and the role of leadership. We also need joined up solutions which recognise the impact of early childhood, economic, health, housing and urban planning policies on educational outcomes.

Instead we have noisy uninformed special pleading by the already advantaged. That is not a recipe for the way forward for any society.


[1]William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 2, scene 1.

[2] The reports from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are numerous. The latest results are for the assessments conducted in 2009. Each country issues its own commentary on the results for its students. The comments in this paper about Finland, Shanghai-China and Canada (Ontario) are from the report Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education. Lessons from PISA for the United States accessed 4 September 2012.

[3]John Quiggin, ‘Five Zombie Economic Ideas That Refuse to Die’, Foreign Affairs October 15, 2010.

[4] Restoring our Edge in Education Making Australia’s Education System its Next Competitive Advantage, a report prepared for the Business Council of Australia (BCA) by Professor Geoff Masters, August 2007.

[5] Sue Thomson et al, Challenges for Australian Education: Results from PISA 2009, ACER, Melbourne, 2010, accessed 4 September 2012

[6] See results for NAPLAN

[7] Barry Mcgaw, Results provide a fair comparison, The Australian April 07, 2012

[8]  Trevor Cobbold, ‘Inequality in learning outcomes demands actions’ August 1 2012 is n the ‘Save Our Schools’ website  along with numerous other papers on this and related subjects

[9] A comparison of the experiences of young children is given in Richard Rothstein, ‘Review: Must Schools Fail?’, New York Review of Books Vol. 51, No. 19 · December 2, 2004; Jessica Zucker’s blog, ‘Integenerational Transmission of Attachment’  (accessed 21 August 2012) deals with the influence of the mother’s recalled experiences of her earlychildhood; the literature on early childhood is vast.

[10] There are numerous reports and several books on the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research program with schools in south Chicago: among the best papers is that by Stephen W. Raudenbush, ‘The Brown Legacy and the O’Connor Challenge: Transforming Schools in the Images of Children’s Potential’, Educational Researcher, Vol. 38, No. 3, pp 169-180, 2009;  the most recent book is Organizing Schools for Improvement Lessons from Chicago by Anthony S. Bryk et al (University of Chicago, 2011). The report by Bill Mulford & Bill Edmunds, Successful School Principalship in Tasmania (University of Tasmania 2009) reports on studies of successful schools in high poverty areas in Tasmania.

[11] Lauren B Resnick, ‘Nested Learning Systems for the Thinking Curriculum’, Educational Researcher vol. 39, pp 183-197.

[12] David Eagleman & Raymond Tallis, The brain… it makes you think. Doesn’t it? The Observer, 29 April 2012.

[13] Graham Nuthall, ‘Relating Classroom Teaching to Student Learning: A Critical Analysis of Why Research Has Failed to Bridge the Theory-Practice Gap’, Harvard Educational Review vol. 74, no. 3, pp 273-306, 2004.

[14] Zadie Smith, White Teeth, Hamish Hamilton, 2000

[15] Gore Vidal, ‘(The Great Unmentionable) Monotheism and its Discontents’, The Lowell Lecture, Harvard University, April 20, 1992

[16] Barry Jones, ‘Stupidity is on the rise in our age of enlightenment’, The Age August 9, 2012

[17] Professor Tim Jackson,’ Prosperity without Growth’, The Deakin Lectures 2010