Schools: will we ever join the dots?

Dec 15, 2017

I have this little website, Edmediawatch, which monitors media reports about schools. It is a long-running repository of policies, decisions, research and commentary. I even have an ‘Edu-fact check’ section which uses a variety of f-words to pass judgment on claims about school education. It’s worth doing, but the site is quite a depressing catalogue of shallow reporting, recurring failure, ignored research, predictable panics, copying others’ mistakes, the triumph of vested interests, rebadged quick-fix solutions and the short termism that pervades our public life.

Various school-related events or reports over the last two weeks reflect all of this. They include:

  • A report from the USA which maps Californian schools where the enrolled students are all the same race.
  • Research in England about how academies (essentially autonomous public schools) are creating deepening divisions between schools.
  • A report on Australian (UNSW) research which has a much deeper look at why our PISA (international testing) scores are declining
  • A Grattan Institute report on how we can and should be a more adaptive education system

Then there have been a host of reports, based on results from other testing regimes, including the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) which apparently shows Canberra school achievement sliding backwards … while Australia’s year 4 literacy rates are equally apparently sliding forwards.

And of course it’s NAPLAN time again, or at least a time when reports show more detail on what the results show. We are told that one in four boys are falling short, that students with poorly educated parents are up to four years behind and that our civics education is woeful.

And we can’t forget Trevor Cobbold’s outstanding work showing how, under Gonski 2.0, private schools are set to get more than they need. Maybe that is why Elizabeth Farrelly opined that they should be banned.

The elements are all there in these reports. The reporting is shallow and that’s even without mentioning News Limited media. Yes, we’ve copied mistakes from abroad. Like rabbits, England’s academies (in the form of autonomous public schools) are breeding in Australia with the same outcomes: good for some, bad for most. We don’t have many same-race schools in Australia but soon-to-be-published research will show that our Indigenous students are increasingly in disadvantaged schools. Neither autonomy nor de-facto segregation does anything for overall student achievement.

As for recurring failure, this has been a constant theme in news about schools going back years… accompanied by predictable panics and quick-fix solutions. The current item about civics education is ominous: how soon can we expect a compulsory course on civics, an accompanying NAPLAN test for all students and a public display of the results – so that you too can send your kids to a school that “punches above its weight” in civics. All are the perfect ingredients … for more failure.

To provide a balance, the media reports on the latest research in school education and suggestions for improvement. Most recently this includes Leila Morsy’s research, with two others, entitled How international tests fail to inform policy: The unsolved mystery of Australia’s steady decline in PISA scores. Significantly, the research finds that declining results are pervasive across Australian states and social class groups but there is no clear explanation for the large decrease in Australia’s PISA scores.

As the Sydney Morning Herald reported,

‘an emphasis on choice and competition between public and private schools to improve education “may have created the conditions for declining student performance” because attention is drawn away from teaching improvement strategies, strong school accountability and adequate funding for low-income schools.

Other clues included policy differences between NSW and Victoria, especially relating to the teaching of mathematics. There was a decline in NSW where mathematics education focused on memorizing rules, procedures and facts. The research also noted that there were greater declines in student achievement in Catholic schools.

The fact that such research pointed to clues rather than conclusive evidence should, but probably won’t, inhibit our tendency to jump to quick-fix solutions and short termism. The current reports about NAPLAN are accompanied, as always, by ill-advised political responses – including by Simon Birmingham in relation to civics education.

In the meantime it is business as usual. Choice and competition between schools continues unabated – even though it is increasingly regarded as a deeply flawed pathway to improving results. Worse than that, as Trevor Cobbold demonstrates, we are now on track to continue over-funding the schools, mainly private schools, that (as Bernie Shepherd and I have demonstrated) are doing nothing better with the money. Surely a better example of the triumph of vested interests would be hard to find?

On top of that there is serious rethinking of schools under way, something that is also reported (for example, the recent work by Grattan’s Pete Goss) but not really attracting the attention of policy makers. Jenny Allum’s reflection on the NSW Higher School Certificate is at the mild end of a chorus of calls for a rethink of what schools should be all about and how we should measure their success. On this front the next big challenge for education policy makers will come when the Gonski 2.0 review reports around March next year.

We can only hope that they succeed in joining the dots between the oft-reported symptoms of failure and the important search for clues to how we can do better.

Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.




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