Education shouldn’t be about contribution to the economy

Apr 18, 2021

The Coalition’s education policy deals only with schools, ignores the critical early years of life and the nature of learning and wrongly asserts a link between student education achievement and economic growth. Funding has produced gross inequity and no educational gain.

Education is “from the outside in. We start with what is considered necessary for work and then we construct schooling around what is thought necessary to equip people for work. The problems of education start with the premises on which it is built, the enlightenment idea of (rational) economic man and the need for cultural identity. The education system is anaesthetising children. Kids aren’t paying attention in school because what is being taught and the way it is being taught is of no interest to them.”

Sir Ken Robinson speaking at the Royal Society for the Arts, June 2008

On 11 March Education Minister Alan Tudge spoke on education policy, “Being our best: Returning Australia to the top group of education nations”. With one exception, the assertions in the Minister’s speech are not fundamental to improving learning achievement. The speech demonstrates an unacceptable lack of understanding of critical issues.

Education policy in Australia is about school. However, that is neither when nor where most important influences operate. It is the home environment which is critical. Greatest cognitive development occurs from birth through the first five or so years. That is when basic understandings develop through exploration and interactions with parents.

Socioeconomic background and education of the parents are the most significant agents: “the infant brain is hard-wired for relationships and optimal growth and development of the human brain in the early years is largely dependent on the nature and quality of a child’s few and most important human relationships”. Stimulating experiences are richer in homes of high SES parents.

Once the child reaches school, what happens outside the classroom is influential. Within school the teacher’s skills have greatest influence in engaging the student.

For Minister Tudge and his colleagues the purpose of education is to prepare the child for work! Often the parents reinforce that through conversations about the curriculum and its relevance to perceived job opportunities later. The future is discounted, a time hardly explored in favour of skills and knowledge imagined to be eventually important.

There are alternative visions of purpose. University of South Australia Emeritus Professor Alan Reid, in “Changing Australian Education” (Routledge, 2019) sees “the central work of schools in a democratic society as developing capacities for social practice, for citizenship and intercultural understanding that build the common good”.

The late Lord Robert May, one time advisor to the British Government, observed, “.. for Australia to flourish this century she will need students prompted to ask difficult questions about the world and our role in it.”

Tudge is inspired by the aspirations in the December 2019 Education Ministers’ Declaration in Alice Springs. His commitment to those aspirations in the context of his policies is an example of profound cognitive dissonance!

The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration contained two principal goals: promotion of excellence and equity; and that all young Australians should become confident and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners, and active and informed community members.

Former school principal, now author, Chris Bonnor, accepting the goals were laudable, observed , “the methods we use to achieve the first usually end up undermining the second. Our decades-long focus on prescription, standardisation, testing and accountability seems to have done nothing to create “confident and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners, and active and informed community members”. Quite the reverse: there is no shortage of indicators of student disengagement from learning, from school and from community.”

A recent report, Structural Failure: Why Australia Keeps Falling Short of Its Educational Goals by Bonnor and colleagues reviews education policy. An introductory essay comments that the Declarations “place anything really challenging in the too hard basket, routinely overlooking some issues including the very structures that fail our schools”. Both Australia’s school system and political leaders have failed: “schools operate the best they can, but amid policies that are holding our country back.”

Ministers seem to believe that their intervention can cause significant change. Teachers have the requisite knowledge and experience to improve learning. What ministers can do is put in place the means by which teachers can effect change. That means social and material resources and a workplace environment which encourages continuous improvement and best practice. Instead intervention is often a disruption, their prescriptions anything but best practice.

Economic growth is not driven by student test scores or independent schools

Tudge makes the now familiar link with economic growth: if only students did better the economy would be stronger. He claims delivery of substantial funding increases. Both assertions are wrong!

Firstly, improvements around the world in education and health are due mainly to cross border transfer of ideas – learning from others: the UN Development Program report 2010 reveals little if any correlation with economic growth! Though prosperity is not unimportant it is not the main driver of gains. Imagining higher school student scores will improve Australia’s economic performance is as naïve as claiming that education reduces poverty.

Secondly, funding increases are only a reflection of increases in numbers of students and inflation.

One of the principal features of the formal education system, highlighted by PISA reports, is the gross disparity in funding between independent schools that choose who to enrol and public schools that must enrol all who arrive. Independent schools are privileged because politicians and many parents believe public schools deliver poorer results. They don’t. Independent school students come from higher SES backgrounds but they don’t do better educationally once SES background is considered. The policy has wasted billions of dollars.

Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools Australia has comprehensively demonstrated the inequities and does so in response to Tudge’s assertion that the funding wars are over.

Parents don’t choose the school their child should attend based just on academic performance. An OECD working paper points to proximity, social profile of students already enrolled, values espoused by the school and facilities.

Tudge asserts Australian students’ declining scores in international tests demonstrate Australia is being outcompeted. Competition is a dynamic involving limited resources, education is not a limited resource! Commentary on test scores considers only their rank, not any improvement in scores, and is marred by poor understanding of the statistics. The data has serious problems affecting validity and results need to be carefully considered: generally they aren’t.

Choice increases social segregation. Policies like mandatory tests masquerade as achieving accountability but fail to deliver, especially in the US school system, the subject of a special OECD Report based on PISA results for 2009.

Class composition influences outcomes. Students from low SES backgrounds achieve much better gains in mixed classes including high (and low) achievers. Independent schools tend toward homogeneous classes.

What independent schools do do is set students on a more successful career path, partly related to networks developed at school. Michael Marmot’s “Whitehall Study”, part of a long running project showing social factors to be a major determinant of health, found students from “better” schools cope better with stress because of their superior networks of support. Students from lower SES backgrounds, in Australia students from public schools, were generally employed in lower grades and suffered poorer health. Politics and the professions are dominated by graduates of independent “prestigious” schools.

Learning is a dynamic change process

Minister Tudge co-opts distinguished researcher John Hattie to the argument that teachers make a significant difference. Hattie points out that after what the child brings to the school experience on enrolling, the teacher’s expertise is the next most important influence on achievement. It is pedagogy that is critical! The project “Teach for Australia”, which recruits high-achieving university graduates into teaching and thereby privileges content, is not relevant. It doesn’t improve school outcomes or teacher retention in disadvantaged schools and is high cost.

A wealth of exciting research reveals new understandings of effective learning and the teacher’s role in it. Are critics of schools are aware of that? The OECD Report Teachers Matter says, “Student learning is influenced by many factors, including: students’ skills, expectations, motivation and behaviour; family resources, attitudes and support; peer group skills, attitudes and behaviour; school organisation, resources and climate; curriculum structure and content; and teacher skills, knowledge, attitudes and practices”.

Children develop cognitive strategies and effort-based beliefs about intelligence – the habits of mind associated with higher-order learning – when they are continuously pressed to raise questions and accept challenges, to find solutions that are not immediately apparent, to explain concepts, justify their reasoning, and seek information. Teaching cognitive skills in the absence of specific content rarely works: if explanation and reasoning are not demanded, knowledge is fragile and transient. Children become smart by being treated as if they already are intelligent. If they aren’t held accountable for this kind of behavior, they conclude they are not smart.

There are persistent references to poor results in math and some other subjects. A familiar example of successful teaching and learning is mathematics teacher Eddie Woo. His “wootube” attracts thousands of viewers. He delivers difficult concepts with enthusiasm, involves the students and accepts there is more than one way to reach an answer. Who said no-one was interested in math?

Teachers in the School Organisation: are they trusted and supported?

Present policies continue to ignore the school organisation and the pressures of added responsibilities facing teachers. Schools and classrooms are complex, dynamic environments. The school context, the teacher’s time for preparation and professional development, the role of the Principal, the way the school functions as an organisation, lack requisite policy attention.

Teachers have made clear their concerns about working in schools and what would make a difference. They are harried by continual calls by bureaucrats for more reports on what they have done, they feel a lack of recognition by the community at large. Quite reasonably, teachers want more time and better  salaries, which are low and have declined. They are not under-qualified but understandably can experience feelings of desperation, especially if they are called on to teach difficult subjects they have not studied extensively, such as math, science and history. They can’t access specialists who can assist.

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