Minister for Education

What do you think we’ve got now? Dud teachers or a dud minister? Here are the facts

Part one of a two-part series in response to Stuart Robert’s comments last week. Tomorrow: Anna Sullivan on how the minister’s comments affects teacher retention.

Minister Robert’s comments last week at an Association of an Independent Schools event which claimed public schools are held back by “dud teachers” do more to expose his own bias and failings than it does to reflect on the teaching profession.

The minister has the wrong target. Teachers are not to blame for the sorry state of Australian education. The problem lies with system failings that Minister Robert has responsibility for.

I feel sorely tempted to analyse the bias, political motivations, and the unfounded and illogical reasoning demonstrated by the minister, and apparently his advisors and speechwriters. However, I will stick to my strengths and instead look at evidence and some killer facts

There is no data to support the assertion that government schools have weaker teachers. Repeated, and recent, research suggests that government schools performance is  similar to non-government schools in terms of lifting student learning outcomes. Furthermore, there is no data on teacher ability that supports the Ministers’ assertion. The national and embryonic and incomplete Australian Teacher Workforce Data does not include measures of literacy and numeracy, there are no published analyses of LANITE tests. There is just one recent report on adult literacy and numeracy levels among Australian teachers – it doesn’t compare sectors, but I shall explain its significant findings later in point 3.  Sectoral (gov/non-gov) comparisons on teacher workforce have not been done and would be an unhelpful, and potentially inflammatory, distraction from the central problem of inequality in Australian schooling.  There is, however, plenty of evidence, and some killer facts, that show the real system-level challenges in Australian education, and the solutions they require.  

These are the system problems to which Mr Robert needs to attend rather than sling mud at teachers and inflame sectoral infighting :

1. Australia has a problem with educational equity in funding, resourcing and curriculum which, alongside school choice policies, has led to increasing school segregation. Both the OECD and UNICEF have identified this as a key weakness in Australian schooling. School segregation has left many government schools carrying increasing concentrations of disadvantaged students. Within the current context of teacher shortages, iniquitous school funding, increasing workloads and difficult work conditions, many schools find it difficult to staff their classrooms. 

In a survey of 38 wealthy nations Australia ranked 30th on educational inequity and was in the bottom third of nations on each of the schooling stages – preschool, primary and secondary. 

Figure 1: Rankings of equality across three stages of education. From 2018 UNICEF report An Unfair Start: Inequality in Children’s Education in Rich Countries

Solutions:  Lift early childhood participation and duration to ameliorate inequity.  Enact the Gonski school funding reforms, fund all schools to their required School Resource Standard. Address structural problems in schooling, e.g. develop sector blind school obligations, operations and accountabilities for all schools receiving government funding. Provide reforms for curriculum equity, including through online/remote provisions. Monitor and report all educational data for social equity groups. 

2. Australia’s national educational goals have been grossly neglected. There is little, or no, alignment between the goals education ministers put their signatures to in the Mparntwe statement and what is measured in schools and reported in our National Reporting on Schooling

This is a gaping hole in educational policy and accountability, matching goals with monitoring and strategy development is foundational to System Accountability 101.  While governments have been busy over the last decade developing frameworks for teacher and school accountability, much needed system and ministerial accountability have been ignored. It is a simple fact that there is currently no monitoring of national goals in students’ confidence, creativity, orientation to lifelong learning, or preparation to be ‘active and informed’ citizens (with the exception of a small amount of sample data available on citizenship education, showing  disappointing results).

What is even more surprising is that equity has not been adequately monitored. Although excellence and equity are generic aspirations, and can be assessed against any data indicator, there is very little analysis and reporting against the equity goal in national reporting documents.

The Measurement Framework for Australian Schooling (MFAS) identifies equity as a key goal and challenge, and suggests that all educational data will be disaggregated and examined in relation to a series of identified equity groups:  “…with a focus on: Indigenous status, sex, language background, geographic location, socioeconomic background, disability.”

However MFAS qualifies this, saying:

“With the exception of retention to Year 12 by Indigenous students, which relates to COAG targets for Closing the Gap, equity measures are not separately listed in the Schedule of Key Performance Measures but are derived, for reporting purposes, by disaggregating the measures for participation, achievement and attainment where it is possible and appropriate to do so. Measures are disaggregated as outlined in the SCSEEC Data Standards Manual.”

Which is to say, there is no follow through on accountability systems for these goals. 

If we examine the pursuit of the educational equity goals in the annual National Report on Schooling, produced by ACARA, we see glaring omissions. The report does acknowledge some equity groupings and, like the MFAS, suggests there will be analysis but, again, only  “where it is possible and appropriate to do so”: 

In the most recent 2019 annual report measures, analysis and reporting are not linked to national goals. Equity is mentioned just six times in the 138 page document, mostly just in preamble. There is no comprehensive analysis against excellence, equity or any other national goal. There is no reporting against disability, LBOTE, SES; and extremely limited reporting on Indigenous students and geolocation. There is more frequent reporting by gender. Further reference to equity for social equity groups directs interested readers to the ACARA data portal to conduct their own analyses of equity! Is that reasonable, diligent attention for our foremost national goal for education? 

Solutions: Include comprehensive analysis of social equity groups within the annual report on schooling. Strategise to address trends, through funding, resourcing and teacher workforce strategy. Develop measures/indicators for all Australian education goals. Commission research to explore key practices in progressing toward educational goals. 

3. Australian teacher workforce management makes us an International outlier

The 2018 OECD report  Effective Teacher Policies makes it clear that current teacher workforce management (methinks a lack of management) is directly impacting upon schooling outcomes – excellence and equity. This study used OECD, PIACC adult literacy and numeracy data to explore the strategic placement of teachers. Among wealthy nations, Australia sits apart as we send our most experienced, literate and numerate teachers to our most advantaged schools. Other country systems deliberately strategised to send their best and brightest teachers to the most disadvantaged schools. This has been an imperative for educational equity, effectiveness and economic efficiency, understood and implemented for many decades, but sadly neglected in Australia.

Teacher reports from the same survey also make it clear that disadvantaged schools have worse resources compared to advantaged schools when it comes to:

  • Experience and seniority levels of teachers
  • Proportions of teachers who are trained or certified in all subjects they teach 
  • Proportion of science teachers with temporary teaching contracts

As the majority of disadvantaged schools are within the government sector, this data  suggests that suitable allocation of teachers to disadvantaged government schools is lacking. It does not provide any basis for comparison of government and non-government school teachers. What is more, this represents a structural policy issue, and a ministerial responsibility requiring urgent attention, not 

Solution: Australia needs a national teacher recruitment, retention and allocation policy to address this problem, not to mention teacher shortages and workload issues.  Without one, we are the international outlier here too. Unfortunately, the recent Commonwealth review, failed to present a cohesive strategic framework oriented around key values and principals. A national strategy needs to highlight these (e.g. due respect and recognition of teachers, pursuit of educational goals, equity etc) and lay out aims for how teachers are recruited, trained and distributed to schools. The strategy would also need more effective monitoring, data, research and reporting on  the teacher workforce (building on the ATWD). 

How to break the cycle of neglect?

With better data, reporting, transparency and system-level accountability frameworks, future education Ministers can be less ignorant and more informed, as they comment on issues relating to teachers and how we can all work together to strengthen school education.

The current failings in our education system are now clear, and reflect many years of neglect, particularly in relation to teachers and equity. We urgently need national, politically neutral and collective attention to address the system generated problems currently being faced by schools, teachers, students and parents. With ignorance and misinformation at the helm, I wonder if, as with aged care and disability services, we will need a Royal Commission into education in order to make that happen. It certainly looks like we are heading there. 

Rachel Wilson is associate professor at The Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She has expertise in educational assessment, research methods and programme evaluation, with broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She is interested in system-level reform and has been involved in designing, implementing and researching many university and school education reforms. Rachel is on Twitter @RachelWilson100

One provocative question: what on earth does evidence-based really mean?

This post was written before Alan Tudge took leave from his position as the Minister for Education. But he’s not the only one to bang on about ‘evidence’ without really being clear what he means.

There can be little argument in wanting university Schools of Education to impart to their students, knowledge premised on systematically-acquired evidence. It is irrefutable that teacher educators want their students to leave university and enter the classroom confident in the delivery of best practices. However, the requirement for ‘evidence based-practice’ is in danger of becoming a political polemic in which knowledge may be obfuscated by ideology, rather than being the outcome of systematic investigation.  

Writing in The Australian,Paul Kelly ‘reflects’ on the then Federal Education Minister, Alan Tudge’s ‘drive’ to ensure universities impart, ‘…evidence-based practices such as phonics and explicit teaching instruction methodologies.’ The former Minister issues a warning that he will use, ‘the full leverage’ of the Federal Government’s $760m budget to insist, ‘…evidence-based practices are taught…’ in universities. Yet, the threat is based more on assumption that evidence-based practices are not being taught in our universities, than any substantial evidence that they are not. 

It is ironic the former Minister should argue for something on the basis of a lack of evidence. Aside from this point, questions arise around the nature of evidence the former Minister considers to be bona fide in relation to practice. This is an issue around which there is a distinct lack of clarity. The former Minister clearly states what he does not want, which includes: sociology and socio-cultural theory. His wish to see the demise of branches of thinking are questionable, given that it is usually dictatorial regimes that close down thought in their nation’s academies. He wants a tightly prescriptive curriculum for teacher education. In this respect, he appears to be following the Conservative administration of Boris Johnson in Britain, where a similar proposal has been tabled for English universities, resulting in some of the world’s top universities describing the plan as deeply flawed and having damaging consequences If Boris Johnson wants something and Oxford and Cambridge consider it fool-hardy, the weight of opinion surely tilts in favour the academies. 

The point remains as to the kind of ‘evidence’ upon which evidence-based practice is premised. What may pass as ‘evidence’ is not necessarily bona fide ‘knowledge’. All research, including educational research, involves knowledge that is acquired by means of rigorous, systematic investigation within clearly defined parameters. Even so, the outcomes of an investigation may be influenced by a number of factors, including: ontological perspective; the framing of the research questions; methodological approaches; analytical methods; researcher interpretation and the degree to which any funding body remains impartial. Ultimately, before it can take its place in the pantheon of evidence, research must be interrogated by means of independent peer-review and subsequently published in a highly respected discipline relevant journal. Even then, sometimes what may appear to be good evidence can prove to be disastrous in its outcomes. We do not know if the ‘evidence’ to which the former Minister refers, satisfies these requirements. What is certain is that the ‘evidence’ used by Paul Kelly to suggest universities are ‘failing’ their students and the nation’s schools, does not meet most of these standards of respected research. 

It was an Australian doctor, William McBride, who in 1961, published a letter in The Lancet, suggesting that thalidomide had negative consequences and drew attention to the possible fallacy of evidence. Randomised control trials (RCTs) of the drug in rats had proven effective for controlling for morning sickness, but it took observation of multiple cases to prove the drug was not fit for purpose. 

So, what kind of ‘evidence’ is being referred to by the former Minister when he rightly insists we need to ensure that pedagogy is evidence-based’. Is he referring to evidence derived from primary research, such as randomized control trials (RCTs) and observational studies; or secondary research, including systematic reviews of the research literature? The fact is there is no single type of evidence. It is generally recognised that different evidence types have different methodological strengths. At the pinnacle of the ‘hierarchy of evidence’, are systematic reviews, followed by RCTs, cohort studies and then case-controlled studies, case reports and finally expert opinion. Without identifying the type of evidence to which he refers, the former Minister, appears to resort to lay-opinion disguised as evidence. 

Without a clarity of thought, political policy, based on vague supposition, could lead to prescriptive measures that result in ‘damaging consequences’. As the thalidomide example cited above demonstrates, a single type of evidence is not always sufficient proof, and multiple types of evidence may be necessary to triangulate knowledge. Rather than denouncing certain disciplines of thought and prescribing others, perhaps the way forward is to systematically interrogate different types of evidence in order to evaluate their efficacy, as bona fide knowledge. The best way to do this is by means of teacher-academics and teacher-practitioners working collaboratively, across multiple settings, engaging in systematic research, and cross-referencing results. For this to happen, there needs to be a commitment by government to fund, not cut, educational research. Australia has some of the finest Schools of Education in the world; they are staffed by dedicated academics who want the best for their students and the best for the nation’s school children. What universities need is a knowledge-rich government, not political polemic that does not even reach the baseline of the ‘hierarchy of evidence’. 

                       

Paul Gardner is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Curtin University. He is also the United Kingdom Literacy Association’s Country Ambassador to Australia. Paul specialises in research around writer identity; compositional processes and pedagogy. He has written about process drama, EAL/D, multicultural education and collaborative learning. His work is premised upon inclusion and social justice.  Twitter @Paugardner