Upturn in education? A few more lessons need to be learned

Feb 16, 2021

Tanya Plibersek’s contribution to Upturn, a better normal after COVID-19, is entitled ‘Lessons Learned: Education in recovery’. For school education in particular, the problems and the lessons learned go back many years. Achieving a better normal is not good enough; the pandemic didn’t so much create new problems as seriously highlight and worsen old ones.

We won’t learn much from the pandemic, if we ignore what went before and certainly not if we replicate old and inadequate solutions. Can we do things differently this time around? Is Tanya Plibersek sufficiently open to new solutions or is she just another part of old and recurring problems?

The record of her predecessors doesn’t provide grounds for hope. Education ministers and their shadows have been cast in much the same mould: conservative verging on populist, and risk averse in a portfolio plagued for decades by politics and polemics. Does Plibersek’s chapter suggest much will change if Labor forms the next government? She raises many important issues but recent history shows that even the best ideas can be lost in the transition to government.

In opposition Julia Gillard didn’t hold back in her commitment to improving equity in the nation’s schools. In government she delayed establishing the Gonski review, devoting her first two years to initiatives that resembled some of the Howard government’s efforts. The Age editorialized in 2008 that they couldn’t see much difference between Julia Gillard and her predecessor Julie Bishop. In fairness, Gillard was to later deliver some of what Gonski recommended, alas at a time of enormous political turmoil. And no one can forget the Abbott and Pyne commitment to implementing Gonski, a commitment that disappeared within months.

In her chapter Plibersek repeats what we’ve long been told about problems in school education: poor student outcomes, the gaps between the least and most advantaged, the importance of the basics and the early years of learning, the need for quality teachers and quality local schools. Plibersek’s commitment to closing the learning gaps is strongly felt and expressed. But in 2021 such a commitment is hardly new, pursuing equity in schooling has become very mainstream, even if successive governments and ministers have failed to deliver. Many of Plibersek’s priorities amount to an acknowledgement of this failure. She doesn’t find much to celebrate, other than that we know much more today about schools, something apparently due to Labor’s NAPLAN and My School. We can better target need, devise solutions and achieve improvement.

So why aren’t we seeing better policy to deal with longstanding and worsening problems? Like those who have gone before, Plibersek often seems content to restate the problems and recycle some cliches. She claims that “the most important ingredient in any recipe for success is the teacher”. That isn’t new: Julie Bishop long ago told us that “After parents, teachers are the single most important factor in a child’s educational outcomes.”

Gillard went further to parade particular names of exemplary principals, teachers and schools, an oblique ‘name and celebrate, and shame the rest’ strategy that didn’t work.

But is the teacher the most important ingredient? Most of us can recall a teacher who made a significant difference to our lives, and any teacher who believes they can’t make a difference is in the wrong profession. But collectively, the impact of teachers on student achievement is far less than is commonly claimed.

In broad terms the socio-economic status of Australian families makes the greatest contribution to student achievement, followed by the SES of the school itself, substantially created by which students it enrols. Policies around schools and classrooms make up around one-third, and even this includes factors such as school organization and leadership, curriculum, resources, teacher training, quality and distribution.

Unlike a decade ago, many of Plibersek’s statements and suggestions are seriously challenged by what we know now. The problem is not the policy ideas she raises, it’s just that she hasn’t sufficiently explored what lies beneath. The impact of the teacher and school on student achievement seems to be reducing.

Following earlier work, research under way (using data from My School, Labor’s celebrated creation) shows that our equity problem is worsening. It is the socio-educational status of students, even ahead of the work of schools, that is having an increasing impact on student achievement.

‘Which students are enrolled where’ is increasingly defining the differences between schools. Yes, Plibersek refreshingly writes about how My School data improves what we know about schools, but perhaps she should pay closer attention to everything the data tells.

None of this negates the worth of her policy priorities, it just renders them inadequate in the absence of serious efforts to address the other things affecting school achievement. Plibersek laments the fact that “Australia now has one of the biggest gaps between least and most advantaged students in the developed world and COVID-19 has made it worse”.

But the gaps were widening well before the pandemic and will resume when Covid is behind us. The concentration of advantage and disadvantage at either SES end of schooling in Australia is well-researched, including by the OECD. It also shows up in various measures of student achievement, including the Higher School Certificate (HSC) in NSW. The distribution of high achievers and/or high scores has, over time, increasingly favoured higher SES schools, urban over rural schools, and non-government over government schools.

Politicians don’t need to be at the cutting edge of research to know there are deeper problems that challenge simplistic solutions. But they do need to join the dots. Plibersek  mentions, almost as an afterthought, that she supports school choice. That’s no surprise: choice is like parenthood – everyone believes in it. But there is much more to school choice, as it operates in Australia. In its current form it is widening the very achievement gaps she wants to close. The data clearly shows that, in exercising choice, parents shift their children from lower into higher SES schools. This is not a statement for or against parents or choice, it is just what happens.

But unlike in many countries, this process is supported by enrolment processes, local networks and rumour mills, public and private funding and its distribution, transport, school specialisations and much more. The resulting differences between our schools on the basis of family advantage, school size, curriculum diversity, teacher experience and the density of achieving students is obvious, can be measured.

It is aggregating struggle in our most disadvantaged schools and, as a consequence, suppressing the overall levels of school achievement. Like so many others, Plibersek knows that “improving education is one of the surest ways of turning around our frightening falls in productivity and insipid growth”. Sorry, that’s not going to happen any time soon.

The solutions lie in creating a broad constituency to rethink the purpose of schools and how we can reconcile choice with equity. Other countries have done it. Why can’t we? There is a raft of policy alternatives flagged by the OECD. We seem to have accepted the verdict of international testing on Australia’s school performance, but we shy away from the structural and policy changes that point to a way out of the most wicked of problems. On so many occasions Plibersek has proven to be a breath of fresh air and more than willing to tackle difficult issues. But she has much further to go if she is to make a difference in education.

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