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. The intent is clear. Mr Pyne enunciated it thus: "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, developed by the Gillard-Rudd Labor Government and passed by the Parliament in June, represents substantial advances over the existing school education system. One of the better analyses of the Plan by Save Our School's Trevor Cobbold pointed to the priority given 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.
I don't intend here to traverse the details of the plan. Like many others I regret that the funding is significantly less than that proposed by the Gonski Panel. 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, also commented on by many, 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. And everyone who comments knowledgeably and dispassionately (if that is possible) on the subject says so. 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.The Minister proposes to strengthen NAPLAN and place it on line. Standardised testing has been a feature of the 'reforms' in the US and its effects have been carefully analysed. At its extreme the tests are justified by advocates as parents' democratic right to know the quality of their child's school. The main argument is that the tests help improve student achievement. Unequivocally they do not! 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. The contribution of one teacher in any year is less than all the other influences, not least those outside the school altogether. School league tables are meaningless! And parents mostly make choices for other reasons anyway.
Attempts to link test scores to teacher performance have failed: a survey of over 200 New York City public schools by Roland Fryer (2011) of Harvard University's Department of Economics 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 claim is that because local communities know better what they need that this will lead to improved educational achievement by students. But there is no evidence for that, any more than there is for charter schools in the US, despite Barrack Obama's unfortunate 'Race to the Top', or 'academies' in the UK.
The PISA reports make clear that the independence for schools which raises student achievement is not achieved through increases in the administrative burden. It is greater control over the curriculum! Effective school leadership is the same as for effective leadership of 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.
Support for independent schools has led to greater homogeneity within classes as schools better resourced by federal government, student fees and private support attract already advantaged students leaving less advantaged to the stringency of under-resourced public schools and their dedicated but struggling teachers. Amongst the most important of recent research is that showing that the average socioeconomic background of the class can make a difference of two years or more to the achievement of a child. The decline in achievement of students in Sweden when streaming became more common supports that. Support for independent schools reinforces social segregation.
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. The National Plan addresses disadvantage. A commitment to the last couple of years of the Plan, beyond the present budget cycle, is essential. High levels of unemployment amongst younger people are creating huge problems for the future and wasting human endeavour and creativity!
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