David Zyngier

Charter schools: an old, flawed idea and wrong for Australia

A new report proposes Australia adopt a US styled charter school, or UK type academies, approach as a solution to our falling scores on international tests. It even suggests Australia should consider for-profit schools. The report comes from the Centre for Independent Studies, a conservative pro-business pro-privatisation think tank.

US charter schools and UK academies are privately run public schools. They are schools that are 100% publicly funded but are run independently like private schools. For-profit schools are exactly that, they are run as a business to make money.

It would be incredible for Australian education authorities to seriously consider adopting policies developed in education systems that are more lowly ranked than Australia as a solution to falling scores. The USA is ranked 34 and the UK 23 in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) rankings in mathematics while Australia outperforms them both at number 19. Australia also beats them at 16th in science and 14th in reading.

Privately run public schools in the US (charter schools) and in England (academies) are not performing better than equivalent public schools in those countries. In fact research suggests the opposite. A national study in 2009 of charter schools in the US by a pro-charter school body CREDO (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) suggests that less than one hundredth of one per cent (<0.01 per cent) of the variation in test performance in reading is explainable by charter school enrolment. The actual finding from the study is that of the charter schools researched, 17% had better results than the comparison public schools, while a whopping 37% had worse results.

Follow up independent research in 2013 concluded that the test-scores of US charter and public schools are almost identical.

Research from Stanford University also found charter schools in the US generally perform no better, and in many cases substantially worse, than traditional public schools in reading and mathematics.

There is also an issue with these schools attracting students, getting governments to pay for their start up and then, for various reasons, closing down.  Over 300 Charter schools have closed in Florida. Across the US the closure rate is about 8%. Millions of taxpayer funding has been wasted and thousands of children have had their education disrupted.

If we are serious about improving our education performance we should not be copying what is happening in the US and UK. We should be implementing, in full, the recommendations of our own Gonski Review. These are recommendations to reform the way Australian schools are funded, tailored to meet the unique needs of Australian children. It is an Australian solution for Australian schools.

Funding is at the core of the problems we are having here. The line between public and private schools has become blurred. It is estimated that by 2017 many, if not most, Catholic schools in Australia will be in receipt of MORE public money than public schools. As it now stands the Catholic Church contributes only three per cent of recurrent costs of its 1700 schools while almost 80% comes from public subsidies and 20% from parent fees. Many of the so-called low fee religious schools, which are mushrooming in our cities growth corridors, are up to 90% publicly funding. This is money mostly handed out on a per capita basis, not accounting for the needs of the student or school.

As for for-profit schools, one of the authors of the CIS report suggests that for-profit schooling:

“has offered benefits to children in the developing world, where for-profit schools are a way to enhance equity in educational provision. ‘Budget’ or ‘low-fee’ private schools, many of which are run like a small business by a sole proprietor, proliferate in some of the poorest parts of the world. Local governments are often unaware of their existence, which is in many cases key to maintaining these low fees – which could not be sustained if they had to comply with all the regulations and standards mandated by governments.”

And that is the crux of the issue. Unregulated schools can exploit staff, who would be largely unprotected because of their inability to join a union. There would be a lack of accountability that could lead to inadequate facilities, large class sizes and so on. We need to learn the lesson from what has happened in 7-Eleven stores in Australia.

The CIS report incredibly states:

“Studies comparing for-profit schools to non-profit charter schools have mixed results, ranging from no difference to a small positive effect of for-profit status”.

Given this caveat why would Australia contemplate adding for-profit schools to the mix?

Currently our governments, at both state and federal levels, do not permit for-profit schools to operate in Australia.

The Australian Education Union’s Victorian president, Meredith Peace, joined the debate by saying the government should be focusing on supporting under-resourced schools rather than boosting competition in the system. She said:

“In Victoria in recent years, schools have become increasingly isolated and are forced to compete more and more with each other with limited funding. This is producing a wider equity gap and a wider gap for our kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

The Australian Education Union’s federal president, Correna Haythorpe said the Minister Christopher Pyne’s Independent Public Schools (IPS) scheme, which is very similar to the charter school/academy concept, had been rejected by most states and territories because “they recognise there is no evidence” that introducing a two-tier public school system will lead to better results for students. She also said:

“NSW, Victoria, SA, Tasmania and the ACT have all accepted money from the IPS fund but will not create a single Independent Public School. These States should be commended for standing firm and rejecting a policy that has no evidence to back it.”

NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, promised (in June 2013) NSW will not be introducing charter schools or independent public schools because there is no evidence that they improve student performance.

Such statements encourage those of us who oppose following the US and UK down the charter school track.

The CIS proposals have been roundly rejected by education experts, parent groups and detailed fact checking here in Australia. As recently as September 1st the claims made by CIS’s research are refuted by expert analysis by the National Education Policy Center in the US, which disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions.

The overwhelming research evidence from the US, the home of charter schools, does not support any claims that charter schools are a solution to Australia’s education problems.

A few days ago the Supreme Court in Washington State in the US ruled charter schools unconstitutional.

It seems the Centre for Independent Studies is once again flogging old ideas about education that elsewhere in the world have been considered, tried and dumped.

 

David-Zyngier-263x300 copyDavid Zyngier works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University as a Senior Lecturer in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy. He was previously a teacher and school principal. His research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students but in particular how can these improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He works within a critical and post-structural orientation to pedagogy that is distinguishable by its commitment to social justice (with interests in who benefits and who does not by particular social arrangements) and its dialectic critical method investigating how school education can improve student outcomes for all but in particular for at risk students.

The ‘right’ to government subsidised choice of schools is another wasteful snout-in-the-trough entitlement

Parents who choose a private school for their child have a ‘right’ to expect governments to help with the costs because they are taxpayers; so the argument goes in Australia. Certainly chief executive of Independent Schools Victoria, Michelle Green, makes such an argument.

But where does this so-called ‘right’ come from? Neither Michelle Green nor anyone else making a similar claim has an adequate answer.

We pay our taxes so that our governments can provide public services such as public hospitals, public transport, the armed forces, the ABC and so on. These are services that private industry cannot or should not provide. Just because someone chooses not to use public transport does not entitle them to claim a public subsidy for their car costs! Emergency medical treatment at casualty is free at public hospitals but costs $500 at a private hospital. We pay our taxes for public security provided by the police. If we want additional private security for any reason we pay that ourselves and don’t expect a subsidy from our neighbours.

There is a choice. But choice is only available for those who have the wherewithal to make that choice.

We have heard about the end of the age of entitlement. However, when a person on the basic wage of $35,000 a year pays his or her taxes, that person should not expect their taxes to help someone who is on a salary of $150,000 or more per annum to exercise school choice. Any notion of choice in this case is bogus.

The reason for the strong enrolments in private schools in the growth corridor suburbs in major cities in Australia, mentioned by Green as evidence of people exercising their ‘choice’, is due in part to the lack of public infrastructure and planning. At the same time, government funding for capital expenditure by private school systems and independent schools has become incredibly generous, another reason new schools are proliferating.

Governments inspired by ‘providing choice’ will always find it easier and more ideologically satisfying to get private systems to build those extra new schools, than to go to the trouble of providing the schools themselves.

Green mentions so-called “low-fee” private schools. However these can be up to 85% publicly funded. As to her claim about the wonderful multicultural make up of private schools, she does not give us details. Some children who were born overseas, or whose parents speak languages other than English at home, come from very socially or educationally advantaged families. There are clear divisions of such advantage across different ethnic backgrounds. I point out the Gonski Review found that 80% of all disadvantaged children are in the public system.

More than 40% of Australian secondary children now attend private schools, either so-called independent or faith-based systemic schools. Australia has one of the most privatised school systems in the OECD since Chile withdrew all public funding to private schools in 2014.

Prior to the late 1960’s private schools in Australia received little government funding. When such funding was introduced, it was to help bridge gaps for very poor Catholic schools, the sentiment was egalitarian not entitlement. What has grown since then is unique in the world, and not in a good way.

While most OECD countries have private schools, very few of them receive public funding as it occurs here. Take England for example, the home of the elite private school, and the exclusive private schools in the USA: not one cent of taxpayer’s money goes into their budgets.

The purpose of an excellent, appropriately funded public education system is to help ameliorate the inevitable inequalities that result from the lottery of birth. No better mechanism for creating a well-educated general population has so far been discovered.

The importance of choice for parents has been promoted at the expense of equity for students. The choice model promoted by federal and state governments has contributed to the decline in enrolments in public schools nationally.

Stephen Dinham of University of Melbourne and the president of the Australian College of Educators wrote:

It is hard not to conclude that what we are seeing is a deliberate strategy to dismantle public education, partly for ideological and partly for financial reasons. If these developments continue then the inevitable outcomes will be greater inequity and continuing decline in educational performance that will provide the proponents of change with further “evidence” to support their position and for even more far-reaching change.

Funding for private schools in Victoria, for example, increased by 18.5% per student, or eight times that of public schools between 2009-2014. The Australian average increase for private schools was $1,181 per student compared to only $247 for public schools.

However the savings to governments for shifting the responsibility of schooling to private institutions and systems is illusionary.

The most comprehensive review of school funding  since Gonski by Lindsay Connors and Jim McMorrow argued that state and federal governments would have saved $2 billion annually over the past four decades had they educated private school students in the public school system.

Increased public investment in non-government schools between 1973 and 2012 has increased the overall costs to governments rather than producing overall savings.

Recent trends in school recurrent funding analysed  by Bernie Shepherd and Chris Bonnor  strongly suggest that over forty per cent of students in Catholic schools in 2016 will average as much, if not more, public funding than students in similar government schools. By 2018 an additional forty per cent will most likely join them. Half the students in Independent schools are on track to get as much, if not more, than government school students by the end of the decade.

This finding emerges as one of the most significant to date from analysis of My School data. School funding in recent years has done little for student achievement and nothing for equity, including the $3 billion over-investment in better-off students, without any measurable gain in their achievement.

On current trajectories State and Federal governments, within four years, will be funding the vast majority of private school students at levels higher than students in similar government schools.

Concerns about funding equity should now be joined by concerns about effectiveness and efficiency in how we provide and fund schools.

Each private school pupil now receives, on average, a non-means-tested public subsidy of over $8000 per year and yes I believe this is indeed at the of expense of the less privileged public school student.

The focus of our investment in education should urgently be in public education systems not in providing ‘choice’ for some families.

And so much for all the talk about the end of the age of entitlement.

 

David-Zyngier copyDavid Zyngier works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University as a Senior Lecturer in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy. He was previously a teacher and school principal. His research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students but in particular how can these improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He works within a critical and post-structural orientation to pedagogy that is distinguishable by its commitment to social justice (with interests in who benefits and who does not by particular social arrangements) and its dialectic critical method investigating how school education can improve student outcomes for all but in particular for at risk students.

Class size DOES make a difference: latest research shows smaller classes have lasting effect

Money spent on reducing class sizes has not been wasted as Education Minister Christopher Pyne believes. The advice he has been given is wrong.

Reducing class size does make a difference, and the biggest difference it makes is to the schooling outcomes of our most vulnerable children.

I have just completed a comprehensive review of 112 research papers on class sizes written between 1979 and 2014 by researchers in Australia and similar education systems in England, Canada, New Zealand and non-English speaking countries of Europe.

I found that reducing class size in the first four years of school can have an important and lasting effect on student achievement. The more years students spend in small classes during grades K-3, the longer the benefits for achievement last during grades 4-8.

Smaller class sizes are especially important for children who come from disadvantaged families. I need not point out these children are overwhelming the responsibility of public schools in Australia.

The policy advice and commentary that says class size doesn’t matter, or is a waste of money, relies heavily on a Grattan Institute  report by Ben Jensen’s on Australian education and teacher quality.

Jensen suggests that the majority of studies around the world have shown that class size reductions do not significantly improve student outcomes, and that the funds should have been redirected toward enhancing teacher quality. The results of individual studies are always questionable.

But most significantly a range of newer peer reviewed studies on the effects of small classes have now emerged and they paint a very different picture.

I have used these in my review.

Notably, of the 112 papers I reviewed, only three authors supported the notion that smaller class sizes did not produce better outcomes to justify the expenditure.

Reducing class size to increase student achievement is an approach that has been tried, debated, and analysed for many decades. The premise seems logical: with fewer students to teach, teachers should achieve better academic outcomes for all students.

For those who choose private education for their children in Australia, it is often cited as a major consideration.

So it is important that politicians and educational decision makers get the right advice and the right information about class size.

For example it is commonly assumed that class sizes in Australia are smaller than they have ever been. This is not the case. While older members of our society may recall being in classes of 40 or more students in the 1950s and early 1960s, by 1981 class sizes in Australia were generally capped at 25 in high schools and 22 in technical schools. These caps have increased since their low point in 1981, even in primary schools; while the early years in many jurisdictions are capped below 26, grades 3-6 are treated like secondary classes and capped between 28 and 30.

In Australia commentators and politicians alike point to high performing systems such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, where large class sizes are the norm, as evidence that reducing class sizes is a futile exercise. But research indicates that students from Confucian heritage cultures are socialised in ways that make them amenable to work in large classes, so that management problems are minimal and teachers can focus on meaningful learning using whole-class methods.

An educational system forms a working whole, each component interacting with all other components. Isolating any one component (such as class size) and transplanting it into a different system shows a deep misunderstanding of how educational systems work.

However let’s look at how our class size compares. In 2010 Australia’s average public primary class size was 23.2 – above the OECD average of 21.3 and EU average of 20. This compares to 15 in Korea; 17 in Germany and the Russian Federation; 19 in Finland; 20 in the UK, Poland and Luxembourg; and 26 in India (OECD 2013).

Class sizes are smaller in both the Independent and Catholic sectors in Australia. As far back as 1979 there has been evidence that smaller class sizes make a difference.

Class size can make an even bigger difference when teachers change their teaching methods to suit smaller groups.  Read my paper for more.

You might be interested in this list of things that happen in smaller classes:-

  • Teachers were more able not only to complete their lessons in smaller classes, but to develop their lessons in more depth;
  • Teachers moved through curricula more quickly and were able to provide additional enrichment activities;
  • Teachers reported that they managed their classes better, and classes functioned more smoothly as less time was spent on discipline and more on learning;
  • Students received more individualised attention, including more encouragement, counselling, and monitoring;
  • Students were more attentive to their classwork;
  • Students had to wait less time to receive help or have their papers checked, and they had more opportunities to participate in group lessons.

Go to my paper for more lists of beneficial outcomes of smaller class sizes.

Policy makers, politicians and media too often discuss data about class sizes and impact on student learning without an evidence base, relying largely on second-hand research or anecdotes. Too frequently, advocates for particular positions select their evidence, conveniently ignoring research that raises questions about their favoured position.

Class size reduction is about equity – any policy debate must start with the basic inequality of schooling, and aim to ameliorate the damage that poverty, violence, inadequate child care and other factors do to our children’s learning outcomes.

I suggest we should have a policy to reduce class size in Australia’s most disadvantaged schools during  the first four years of education specifically when children are developing literacy and numeracy skills. This is more cost effective than an across the board approach.

While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall in closing the widening gap between the lowest and highest achievers.

Anyone looking at the bottom line of future costs to Australia needs to urgently and seriously consider further policies to reduce class size.

 

Dr David Zyngier works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University as a Senior Lecturer in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy. He was previously a teacher and school principal. His research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students but in particular how can these improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He works within a critical and post-structural orientation to pedagogy that is distinguishable by its commitment to social justice (with interests in who benefits and who does not by particular social arrangements) and its dialectic critical method investigating how school education can improve student outcomes for all but in particular for at risk students.