Education Spending: More Equals Less

broken chalkIs 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


6 thoughts on “Education Spending: More Equals Less

  • Jody says:

    Come on now; education spending is increased only to potentially develop a better class of propagandized Labor voter!! I expect they want to improve their current constituency, making sure it’s an improvement on its current support base, amongst whom one is likely to find a disproportionate number of these types: in fact, this ‘character’ contains the rare combination of uncouth and bien pensant all in one!


  • nfw says:

    Everybody knows that paying poor (as in bad) teachers more, makes better students. Just look what happened in Chicago in the USA when teachers were paid bonuses according to their students’ results. The students had much better results. Well, they were better ’til it was discovered the teachers were those who were actually cheating on behalf of the students by changing their test answers, not simply the results. So you see, pay the teachers more based on results and the students will automatically do better. Pay the teachers more to do the same over and over and they will simply have flasher cars in the car park while the dumb students never change. Some children are never destined to really complete Year 12 without dragging down those who could achieve more. As for universities full of “students” who should never be there, the answer is to dumb down the courses and make the brighter students drag the dross along. It’s never been about making a smarter community with people fitting into their real slots in life, it’s just about paying powerful unions and mates more. After all, what’s the point of paying them off if you can’t be a visiting “professor” (sic) in life after politics?

  • Jody says:

    I know I’ve made facetious comments above, but results for students won’t improve until the students themselves develop the educational values and discipline which will help them succeed. For many their own families mitigate any chance of success; their parents hated school and have taught their children to do so as well. My experience in the classroom was that out of a form of 6 classes for English, the first one and a half had pretty good abilities, the middle (from the 2nd half of the 2nd group down to about 4th class) had mediocre abilities and below that was mostly remedial/low ability. That’s a fair proportion of kids in a comprehensive high school in an average area. Not all schools will be like this, especially in the Catholic and private sectors – where you will find better motivated students forming a more populous group. So, right away we can see from this that state schools (that are not selective) tend to be bottom-heavy. Teachers can do so much but without motivation and personal discipline most kids are never going to rise very high. That’s not to say they won’t be effective and productive members of society, but those entry level trades jobs and hospitality careers are very competitive and not easy to get.

    But let it NOT be said that those ‘mediocre’ students are incapable of moving upwards; they most certainly are. I’ve long felt that these kids lacked stimulation from the home environment – that given the chance to think, talk, analyse and engage with the world around them the vast majority of this group could do far better. But a teacher has them 5.5 hours per day and not 24. And not 52 weeks of the year. I’m not letting slack teachers off the hook, but even very good ones are limited in the help they can provide kids who remain glued to screens because their parents want cheap babysitters!!!

  • denandsel@optusnet.com.au says:

    Educational results will not improve until children are taught that there are real [adverse] consequences for their actions. At the moment there are few if any adverse consequences for students who don’t want to learn, or as often occurs, refuse to learn. It is made worse in that teachers aren’t allowed to fail students any more because it might ‘affect their self esteem’ or some other puerile excuse, and also because it might reflect badly on the teachers who ‘taught’ them. Who really cares now if some students can’t read or write or do basic maths? Those students are taught that they will always be able to rely on the dole, and that their existence will be guaranteed, even if by the efforts of others.
    This obsessive desire of leftists to try to build a society where there are few to no adverse consequences for bad/uncivilised behaviour, and its converse, that there should be little to no reward for effort and success permeates many if not all facets of society, bar for sport. It is at its most obvious [and harmful] in the judicial system where uncivilised criminals like Adrian Bayley and Man Monis were allowed out on bail or parole and innocent people – Jill Meagher and the two from the Lindt Cafe died as a result. Nobody in the judicial system will be held to account for these deaths, regardless of the reports of the coroner. Similarly, nobody in the educational system will be held to account for the poor performance of students anywhere, nor will Roz Ward ever have to bear responsibility when ‘Safe Schools’ eventually proves that program to be anything but safe for normal people.

  • Jody says:

    Bingo! Totally agree. The ‘progressive’ (you know, one step forward/two steps backward) Left has infiltrated the judiciary and the consequences are highlighted by you. These would be one and the same group who let their little emperor children run free and disrupt the peace and amenity of everybody else. But, of course, we need not confuse ‘progressivism’ with intelligence – it surely isn’t that. Otherwise, these groups would readily see that the Jews and the Sikhs – two highly disciplined, family-orientated cultures – are the most motivated and successful cultures. Both have been reviled; I wonder why??!!

    A fellow commentator on “Spiked” today observed that the political correctness which has infiltrated universities has been a direct consequence of programs like “gender studies” and other such useless degrees. The point was made that the re-introduction of fee-paying degrees had meant a significant decline in these kinds of programs because students actually needed good jobs to re-pay student loans. Chris Pyne has obviously been onto this and ahead of the game!! When you think of it, Whitlam and free education is when all this rot set in!! Bring on the fees!!!!

  • Rob Brighton says:

    The school my children attend (attended) are rife with diehard feminist and left views. It is everything I can do as a father to try and point them towards self sufficiency, self respect and understanding reward for effort despite the best attempts of the system. It really does not cater well to boys. My daughter sailed thru without issue.

    Education is a smorgasboard, teaching my boys to fill their plate with enough to get what they need score wise and answering questions the way the teacher wants to hear is what it took to get the first boy over the line, much effort has been expended on getting both of them to understand why they should not voice their opinions and thoughts but rather reflect those of the teachers and to keep them in their own head until later where they can be explored in a setting conducive to independent thought, typically over the dinner table.

    One more to go (two more years) and I can cease having the slightest involvement with this gaggle. The day cannot come too soon, for 25 years I have been dealing with teachers and their intractable foolishness, my time is done…soon oh so soon.

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