The Australian Labor Party recently announced it would invest $280 million to fund a new educational research institute if it wins the next federal election. The Deputy Opposition Leader, Tanya Plibersek said Labor’s proposed Evidence Institute for Schools would “take politics out of the classroom” and be “independent of government”. She also said the new institute would “put an end to decades of ideological battles about school education”.
According to mainstream media the idea was warmly welcomed by several education stakeholders, including by the President of Australian Primary Principals Association who said there is currently “no one place” he could go to for “valuable independent, peer-reviewed research” in Australia, and the director of the Grattan Institute, Peter Goss, who was reported in The Australian as saying that there is “not enough education research in Australia” and “an independent body is the way to go”.
You would be forgiven for believing that Australia is lacking high-quality independent research in education. But the evidence says quite the opposite.
In the current policy environment, which claims to be ‘data-driven’ and evidenced based, Labor’s proposal for a new ‘independent’ educational research institute seems lacking in credibility.
Evidence that we are already producing world-class independent educational research
The evidence is Australia produces some of the best education research in the world. Work by education researchers in Australia impacts education practice both here and internationally. According to world rankings such as the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings we have five universities in the top 30 ranking universities in the world for education research and eight in the top fifty. Compare that with the United Kingdom for example. The UK has more than twice the number of university departments of education, but with four in the top 30 and seven in the top fifty. On the world stage, Australia punches above its weight in terms of quality education research.
These rankings are based on quality independent peer-reviewed research produced by university education departments, as judged by world-leading scholars.
Above average in educational research
An article published in Higher Education Research and Development Journal, found that “most Australian universities are performing above the world average in educational research. Australian universities perform especially well on citation indicators, with more than 75% of universities performing above the world average.”
Our education research is highly regarded around the world. Take for example research by Australians Lingard and colleagues on a ‘rich tasks’ approach to assessment, which has informed curriculum development in Singapore and also in Scotland’s “Curriculum for Excellence”. Or Gale and Parker’s research on university student transition in Australia ,which has been used by the University of Edinburgh to develop an Academic Transitions Toolkit for use by lecturers and also by Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Scotland to develop a Student Transitions Map. And there are lots more examples like these. So, to say that Australian education research is non-existent, not well regarded internationally or not transferrable into policy and practice is purely ideological. It is not based on the evidence.
The threat of political interference in the proposed research institute
But what happens if we ignore the evidence and establish a not-so Evidence-Based Institute anyway? So-called independent research bodies have been established in other countries, such as in the United Kingdom and in the United States (e.g. The Institute of Education Sciences).
One potential threat of these ‘independent’ research bodies is that a political party can essentially ‘purchase’ research to support their desired political agenda. Education policies may be established with very little reference to research that exists outside of the Institute. They can also impose one particular way of doing research as the ‘gold standard’. That is what’s happening in the UK with the government-sponsored Education Endowment Fund, with its exclusive bent for random control trials, despite these being discredited in the social world of education.
The effects of this political interference in education research is concerning for the future of education in countries like Australia. For example, independent research has shown that current reforms into the initial teacher education sector in Australia is based on highly questionable data and tends to be dominated by cherry-picking of out-dated reports. The prevailing logic of teacher education policy is now very clearly ideological rather than based on the research evidence.
The money could be better spent
We also need to consider the ramifications for education and schools. The expenditure of $280 million towards an evidence institute for schools—when we already have some of the best research in the world—will divert much needed funds away from schools.
In an environment that is consistently calling for increased funding for under-resourced schools, it is questionable whether this large sum of money is being more attentive to political agendas, than paying attention to more pressing concerns for parents and students—over-subscribed schools and under-resourced schools. The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that there has been “a record number of demountable classrooms pop up around public schools, with more on the way”.
It is difficult to support this amount of funding being diverted into external institutes, given the pressing need for greater resourcing in our neediest schools and especially when we already have the infrastructure to produce quality research.
It is true that increased funding for schools will not guarantee improved performance. But research has consistently demonstrated the relationship between ‘resource rich’ environments and school performance. Education researcher Jeanne M Powers found that school performance is positively correlated with the level of resources within a school, including ‘qualified teachers, sufficient and up-to-date textbooks, and adequate, safe facilities’. Further research in this area refers to ‘resource-rich and ‘resource-poor’ schools, stating that ‘resources and school performance are positively correlated’ .
It is essential that funding is driven into the classroom, rather than away or outside of the classroom, as much as possible. When it is driven away from the classroom, this becomes a larger problem around effective distribution.
The United States of America is an excellent example of demonstrating this distributional problem. The US maintains high expenditure, but low results on standardized tests. It spends more per student than most countries in the OECD:
For example, Estonia and Poland, which spend around US$40,000 per student, perform at the same level as Norway, Switzerland and the United States, which spend over US$100,000 per student. Similarly, New Zealand, one of the highest performing countries in reading, spends well below the average per student.
In spite of their high expenditure, the United States continually falls behind in literacy, mathematics and science test results (according to PISA), whereas our lesser spending Kiwi neighbour consistently achieves higher outcomes. It is not the expenditure that is the problem for the United States, but more so how the expenditure is distributed. According to some commentators:
America tends to tie up more of the resources in administration. There are more layers of administration and therefore less money getting into the classrooms in schools in many system… The place you really want to spend the money is as close to the classroom as possible.
The ALP’s pledge to fund an ‘Evidence Institute for Schools’ lacks attention to what is needed most—funding for schools and classrooms. Further, the effectiveness of this large sum of funding spent on an institute is premised on the notion that it will produce significantly more effective research than is already available.
Here’s what could be done
We believe providing funds for educational research is, indeed, invaluable and important. Many educational researchers in Australia would support a pledge for increased investment. However as we see it the current systems are not broken. There is already so much existing and emerging world class, independent educational research in Australia. The problem is, it is not being widely distributed or acted upon.
If Labor wants to do something about educational research, we would recommend investigating more efficient ways to encourage the uptake of educational research in our schools and universities. Schools and teachers reportedly find it difficult to access peer-reviewed journal articles, due to the cost of peer-reviewed journal articles. They can also be difficult to locate and employ quite dense language. It is important to ensure that existing research is readily translatable to classroom practise for time-poor teachers.
As we see it, Australia needs to improve overall accessibility of education research to the public. This could be achieved by researchers discussing their research or disseminating their research more broadly via public platforms. As academics such as Megan Boler reminds us, it is important for researchers to engage with the media and the public, in order to speak back to challenges towards democratic institutions such as education.
Education policy has a tendency be influenced more by populist politics, than by research, as James Lloyd and others have pointed out, but nevertheless there are specific steps that researchers can take. For example,
researchers have a responsibility to ensure non-technical summaries of their research are available, their publications are properly logged in searchable depositories, and to engage with relevant opportunities, such as calls for evidence from Parliamentary Select Committees.
If the Labor Party or the Australian Government are seriously looking for ways to move closer towards research-informed teaching and schools, they should start by promoting and distributing the world class educational research that Australian educational researchers are already producing.
Emma Rowe is a Lecturer in the School of Education, Deakin University. Emma’s research engages with matters around school choice and privatization, global reform and critical policy studies. Her book, published by Routledge (2017) is entitled ‘Middle-class school choice in urban space: the economics of public schooling and globalized education reform’. Emma is interested in the role of public schooling within the market economy and how the consumer engages with public schooling in the market economy. Her research draws upon visual ethnographies to ensure that data is grounded in space. Emma publishes widely in peer-reviewed journals, and is currently serving as a Special Issue Editor for Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. She has recently joined the editorial team for peer-reviewed journal Critical Studies in Education. Emma is on Twitter at @emmaelitarowe
Trevor Gale is Professor of Education Policy and Social Justice, and Head of the School of Education at The University of Glasgow. His research focuses on inequalities generated by and within education systems, drawing on a predominantly sociological imagination. His books include: Just Schooling, Engaging Teachers, Rough Justice, Educational Research by Association, Schooling in Disadvantaged Communities, Policy and Inequality in Education and Practice Theory in Education. With Russell Cross and Carmen Mills, he is currently contracted by Routledge to write ‘Social Justice Dispositions in Education’, drawing on their recent similarly named ARC project. He is co-CI on a current ARC project Vocational institutions, undergraduate degrees: distinction or inequality. He is editor of the journal Critical Studies in Education and of the book series Education Policy and Social Inequality. He is a past president of AARE and founding director of Australia’s National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, when it was located in Adelaide. He is a member of the Wales Education Commission. Trevor is on Twitter at @trevagale