What’s a Good Education System Worth?

By Nicole Mockler

The Turnbull Government’s education election manifesto, Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes claims (several times over) that when it comes to the funding of schooling, it matters less how much is spent and more how the resources are spent.

This is a convenient argument for a government chasing a budget surplus, and the Turnbull Government makes no secret of its plans for future funding arrangements, “the funding must be affordable, based on a realistic appraisal of the current budget situation”.

Budgets are all about political priorities
A first point to be made here is that budgets are about priorities, and economic decisions are just that, decisions by politicians running their political agenda, rather than ‘givens’.  When it comes to education, surely our first concern should be about the long term health of our society rather than a quick, politically narrow focus on the immediate health of our economy.

Where’s the evidence that how funding is spent is more important than how much?Secondly, where did the claim come from that ‘how’ is more important than ‘how much’ in relation to spending on education? The primary evidence presented for this argument in Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes comes from an OECD report published in 2012, entitled Does money buy strong performance in PISA?.

The first thing important to note is the OECD is reporting on performance on international standardised testing, not on the general health and performance of a national system of schooling.

Unfortunately, in Australia we tend to have bipartisan support for the conflation of these two things. The last Labor Government gave us the Australian Education Act (2013), in which “top 5 by 2025” is enshrined. But just because we haven’t had a national conversation about how far performance on international standardised testing counts as a proxy for the quality of our education system doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. And in fact, we absolutely should.

Nevertheless, let’s for a moment accept the premise that the two are interrelated. What exactly does the OECD say about the relative importance of how much is spent on education funding and how the funding is spent? Drawing on the 2009 PISA results, the OECD report indicates that the amount that high-income countries (defined as those countries with a per capita GDP of above $20,000USD) spend on education is not related to performance on PISA.

For example, countries that spend more than USD 100 000 per student from the age of 6 to 15, such as Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland and the United States, show similar levels of performance as countries that spend less than half that amount per student, such as Estonia, Hungary and Poland. Meanwhile, New Zealand, a top performer in PISA, spends a lower-than-average amount per student from the age of 6 to 15. (p.2)

So what does make a difference, in the eyes of the OECD? We might come away from a reading of Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes thinking that the OECD is silent on this, but in fact the report goes on to point to the higher salaries and status of teachers in high-performing systems on PISA.

Higher teacher salaries and higher status of teacher makes the difference
This is what the OECD has to say about what has ‘greater impact’:

A school system’s attitudes towards teachers and students have a greater impact on student performance. The strongest performers among high-income countries and economies tend to invest more in teachers…In general, the countries that perform well in PISA attract the best students into the teaching profession by offering them higher salaries and greater professional status. (p.3)

So while we see the dictum that it matters less how much is spent and more how the resources are spent oft-repeated, what kind of attitudes toward, and how much real investment in, teachers can we see mooted in in Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes?

Is investment in quality teaching or yet another low cost political fix?

There’s a proud emphasis on Quality Teaching, specifically through the implementation of recommendations from the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers.  As it notes, the recommendations are grouped into five themes: stronger quality assurance of teacher education courses; rigorous selection for entry to teacher education; improved and structured practical experience for teaching students; robust assessment of graduates to ensure classroom readiness; and improved national research and workforce planning.

Further reforms around standards and accountability are also part of the strategy, despite both research and anecdotal evidence suggesting that these reforms may cost the teaching profession, and the quest for “quality teaching” more than they reap.

It’s no secret that members of the current government declared initial teacher education rather than funding “the problem” even before they were in government. On the 23rd of February 2013, seven months prior to the election, the then Shadow Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, told ABC Radio National:

… the first thing we would do is address issues of teacher quality in our universities.  The first thing we could do is to make sure that the training of our teachers at university is of world standard. … We would immediately instigate a very short term Ministerial advisory group to advise me on the best model for teaching in the world.  How to bring out more practical teaching methods, based on more didactic teaching methods or more traditional methods rather than the child centred learning that has dominated the system for the last 20, 30 or 40 years, so teaching quality would be at my highest priority, followed by a robust curriculum, principal autonomy and more traditional pedagogy.  So I want to make the education debate, move it on from this almost asinine debate about more money and make it about values because while money is important Fran, what we are teaching our children and how we are teaching them and who is teaching them is all much more important. (Kelly, 2013, February 23)

The TEMAG report, however, did not suggest an end to child centred learning or a focus on “traditional” pedagogy. While it’s hard to argue against “quality assurance” or “rigorous selection”, it could be argued that once again in Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes, we see an attendance to the ‘low hanging fruit’ of keeping ‘undesirables’ out of the teaching profession and tidying up the edges of initial teacher education, both of which come at a relatively low cost of any kind to the Government. They do, however, come with the bonus of having tangible outcomes within the confines of an election cycle.

Teacher education is the cheaper, easier political target
Higher salaries and greater professional status for teachers, those things that the OECD claims are associated with higher performance, are far more difficult to attain. Furthermore, we won’t get there by creating a smokescreen wherein initial teacher education is constituted as the primary problem that we can assiduously ‘solve’. Nor will we get there by crafting an argument that says that “effective teachers” will only be produced through new, rigorous selection processes for teaching candidates, an argument at whose very core lies a deep disrespect for the teaching profession.

Performance pay for teachers is an old, failed idea
We also won’t get there via the Government’s mooted plan for performance-based pay for teachers. On this, Quality Schools, Quality Outcomes claims that:

Research has shown that teacher effectiveness can be increased by recognising high performing teachers and rewarding them with increased pay by linking their performance to higher bands of pay in industrial agreements. (p.10)

The evidence provided for this claim is a report published by the Grattan Institute in 2010, which in fact does not mention performance pay for teachers at all.  Research has actually shown repeatedly that there is no link between performance pay and improved student learning, with the OECD itself arguing that “a look at the overall picture reveals no relationship between average student performance in a country and the use of performance-based pay schemes…but the picture changes when taking into account how well teachers are paid overall in comparison with national income”.

What does matter
If the Government wants to take the advice of the OECD on how the amount of funding for education doesn’t really matter, then it needs to also pay attention to the other half of the equation, which is about what does.

Higher salaries for teachers and greater professional status would be a good start (although only a start), but higher salaries won’t come without prioritising social factors over economic ones; and greater professional status won’t come via undermining teacher professionalism while repeating the mantra of “Quality Teaching”.

The bottom line is there is no easy or cheap fix that can be conjured up via teacher education or by imposing any other simple, politically focussed “education reform”.

Perhaps real progress will come only when governments of all persuasions recognise that, to borrow the words of Ryan Fuller, who has worked as both a rocket scientist and a teacher, “teaching isn’t rocket science – it’s harder”.

MocklerDr Nicole Mockler is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Sydney. She has a background in secondary school teaching and teacher professional learning. In the past she has held senior leadership roles in secondary schools, and after completing her PhD in Education at the University of Sydney in 2008, she joined the University of Newcastle in 2009, where she was a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education until early 2015. Nicole’s research interests are in education policy and politics, professional learning and curriculum and pedagogy, and she also continues to work with teachers and schools in these areas.