Education policy

Q:Which major party will fully fund public schools? A:None. Here’s what’s happening

You would be forgiven for thinking that policy related to schooling is not a major issue in Australia. In the lead up to the federal election, scant attention has been paid to it during the three leaders’ debates. One of the reasons could be because the education policies of the major parties have largely converged around key issues.

Both Labor and the Coalition are promising to increase funding to schools but neither is prepared to fully fund government schools to the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS).  Under a Coalition government public schools will get up to 95 per cent of the Schooling Resource Standard by 2027, under a Labor government they will get 97 per cent by 2027. Either way we are talking two elections away and to what degree public schools will remain underfunded.

Both the Coalition and Labor plan to fully fund allprivate schools to the Schooling Resource Standard by 2023. Some private schools are already fully funded and many are already over funded

Yes, Labor is promising to put equality and redistribution back on the agenda in areas such as tax reform and childcare policy, but its Fair funding for Australian Schools policy fails to close the funding gap between what government schools get, and what they need.  And yes Labor is promising to put back the $14 billion cut from public schools by the Coalition’s Gonski 2.0 plan and will inject $3.3 billion of that during its 2019-22 term, if elected.

The point I want to make is neither major party is prepared to fully fund government schools to the level that is needed according to the Schooling Resource Standard.

I find this deeply disappointing.

There are certainly differences between Coalition and Labor education policies, the main being that Labor will outspend the Coalition across each education sector from pre-schools to universities.

However, as I see it, neither major party has put forward an education policy platform. Instead, they have presented a clutch of ideas that fail to address key issues of concern in education, such as dismantling the contrived system of school comparison generated by NAPLAN and the MySchool website, and tackling Australia’s massive and growing equity issues.

Both major parties believe that the best mechanism for delivering quality and accountability is by setting and rewarding performance outcomes. This approach shifts responsibility for delivering improvements in the system down the line.

And let’s get to standardised testing. There is a place for standardised tests in education. However, when these tests are misused they have perverse negative consequences including narrowing the curriculum, intensifying residualisation, increasing the amount of time spent on test preparation, and encouraging ‘gaming’ behaviour.

Labor has promised to take a serious look at how to improve the insights from tests like NAPLAN, but this is not sufficient to redress the damage they are doing to the quality of schooling and the schooling experiences of young people.

These tests can be used to identify weaknesses in student achievement on a very narrow range of curriculum outcomes but there are cheaper, more effective and less problematic ways of finding this out. And the tests are specifically designed to produce a range of results, so it is intended for some children to do badly; a fact missed entirely by the mainstream media coverage of NAPLAN results.

National testing, NAPLAN, is supported by both Labor and the Coalition. Both consistently tell us that inequality matters, but both know the children who underperform are more likely to come from communities experiencing hardship and social exclusion. These are the communities whose children attend those schools that neither major party is willing to fund fully to the Schooling Resource Standard.

Consequently, teachers in underfunded government schools are required to do the ‘heavy lifting’ of educating the young people who rely most on schooling to deliver the knowledge and social capital they need to succeed in life.

The performance of students on OECD PISA data along with NAPLAN show the strength of the link between low achievement and socio-economic background in Australia; a stronger link than in many similar economies. This needs to be confronted with proper and fair funding plus redistributive funding on top of that.

A misuse of standardised tests by politicians, inflamed by mainstream media, has resulted in teachers in our public schools being blamed for the persistent low achievement of some groups of children and, by extension, initial teacher education providers being blamed for producing ‘poor quality’ teachers.

There is no educational justification for introducing more tests, such as the Coalition’s proposed Year 1 phonics test. Instead, federal politicians need to give up some of the power that standardised tests have afforded them to intervene in education. They need to step away from constantly using NAPLAN results to steer education for their own political purposes. Instead they need to step up to providing fair funding for all of Australia’s schools.

I believe when the focus is placed strongly on outputs, governments are let ‘off the hook’ for poorly delivering inputs through the redistribution of resources. Improved practices at the local level can indeed help deliver system quality, but not when that system is facing chronic, eternal underfunding.

Here I must comment on Labor’s proposal to establish a  $280 million Evidence Institute for Schools.  Presumably, this is Labor’s response to the Productivity Commission’s recommendation to improve the quality of existing education data. Labor is to be commended for responding to this recommendation. The Coalition is yet to say how they will fund the initiative.

However what Labor is proposing is not what the Productivity Commission recommended. The Commission argued that performance benchmarking and competition between schools alone are insufficient to achieve gains in education outcomes. They proposed a broad ranging approach to improving the national education evidence base, including the evaluation of policies and building an understanding of how to turn what we know works into into common practice on the ground.

Labor claims that its Evidence Institute for Schools will ensure that teachers and parents have access to ‘high quality’ ‘ground breaking’ research, and it will be ‘the right’ research to assist teachers and early educators to refine and improve their practice.

As an educational researcher, I welcome all increases in funding for research but feel compelled to point out according to the report on Excellence in Research for Australia that was recently completed by the Australian Research Council, the vast majority of education research institutions in Australia are already producing educational research assessed to be of or above world class standard.

The problem is not a lack of high quality research, or a lack of the right kind of research. Nor is it the case that teachers do not have access to research to inform their practice. Without a well-considered education platform developed in consultation with key stakeholders, this kind of policy looks like a solution in search of a problem, rather than a welcome and needed response to a genuine educational issue.

Both major parties need to do more to adequately respond to the gap in the education evidence base identified by the Productivity Commission. This includes a systematic evaluation of the effects of education policies, particularly the negative effects of standardised tests.

The people most affected by the unwillingness of the major parties to imagine a better future for Australia’s schools are our young people, the same young people who are demanding action on the climate crisis. They need an education system that will give them the best chance to fix the mess we are leaving them. Until we can fully fund the schools where the majority of them are educated in Australia we are failing them there too.

Dr Debra Hayes is Head of School and Professor, Education & Equity at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She is also the President of the Australian Association for Research in Education. Her next book, co-authored with Craig Campbell, will be available in August – Jean Blackburn: Education Feminism and Social Justice (Monash University Press). @DrDebHayes

Put professional judgement of teachers first or we’ll never get the systemic education improvements we all want. Let’s talk about it

In this blog I’d like to bring together three different lines of educational analysis to show how our contemporary discussions of policy are really not going to lead to any significant change or educationally defensible reforms.  I realise that is a very big call, but I’m pretty confident in saying it, and I hope to show why.

Essentially I think we really need to change the way educational reform debates are framed, because they are based on questions that will not lead us to systemic improvement that I think most ‘stake-holders’ really seek in common.  Before I launch into this discussion, though, I also need to point out that there are a host of related issues which really can’t be sufficiently addressed here, and which I won’t explain at all – but which I will name toward the end of this post.

For now, consider three main points

1) there is growing recognition that a fundamental linch-pin in quality schooling is always going to be our reliance on the professional judgement of teachers,

 2) there is also growing recognition that our current system architecture works against that in several ways, and

3) this is the clincher, the systems that we have implemented are producing exactly that for which they were designed (where teacher professional judgement plays little or no part).

The practical conclusion of bringing these observations together is obvious to me. We are never going to get that “systemic improvement” that we all seem to think will be good for Australia, because we don’t have the right system architecture to achieve it. I believe we need to start thinking more carefully and creatively about how our educational systems are designed.

The hard part begins after sufficient numbers of stakeholders come to this realisation and want to shift the debates.  We aren’t there yet, so for now I just want to open up this line of thought.

The first starting point won’t be a surprise for readers of this blog, and followers of public educational policy pitches.  On the one hand, anyone with Findlandia envy and followers of the recent statements from Pasi Sahlberg, now at UNSW’s Gonski Institute, will know that much of the strength of the ‘Finnish Education Mystery’ (as it has been named by Hannu Simola) has been built on a strong commitment to the professional autonomy and expertise of Finnish teachers.  This isn’t simply accidental, but a consequence of a long understandable history that included (but isn’t only due to) careful and intelligent design by the Finnish Government.

On the other hand, here in Australia, Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, Nicole Mockler, and her colleagues have aptly shown that teachers are more than interested in using evidence-based approaches to help guide their local decision, but their judgements are not really being supported by evidence they see as relevant and useful.

My own analysis of this situation has led me to raise significant questions about the way in which advance technical issues of measurement and its statistical applications have been reduced to incorrect and really misleading uses, and the way in which the institutions which are supposed to promote teachers and teaching has reduced that exercise to classic institutional credentialism based on tick box exercises that really don’t reflect that which it claims. 

No matter how much politicians and other stakeholders might wish to create systems that guarantee this or that universal practice, student learning is always individual and in schools always dependent on whomever is guiding that learning (the same would apply to entirely automated systems, by the way).  So the goal of designing systems based on the presumption that we can somehow specify practice to a point where there is no uncertainty in delivery, is folly.

And yet, point two, these are precisely the sorts of education systems Australia has been building since at least the late 1980s. In broad terms this corresponds to the significant changes in educational governance known as ‘the ministerialisation of education’ documented by educational researchers Dr Janice Dudley and Professor Lesley Vidovich, long ago.  It was in this time period where the penultimate attempt to nationalise curriculum developed, with the corresponding creation of national goals (the Hobart, Adelaide, Melbourne declarations), former civil servants were replaced by contracted ‘Senior Executives’ across federal and state bureaucracies, and teacher education was handed to the federally funded Universities alone (plus a range of massive shifts in TAFE). 

Since then it has been a long slow process of standardisation within and across state systems, the formation of ‘professional institutes,’ and the expansion of public funding to private schooling. 

The roll out of ‘standardisation’

The case for why these systems inhibit or actively work against the exercise of teachers’ professional judgement should be pretty obvious with the term ‘standardisation’.  These days, national curriculum is designed with the intent of making sure children of the military can move around that nation and ‘get the same stuff,’ accountability is centrally developed and deployed via the least expensive forms, like NAPLAN (and an expanding host of supposedly valid measures), teaching has become regulated through standardising the people (at least on paper, via the ‘professional standards’), and securing employment and advancement has been directly tied to these mechanisms. 

Even measurement instruments originally designed only for research and later to help provide evidence for teachers’ use have become tick box instruments of surveillance.  As a researcher I am not opposed to good measurement, and in fact I’ve created some of those being used in this larger schema, but how systems deploy them make huge differences. 

From the reports of the implementation of NAPLAN it is very clear (as was predicted by then opponents) that many of these have become much more high stakes than advocates predicted or intended (opponents were right about this one).  Whether it be novice teachers beholden to developing paper work ‘evidence’ of standards for their job security through to executives whose jobs depend on meeting Key Performance Indicators (which are themselves abstracted from actual effect), we have developed systems of compliance within institutes in which real humans play roles that are pre-defined and largely circumscribed.  And those who readily fit them without too much critique fill these roles. 

After years of this, is it any wonder that teacher education programs by and large no longer teach the history and practice of curriculum design, nor the history and philosophy of education (which is now largely relegated ‘ethics’ in service of codes of conduct) and what once were lively fields of educational psychology and sociology of education have become handmaidens of ‘evidence-based’ teaching techniques and bureaucratic definitions of ‘equity’? (In the University sector these ‘foundational’ disciplines literally do not belong in education anymore for research accountability purposes.)

One bit of historical memory: in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this process of moving the intellectual (‘mental’) work of teachers into standardised categories defined by management was shown to have a long term effect known as ‘de-skilling.’  From our work in the New Basics Trial in Queensland (which was actually much more successful than most realise) it has been very clear that what once were wide spread teacher capacities in local curriculum design and development have been forfeited to (extremely well paid) bureaucrats.  When I met the teachers who took part in the early 1990s National Schools Project (in 1993 and 1994), state differences on this were really obvious and relevant. 

When teachers were invited to restructure any aspect of their work to improve student learning, through an overt agreement between the Unions and employers, teachers from states where there were strong traditions of local curriculum development and pedagogical reflection (most obviously Victoria and South Australia) were squarely focused on trying to find ways of providing rich educational experiences for their students (curriculum, pedagogy were their mainstay).  Teachers from the state that has provided the basic structure of our current systems (NSW) were largely concerned about timetables and budgets.  Of course this is a very big generalisation, but it is also obvious when you work with teachers in schools developing new curriculum projects.

What is the effect of all this?  Precisely as intended, the systems are standardised, stratified, countable and a ready source of ‘evidence’ used to meet the needs of the politicians and ‘independent’ stakeholders, and advancing employees who probably actually believe in the reforms and initiatives they advocate. 

But let’s be honest, these actors are not around after they have used the political capital gained from initiating their pet projects.

Let’s go further

Here is where there are hosts of other developments that buttress this larger system which need further analysis and elaboration than I can provide here.  From the expansion of testing measures based on statistical assumptions few teachers and principals and fewer parents really know well (they aren’t taught them), to professional development schemes based on market determined popularity, to pre-packaged curriculum and apps literally sold as the next silver-bullet, contemporary ‘texts’ of education carry far more implications than the ones named by those selling them.

There are the huge range of ideas and presumptions that lie behind those sales pitches. Of course some teachers sometimes blindly seek these out in the hope of finding new ideas and effective practices.  Teachers’ dispositions and capacities have not come from nowhere, they are the historical product of this system. But who is going to blame them (or the bureaucrats, for that matter) when they rightfully focus on making sure they have a job in that system so they can support their own children and parents?

Yes, we have systems we created. On the one hand, that’s not encouraging.  On the other hand, that does mean that we can re-create them into something quite different.

Change the questions

One of the first steps to collectively trying to find new ways of constructing our school systems, I think, really is about changing the questions we think we are answering.  Instead of using the type of questions needed to drive research, e.g. anything of the form ‘what works?’, we need to start asking, ‘how do we build systems that increase the likelihood that teachers will make intelligent and wise decision in their work?’ 

Research and the categories of analysis CAN provide clear ideas about what has occurred in the past (with all the necessary qualifications about when, where, measured how) but those answers should never be the basis for systems to prescribe what teachers are supposed to do in any given individual event or context.  For example, diagnostic testing can be incredible useful for teachers, but they can’t tell teachers what to do, with whom, when. 

Do we have systems that support teachers in taking the next step in their decisions about which students need what support at what time, while knowing what those tests actually measure, with what margin of error, in what contexts for whom?  The question for systems designs isn’t what’s ‘best practice’, it’s what system increases the probability of teachers making wise and compassionate decisions for their students in their context at the appropriate time.  That includes making judgements relative to what’s happening in our nation, economy and in the larger global transformations. 

Our systems, in the pursuit of minimising risk, are very good as proscribing what teachers’ shouldn’t do; but, they are not designed to support teachers to wisely exercise the autonomy they need to do their jobs in a manner that demonstrates the true potential of our nation.

We can see that potential in the all too rare events in which our students and teachers are given that sort of support – often on the backs of incredibly dedicated and professional teachers and school leaders. From local innovative uses of technology, to large scale performances in the arts, the potential of Australian educators isn’t really hard to find.  But we need new systems to support them in doing more of that type of work, with more students, more of the time.

So when it comes to advocating this or that system reform, please, change the focus.  We don’t need more ‘best practice’ policies from vested interests, to discipline our teachers, we need systems designed to promote true, authentic excellence in education.

James Ladwig is Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle and co-editor of the American Educational Research Journal.  He is internationally recognised for his expertise in educational research and school reform.  Find James’ latest work in Limits to Evidence-Based Learning of Educational Science, in Hall, Quinn and Gollnick (Eds) The Wiley Handbook of Teaching and Learning published by Wiley-Blackwell, New York (in press). James is on Twitter @jgladwig

Time’s up. Australia needs to ditch its bad education policies

What kind of schooling system do we want for our kids in Australia? I ask because In England, after almost thirty years of high stakes testing, the Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, is talking about a decline in England’s quality of education and blaming “an endemic pattern of prioritising data and performance results, ahead of the real substance of education”.

The very organisation Spielman leads, the Office for Standards in Education, has played a significant role in driving the decline she is now so concerned about. But it is good news that she is openly questioning the effects of testing and wants to discuss “the real substance of education”.

Singapore, a country often touted for its success on international test comparisons, has announced that starting in 2019, exams for primary years 1 and 2 students (aged six and seven) will be abolished. The change is aimed at discouraging comparisons between student performance and encouraging learning. But it is nonetheless driven by economic concerns. Singapore wants schools to concentrate more on developing ‘soft skills’, those supposedly needed for 21st century economies (such as decision making and collaborating in a team) to bolster personal development and help students acquire ‘real-world skills’.

So, what lessons can we learn in Australia from these initiatives in other countries?

Well, we are indeed “prioritising data and performance results, ahead of the real substance of education” with the NAPLAN regime, so you might think the UK is ahead of us in coming to the realisation that something is going badly wrong. And while Australia considers imposing a national test on six year olds (a phonics test) Singapore is busily getting rid of tests for six and seven year olds. However, we are also not England or Singapore.

The problems we have in Australia are largely of our own making. The education policies pursued by both major political parties in recent years have created a unique set of problems.

Australia’s unique set of problems in education

The problems we are facing in Australia include the following:

  • Most alarmingly, we have an inequitable system of school funding, skewed in favour of independent and Catholic schools. A recent analysis of school finance data compiled by ABC News shows that, the income divide is wider for many schools than at any point in the past decade. And the proportion of public money being spent on private schooling in Australia is higher than in any other advanced economy and has increased significantly over the last decade.
  • The income divide is also reflected in student performance. A recent UNICEF report shows Australia doesn’t do well at ensuring equality across the three stages of children’s education: preschool, primary and secondary – it ranks in the bottom third of countries in all three stages.
  • Despite massive investment in national testing and reporting, analysis of the most recent NAPLAN results of writing, conducted by Associate Professor Misty Adoniou (University of Canberra), shows that the numbers of low-performing students are increasing, and the numbers of high-achieving students are decreasing as they move through school.
  • Many young people are unhappy at school. According to OECD figures, about 30% of Australian children don’t feel as though they belong at school, and almost 25% report having been bullied at school.

As we build towards a national election, what education policies should the major parties propose that will improve our system of schooling?

We should not be going down the pathway to more testing.

Research conducted by Johanna Wyn and her team (University of Melbourne) shows that NAPLAN has had significant unintended consequences. Professor Wyn states that two of these include a negative impact on both the quality of learning and student wellbeing.

We are flooded with data that we don’t seem to be paying attention to, and we don’t have access to some data that would enable us to have a clear-headed assessment of how school systems are faring, and how specific education policies are affecting them.

The kind of data we need to make good education policy

For example, there has been a spike in suspensions and exclusions in recent years. Research conducted in Queensland by Linda Graham (Queensland University of Technology), shows the growth in suspensions outstripped growth in enrolments, which suggests that student numbers alone are not driving the increases.

Professor Graham argues that the increases do not necessarily mean that student behaviour is getting worse, education reforms and policies also contribute, such as zero tolerance behaviour policies and the expansion of principals’ disciplinary powers. These are policies that gained a lot of political traction, and popular support when they were announced, as they were intended to do. However, they changed how some teachers and schools interacted with their students and school communities.

I doubt those who were most affected by these policies were ever consulted about the perceived problems they were supposed to solve.

If we knew more about who was being suspended and where we might see the bigger consequences more clearly and our school systems could more easily work on solutions. Recent separate analyses conducted by the NSW (2017) and Victorian (2017) Ombudsman, noted the absence of central collection and reporting of suspensions and expulsions data across government schools. The problem is succinctly described by the Victorian Ombudsmen.

The lack of data makes it difficult if not impossible for the department to recognise patterns in which student groups are being expelled and to subsequently develop policies to address any issues identified. There is a clear need for better data and oversight systems. (p. 5)

I am very aware this is only a discussion about the collection of expulsion and suspension data from public schools. The collection of similar data from private schools is of equal concern and would pose a whole new set of problems and issues to discuss and work through, but it is not collected even though private schools are increasingly funded by public funds.

The point I want to make is that if we gathered such data systematically it could be used by teachers, school leaders, system personnel, and political parties to understand how policies, however well intentioned, are specifically affecting young people.

For too long we’ve made families doing it tough, teachers, schools and initial teacher education providers the political scapegoats of students’ underperformance. In the process, we’ve ignored how educational policies have contributed to kids struggling at school and, for an increasing number of young people, leaving or being expelled from school.

Beware election promises that require others to be more accountable, because that is political speak for more testing, and it continues to shift the focus from failed education policies.

Let’s do an audit

I believe we need to do an independent audit of the success of intended consequences, as well as the unintended consequences of past policy regimes. This is the sort of valuable data we should be collecting. Is there a political party with the courage to undertake such an audit? Tragically, without such a reckoning, I fear that one of our great public institutions, public schooling, will remain in unsafe hands.

But I hope we will do something before our education chiefs start publicly blaming our testing regime, or the economic damage of how we are schooling our children becomes so obvious we have to act.

And educators like me keep saying it but I’ll say it yet again: education policies should be informed by the experiences of students, teachers and school leaders, the expertise of education researchers, and especially the hopes of our young Australians.

 

 

Deb Hayes is Professor of Education and Equity, Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. Commencing 2019, she will be the School’s new Head. She has just returned from a stint as Hallsworth Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester, where she is working with Professor Ruth Lupton on a new book titled Great Education Policy Mistakes, to be published by Policy Press.

 

This week Deb begins a two-year term as President of the Australian Association for Research in Education, which is currently holding its annual conference 2018 AARE in Sydney. All the Australian researchers cited in this article are members of the Association.