School education: designed to fail?

Nov 14, 2022
Woman is sitting at a table with her head on a pile of books. Concrete wall background with education icons and a graduation hat above her.

Education, more properly learning, has been subject to numerous inquiries and reforms. In Australia and elsewhere the policy debate is framed in the context of school and preparation for employment, a job. Intervention by governments over the last 50 years has been substantial and mostly unproductive.

School is not the main place of learning and jobs are not the most important desired outcome. The brief prepared by several United Nations organisations says:

Education is a fundamental human right and the bedrock of sustainable development: it contributes to all three dimensions of sustainable development – social, economic, and environment – and underpins governance, and security of the individual. The interconnected dividends that result from investments in equitable quality education are immeasurable – generating greater economic returns and growth for individuals and societies creating a lasting impact on public health, decent work and gender equality, and leading to safer and more resilient and stable societies.

Learning is a social process, takes place over one’s entire life and in many different contexts. The OECD Report Teachers Matter lucidly expresses the complexity of learning and the influences on it.

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. Schools and classrooms are complex, dynamic environments and identifying the effects of these varied factors, and how they influence and relate with each other – for different types of students and different types of learning — has been, and continues to be, a major focus of educational research.”

Some have linked increases in student test scores to economic growth. That lacks good evidence and is a poor reason for advancing learning. Organisational leadership, workplace relations, economic and cultural diversity also contribute substantially to the economy and society. Cross-border transfer of ideas has more influence on prosperity than income growth.

The most significant correlation with learning achievement is with socioeconomic (SES) background. That includes the very important relationship of the child with parents. So, obviously the way to improve student learning is to invest in those factors which improve family SES including support of young families. As a result of policies over the last 15 years especially, students with the lowest attainments are increasingly concentrated in less advantaged schools with less qualified teachers which leads to greater learning difficulties amplified by consequent lower self-esteem.

Encouraging creativity – curiosity and imagination – develops empathy and commitment to cooperation, not competition, the most important gains of investment in life-long education. A narrow focus on curricula can marginalise the excitement of learning and discovery evident in young children.

In the 2018 PISA (the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment commenced in 2000) Report “Insights and Interpretations”, Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education at the OECD, writes,

“Equipping citizens with the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their full potential, to contribute to an increasingly interconnected world, and to convert better skills into better lives needs to become a more central preoccupation of policy makers around the world. Fairness, integrity and inclusiveness in public policy thus all hinge on the skills of citizens.”

An obsession with metrics underlies the reliance on standardised testing which can obscure what is actually going on. Metrics can be a kind of surrogate leading to beliefs that issues are understood when they are not. Measures can be useful but they ought not to be the sole indicator of success or failure.

Why would standardised tests lead to learning gain? They are administered a long time after the instruction which is the subject of the test. Except for PISA they don’t provide any relevant information about what influences performance, and therefore don’t motivate effort. They can lead to stress: a judgement is coming. And they skew the time spent on a broad curriculum. Teaching music would be more effective.

Creativity through curiosity, discovery and imagination should be encouraged. An ongoing commitment to learning is the most important outcome. The narrow focus on curricula due to a focus on testing marginalises the excitement of learning and discovery evident in young children.

The most significant correlation with learning achievement is with socioeconomic (SES) background. That includes the very important relationship of the child with parents. So, obviously the way to improve student learning is to invest in those factors which improve family SES including support of young families. Students from less advantaged backgrounds are concentrated in disadvantaged schools. Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools and others have documented the growth of school inequality.

The best-performing systems around the world go to great lengths to ensure that all their teachers are well-qualified and well-prepared in the subjects they teach and have access to high-quality, ongoing professional learning opportunities. Teachers are respected and trusted. That’s what typifies the Singaporean and Finnish systems, for instance, as shown by the 2012 OECD report, “Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA 2012 for the United States”.

Superior teaching means greater pedagogical expertise, not simply more experience. Content knowledge is not unimportant but isn’t enough Cooperation between teachers is also important. That is what Professor John Hattie found from his meta-analyses! The outcomes are mediated through teaching in the classroom which is not considered in the policy debate!

The 2007 McKinsey report by Mona Mourshed and Michael Barber, “How the World’s Best-Performing School Systems Come Out on Top”, based on PISA data, found school leadership, appropriate career structures, peer-based learning, system-wide interaction, innovation and experimentation all lead to further advancement.

But teachers have to spend too much time meeting mandatory reporting requirements against standards they have had no role in setting; professional development and salaries (relevant to other professions) are inadequate. And they aren’t trusted. Teacher shortages shatter learning. Principals have become administrators instead of learning leaders.

Six failures in government policies, all critical, can be identified.

  • Early childhood has enormous influence on later life. Children of less advantaged families especially suffer the deficit of inadequate early childhood education and care. The proposition that choice improves learning outcomes is a myth.
  • Inequality has significant and well-known negative impacts on learning outcomes as shown by PISA, the first Gonski Report and other research. However, Australian governments have ignored the evidence!
  • The industrial model which bases assignment to school classes on students’ age assumes students in each class learn at the same rate and so ignores different individual rates of learning gain and different learning styles.
  • The declining learning of Australian students, as assessed by the PISA demands attention to the myriad influences on the child’s life. NAPLAN results show consistent gaps between city and country and Indigenous and non-Indigenous student achievement Instead, governments have focused on curricula and teacher qualifications.
  • The worthwhile national agreements on school education goals agreed to by governments at State and Territory levels lack genuine commitment and do not translate to actual practice.

Australian policy needs complete rethinking. Privileged positions must be discarded in favour of understanding the problem, the evidence for success and failure, not just the symptoms. The relevant research literature is extensive and high quality!

Design thinking identifies a more productive way to frame policy: a search for the real problem. It’s not poor teaching or inadequate teacher training.

If we really think about it, we can trace the problem back to what happens in early childhood, the environment in which the child grew up, the parents’ background and the economic conditions which prevailed then. Providing access to professional early childhood education to children from less advantaged backgrounds achieves substantial learning gains at school and greater success in later life.

Identifying early childhood as the solution focuses on the child, the person most critically involved. Superior teaching makes a difference, provided it is properly supported, but it isn’t enough.

The Commonwealth, Victorian and New South Wales governments have recently announced substantial increases in targeted support for early childhood education and care.

The Heckman Equation, created by Nobel laureate Professor James Heckman and based on extensive research, says “Significant investments in early childhood education, especially for less advantaged children, drives success in school and life, reduces social costs and promotes economic growth”. Heckman is an economist!

Readers also may want to read the following articles by Des Griffin

Education shouldn’t be about contribution to the economy

Investment in early childhood education provides greatest benefit

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