Is spending more the best way to raise standards and to improve Australia’s education system? Based on the ALP’s election promise to throw $37.3 billion at school education over the years 2015-16 to 2025-26 – including $4.5 billion to fund the final two years of the mythical Gonski funding model – the answer is ‘yes’.
Even though the nation is facing a fiscal debt tsunami and the ALP’s record in delivering education promises is abysmal, Bill Shorten boasts that if the ALP forms government the non-existent cash will flow like rivers of gold. Ignored, in relation to advanced economies like Australia and as argued by the OECD’ Universal Basic Skills report is that higher spending doesn’t guarantee stronger standards.
Authors of the report, Ludger Woessmann and Eric Hanushek, argue “in many countries that invest at least USD 50,000 per student between the age of 6 and 15 – and that include all high income and many middle income countries – the data no longer show a relationship between spending and the quality of learning outcomes.”
A second OECD report, titled PISA Low Performing Students, makes the same point when it concludes:
“Despite the conventional wisdom that higher investment leads to greater gains, there is no clear evidence that increasing public spending on education guarantees better student performance once a minimum level of expenditure is reached.”
As noted by the ALP member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, when an academic at the ANU, notwithstanding the additional billions spent on education in Australia over the last 30 to 40 years, literacy and numeracy levels, on the whole, have either flat-lined or gone backwards. Given the consensus that throwing additional billions at education is not the solution the question remains: what can be done to improve educational outcomes, both in terms of equity and improved standards? One approach, exemplified by the ACER’s Geoff Masters in his recent paper Five Challenges in Australian School Education, argues that if Australia is to be in the top five countries in reading, mathematics and science by 2025 then the strategies he recommends must be implemented. These involve: better resourcing low socioeconomic status (SES) students and reducing Australia’s long tail of underachieving students (similar arguments are put by the Julia Gillard inspired Gonski funding report); ensuring that pre-school children are school ready; only accepting top performers into teacher training and adopting a 21st century curriculum.
The flaws and contradictions in Master’s approach are manifest. If it is true, as Masters writes, that Australia’s education system is “high-quality, high-equity” then the argument that our education system is riven with inequality and disadvantage is untrue. Masters’ argument, similar to the Australian Education Union, that we need to better resource underperforming students is especially suspect given that the recent OECD report Low-Performing Students argues that such students are the best resourced among the OECD countries.
In relation to Australia’s low-performing students and based on an analysis of the 2012 PISA test results, the report states, “There was no other OECD country where large proportions of low-performing students attended schools with better educational resources.”
The assumption underlying Masters’ argument, one that he shares with the Gonski funding model, the ALP and the Greens, is that more money needs to be spent on disadvantaged students because there is a strong correlation between low socioeconomic status (SES) and under-performance in literacy and numeracy tests and Year 12 results. Such is not the case. The Australian Catholic University’s Gary Marks, after analysing the various factors that influence academic outcomes, concludes that the influence of SES ranges from between 10% to 18%. When analysing the 2009 PISA test results an OECD report concludes, “On average across OECD countries, 14% of the differences in student reading performance within each country is associated with differences in students’ socio-economic background.”
The Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth Report 61 also supports Marks’ argument when it concludes “young people’s individual characteristics are the main drivers of success” and “the average socioeconomic status of students at a school does not emerge as a significant factor” when explaining success at tertiary entry. Similar to NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, Masters argues that in order to raise standards prospective trainee teachers should be taken from the top 30% of Year 12 students.
Ignored is the fact that a 2012 submission to a commonwealth inquiry into teacher education written by the ACER, of which Masters is the CEO, argues that such a policy “is a blunt approach to improving the selection of teachers and falls well short of international best practice.” Also ignored, and contrary to Masters’ argument that in Finland “teachers are drawn from the top 10 per cent”, the Finnish expert, Parsi Sahberg, notes that “half of the first year students come from the 51-to-80-point range as measured by academic ability. You could call them academically average.” Pasi goes on to argue in relation to teacher selection, “A good step forward would be to admit that the academically best students are not necessarily the best teachers.”
When advocating what he describes as the benefits of 21st century learning and flaws in a more traditional approach to the curriculum it is clear that Masters has not taught in a school for a very long time and is not aware of contemporary developments. Contrary to what he argues, long gone are the days when the curriculum emphasised “passive, reproductive learning and the solution of standard problem types” and when the curriculum was designed for “delivery in traditional classroom settings”.
Australian classroom have long since embraced new technologies, such as computers, the internet and digital learning. Research by the OECD also concludes that the adoption of teaching methods based on constructivism “is especially pronounced” in Australian classrooms. And contrary to Masters’ belief that 21st century learning involving new technologies is beneficial the OECD’s publication Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection concludes that ICT in the classroom is counter productive. In countries like Australia, where computers are widely used, the OECD publication concludes there is “no appreciable improvements in student achievement” and that “technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students.”
When reading Masters’ paper, Five Challenges in Australian School Education, in addition to advocating a progressive, new-age view of education that has dumbed down the curriculum and put so many students at risk, it is also clear that Masters adopts a cultural left view that opposes funding to non-government schools. Copying the Australian Education Union’s argument that parental choice in education and funding Catholic and independent schools leads to increased inequality and the residualisation of government schools, Masters suggests competition and choice in education is undesirable.
After citing the fact that in Finland “There are few private schools” Masters notes that Finnish non-government schools are “prohibited from charging tuition fees or making selective admissions”.
There is a second approach to raising standards and improving educational outcomes, especially for disadvantaged students, and it has nothing to do with students’ socioeconomic status and investing additional billions in education as argued by the ALP and the Greens. The PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background: Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes Volume II argues that those systems that outperform Australia “have moved from bureaucratic “command and control” environments towards school systems in which the people at the front line have much more control.”
Research carried out by Woessmann and Hanushek, in addition to arguing that school autonomy is important, argue that stronger systems allow diversity and choice in education where Catholic and independent schools are properly funded by government.
In relation to improved standards and greater equity in education, Hanuskek and Woessmann conclude, “At the same time equality of educational opportunity is hindered by a large difference in government funding between private and public schools. It seems that government funding of private schools benefits in particular students with low SES.”
High-stakes tests and examinations — externally set-and-marked Year 12 examinations, for instance — are also important, as parents then have a clear idea about performance when choosing a school. Stronger-performing Asian systems and European countries like Finland set high expectations and students have a strong sense of resilience and willingness to improve. This is unlike Australia where standards have been dumbed down over the last 30 years and students are often given an exaggerated sense of their ability. Unlike Australia’s adoption of education fads like whole language, fuzzy maths, teachers as facilitators and personalised learning, stronger performing systems have an academically rigorous curriculum that focuses on depth instead of breadth and incorporates explicit teaching and direct instruction.
Strong systems have teachers that are motivated, expert in their areas and able to engage students. Plus, they are given the time and resources to mentor one another and focus on improving classroom practice. This is unlike Australia, where too many teachers are on short-term contracts and overwhelmed with red tape and rigid, time consuming accountability measures.
It’s ironic that the Australian Education Union often refers to Finland as an example that Australia should follow if we want a more equitable system — ironic because, as noted by the Finnish educationalist Hannu Simola, one of the reasons Finland is among the top performers is because “radical labour-union politics, and the extreme Left, have been virtually non-existent in the Finnish teaching profession.” Ludger Woessmann makes the same point when arguing more generally that the “larger influence of teacher unions leads to inferior performance levels.”
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of Dumbing Down